Part 1. In Which We Tell Jokes
In the iconic scene from Life of Brian, various Jewish sects engage in the following (silly) dispute:
Brian: Are you the Judean People's Front? Reg: Fuck off! Brian: What? Reg: Judean People's Front! We're The People's Front of Judea! Judean People's Front, God! Rogers: Blighters... . . . Reg: Right, you're in. Listen, the only people we hate more than the Romans, are the fucking Judean People's Front. All in PFJ except Brian: Yeah! Judith: Splitters! Rogers: And the Judean Popular People's Front! All in PFJ except Brian: Yeah! Splitters! Loretta: And the People's Front of Judea! All in PFJ except Brian: Yeah! Splitters! Reg: What? Loretta: The People's Front of Judea. Splitters! Reg: We are the People's Front of Judea! Loretta: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front. Reg: People's Front! God... Rogers: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg? Reg: He's over there. All in PFJ except Brian: Splitter!
It is trite to commend the genius of this movie, so I will overcome the urge. Anyways, this short passage captures a common dynamic in the life of political movements, where the movement gets fragmented over time to a degree that seems ridiculous. To drive the point home, consider the following meme:
I was walking home one evening and came upon a clearly depressed man standing at the edge of a bridge, looking like he was about to jump. I called out to him to wait, and ran over to see what was the matter.
“It’s this country,” he lamented. “It’s falling into ruin and there’s nothing I can do about it. The election was the last straw. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”
“Well cheer up,” I said. “We’re all in this together. Say, are you a conservative, or a libertarian?”
“A libertarian,” he said.
“That’s great!” I said. “See, you’re not alone. Are you a free-market libertarian or a libertarian socialist?”
“Free-market libertarian,” he said.
“Me too!” I said. “Paleo-libertarian or neo-libertarian?”
“Paleo-libertarian,” he said.
“Hey, so am I!” I said. “Chicago or Austrian school of economics?”
“Austrian,” he said.
“Me too,” I said. “Hayek or Rothbardian strand?”
“Rothbardian,” he said.
“Same here,” I said. “Are you a consequentialist or deontological libertarian?”
“Consequentialist,” he said.
So I said, “Die, statist scum!” and pushed him off the bridge.
These examples convey a message that it is better for political success of a political movement that the movement will set aside minor ideological quibbles and rather focus on fighting the out-group first. The internal disputes are best handled after we have ousted the communist pigs / socialists do-gooders / libertards / conservative scums.
From the outside—for the people opposing this group—internal fragmentation is clearly better. Israel seems to be benefitting geo-politically, for example, from the collapse of the Syrian army—at least in the short run. So, at least, goes the conventional story.
Part 2. In Which We Make Fun of Stupid People Who Are Totally Not Us
A finding in behavioral psychology (e.g.,), a.k.a. the science of how we are all stupid, is that people make the following curious decision. When presented with a menu of two options, one being more expensive than the second, some percentage will choose the first and another percentage will choose the latter. When the menu adds a third option, much more expensive than the other two, a much greater percentage of people opt for the originally more expensive item. The heuristic at play, it is argued, is “middle option is best.” My take is that this heuristic is actually a byproduct of a balance between the “cheap is expensive” defense mechanism or the anti-indulging/frugality mechanisms.
Basically, then, a sense of middle of the road is a cheap option if you want to minimize regret and analysis. It is the source of the political attraction of center positions in areas such as politics to moral dilemmas. “The truth lies somewhere in the middle” is the slogan of this heuristic-turned-ideology.
Part 3. Where the Maligned Middleman Makes a Comeback
Suppose you really hate those animal rights cuckoos, as you fondly call them. Much to your delight, they are starting to fragment. One sect is “killing animals is terrible, but people need time and convincing”; another is “we are talking about the lives of animals, goddammit, there’s no time to sit idly by when the Man slaughters millions of innocent chickens”; and yet another is “let’s do terrible things in the name of our holy agenda, like bombing factories.”
Now look at your neighbor, who has been making it his religion never to engage in any deep reflection about his beliefs (unlike you!). He really doesn’t feel like going through, nor does he have the capacity to go through, the entire pro- / anti- animal suffering philosophical literature. Instead, he just wants to hold to sensible position. Or as many have put it in the past—“we need more common sense in politics!” And what could be more commonsensical than knowing that the truth always lies in the middle?
But now, as a product of the fragmentation, the middle has changed. It has moved markedly to the other extreme of your opinion. The fragmentation makes the animal-loving cuckoos look so much more sensible and moderate now! This is bad for your Sunday Steak agenda.
If you have not followed the logic presented here, you may be tempted to rally all your friends, from the “it’s OK to eat some meat” group to “let’s dance on the blood of animals,” group and have them unite against the threat posed by the growing acceptance of animal rights. Instead, what you should do is start sowing disputes and claiming that now it is more important than ever to distinguish between eating chickens and eating dogs, and whoever favors the former or the latter is a traitor and an animal lover in disguise.