Moderate/Extremist? Left/Right

Words, and their meanings, matter. Words are not vessels that can be filled with whatever meaning one wants. Kung Fu-tzu, who lived 500 years before Christ, said that before a debate begins, the participants should participate in “rectification of terms.” What he meant was that the participants in the debate should agree on the definitions of the key words to be used. After rectification of terms, many points of dispute disappear. In the US today, we need a rectification of terms, especially in politics and media news. Opposing sides use the same words in disputation, but give them very different meanings.


I have been dismayed by the use of the terms of “left” and “right” in contemporary political discussions. What do they mean? Political pundits have filled these word vessels with a bewildering range of definitions. The political “left” and “right” refer to positions on a political spectrum. The problem is that these terms are now being used to describe individual’s politics. I have a problem, as a liberal, being branded as a “leftist” with the attributes of an extremist. I also have trouble branding conservatives as “rightists” with the attributes of extremists.


When I taught world history in high school, I used the political spectrum as a teaching device for students to understand the variety of political behaviors. The difference between an academic understanding and contemporary usage of the terms “left and right,” is that there is considerable overlap in the center. Liberals, to the left, and conservatives, on the right, have a common interest in pragmatic solutions to the problems of government. Most people are to some degree liberal or conservative, according to the issue at hand. They both view government as necessary for an orderly society. Liberals, on the left, are typically more reform minded, and view governmental action as a tool to make society more equitable. Conservatives, on the right, are typically more satisfied with society as it exists, and are in favor of changes that keep government and society functioning well. A democratic society depends on liberals and conservatives continually seeking a workable balance.


Radicals on the extreme left advocate for changing the entire system. The most extreme would use violence to accomplish this. They are most associated with collectivist societies that claim they support a radical equality of all people, but end up having to use authoritarian methods to advance their cause. Radicals on the extreme right advocate for changing the entire system. The most extreme would use violence to accomplish their ends. They are most associated with inequality and the dominance of a race, religion, or ethnic group, and end up having to use authoritarian methods to advance their cause. The most extreme would use violence to accomplish their ends. In other words, extremists of the left and right have much in common, and view moderate conservatives and liberals as their main enemies.


The meaningful division of political behaviors is not “left” and “right,” but of moderates in the center, who want government to work, and extremists, “left” and “right,” who want to overthrow the governing system and dictate their extreme views of a society. Moderates are willing to compromise on issues for the betterment of society. Extremists see compromise as an evil that impedes their efforts to have their system seen as the way to perfecting society. Moderate liberals and conservatives see politics as the art of the possible, and seek a workable society, and realize that no political ideology can achieve perfection. Through discussion and debate, keeping the welfare of the country as a goal, liberals and conservatives can build a fair society that can adapt to changing times. The true political spectrum is not left and right, but moderate as opposed to extremist.