The Middle Ground of Two Extreme Positions is Also an Extreme Position

in #life7 years ago

TL;DR When we define compromise as the middle ground of two extremes, we don't actually encourage compromise, we encourage ever more radical extremes!

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 9.04.00 PM.png

Read on to understand what the hell this chart is describing...

Disagreement Is Good

I'm a big fan of arguing- as none of my friends are surprised to hear- because disagreement is the first step to acquiring new knowledge.

More often than not, when I'm caught between two conflicting sides I find myself defending some middle ground position. I tell myself it's because I'm a good problem solver, but really it's probably because in the middle I can argue with two people at once! Muhahaha!

Ahem. Back on topic. While disagreement itself is healthy, polar-end arguments rarely are. It's easy when faced with two extremes to assume that any 'middle ground' argument is inherently more rational. But that's simply not true. By definition, the middle ground between extremes is a very, very large area, and while the vast majority of people's beliefs will fall somewhere along the middle ground, not every middle ground position is reasonable.

Internal Consistency: Nature's Bullshit Meter

Internal consistency is one of the best ways to measure a position's level of bullshit.

Think competition makes an economy strong but don't find monopolies a problem? Bullshit.

Want to protect consumers but assume obscure government agencies will do this better than companies depending on safe, happy customers? Bullshit.

Arguments without internal consistency are doomed to collapse under their own weight when held up to the rigor of the real world. At polar extreme positions on almost every issue, internal consistency breaks down- as we'll discuss in a moment. But that doesn't necessarily mean that internal consistency increases as we approach the mid-point of two extremes.

The Distribution of Internal Consistency

Let's use a very relevant argument in my country of birth, the United States, as an example: gun control.

On one end of the spectrum you have a small minority who argue there should be no restrictions on guns at all.

On the other end of the spectrum you have a small minority who argue guns should be entirely banned, no exceptions.

Regardless of which is closer to what you personally believe, when you examine each extreme's internal logical consistency, both fail the bullshit test.

If no gun controls at all is meant to protect the rights of law abiding Americans, how do you prevent the mentally ill, known felons, and terrorist sympathizers from purchasing guns to trample all over those very rights? Bullshit.

If banning all guns is meant to protect the lives of law abiding Americans, how do people defend their lives in their own homes? Bullshit. (Sadly, we certainly can't trust our police to defend us).

But what about the middle ground between the two? The exact middle ground argument would be to ban half of gun sales or for half of the population. But how does that make any sense?

When we chose a middle ground not by logical reasoning, but merely by the fact that it is the middle ground position, we are being just as arbitrary, illogical, and internal inconsistent as the polar extreme arguments.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 9.04.00 PM.png

As a visual reinforcement, above we have a position's internal consistency measured along the y-axis, and the percent of guns to ban along the x-axis.

  • At ~0% we have the polar extreme of no gun control, which we already saw was bullshit
  • At ~25% we have bans driven by logic, not widespread bans, but logical ones nonetheless, perhaps on the most extreme cases like mentally ill, convicted felons, and automatic weapons
  • At ~75% we have bans that are more severe, but also still driven by logic- perhaps on all types of weapons except those practical for home defense, and only legal within the home
  • At 100% we have the polar extreme of banning all guns in all circumstances, which we already saw was bullshit

But what about the middle ground? Well at ~50% we have bans that are completely arbitrary. Why 50%? How did we get this number? How do we hit this target? By using the average of two extremes we arrive at a an argument which requires inventing reasons to back into a target destination, instead of using reason to arrive at a logical proposal. Such 'compromises' make no sense, are not internally consistent, and are ultimately doomed to collapse.

In other words, the exact middle ground of two extreme arguments is not a rational compromise, it is actually an extreme argument itself!

The Middle Ground Fallacy

This hopefully doesn't need to be said, but this should not be taken to mean all middle ground arguments are bad. Middle ground arguments driven by logic are vastly superior to extreme arguments, because extremes are driven by irrationality.

Yet middle ground arguments driven by averaging two extremes are not superior, because they are not driven by logic, they are driven by extremes!

The pervasive over-simplicity of "let's just pick the middle ground compromise and all get along" is dangerous, because not only is it ineffective and irrational, it actually encourages supporters of the extremes to become even more extreme!

If compromise is determined not by logic, but by the extremes themselves, shifting your side to a more extreme position makes the compromise lean more towards what you actually want, while still appearing neutral.

When we define compromise as the middle ground of two extremes, we don't actually encourage compromise, we encourage ever more radical extremes.

The Right Kind of Middle Ground

No one is saying social arguments are easy to resolve, but this point is important to remember not just for social or political disagreements, but also arguments with our friends, significant others, and family. When we get into a disagreement with someone we care about, we could all benefit from resisting the urge to leap to the exact middle ground simply for it being middle ground, and take the time to consider the reasoning behind both people's stances and working out an internally consistent logical solution.

Why? Because though they require a bit more thinking and effort, logic driven compromises almost always work out better for both parties in the long run.

For example, maybe we accept a bare minimum of gun control- banning sales to the mentally ill (this is at least logical, though perhaps not optimal), and as a compromise we rollback an expensive 'Obama-care' item- but not one impacting mental health care (again not ideal, but at least internally consistent).

Notice what happens when we find a true compromise- we create synergy. Not only did we limit gun sales to the mentally ill, we also increased our ability to identify and treat those who are mentally ill- our compromise increased the effectiveness of our limited gun ban, and helped the health and quality of life for those at the highest risk of hurting themselves and others.

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