One of my three biggest take-aways from lots of education was something muttered in passing by a retired political science professor. He said all politics boils down to the unsteady balancing act between two conflicting virtues which could be framed variously:
For me that balancing act shows up everywhere. I think of love relationships as a balancing act in which two people strive for freedom and safety, the liberty to be ourselves, moving at our own pace in our own directions but also wanting the security of having someone to count on in tough times. At the extreme, the promiscuous have lots of freedom but none of the security that comes from a partnership’s safety net. The monogamous have lots of security but through faithfulness, some loss of freedom of association.
The balancing act shows up in our work lives too, wanting the freedom, say, of a freelancer, to choose when and how much to work, but also wanting the job security that would come from a salaried position.
I even think it shows up in our nation’s oxymoronic name: The United States. We’re individual states straining for freedom within the safety of a unified whole. United we stand, but divided maybe I can get further faster.
This tension can make the grass greener wherever we aren’t. The married and salaried might miss their freedom. Singles and freelancers might miss their security. States demand their freedom but also demand their federal handouts.
T.S. Elliot describes a cat: “The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore: When you let him in, then he wants to be out; He's always on the wrong side of every door.” We can be like that around this tension. The grass is brownish green wherever we go, us always trying to make it all-the-way green, dreaming of finding once-and-for-all balance.
“Finding balance” doesn’t really capture the exertion involved. It suggests that you can find it and when you do, you’ve got it forever more, like flopping into hammock’s sweet spot cradled in the stable center groove.
What the retired professor was describing is harder than that. It’s finding and re-finding forever more. Like tightrope walking all life long, always alert to the risks of tipping too much toward freedom, or too much toward security. Such work is taxing, so it’s understandable that we’d want a break from it.
Social Psychologist Roy Baumeister coined the term “Ego depletion” for the way that such balancing-act self-discipline tends to weaken over time. His experiments show that we’re better at moderation during the day than at night when we’ve depleted our balancing-act alertness and slip into over-indulgence.
I suspect that ego depletion can happen over a lifetime too. People can suffer from what I’d call “Condoner Fatigue.” We get tired of balancing interests, for example tired of condoning the appetite for both freedom and safety. We crave a simpler solution. It’s as though after a long stretch of tightrope walking we say “enough already” and allow ourselves to fall into the safety net of one-sided certainty. “The only thing that matters is freedom.” Or “The only thing that matters is safety.”
Ideological extremism is a haven from tightrope walking. You drop effortlessly into a one-side-fits-all ideology and retire forever from balancing and re-balancing.
We talk of people on the far left and the far right, but maybe it would be more apt to say that they’re on the fall left and fall right. Tip far enough and you just fall into some simple cradle of unbalanced certainty just in time for a long nap.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the un-receptivity that comes of dreaming that you’re within reach of some high plateau of ultimate success and satisfaction: heaven, enlightenment, nirvana, pure mindfulness, or simply material wealth enough to retire to the deck of your expensive yacht. In that article (ironically a temporary high point for me, something like 85,000 page views in a few days) I depicted the resting place as something you’d climb to. Here I’m picturing it as something you’d fall into.
Treating it as something you’d climb or fall into captures something useful about it. Extremists believe they’ve climbed to their plateau of certainty. They did the hard work of really thinking things through, and now they’ve got the absolute answer. To the rest of us their absolutism can look a lot lazier than that, like falling rather than working.
There’s no one more maddening than the person who sees himself superior where you find him inferior, the politician who thinks he’s more patriotic than everyone when you think he’s wildly less patriotic, the holier-than-thou hypocrite moralist who you think is grubbing around in mindless immorality, the guy who claims to have the bigger picture when you think he’s unusually narrow-minded.
This too is our frustration with extremists. They think they worked hard to achieve their worldly wisdom. We think they’re anything but hard working and worldly. They’re slouches who fell into smug narrow-minded, unbalanced self-certainty.
Falling to extremes is contagious. Confident extremists have such charisma. If they’ve climbed to the pinnacles of wisdom (they haven’t) why not copy them and save ourselves the climb? Hard-earned wisdom, without the hard-earning. And such simple wisdom too. “For millennia people have been trying to balance between two opposite ideas. Now we know once and for all that only one of the ideas matters.”
Falling to extremes promotes counter-reaction: “Those idiots say only one side matters?! They couldn’t be more wrong. Only the other side matters.” Such falling causes "battles of the half-wits," each side denying the relevance of the other side.
If I could declare the biggest take-aways from my years of research and six hundred articles, here’s one idea that would make the short list, a sequence that leads, in my opinion to the right attitude about the balancing act: I call it “hard right, hard left, hard center, hard choices”:
Hard Right: Tough individualism is the answer
Hard Left: No, loving compassion is the answer
Hard Center: No, tough love is the answer
Hard Choices: No, tough love is the question (when to be tough; when to be loving?)
This is sort of the Benjamin Button approach to Condoner Fatigue. Get your easy ideological extremism out of the way when you’re young, and try both sides out before discovering that they’re both unwise.
Then try the middle path as though it were something you could find and then have forever more, that sweet-spot notch in the middle of the balance control, exactly half-tough and half-loving, or perhaps 100% of both as though there is no tension between them.
And then discover that the hard center is unwise also, and resign yourself to hard-choices, the lifelong balancing act and all the work it entails.
Moderation is not a state; it’s an unending process.