By ANN DUMME'TT
We all know what sort of people Moderates are. They are good. Likewise, we know about Extremists. They are bad.
This division of people into two types is apparently one of those great universal laws of behaviour or so we might think if it were not in fact very easy to verify that actually Moderates and Extremists are fairly recent discoveries on the part of the British press.
The words themselves, of course, have been around for a long time and have been used to describe various kinds of opinion and behaviour. But only in the last few years have commentators taken to categorising everyone in politics according to this simple rule.
If it had happened earlier, it is easy to see how it would have worked. Neville Chamberlain would have been a Moderate in 1938 and Churchill an Ex tremist: the former so obviously a well-meaning man, compromising for the sake of peace as he signed away the people of Czechoslovakia; the latter so' plainly an oddity on the fringe.
History on the whole has vindicated the Extremists, but not always. We do not nowadays admire either the Albigensians or the early Inquisition; we do not exalt the Divine Right of Kings any more than we yearn for the Puritanism that banned Christmas festivities and smashed up much of our medieval statuary and wall-painting.
But those dangerous nineteenth-century Radicals who wanted to stop little children from being forced into factory work are now thought of, not as Extremists, but as ordinary decent people trying to get rid of a cruel abuse. So are the opponents of the slave trade, and the people who marched with Martin Luther King.
If we look back to the early fourth century, quite the most important groups of Extremists in the Roman Empire were Christians and Jews, who would persist in practising their dangerously anti-social religions and refused even to give way to the very moderate demands of the Emperor Diocletian.
All that Diocletian asked was that they should place a pinch of incense on the pagan altar just a gesture. And Diocletian must have been a very admirable politician, for he actually succeeded in getting rid of inflation, partly succeeded in fixing prices, reformed the civil service, greatly increased the efficiency of the police force and rationalised taxation.
Just the sort of man we need now, you might think: but it just happens that we remember the Extremists who refused his demands as saints and martyrs, and Diocletian himself as one of history's vile persecutors. It is the Extremists we admire for their very extremism. The trouble with this labelling of the side you like, these days, as Moderates, and the others as Extremists, is that this labelling stops people thinking. The point of using convenient labels is that their accurate use helps you to understand a situation.
Once the labels are stuck on anything according to the personal preference of the sticker, and without real respect for the meaning of language, they do exactly the opposite: they confuse everything so much that nobody knows what's what.
We might compare the way our political commentators behave with a group of men being given a lot of bottles and packets containing a great variety of food and drink, who make their own task simpler by getting rid of the hundreds of different labels that say "beef," "cough mixture" and so on, and work instead with only three kinds of label saying "Poison," "High Food Value" and "Delicious," One of them, a doctor, puts "Poison" on the strychnine and also on the tinned peas which contain additives he believes are likely to cause cancer. Another, a vegetarian, who sincerely believes meat is bad for everyone, puts "Poison" on the meat packages and "High Food Value" on the tinned peas.
A third, a dentist convinced that sweet things are bad for everyone, puts "High Food Value" on the meat and "Poison" on the dried bananas which the vegetarian has classified "Delicious."
All of these labellers are working honestly; all are causing awful confusion. Because the rest of us need to know what exactly is in each bottle and package and we have no way of sorting out the labellers' prejudices and opinions so as to guess right. The use of a few political labels has become a substitute for actual reporting of the facts behind any dispute. Everyone knows the miners are meant to be divided between Moderates who want to accept the Coal Board's offer and Extremists who want to refuse it: how many people know what the offer was and what are the reasons the NUM leadership gave for refusing it?
Labelling has actually begun dangerously to distort the whole perspective of political views. It lumps together as Extremists the British Nazi Party, Mr Tony Berm, car workers asking for £5,000 a year and the terrorists who planted a bomb in the Tower of London.
It lumps together on the other side, as Moderates, Mr Heath, Mr Roy Jenkins and Mr Thorpe, who actually differ from each other fundamentally on a good many very important issues, together with a hypothetical hard-working majority of university students, any trade union official who is not a Communist and is not at the moment encouraging a strike, and the leader-writers on The Times no matter what they happen to be saying.
Once you have acquired a Moderate label, you can get away with the wildest opinions and actions; once you have been docketed Extremist, anything you say becomes suspect.
There are actually some dangerous extremists about. These include those who bomb the innocent at random and those who in the name of patriotism work up hatred of black people and want, at this moment of impending world famine, to stop all overseas aid and withdraw from the United Nations.
But we must not forget that Moderates can be very dangerous people, even when they are not bad people, which they sometimes are.
And the sooner we can drop the use of these silly and misleading labels. the better for reason and for democracy.