Recently, I have been doing some interviews for my new book, Authentic Selling: How to Use the Principles of Sales in Everyday Life. One of the key tenets of the book is empathy. Last year, after the pandemic had just begun, I was motivated to write the book due to what I perceived to be a worsening political dialogue in our country. Quite frankly, I was tired of going on social media and seeing people calling each other racists or snowflakes or stupid, dumb, or evil, among many other things. For one thing, this is not an effective strategy in getting other people to adopt your ideas. For another, it is rude and offensive. I thought to myself, “most people do not have much sales acumen to be talking to each other this way. If they had some sales acumen, they would be more interested in listening than in being right. They would be interested in having empathy, not anger and frustration.”
About a month ago, I did an interview for a professional development organization for salespeople. The interview went well and received overwhelmingly positive feedback, except for one commenter who noted that I could only position an argument about embracing empathy due to my being “a straight white male who went to Princeton.”
Notwithstanding that this individual proved my entire point about empathy by making an assessment about me based on immutable traits about me (e.g., my skin color, gender, and sexual orientation), I was actually encouraged by this organization to do anti-racism research. Again – this is because I positioned myself as being “politically moderate” and for believing that we should try our hardest to extend the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we disagree. I feel that I do not need to elaborate on the absurdity of all this, but the reality is that there are many people these days who may agree with the listener who criticized me, who, knowing nothing about me except the aforementioned data points, would rush to their own conclusions that suit their preconceived narratives and political agendas.
There is a big misconception, I think, in what it means to call yourself a centrist. People I interact with who consider themselves “left-leaning” or “right-leaning” often view centrism as a cop-out for not having any conviction in an idea. They feel that it means you play the middle in all issues and that you revel in feeling smarter than others for having a more nuanced way of tackling a specific issue. That interpretation misses the point altogether.
In today’s political dialogue, we seem to be divided into factions. If you are on Team Blue, there is a prescribed set of ideas for you across all issues that everyone on your team aligns with. The same can be said if you are on Team Red. However, if you are not on a team, and you consider yourself a centrist (like I do), what it actually means is that sometimes you align with the beliefs of one team and sometimes you align with the beliefs of the other, depending upon the particular issue. In other words, it means you think for yourself, and you do not succumb to a prescribed platform. It means you do not embrace groupthink.
For example, I have always been pro-Israel. It used to be a liberal idea to be pro-Israel, and somehow, it has become a conservative idea to be pro-Israel. I am staunchly in favor of freedom of speech, which, again, was always a liberal value, but has now suddenly become a conservative value. These issues and others – when compounded – make me something of a cultural conservative.
I have supported the LGBT movement since before it was even “cool” to do so. My older brother is gay and he came out of the closet my freshman year of high school, in a time when homophobia was widely acceptable. I went to an all-boys high school where, at the time, homophobia was ever-present, and I had no problem being proud of my gay older brother. Many of my classmates expressed their homophobia towards me, knowing full well about my family situation. I support universal healthcare and I raised thousands of dollars for George Floyd’s Memorial Fund after his tragic murder. These are things that generally would garner more support from liberals than conservatives.
My point here is simple: centrism isn’t about not being too weak to take a side on a specific issue. It’s not even about pointing fingers at both sides. It is about thinking freely, being aware of bias, and drawing conclusions because they are the things you actually believe in, not the things you think you are supposed to believe in. I cannot overstate how hurtful it is to be accused of apathy for social justice causes simply because I identify as a centrist. I do more actual work to improve the conditions for people in need – generally speaking – than some of those who levy such charges.
To be sure though, it is also true of those of us who identify as centrists that many issues are viewed as complex and require a solution that recognizes the need to fashion a compromise solution. For example, I am in support of tightening gun legislation to enhance background checks and to remove automatic weapons from the market. But I also recognize and honor the Constitution, and the mere fact that for many people, some guns are necessary for their way of life – like hunters, for example. This type of viewpoint does not meet the proverbial liberal or conservative view –– it is simply a nuanced perspective. What frustrates me as a centrist is seeing people I know on either side resort to what I believe are simplistic solutions. Simply for introducing some complexity or a level of thoughtfulness, centrists are wrongly dismissed as cowards. This misses the point entirely and if anything, encourages people to think less for themselves and to simply do what they are told.
I should clarify one last thing before I close. If someone tends to have strictly left-leaning or right-leaning views and they are truly thinking for themselves all the time when adopting those opinions, then all the power to them. I just find that incredibly difficult these days. We are victims of what the media forces down our throats, and we often self-select what we choose to see and choose not to see. We choose our friends, podcasts, television shows, and pretty much everything else accordingly. We are protective of our own ideas, after all. Most human conflict throughout history was the result of some sort of disagreement over religion, governing philosophy, race, creed, or what have you. In other words, we have a way of wanting to protect our own ideas rather than to challenge them. The net effect is that we really all have a tremendous bias in how we form our ideas. If we could even begin by recognizing this bias, being aware of it, and adopt a willingness to consider other points of view, it stands to reason we might all be better off.