A dozen years ago an acquaintance pointed me to a political survey—we each thought the other was a fringe wacko and he was hoping to prove his point to me.  I’m not going to link to the quiz, which still exists, or boast about my results.  But I had some observations I wanted to share.

You’ve probably seen the quiz, it’s called the political compass and ranks you on two scales, first the eternal left vs right scale and then on a scale of authoritarian vs libertarian.  Turned out I was slightly to the right of center and slightly towards libertarian (still am in fact).  I’d come out fairly centrist.  And since many of my friends at the time were liberals, I decided to share the quiz with them.

They didn’t all take the quiz of course, but those that did reported back that they felt it was graded incorrectly because it called them much more liberal than they actually were.  That includes the person in this story, who had flat out told me he was okay with breaking the law to keep republicans out of power.  And he thinks he’s a centrist! I will note that years later I met his sister and discovered why he thinks he’s a centrist—his sister is on a whole other scale of freaky leftists.

This got me to thinking.  Everyone thinks that they are a centrist–their ideas are mainstream and temperate.  This explains, for example, different perceptions of media bias.  Suppose I am at 1 tick to the right of center.  Eric Alterman, author of “What Liberal Media”, might be at 6 to the left (he’s probably further, six is where my aforementioned friend scored).  So if the mainstream media averages out at, for example, 3 on the left, I will see them as liberal while Alterman will see them as conservative.

So if everything is relative, what good is the observation?  Consider this: the perception of extremism can be seen as a distance on the scale from where one person is to where another is.  On the scale in question there’s 21 ticks (10 right … 0 … 10 left).  Let me posit that anyone who is more than, for example, 9 ticks away from you, will seem like an extremist.

By this rule, a true centrist will almost never think of anyone as an extremist, but will be able to see extremists on both sides.  A person more to one side of the scale will never call anyone on their side an extremist but will seem to lob the word freely at a wide range of people on the other side.

In essence, people who use that word, or synonyms, to describe political opponents are simply self-identifying as extremists themselves.  All the time assuring themselves and the world that they are in fact a centrist.