Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.
– Marcus Tullius Cicero
Clearly, extremism is not the enemy, in spite of what many are inclined to say right now.
The real enemy is the lukewarm determination to address the dilemmas that fall disproportionately on the poor, on the lower middle class who see their situation deteriorating, on the disempowered, on the displaced, and on the dark skinned people of the world. The benumbed response of the privileged to the urgency of a number of shared problems redounds to the disfavor of us all in a world where so little can be masked or hidden.
For too long the West’s quest for the ideal life has been framed around notions of personal gain and independence. Now we can see that passion for a fairer, juster, and more loving world, accepting of those who are different from us, is an essential part of the truly liberated self. In the new world that is emerging, we will not grow into fully realized human beings without connectedness, compassion and justice. Recognition of these truths is growing. How can we encourage more people to embrace them?
For starters, let’s take a few minutes to recognize the values that have gotten us this far, and use the particular time we live in to understand them afresh.
Equality before the law. Religious toleration. Liberty of conscience. The consent of the governed as a requirement for legitimate government. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear. Freedom from want.
Thinking about them can be embarrassing, because we recognize immediately how much more needs to be done to achieve them. If we have allowed ourselves to sink into a mindset where these great truths have become pat phrases echoing something we used to hear about in high school, we have some things to attend to.
Perhaps the angst that is in the air right now arises in part because, in the years leading up to the turn of the new century, some of us deluded ourselves into believing we had arrived in the task of creating a better world. Maybe the collapse of communism in 1989 took away the West’s sense of urgency, or released a kind of hubris, best exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of “The end of history,” which dubbed liberal democracy the “winner.”
Embracing values is not the same thing as snapping your fingers and seeing the world become different. Embracing values is the first step in a way of life devoted to the realization of these values in the lives of individuals. We stand on the shoulders of a host of people who moved that struggle forward.
In this time when moderation is held up as the antidote to polarized politics, let’s be sure we are immoderate in protecting the values that undergird respect and compassion for those who are not our immediate kin. This is the minimum life asks of us.