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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Get to the center and stay there — if you can

As our country struggles to overcome division and dysfunction, it seems the only thing harder than finding the center is staying there.

For one thing, the worlds of politics and media — which revolve around communication — were not built to accommodate centrists. Much of our political discourse involves extremists bickering with one another and turning a deaf ear to opinions that differ from theirs.

Then there’s the fact that a lot of people try to pull you off your perch. Perhaps because those who make camp at the extremes are often insecure about what they believe, some feel the need to recruit centrists to their side.

And finally, there will always be those who — because they have such limited experience with those in the center — totally misunderstand what it means to travel down the middle of the road.

To borrow a phrase from “Cool Hand Luke,” what we’ve got in the United States today is a failure to communicate. And sometimes, ironically, even professional communicators fail to get their point across.

I’ll plead guilty. When you’ve been in a sustained conversation with readers for more than 20 years, you assume that your audience knows exactly where you’re coming from and has at least a basic understanding of what you do. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

I’ve written more than 3,000 pieces positioning myself in the political center, but a longtime reader recently urged me to write “better balanced columns.”

That admonition bothered me. Not because I shouldn’t aspire to write better columns. Every columnist should. We can always improve.

It was the “balanced” part that got under my skin. Where is it written that columns are supposed to be balanced and present all sides of every issue? Or that the best opinion pieces are of the “on the one hand … but on the other hand” variety?

That might be fair. But it’s also boring and wishy-washy. And it’s not what impactful opinion writing is all about. Whether you’re on the right, on the left or in the center, you have to start with a strong and confident point of view. Deep thought is essential. You can, and should, consider other perspectives. But, in the end, you must be clear about exactly what you believe and explain precisely why you believe it.

Readers don’t have to agree with you. Columnists are not in the persuasion business. Anyone who thinks otherwise is confusing us with trial attorneys. We’re in the provocation business. Our job is to make you think and get you fired up enough to go change the world — if that’s your thing.

Having a strong opinion is a hard and fast rule that also applies to those of us who dwell in the center. There are a lot of paths that will get you to the center. You can get there by wrestling with complex issues and not thinking in terms of all-or-nothing solutions, or by despising both political parties and refusing to vote a straight ticket, or by avoiding the extremes and searching for compromise.

Still, however you get there, being in the center doesn’t give you a free pass from having to take strong positions. One of the best ways to get to the center is to have strong views on a variety of subjects, based on facts and common sense, without being hemmed in by ideology.

It’s fine to eschew labels and just follow your heart on a case-by-case basis. In what now seems like a bygone era, it used to be OK for a person to be liberal on abortion but conservative on gun control. It was once fine for someone to be conservative on immigration but liberal on trade. Back then, no one raised an eyebrow at those who were liberal on climate change but conservative on criminal justice. These aren’t contradictions. They’re the things that make people interesting.

Now, the rules appear to have changed: Loyalty and consistency are what matter. These days, no one likes surprises. Americans are expected to be 100 percent “conservative” or 100 percent “liberal” all the time.

That’s ridiculous. Such a simplistic and unreasonable demand runs counter to our natural impulses. Humans are much too complicated to be penned in by labels. We’ll always resist.

And while we might not always act like it, columnists are human, too.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.

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