Getting Un-stuck in the Middle

There’s a great little cartoon by illustrator and comic book author Kasia Babis which originally appeared in The Nib, that was shared widely on social media this past week. It depicts an angry mob of Klan members on one side holding a burning cross and a sign that says, “WE WANT TO KILL BLACK PEOPLE.” Opposite them is a crowd of Black people, holding a sign that says “We want civil rights.” In the middle stands a white guy holding a sign that says “Compromise?” A lot of Facebook and Twitter shares of it also include copy along the lines of “Don’t be the asshole in the middle.

From Kasia Babis’ “Famous Moments in History, Reimagined by Centrists.”

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Like the progress-blocking white moderates Dr. King lamented, this guy represents every “nice” person who hates conflict and clings to the idea that the right answer in every political debate lies in the middle, no matter how egregious the situation. I can’t say for sure, but my guess is these people think taking this position makes them seem nicer or more reasonable, more “objective” or dispassionate than those of us who choose a side and keep a firmer grip on our views.

I’ve been thinking about people like this a lot over the last few years, but especially since the election. Every time something terrible happens — like the latest video depicting horrific police brutality and misconduct or a new executive order or piece of legislation chipping away at marginalized people’s freedom or economic security or what have you — I’m always galled by the number of people who are not only willing to overlook blatantly awful things, but who cannot seem to tell the difference between right and blatantly wrong. Their votes, their inaction, and the policy landscape that results often reflect that confusion.

So how did we get to a place where we’re actually having arguments about whether or not what happened in Charlottesville is primarily an issue of “free speech?” How are people being duped into thinking Black Lives Matter is the same as the Klan? Put simply, it’s because of “the asshole in the middle.”

We’re here because people stuck in the middle have taught the Right over the years that there’s no penalty for taking more and more extreme positions — or for lying bigger and bigger to defend them — when sizable numbers of the American public won’t check the facts, and are committed to the idea that the truth always lies in between two equally credible (or more often, fallible) sides. It’s the old Overton window again; as the majority of conservatives move briskly to the furthest rightward extremes of their imaginations while their opponents balk at their outrageous stance, large swaths of the public continue to split the difference between the two, shifting the overall orientation of our public conversations rightward, too.

That’s why Trump, like other right wing operatives before and beside him, are so willing to publicly blather about how “both sides” are at fault when a group of armed racists hurt and even kill people who assemble to stand up for equality. They know it takes only a little bit of confusion to keep a lot of people on the fence, busy looking for a way to compromise rather than choosing the righteous side and fighting for it, which would often mean fighting against them.

A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, sure, but it’d be a hell of a lot easier and faster if our group was larger. We need at least some of these people off the fence and onto the field.

Those of us who realize how many millions, even billions, of people suffer as a result of those compromises have an important imperative to break this pattern. We have to help those stuck in the middle realize that sometimes, even often, there’s a clear right side and a clear wrong side, and the truth is not always the result of a compromise. We have to remind them that things can be much better than they are now, and that we don’t have to settle for fools’ bargains with people who want to normalize evil. And we have to remind them that passively forfeiting the opportunity to do the right thing can be just as damaging as proactively doing the wrong thing.

Folks stuck in the middle can be pulled along with the momentum of a winning side. So it’s up to us to be that winning side. We have to be prouder, louder, and more visible than people who promote hate and injustice. That means taking every opportunity to vocally proclaim the truth, our values, and the importance of actually doing something to make wrongs right. If the middle serves to shield the right from the consequences of making and defending unjust policy choices, then we need to make sure there are social incentives for folks in the middle to stop playing that role, or social consequences for those who continue.

This is a guest post I drafted for Ctrl Alt Right Delete, Melissa Ryan’s weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics to fight back. Want Ctrl Alt Right Delete in your inbox? Subscribe here.