Redefining Moderation (An Introduction)

February 13, 2018

In a week, I'll be giving a public lecture on the topic of Moderation. This is significant because the topic of moderation is something I've been marinating on (on and off) for 12 years. It's not a sexy topic… it's not exciting. When I tell people I speak and write on moderation, they act as you would if you were given a really crappy gift for Christmas. I thought I would write a little intro… a little primer… a little intellectual amuse-bouche for the lecture and topic in general.


Well what is Moderation first of all? The Moderation I'm talking about isn't JUST politics. It's the political, personal, religious, and otherwise avoidance of extremes. Seneca, Aristotle, Montaigne, The Apostle Paul, the Buddha, and many other ancients have presented this idea in various ways for our consumption through the years.


Moderation is Optimized Tension


We use terms to talk about moderation quite fluidly without using the phrase moderation. We constantly refer to balance, equilibrium, equipoise - those are essentially the "balanced output" of a diverse group of inputs. Another way to look at it is moderation as "tension optimization." Martin Luther King Jr. called this kind of tension a "constructive, nonviolent tension."


To understand what a moderate position is, one must identify the extremes. And to identify the extremes, one must observe through distance and/or time. Typically, we can identify the extremes by whether or not they do harm, right? Like a heart attack. Or on the other end of the spectrum, we can identify an extreme if the antidote to the harm is so extreme to  neutralize the harm - like a quadruple bypass. With those two extreme inputs, we hopefully end up in a state of moderation. If you eat so much red meat that the cardiologist must open your chest, crack open your ribs, open your leg, remove veins from your leg and put them in your heart, then you have eaten an extreme amount of red meat and you have required an extreme intervention in the hopes that you will return to a moderate equilibrium. I'm easing everyone into the political examples, you see? That's an example of extreme inputs leading to, what one hopes to be, a moderate outcome. However, we can look back and make observations from others and learn that  an early "moderate" intervention of leafy greens and exercise can negate those two extremes. Make sense? Moderate interventions, as inputs, can negate the extreme interventions later. Building upon this example, I'm going to further assert that MODERATION IS NATURE.


Moderation is Nature


If we look at the atom with its positive and negative charges (and neutral charges); if we look at the brain with its various lobes, and transmitters, and… juices; if we look at the position of our gaseous, rocky planet in the firmament that's held in orbit by competing gravities, then it's clear that we and everything we've ever known is a product of moderation. This type of moderation is what I'll refer to as "optimized tension." It is a product (or output) that is held in balance by "competing" forces.


(Look guys - I realize that the last paragraph may be tough to read in print but it sounds great in person).


In Martin Luther King's Letters from a Birmingham Prison in 1963, King proclaimed, amongst other things...

"I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action".




That's a blazing critique… and he was absolutely right. The white moderates of King's day were neutral (and tension averse) and I think the tragedy is that they didn't need to be. One of the complications of the moderate and moderation is that it's somewhat difficult to see the extremes from the middle and it's also difficult to use the correct spectrum to judge your position. The white moderate of the day was looking at conflict versus no conflict. Instead, they should have been looking at the "spectrum of conflict" from Race War to passivity and a non-recognition of justice and equality.  When you look at the spectrum of disobedience, nonviolent protest is the most moderate approach. King wasn't torching cars or advocating violence. He was preaching peace, and justice, and equal representation under the law. He wasn't advocating the absence of all tension … he was advocating for optimized tension. I think King had a real vision for what a moderate should be given a TRUE balance of all inputs rather than the moderates of the day that didn't consider all inputs. So perhaps the largest problem with moderation is moderation itself. Moderates haven't had a common shared understanding of what Moderation is and have not had an advocate for that position. I'm advocating right now that moderation needs to look different from what we showed in the 60s up to present. I'm advocating a revision and clarification of moderation that doesn't just look at the two arguments that are posed to us by the 24 hour news channels or exploitative politicians. I'm advocating a vision of moderation that looks at the overall balance of life. Moderation isn't to be confused with niceness and it isn't to be confused with passivity. Rather, moderation should be viewed as an active engagement in ones personal, philosophical, and political approach.


If you can transform your personal and philosophical approach to moderation, than your political bend to moderation would almost necessarily follow. But how do we foster moderation. If we are to optimize tension to produce balance then what does that look like?


The Key Components of Moderation

My research has led me to four key components: Honesty, Compassion, Boundaries, and Resilience.




Honesty - Honesty with yourself, honesty with others, and honesty with the situation. Being honest and open with your beliefs and intentions is the only way to self-awareness and understanding others.


Compassion - Compassion almost requires non-judgment or at least an openness to understanding the honesty that people that people give you. Compassion leads to insights into motivations and decisions. Compassion leads to curiosity and understanding.


Boundaries - Once you have established honesty and compassion, then we're ready to bring in the tension I've talked about in the form of boundaries. The types of boundaries one must have are the types that say, "I understand what you're saying. I'm trying to understand why you have that position, BUT, here's why I have my position… because this is a boundary that I have." I believe boundaries requires that we be non-dogmatic, non-utopian, and a trust in facts and data over long held beliefs.


Resilience - "Resilience" and "trust in resilience" is the understanding that the end product is made better through tension. Muscles get bigger and stronger through breaking down the muscle fibers, "damaging" the muscle, then giving it time to recover. Arguments are made richer through challenge. The fastest evolutionary period for our human brain came from the most volatile period in our earth's  climatological history. Early humans had to scrap and struggle and learn how to cook! The fastest period of evolution for us, came during periods of struggle. There is enough evidence to support that idea that diversity and variation of inputs makes children, brains, crops, arguments, companies, and societies better. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it Antifragility.


This is why I advocate for moderation and this is why I will be speaking about it on Monday February 19 from 7:45 to 8:45 PM. There will be Q&A Afterwards. And decaf. Not the crappy decaf either... the good kind. There is a good kind of decaf.

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Riley Evan Ross
Speaker and Writer Moderation Blog

I speak and write on the topic of moderation because I believe that a thorough re-examination of moderation can help our societies build change resilience and grow together.

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