Empathetic vs Skeptical Moderates

In the last year, I’ve noticed two seas of (white) moderates: one as a valuable bridge, another as an infection of deception.

For context, I come from the United States of America, where many of my extended family and friends may support Donald Trump and may be on the spectrum of the Alt-Right, it’s not possible for me to ignore the new waves of moderate politics.

At some point a distinction came to light, so I’d like to share what I’ve learned about moderates, good and bad.

What is a moderate?§

A moderate is a person whose opinions are not extreme, whose beliefs fall in the middle between any two sides.

Often, moderates are those who have the most privilege, who benefit most from the status quo, and who are the most tolerated.

On the flip side, being a moderate is not a applicable strategy for those who suffer from the status quo, who are part of marginalized communities, and who are actively intolerated.

However, I do believe being a moderate is a powerful strategy when used as a bridge to connect diversity. Whether I think a moderate is good or bad depends on whether they are connecting or disconnecting other sides.

Good moderates are empathetic of diverse beliefs§

If you’re able to empathize with beliefs from diverse sides, yay!

Being empathetic means listening to another person or group’s lived experience and standing in solidarity with that experience as being valid.

Bad moderates are skeptical of diverse beliefs§

If you’re skepitcal of beliefs from diverse sides, boo!

Being skeptical means you judge the experience of another person or group.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had some words to say in a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (16 April 1963):

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season”. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

If you’re waiting for the perfect protest, please consider that everyone wants to do their best, but only those with privilege have the choice to opt-out of social justice.

Case study: NFL kneels§

Some time ago, a football player Colin Kaepernick started a movement by kneeling, instead of standing, during the national anthem.

In an interview after the game, Kaepernick gave a clear meaning to his unique expression:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

From then on, game after game, this unique expression of kneeling was used in public events to remind the audience about the message of institutional violence against black people.

As someone seeing this happen, we’re not being asked to agree or disagree, we’re being reminded of another group’s experiences. The kneeling is a reminder, lest we forget, that the public system is unjust for some people.

Yet, in my extended network I became witness to skepticism, with articles such as “Quit grandstanding with NFL protests and get back to football”.

Sports used to be fun, but these protests are divisive and pointless. Can’t we just play ball?

Rather than being empathetic with another group’s experience, I noticed gaslighting, to the point of deflecting the message to be about the flag, the anthem, or the military.

But not all (white) moderates try to silence stories about oppression, some use their own voice to amplify the messages:

Moderate strategy: be a bridge§

As the personal is political, being a moderate with empathy is where we have an opportunity to affect positive social change, using our day-to-day interactions amongst our friends, family, co-workers, and strangers to be a bridge.

For example, here’s my friend Dominic Tarr working to bridge the gap between conflicting sides during a tense conversation on Scuttlebutt:

@marina this isn’t just some random dickwad, this dickwad is @mixmix’s dad. That is why I think it’s worth mediating, for better or worse, he’s basically family. @substack is addressing future ssb members, but I’m interesting in addressing the people who are currently here. Because one time you told me that one of the challenges facing feminism is that the default response my men is to be skeptical of whatever a woman says, but believe things that other men say. This was surprising at the time, but I soon realized you where right. So you told me that it wasn’t enough for women to argue for feminism - men like me had to as well, because other men would actually listen to me. That is what I’m trying to do here.

@bob as you can see, my friends are a bit upset by this, and now you are connected to and socialising in the same space with them. I can certainly vouch that they are highly intelligent and there are many reasons they believe what they do. Could you please take that into consideration? they are not “some segments of some societies” they are a segment of this society.

I think it’s worth bridging between these viewpoints, because I realized that my own views have changed significantly over the years. If my 18 year old self came on here and what I believed at the time, I’d have gotten blasted by current @substack too, and that would be fair enough, but that probably would have galvanized my views not changed them. So I believe that if my views can change, other’s views can change too.

To be a good moderate is to listen, to give a voice to those who aren’t being heard (or can’t be present), to be a connecting link between diverse sides, to support a diversity of tactics brought by each participant given their understanding of the local situation.

Moderate strategy: be an ally§

There are social justice movements happening around us, be an ally!

As a person with privilege, it’s easy to join a movement with good intentions, but have negative impact. notice how much attention you give or take. check if you are supporting or co-opt-ing.

Give attention to others! Try not to place yourself at the center of attention, unless as a stepping stone to pass the microphone.

Listen! A good practice is to notice how much you’re listening, versus how much you’re talking.

Ask how you can help! But don’t expect others to carry your mental load.

Caveat: The paradox of tolerance§

There’s a caveat with empathy, known as the “paradox of tolerance”

If tolerance is inclusive of the intolerant, than intolerance will ultimately dominate, eliminating the tolerant and the practice of tolerance with them.

There are small minorities of people who will use your empathy against you: fascists, racists, and other bigoted people.

Instead of trying to be seem as “reasonable”, cultivate beliefs.

Cultivate believing victims, who you have been enculturated to believe “probably deserved it”.

Believe Black men–who are not super predators, but humans who are more likely than not to be victims.

Believe Native women–who are not costumes or the past, but both most likely to be harmed by any man, and still here, working for justice for EVERYONE.

Believe Black women–actually believe them, don’t just use them as a hashtag.

Believe Native men, who are probably the most likely to be killed by police.

Believe trans people. Believe queer people. Believe ace people when they tell you they are queer.

Believe disabled people, who are whole entire humans, no matter what we have been socialized to think.

Believe children.

Believe victims.

Stop believing the police. Stop believing men over women, whites over everyone, straight people over queer people, abled people above all.

Start tearing down injustice, and do that by tearing down the injustices inside you. Your assumptions.

Stop giving power to the warlords of hatred, by believing them that only their good opinion will set the rest of us free.

We’re all in this together§

Be charitable to everyone you come across.

Listen and believe the stories of marginalized people.

Understand that sometimes being empathetic means stepping outside your comfort zone.

Help people (especially those with privilege) to be more empathetic of others (especially those without privilege).

Help people get past labels which are different to them and thinking about others as humans similar to them.