The Problem with Moderation.

This project is born on the conviction that we need to think more deeply about moderation.

Moderation can describe how we identify politically, how we consume, how we behave with others, how our communication is governed, and how we assess statistical data. But moderation, for all its prevalence, is a slippery term, a fuzzy concept, and in each of these contexts carries different implications. What does moderation actually mean? Here I want to make a few preliminary reflections upon ‘the problem with moderation’, rooted in its etymology.

Definitions and synonyms

Moderation, in the English language, takes form as noun (moderation), adjective (moderate) and verb (to moderate). Each of these have quite distinct suggestive meanings, which can be seen through their synonyms.

‘Moderation’ as a noun is defined conventionally as “the avoidance of excess or extremes”, its principle synonyms being “temperance” or “restraint”, but also “mildness”. As an adjective ‘moderate’ is equated with “average in amount, intensity, quality or degree”, its synonyms including “average”, “mediocre”, “mild”.

When we consider moderation’s verb form, ‘to moderate’, its depth becomes more apparent. A basic definition is “to cause something to become less in size, strength or force”. On these terms common synonyms include “to soften”, “to temper”, “to restrain”. This clearly coheres with the nominal and adjectival definitions above: things that can be described as moderate are things that are moderated. So doing they exemplify moderation.

But a whole host of contemporary and historical uses of the term complexify this conjunction.

For instance, ‘to moderate’ is also defined as “to arbitrate”, and this implies alternative synonyms such as “to judge”, “to mitigate”, “to mediate”, “to preside over”. To moderate can also mean “to govern”, and working backwards from this, moderation as noun can also mean something akin to “justice” or “fairness”.

These meanings reveal the common root to moderation as noun, verb and adjective in the latin modero (v.) or moderatio (n.), which translate uncomfortably to ‘to moderate’ or ‘moderation’ as we would understand them today, and more comfortably to ‘to oversee’, ‘to manage’ or ‘to discipline’. Their root lies in modus, or ‘to measure’, which in turn has its root, according to the French semiotician Emile Benveniste, in the Indo-European root *med-.

*Med- is, for Benveniste in his Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society, classified as principally a legal concept, which he defines as “to take with authority measures appropriate to a present difficulty” or “to bring back to normal – by a tried and tested means – some particular trouble or disturbance”. *Med- is the root not only of moderation but also of medicine, medicus, the act of caring for or restoring a sick body. Further, it is tied up with reflection, judgement and thought, being responsive to circumstances and acting with propriety. To moderate is, in a range of contexts, to act with authority to restore order.

In this compound moderation, and the Latin moderatio and modus find affinities in the Greek medo, ‘to protect’ or ‘to rule over’, in the German messen, ‘to measure’, leading to Mäßigung, ‘moderation’, and even the Irish meas, ‘to judge’ or ‘to consider’. Moderation’s complexity, then, is because it is a foundational concept in Western civilization.

Moderations, hard and soft

Drawing out the deep etymologies of moderation brings to the fore a core source of its ambiguity: its status as both transitive and intransitive. Things can moderate themselves; they can also moderate other things. When imagined as a political or personal philosophy, moderation is so commonly understood as intransitive, as self-moderation (and so self-restraint, self-discipline, self-governance), that its transitive form, the moderation of other things, including other people, is often overlooked.

This reduction of moderation to its intransitive form conceals what I will call its ‘hard’ nature. The ‘soft’ meanings of moderation as “calmness”, “mildness” or “temperance” suggest it is a personal disposition of little consequence for others. When moderation is framed in transitive terms – as the moderation of one ‘thing’ by another, viewed through synonyms of “discipline”, “restraint”, “control” and “regulation” – its ‘hard’ capacity to structure relationships of political consequence, of power, becomes obvious.

Similarly, when moderation is invoked in the negative, as anti-radicalism or an opposition to fanaticism, it appears as passive, itself internally insubstantial, as a simple aversion to extremes. But moderation also implies the active process of establishing and enforcing rules with which to govern behaviour. This incorporates moderation’s transitive and intransitive forms: the moderation of the self is an act of self-discipline, or ‘being hard on one’s self’.

How do these ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘active’ and ‘passive’ forms of moderation relate to one another? In part, I suggest, through moderation’s relationship to neutrality.

Moderation and neutrality

If those who moderate – moderators – make and enforce rules, they do so not according to personal whims, but through appeal to impartiality. A recurrent association with moderation as noun, adjective and verb is reasonableness, the tempering of passions. To moderate one’s consumption is not only to lessen it, but to do so in accordance with reason. To moderate a discussion is not just to oversee, but to arbitrate judiciously.

The ‘measure’, then, which is invoked in all forms of moderation, and through which moderation attains its authority, is impersonal in nature. When we moderate – whether ourselves or others – we tend do so to accord with a set of largely unseen and unspoken rules. Moreover, the act of moderation – of judging scenarios, of regulating excesses, of balancing extremes, of finding the moments of equipoise – is the act which validates those rules and ensures they persist.

There is a political-philosophical equation at play here: the ‘soft’ forms of moderation – modesty, self-restraint, and the tempering of the self – legitimise, by virtue of their reasonableness and neutrality, the ‘hard’ forms of moderation – governance, arbitration and the disciplining of others. Benveniste writes “modus signifies a measure imposed on things, a measure of which one is master”.

Clearly this equation is potentially problematic: the site of moderation is the site of norm creation and preservation. In the context of universal consent, this is unproblematic: to be moderate, or to moderate, is simply to be reasonable and act in accordance with the rules reason dictates. But in the context of significant, if not universal, dissent, this equation breaks down: the norms of reasonableness are denied validation, and rendered particular. Moderation’s neutrality becomes substantive. The moderator’s authority slides into power.

These scenarios sees the moderator – arbitrator, ruler, governor – as abstracted from the object(s) of moderation. But in an alternative scenario, in which moderation is relational – where things moderate one another – a species of neutrality emerges once more. The ‘hard’ moderation-as-governance of all by all is bearable only through the entrenchment of the ‘soft’ moderation-as-temperance, self-restraint, and modesty. In short, moderation becomes something like toleration.

Recasting Moderation

Comparative etymology, like that of Benveniste, can cast light upon the complex meanings contained within the words which populate vocabularies, and so societies and cultures. By distinguishing between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ moderations, and their relationship with an ideal of neutrality, I have tried to show above how it can bring us to explicitly political conclusions.

But, being universal in scope, the broad frame of reference of an etymological approach can only take us so far. We need to make sense of why specific moderations were invoked in specific ways, through specific words, in specific contexts and for specific reasons. In short, we need to learn to think historically about moderation, not only, or even primarily, to make sense of its past, but rather to rethink it in the present, and recast it into the future.

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