It seems like most people like to think of themselves as being in the middle of two extremes, and this means a really large group of people reach for the label "moderate" in their political ideology, perhaps acknowledging what leanings they do have by saying they're a "moderate liberal" or "moderate conservative."
This happens even when someone's views would be considered extreme by others. There are plenty of explanations for why people on the far right or far left would think they're actually rather moderate -- people surround themselves with others who think similarly (the echo chamber, confirmation bias), and people often identify themselves in contrast to the most extreme or simplistic version of an opposing view (strawman fallacy). So it's easy to think of one's own views as "normal" and everyone else on the extremes.
Recognizing this, I've always been unsure how to classify my own ideology -- I know I fall squarely on the liberal/progressive side of most things, but don't think of myself as an "extreme liberal" or "extreme Democrat." Yet it seemed that in conversations on any issue, either I agreed with the speaker/writer or was farther to the left. Moderate means you disagree with people on both sides of you, not just one side, right? Maybe I was more of a flaming liberal than I thought.
Yesterday, I stumbled across the other extreme.
Whoville, like much of the West Coast, tends to be a fairly progressive place to live -- one of the reasons we like living here. It's a strongly "blue" area, and it's a good bet that most people I talk to will share my views, particularly on social issues. (The one exception is religion -- people here tend to be far more skeptical of faith and religion than any place I've lived, but living on a Catholic campus balances this out nicely.)
This means that people generally aren't afraid to bring up political topics, and tend to assume that those around them agree.
I volunteer for a local organization, and yesterday joined a group of volunteers helping with the very boring task of folding and labeling newsletters. As you might imagine, this task doesn't occupy much brainpower and thus opens up the opportunity to spend an hour or so chatting with other volunteers while sending newsletters down the assembly line. On finding out one of the other volunteers was studying to be a social worker, I asked him what his thoughts were on the new DSM.
This quickly turned into a conversation between two volunteers ranting about healthcare. It was the first time I'd heard people say they were disgusted with Obamacare for still allowing the existence of private insurance companies, and they both expressed the belief that a government-run universal healthcare system is simply inevitable and that everyone will see very shortly that it's the only good option. The rest of the conversation, which spanned (among other things) vaccines, zoos, and recent Supreme Court decisions had me repositioning myself on my mental political spectrum closer to the middle than I might have previously thought.
What I realized later, though, was that what made me classify these individuals as more "extreme" than myself had less to do with what they believed and more to do with why they believed it and how they expressed it. Looked at this way, I found there was surprisingly little difference between people I consider "extremely conservative" and these people I thought of as "extremely liberal."
These were the traits I noticed:
- Speaking in broad, overly simplistic terms about the world.
- Assuming that any reasonable person would agree with their conclusions.
- Relying on or citing highly questionable "facts."
- Dismissing anyone with a different viewpoint as having ulterior motivations.
- Presuming to speak for other people's wants and needs.
- Believing that the progression of events along their ideal path is inevitable.
- Expressing their beliefs in such a way that providing an alternative viewpoint seems entirely pointless.
I'm reflecting on this list for two reasons. One, because it provides a way to check myself on how I'm thinking about and expressing my own views to ensure that I'm not being (or coming across as) closed-minded. And two, because it is a way to recognize when I'm mischaracterizing the "other side" on a particular issue by only focusing on the people who have these traits.
So am I conflating ideological position and closed-mindedness? Perhaps. But it makes sense, in a world as complex as ours, that the only way to hold fast to the most liberal or most conservative position on everything is to refuse to consider alternative viewpoints or conflicting evidence. After all, isn't the reason that most people want to be considered "between the extremes" because they recognize that the most extreme viewpoint is rarely correct?
Are you able to identify positions to both the left and the right of you on most issues? Do you think there's a link between extreme viewpoints and closed-mindedness?