civic duty · politics

Moderate in 2017

I am a moderate. I think I was raised moderate, which is less interesting than being raised liberal or conservative. My mother is an independent. My father is a conservative, but dude surprises me sometimes. He’s not exactly open, but he’s not exactly closed. When he’s open, sometimes I’m surprised that he disagrees with me (for instance: he’s half-Armenian and he stated the disturbing opinion that the Turks as a nation did nothing wrong, that he would probably do the same thing to defend his country – dad, dad, you would do what?!) and sometimes I’m surprised that he agrees (for instance: Islam is a religion of peace, religion-based gender roles are complicated and more regional than universal, and fearing Muslims indicates a lack of worldliness – yeah! Go, Dad!).

Dad, Issues, and Daddy Issues

Dad values forgiveness, as a Christian; hence his perplexing and upsetting view of the Armenian genocide. He doesn’t deny it happened, he denies that we should force the Turks to account for it. Instead he thinks that we should move on, dispense with the protests. I’m not sure if he knows it’s not a done deal as far as the Turkish government is concerned, or understands what all in the here and now warrants protest, historic atrocities (somehow) aside. If he did, maybe he’d change his mind. Maybe he wouldn’t, but I do know that if I brought it up again, armed with evidence to compel a change of mind and heart, he would still be my Dad. We wouldn’t even raise our voices, though I’ve since become accustomed to the fact that yelling doesn’t always mean anger. There would be no swearing, even though I’m not offended by four-letter words. If we reached a stalemate, we’d change the subject.

I once cried bitterly and long over an email my dad sent. He’s anti-gay rights, perhaps even anti-gay any gayness at all, and I’m bisexual. I have a male partner, and have never introduced female partners to my parents, because I figured we’d cross that bridge if we came to it, she and I, and we never did. Though my physical and emotional attraction to women is strong, it’s clear that passing as straight comes with certain privileges. For me, one of those privileges is never having to talk about gay rights with my dad.

Allow me to wave a tiny, sad little flag.

We want our parents to love us, and my bisexuality is inextricable from who I am. It is not an opinion, it’s identity. It’s not something I want to emphatically prove to anyone, because it’s personal, and it wouldn’t be anybody’s business if our basic rights and dignity were protected. We can’t agree to disagree about it, not peacefully. Dad worries I’m going to hell and here I’m inches away from the abyss because it will be hell if anything comes between us. No wonder I’d rather suffer erasure. Yay, erasure! Allow me to put down my tiny, sad little flag so I can play a tiny, sad violin. Pros: not murdered for the way I look or the person I’m with. Cons: nearly murdered for having a rainbow sticker on my car; could take the sticker off, but nah.

Anyhow, this email was brief and very clearly No Gays Allowed. Dad knows how I identify. I cried bitterly and long and immediately looked for a support group. Luckily, there happened to be a meeting that very night. So I went, completely prepared to grieve for the hopeless relationship with my father, prepared to Come Out fully and unabashedly, no regrets, no looking back. Sorry dad, but I’m here and I’m queer so get over it. You know what those bisexual bitches did? They listened. They heard that I clearly love my dad very much. They encouraged me to not do anything rash that I would regret. They asked me to weigh how much it hurts to stay close to Dad against how much it would hurt to burn bridges, to weigh it very carefully, because only I could decide.

Well, fuck. One immoderate moment in my life squashed by a room full of liberal college queers. Nearly a decade later, still bisexual. Still love Dad.

Political Self-Identity versus Pigeonholing

I consider myself left of center, though even that’s kind of a meaningless designation as some would consider me Radically Progressive while others consider me Ugh, The Worst At Progressivism. I could list my policy platforms as a handy guide for readers to label me, but that would be a dull exercise. Besides, my positions change — usually incrementally, but radical change can happen immediately if I learn I’ve been totally wrong about something. For instance, I was very much a Just Say No kid until I learned more about the futility and injustice of the War on Drugs.

When I call myself a moderate, I don’t mean that I water down my positions. I don’t mean I try to make all of the people happy all of the time. I don’t mean that I compromise my values. I don’t mean I’m willing to give up my rights, or negotiate away anyone else’s. When I say I’m willing to admit I’m wrong, I mean I am willing to revisit my position on something given new or unbeknownst-to-me information. I mean I am always willing to learn, not that I am always willing to punish myself by treating utter nonsense like serious information.

The middle needs to have ground upon which I can stand. Sometimes that’s a rickety bridge with ambitions of becoming a complex feat of engineering between two positions. Other times, it’s a popular position, a place where most people stand. Most of the time it’s (sorry not sorry) just where I happen to end up. No matter what, moderate is boring. It lacks incendiary flair. It takes a long time. The word count is godawful long. The council meets all night — and yet it’s designed to work. After all, I’m not looking for votes. I’m trying to strengthen community.

I Write On The Internet And I’m Not Sorry

In I Write on the Internet: I’m Sorrythe author jumps on the bandwagon of despair that anything can be done about our cultural rift using online communication. If I had a nickel every time I heard that online communication doesn’t work for positive change, I’d be richer than Mark Zuckerberg.

Maybe measurable trends support this conclusion. Certainly, I should heed the alarms, and I do. Yet I hesitate to accept that social media inevitably polarizes us. Shoot, I love discussing things online. I’ve been writing online since I was 11. I received an education through experience. I’ve adapted, and constantly adapt, to changing audiences with changing concerns so that my ideas don’t get lost in translation. People still misinterpret my intent, but not nearly as much as they would if I weren’t trying. If they’re misinterpreting my intent deliberately in order to misrepresent my cause, I call foul. If it’s an honest mistake, though, I apologize. There’s always room to improve.

I have a good read on tone in the written word, even if I’m not reading the words of a professional writer. If a person writes enough, you get a sense of their personal style, including their weaknesses; then, you can filter out their weaknesses to get to the intended meaning and tone.

Look, I would love it if everyone could communicate super-effectively in writing – we all would – but reading is part of communicating, too. So maybe one person tends to exaggerate for effect, while one cusses a lot, and one posts incomplete thoughts expecting you to complete them, and one likes to be witty and sarcastic. People use cultural references, in-jokes, and different rhetorical strategies, consciously or unconsciously. People are often offensive, confrontational, ill-informed, condescending, rude; they may or may not be aware of it; they may or may not be willing to play nice when you call them in. But you won’t know unless you try, and calling people in works better than calling them out. (Further reading gives a great review of research on this.) You can’t make anyone conform to your preferred method of written communication, but you can figure out where they’re really coming from.

Humanizing Each Other on Social Media

In Star Trek: Voyager, B’Elanna confronts Seven of Nine about her abrasive communication style.

“Yes! You come off as rude, and a little insulting. Look, I don’t expect you to change overnight, but try to remember that we are not just a bunch of drones.”

B’Elanna is part Klingon, part Human. Thanks to the nerd infiltration of pop culture, even staunch non-Trekkies know that Klingons are a warlike people. Seven of Nine is Borg, part of a species that operates on a hive mind in order to assimilate every other species to achieve complete biological and technological superiority. She was rescued and had her cybernetic implants removed in order to become a member of the crew.

This scene is so illustrative to me, because both B’Elanna and Seven are trying to change so that they can cooperate. B’Elanna moderates her Klingon temper, while Seven continuously learns how to deal with individuals when she’s used to dealing with people who literally think with one mind. In other words, both of them are trying to be more attuned to their humanity. Both of them know that in order to succeed, they need to be humans to each other (a statement which, someday, may be considered quite speciesist by intelligent extra-terrestrials, but that’s beside the point).

I concede that if these two women don’t cooperate, everyone dies. On social media, if you don’t cooperate, some old high school classmate blocks you and you forget about it two days later. So, when a conversation fails to enlighten the participants and drives apart people with different views, it’s more of an insidious threat than the plot device of an impending warp core breach.

Nevertheless, I invite you to do the emotional labor required to be a human to other humans.

Personally, it drives me nuts when people go around distributing citations for logical fallacies, for example. This isn’t the damn Vulcan Science Academy, so calm down. But I can see that they’re coming from a place, ideally, that values constructive argument. Therefore, I tend to respond in a way that prioritizes being constructive, even if it’s really tempting to say, “You dumb shit, you literally just committed three logical fallacies while misidentifying one. What the hell.” Maybe I’ll blow their mind by reminding them of the fallacy fallacy. (But I won’t presume I’m blowing anyone’s mind. That was a joke. The thing about jokes is knowing when to laugh with and resisting the urge to laugh at. Here I am being self-deprecating, laughing at myself: look how bad I am at being nice! My bark is worse than my bite. Also, I laugh at my own ego because it is foolish. In doing so, I can foolishly trip up other people’s egos unintentionally.  Otoh, laughter rules. It is very human,  and not the worst of us.)

Then, instead of throwing rhetorical tomatoes, I’ll get back on the subject. My opponent will then follow suit, or continue being a jackass. I tend to let jackasses be, hoping their jackassery will speak for itself and folks won’t pay them any mind.

But here’s the thing: my rhetorical style rubs some people the wrong way, too. I, too, can be like a bull in a china shop when I’m trying to be graceful. I have off days. I feel passionately about some issues, which wears down my own filters or causes me to forego them altogether, at times. And oh Lawdie I can be wrong. Alleluia! I can be wrong! Get two people together who can both admit their definite lack of omniscience, and you’ve got yourself a conversation.

Clearly, I put a lot of faith in people. And yeah, having a President Trump really puts “hoping their jackassery will speak for itself and folks won’t pay them any mind” to the test. We have a quintessential jackass in the White House, and it hurts me. What’s more: apparently, his jackassery isn’t as self-evident as I think it ought to be. Am I in a bubble after all? What am I but a squirrel just looking for a nut? Mongo only pawn in game of life.

To Kill a Moderate

From the above-mentioned apology, a quote:

Will Rahn argued that everybody in America thinks they are losing. Liberals look out on the world and see the Democrats defeated and driven to the edge of politics. Conservatives look out on the world and see a Republican Party that can win elections but can’t change the culture. “No matter where we stand ideologically, everyone in the mainstream gets the sense that we’ve somehow already lost, that some past battle has already decided the long war’s outcome in our opponents’ favor,” Rahn writes.

If you’re operating on this black and white view of the world – Liberal vs Conservative, Us vs Them – why are you still reading? Do… do you actually have an opponent? I mean, sure, I’ll have a temporary opponent if we choose to argue about something I disagree with, but I don’t have a damn nemesis. My opponent is likely still on friendly or even familial terms after opponentizing, even when I feel strongly about the stakes involved.

Clearly, I’m minimizing the very real extremes. But hey, isn’t that my job as a moderate? Should I quit just because everyone’s freaking out, reasonably enough, about polarization?

Since we really don’t live in a world of either/or, and I’m hardly the only living proof, here, let’s back it up to the statement that “everybody in America thinks they are losing.” Are moderates losing? Wtf is a moderate? Clearly, I am a liberal, but that doesn’t exclude being a moderate. I believe in coming to an understanding that gives all stakeholders a voice. From that understanding, good policy can be drawn. (Note the term stakeholders: an expert or a person directly affected by policy holds more weight as a stakeholder than Joe Angryshits from East Ignorance, Anystate. A moderate, after all, moderates, and moderators wield a judicious but heavy banhammer.)

So, as a moderate, my sense of defeat comes when I look out on the world and see people who truly aren’t open for discussion, who share unrelenting vitriol and snark total strangers, who assume the worst when they encounter other people, which brings out the worst in us all. Conservatives blame liberals for this while liberals reject blame. Regardless of my liberal position, I think blame is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the need to work together.

My sense of defeat comes when it seems like people aren’t moderating themselves. Yes, I recognize emotions are okay and reactions are natural and I’m not in the business of tone policing. Yet panic, anger, and hate all stem from feeling like you’re alone in this world, and I know I’m not alone. We all have our safe spaces, so to speak, and we all need them – including those who rail vehemently against them. Emotional maturity means having the wisdom to balance engagement with retreat. It means respecting the concept of space, even in a digital world where boundaries aren’t clear. People still have boundaries, such as skin, which are good for preventing us from falling apart, bleeding out, etc. People can be wounded, like with skin, and it’s not nice to throw salt in those. Niceness aside, it’s not particularly effective for your image, either, unless you are deliberately being a jerk, which doesn’t win anybody anyth— damn it.

I’m not alone. I’m not the only progressive moderate, not the only progressive, not the only moderate. I am not actually drowning in a sea of anti-intellectual, habitually contrarian, aggressively confrontational, just absolutely bitchy public. Defeat makes me feel like I am. Defeat makes me begin judging others in the harsh terms with which I am judged by the people who don’t share my values of kind, compassionate, investigative, intelligent conversation. Defeat makes me beat myself up. So, I retreat and recharge.

If you are tired of swimming, you get out of the water. You rest, and go back in. Defeat is just another word for tired. And maybe you’re afraid to retreat because if you do, 7000 stories will come out in an afternoon, and 7 million commentators will put their spin on it, and 700 million comments will drive the discourse into angry, fear-mongering, hate-stoking oblivion, and you won’t even get a howdy-do in edgewise. But remember, darling, remember this (I say to myself as much as anyone): you can be signal. You have the power to be signal, weak or strong. Probably weak, but weak is better than all that. All that? It’s noise.

Fuck that noise.

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