The Middle of the Road Fallacy
I was arguing politics with my stepdad on Christmas morning. You know how it is. We weren't getting really raucous because we've been through it all before. "See, I don't like extremists on either side," he said. "The ones on the right go to far and the ones on the left go to far."

And then Ma and Melinda wanted to start opening presents, so we set it aside and forgot about it.

...Okay, obviously I didn't forget it or I wouldn't be writing this.

Here's the problem with that old chestnut that says the middle of the road is the best policy, as if you're finding the best of both worlds. Picture a stretch of highway through the southern part of Mississippi. Three lanes wide all going the same direction, and you can't see the other lanes going the opposite way because they let tall stands of trees grow up in the median. It's beautiful, but feels isolating. I wouldn't want to break down in there.

You could drive in the left lane, the middle lane or the right lane. Maybe the left lane seems to have more potholes. Maybe the right lane seems to be the side from which deer and tortoises keep jumping out, and you're bound to hit one if you stay in that lane. It's pretty foggy out, so you might not have time to steer away from a deep pothole or a big deer. (Why are you driving so fast if it's so foggy? Never mind, this is a metaphor. We gotta run with it.)

If you hear two backseat drivers bickering for hours about whether to stay in the left lane or the right lane, you might tell them the best compromise is to stay in the center lane. Anyone who told you to go off the road would just be way too extreme, not even worth listening to.

Great, so we have all eventualities covered. Except what if somewhere up ahead, the road goes over a cliff? What if one of your backseat advisors claims to have deduced from his sources, from his observations, from his memories of this tricky stretch of highway, that the road has been washed out and that following this road for much longer will take you over a precipice? Between the fog and how fast you're going, you'll never be able to stop in time.

If the guy in the backseat could explain his reasons in a clear way, and if they made sense, you might agree that all three lanes are losing propositions and the best option is to go off-road. Maybe we'll get a flat driving along narrow pigtrails, but it might be the best alternative. In that case, are you going to stick with the middle of the road?

That might be a little too silly or abstract, so here's another analogy. You travel back in time in a malfunctioning time machine. Maybe you intended to visit the 1889 Paris World's Fair for the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, you're deposited in a ballroom somewhere in Europe, circa 1940, where 100 Germans loyal to their fatherland, and 100 Italians loyal to Mussolini are having a candid discussion of which country has better policies. You and I might see no difference between the two groups, but these people might find important distinctions between Nazi policies and Italian Fascist policies. As they talk about it more, they might develop a continuum, a line with Nazi policies on one end and Fascist policies on the other. Some people at the ball might feel that the middle ground makes more sense to them for whatever reason. At least if you pick the middle of the road, then you're avoiding the extremes.

The "road" is our acceptable range of options. If the acceptable range of options is between Nazism and original Fascism, are you going to stay on that road or veer off?

Whenever you think of "extremes" and middles of the road, consider who is defining the acceptable range. Shouldn't it be you? If you see some other option that makes sense, should you abandon it because the opinion-making road crews mark it "unacceptable"?

Get to know the road and all the surrounding territory. Stick to the road when it makes sense, but don't be afraid to leave the road or blaze new trails when that makes more sense. Be your own road crew. And don't be ashamed if you're called an "extremist" by pilgrims following the road to absurdity.


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