Are You a Moderate? Think Again

From The New York Times:

A lack of moral imagination can make deeply ethical actions seem like crimes.

By Jamie Aroosi
Oct. 30, 2019

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was written as a response to a group of “white moderate” clergy members who claimed to be supportive of the civil rights movement — but who had also called Dr. King’s activism both “unwise and untimely.” For these moderates, civil rights activists were not courageous adversaries of a horribly unjust society, but lawless “outside agitators” threatening the tranquillity of the status quo. And so, rather than commending these activists, they condemned them and blamed the outbreak of violence on their resistance to Jim Crow rather than on Jim Crow itself.

In his response to their calls for slow and incremental change, Dr. King made a provocative claim: He argued that these white moderates were a potentially greater threat than the members of the Ku Klux Klan. Whereas the “ill will” of the rabid segregationist was out in the open and could therefore be combated, the “shallow understanding from people of good will” threatened to enervate the civil rights movement into acceptance of an intolerable status quo. For King, moderation in the face of injustice might have been a worse problem than injustice itself.

A half-century later we find ourselves, domestically and globally, in a similar crisis, arguably more divided than ever. Those fighting against inequality, sexism, racism and xenophobia face an entrenched and increasingly emboldened reactionary opposition. In between them lies our current equivalent of Dr. King’s “white moderate.” And these moderates, with their outsized political power and their nostalgia for a lost status quo, similarly represent a greater threat to progress than do the reactionaries.

As in the past, today’s moderate is generally not the victim of contemporary injustices. While many moderates acknowledge the existence of these injustices, their relative comfort allows them the luxury of denying their severity. In the United States, a spate of policies and movements that promise to help alleviate these problems have emerged — Medicare for All, the cancellation of student debt, the elimination of ICE and the Green New Deal, and Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. But as in Dr. King’s time, today’s moderate only pays lip service to the general goals of these policies and movements while also condemning their stridency. For them, this stridency, in its potential upending of their comfortable status quo, seems a greater threat than the injustice it means to address.

As Dr. King understood, the problem he was facing — and that we now face again — is the problem of moral imagination. Moderates might have the “good will” that leads them to acknowledge injustice, but their very moderation is indicative of a “shallow understanding” that is emptied of the pain of those who currently suffer. For these moderates, injustice is a foreign affair, an abstract problem to be solved. Their response then lacks the urgency that a true understanding would bring. Learning how to expand their moral universe — learning how to turn opponents into allies — is just as pressing a problem as ever.

Almost two centuries ago, Søren Kierkegaard addressed this very issue. In his work “Fear and Trembling,” he went to great lengths to praise the biblical Abraham for his apparent willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. And while Kierkegaard’s praise of Abraham has led to no small number of misinterpretations, given how horrific it appears to be, Kierkegaard was not suggesting that we too should be willing to commit such an obviously terrible act. Instead, as Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” helps reveal, Kierkegaard used this story to demonstrate how, to those with a more limited moral imagination, actions which are deeply ethical can often appear as the greatest of crimes — as if we were willing to sacrifice that which is most dear.

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