The Meaning of 'Moderate'

by Linda Bowles

July 18, 2000

It's time we had a rational discussion of the meaning of a word that is playing an important role in current political debates and discussions. The word we need to examine is the word "moderate." However, we must proceed with caution. Delving too deeply into definitions can be dangerous. As a case in point, consider what has happened to the legal profession. Lawyers will write a 25,000 word treatise to define the meaning of a simple expression, for example, "private property." They wring out what each of these two words mean in isolation, and what they mean in combination. Unfortunately, in the process of trying to capture what is meant by "private property," they inadvertently put up for grabs the meaning of the 25,000 words they use to nail down the meaning of two.

This philological chain reaction explains why your average lawyer's office is stacked to the ceiling with legal tomes that lead him and others on fruitless chases around imaginary mulberry bushes. And it explains why your average lawyer's finite mind is full to overflowing with words and jargon that have no discernible reference points in reality.

Perhaps, by understanding what went wrong in the legal community, with its codification of obscurantism, we can avoid the same corruption of common sense and logic. Perhaps we can define "moderate" without getting entangled in webs of our own weaving.

Politicians and voters describe themselves as moderate to give the impression that they are fair-minded, that is to say, not a captive of left- or right-wing dogmatism. It connotes someone who avoids extreme positions.

As a general rule, these moderates are not hard to spot. If you go to a serious meeting where a controversial issue will be discussed, the partisans will quickly take a seat. The moderates may be seen wandering around in the background looking for something to hang their hats on.

However, based on actions rather than words, it is fair to say that many politicians use the term "moderate" to disguise radical beliefs such as: legal infanticide is the answer to overpopulation; self-defense is dangerous since it makes your enemies angry; socialism deserves another chance; and sodomy is as American as motherhood and a walk in the park.

What readily comes to mind are the words of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who warned us of "the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." It is confusing. Is a moderate someone who occupies the sensible center, or someone who is mired in the muddled middle? Or is the moderate really a closet liberal?

There is a famous line in a popular novel that reads, "Being in love means never having to say you're sorry." It provides us with a suitable definitional format:

-- Being moderate means never having to say you are a liberal.

-- Being moderate means rejecting the idea that we are all doomed in favor of the idea that we are only half doomed.

-- Being moderate (as a cynical politician once observed) means dismissing the radical idea that Washington D.C. should be razed to the ground tomorrow, in favor of the idea of doing it one building at a time.

-- Being moderate means being willing to swap a value for a victory.

-- Being moderate means suing tobacco companies for killing people while voting for subsidies for tobacco farmers.

-- Being moderate means raising the flag of surrender only to half mast.

-- Being moderate means believing that Rush Limbaugh is too controversial to host Monday Night Football, while the vile, foul-mouthed smut-monger Dennis Miller is a perfect choice.

-- Being moderate means choosing purgatory over the extremes of heaven and hell.

-- Being moderate means choosing gray as a favorite color -- and spelling it "grey" half of the time.

-- Being moderate means believing that Rodney King's civil rights were violated, while the children and babies at Waco had no civil rights.

-- Being moderate means having doubts about who should be punished, the criminal or the police officer who arrested him.

Here is a bit of counsel from the famous patriot Thomas Paine: "A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice."

2000 Creators Syndicate, Inc

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20 jul 2000