Posted by PintofStout on September 19, 2008
A friend and occasional commenter to the Bye-Laws, it was once joked, never did anything halfway; instead this person went overboard with all things from the passing hobby to general consumption. Since everything was taken to extremes with them, I suggested practicing “extreme moderation.” This was a joke, of course. In actuality, if moderation were practiced – even extremely – this person would be unrecognizable to their friends, and that wasn’t the goal. The oxymoron in the title isn’t the target of this discussion, though. Instead, the title refers to the apparent pattern of my own personal convictions and attitudes toward them. (Isn’t a title with layers and layers of possible meaning fun?) Over and over again in my intellectual awakenings I see a new idea latched onto vehemently and radically only to become more temperate, nuanced, and reasoned over time. Reflection on this process makes it seem like the initial stages are so strong in order to ingrain the new thought paradigm and expel the old paradigm; with time and deeper consideration a zen-like peace with the new outlook replaces the zealous attitude.
The first thought paradigm to be put asunder was that of Christianity. I studied Christianity with as much vigor as my school work, probably as a supplemental challenge, through Junior High. My approach to it was academic mostly. I read and understood what I was told, knew what I was supposed to feel and when, and aced the whole process much like my school work. As my school work became more challenging in high school my Christianity moderated and allowed the study of physics and astronomy to introduce doubt beginning in college. The science eventually took a firm hold and ousted the idea of Christianity, expelling it and turning my attitude to one of being actively anti-religious. Not only did I no longer want to be a part of the Christian religion (or any religion), I wanted to bring it down and expel it from existence. This kind of radicalism is surely recognizable as being in the fundamentalist camp. I would go so far as to say that I was a fundamentalist; I believed quite strongly that while the religious and I were similar, I knew my ideas were the right ones.
A similar, damn near parallel story emerges with the birth and progression of my political thought. The interest in politics was only born of a lack of anything else to think about, really. It took some time to wrap my head around it; in the mean time I bounced between rhetoric, unable to recognize it from fact. (Funny how I had more real faith in this “information” than in the whole Christianity episode.) From the early stages of exploration in politics, even before I started to settle into a definite niche, I was sort of zealous about it. I can partially just blame the zealousness on the general atmosphere and tone of everything touching politics as we know it, but given the history and pattern I’m setting out to describe, I can’t lay all the blame there. In fact, the zealousness continued after I had found the libertarian niche. My ideas, I was certain, were simply the right ideas, and any deviation therefrom was an abomination.
The Big Bang-like violent emergence of ideas eventually tones down, diversifies, and becomes more thoughtful and nuanced over time. In the case of Atheism, which was really my Christianity contracting into another Big Bang, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my fundamentalism partially as a result of my political philosophies, which were moderating at about the same time. Ultimately, both the religious and political energies waned from the exhaustion of tilting against large ideas (not just institutions). That fundamentalist energy turned inward to focus on changeable things. Personal things.
An interesting side note to this Extremism-Moderation Cycle in relation to political philosophy – and life philosophy really – is the way to define extreme or radical. What makes a radical? There is a radicalism of action (e.g. actively protesting) and a radicalism in thought (e.g. outside the norm). My typical early cycle zealousness was an active radicalism that mellowed while my beliefs became more radical. Of course, one can be both actively and philosophically radical at the same time. I just thought that I had become more radical while mellowing (an apparent oxymoron), then was able to distinguish between the two states.
In the end of my self-analysis I am left with the thought that learning new ways of thinking is similar to learning to drive a stick-shift. At first, it may be a “gas it and pop the clutch” approach to thinking; jerky, violent, and slightly dangerous. But once one has a feel for the clutch, everything is smooth and the engine can be used to the fullest, maximizing the vehicle’s performance. The same cannot be said for folks who only know the vehicle with the automatic transmission, programed by some “expert” far away, that doesn’t require much thought at all. Now, once I got going, I see a truly open road and find I still have a lot gas pedal left to push.