Where, oh where, has America’s sense of moderation gone?

By: Dru Sefton

Newhouse News Service


I f there was an “endangered virtues list,” moderation would be right near the top.

t’s on the wane in nearly every aspect of society: Right-wing conservatives battle left-wing liberals. Conventional competitions seem mundane compared with extreme sports. Many of us are either on a new diet or super-sizing our junk food. Make-overs used to mean new cosmetics; now they’re surgical reconstructions of faces and bodies.

Is moderation dead?

If so, perhaps it died of old age.

The “earliest known formulation of the idea” is around 700 B.C., according to Fred Shapiro, editor of the upcoming Yale Dictionary of Quotations. Shapiro said the Greek poet Hesiod, in “Works and Days,” wrote: “Moderation is best in all things.”

Moderation was so important that Aristotle deemed it one of the moral virtues — along with the qualities of courage, justice, generosity and truthfulness. But “something rather odd has happened,” said social sciences professor Michael Billig.

“We now live in a world of immoderate discourse.” Billig — author of “Ideology and Social Psychology: Extremism, Moderation and Contradiction,” and on the faculty of Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England — has spent years pondering moderation. Take American Republicans and Democrats. To an outside observer, Billig said, “the parties don’t have vastly different policies. They do have extreme rhetoric.”

Ronn Owens, a radio talk host at KGO in San Francisco, California offered an explanation: “Simple. It’s passion. People on the far right and far left are much more passionate about their beliefs.” So they, rather than moderates, command the attention. Owens may be unique in his profession — he’s a moderate centrist. He’s also author of the book “Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right Are Wrong.”

Many Americans are indeed politically moderate, he added. “But they don’t all think alike. They look at each issue independently.” Thus, they’re tough for the media to cover. A Gallup Poll of 1,004 adults last month revealed 39 percent identify themselves as conservative, 39 percent as moderate and 20 percent as liberal.

AMERICANS ALSO LOVE WHATEVER IS NEXT — the exciting, the novel, the different. That’s why when it comes to nutrition, moderation is a tough sell, said Melinda Johnson, a spokes woman for the American Dietetic Association. Since its founding in 1917, the group has continually stressed moderation, balance and a variety of nutrient-rich foods, said Johnson, a registered dietitian. “To hear that same message over and over is boring,” she said. “It’s just our American way. We love new things” So when her clients want to try a fad diet, perhaps cutting out an entire food group — carbohydrates are the latest fiend— Johnson understands. “I say go ahead and try, as long as it’s not dangerous,” she said. Another dangerous extreme is to ignore good health altogether. The Natural Marketing Institute, a research group based in Harleysville, Pa., released a study in November revealing a nationwide “wellness polarization.” Many consumers, it said, are either “embracing health and wellness issues with fervor ... or abandoning health and wellness in favor of other priorities.” Nutrition science shows, Johnson added, that a moderate diet with a balance of nutritious foods provides the best health. “As dietitians, we’ve kept that message.”

The quest for the new and different also drives the extreme sports phenomenon, said Gerald R. Gems, president of the North American Society for Sport History and professor of health and physical education at North Central College in Naperville, Ill. “Part of it is human nature, pushing boundaries,” said Gems. “We want to see how far we can go.” In physical appearance, that has morphed into extreme make-overs. Forget simple cosmetics advice when TV shows like “The Swan” and “I Want A Famous Face” opt for facial and body reconstruction to achieve the ultimate in beauty.

IT’S RIDICULOUS THE EXTENT WE HUMAN BEINGS WILL GO to just to keep up with the Joneses — or the Hiltons,” said Ashley Rothschild, a Los Angeles image consultant to celebs and CEOs in the film and recording industry. Roths-child has watched over her career of 23 years as clients have gone from requesting wardrobe and makeup assistance to one who is mortgaging a bed-and-breakfast to finance a “total body restructure.”

Elain Murray has also noticed moderation slipping away in the media, such as in the coverage of science issues. He’s a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit Washington, D.C., public policy think tank, who studies the use of scientific data in politics. Academic press releases often stress worst-case scenarios in an attempt to attract more attention, Murray said. He cites coverage of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a project of the World Meteoro-logical Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program. The group has predicted that global temperatures may increase between 1.5 and 6 degrees centigrade between 1990 and 2100. “But you always see reported ‘up to 6,’ you only hear that higher number,” Murray said.  A return to moderation would take work, he said. “We need better critical thinking.  But that may be a lot to expect.”

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