In our increasingly polarized society, many speak of “the shrinking middle.” It depicts the seemingly smaller number of people who hold moderate views between two polarized views. But some challenge this assumption. Is the middle really shrinking, or is it being silenced?
In the second of our “Seeking Shalom in the Midst of Polarization” series, Andrew Hanauer mentions this aspect of toxic polarization (“What Causes our Polarization?”, p. 32). He suggests that many moderates keep silent for fear of being kicked out of their group or attacked by other groups. Their silence often makes things seem more polarized than they are because only the extremes get air time.
David French, a conservative U.S. journalist, talked about the same issue in “Christians and Cancel Culture,” the keynote speech at last year’s Evangelical Press Association convention. French defined cancel culture as attempting to disproportionately punish someone for breaking group boundaries of acceptable ideas and behaviors. Cancel culture is rife in both the so-called right and left wings. But French noted that cancel culture is most dangerous and effective not when attacking an out-group, but when disciplining in-group dissenters. When someone is aggressively “canceled” by the out-group enemy, in-group members often will rally in defense of the canceled person. That person might even end up becoming a group martyr and hero, ironically, raising his or her influence and following. French noted that there is a growing trend of personalities deliberately courting cancel culture attacks from opposing parties to gain fame and influence in their own party.
Moderates within each party are, however, often the most vulnerable and isolated. If they criticize their own group, they risk being canceled by their own with few to rally behind them. And they don’t get much support from anyone outside their group either. Ironically, these moderates are the most vulnerable to cancel-culture attacks from within their own group.
All of this results in a fear of speaking out, a fear of criticizing one’s own side for any flaws, excesses, or mistakes. A lot of good people who might have good ideas or even good questions end up silenced in fear. Nobody dares to suggest ideas different from the party lines. This silence only fuels more polarization.
So is it a shrinking middle or a silent majority in the middle? I don’t know if it’s a majority, but I do believe that the middle is intimidated into silence and self-censorship.
I don’t think throwing more facts and intellectual arguments at each other is going to solve the problem. But Hanauer reminds us that what we do and how we make people feel are more memorable, in the long run, than what we say or argue about. Higher emotional intelligence (EQ) is probably more needed now than higher IQs. This relates to my previous editorial “Cats or Toasters?” (February 2022).
I agree with French that Micah 6:8 should be our guide in this mess. We need to act justly, show mercy, and practice humility with people with whom we disagree. I will be the first to admit that I have not mastered this, nor do I boast of a high EQ. But I am committed to trying even when I often feel like I am caught in the vulnerable middle.