Listening to centrists—and to the fringe

Originally printed in The Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 2015.

The word of the day—arguably the word of our still young century—is extremism. On all sides, mainstream society is being challenged by groups that beg to differ with the prevailing order and want to overturn it quickly and, if necessary, violently. Muslim extremists have shocked the world with their graphic violence. Ultranationalists are a worrisome force in Russia. And as a cover story by Monitor Europe correspondent Sara Miller Llana details, extremists on both the left and right are growing more vocal and attracting more followers in Europe.

Meanwhile, in the United States … well, this is where talking about extremism gets tricky. The farther away from a situation you are, the easier it is to use the term. Extremism is a word centrists use. Centrism tries to see all points of view and strike a balance. Centrism is usually the best policy, but not always. It is a belief in the status quo, and there are times when the status quo must be challenged. Abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, environmentalism, began at the fringes.

You and I likely consider today’s extremists alarming. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, writing when communism seemed on the march as some extremist movements today seem to be, argued in his book The Vital Center that centrism is the “group which [holds] society together” by defending civil liberties, the rule of law, and the democratic determination of political and economic policies. Without the center, civilization falls apart.

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