Based on recommendations from friends and acquaintances, I recently rented and watched the movie Captain Fantastic. It’s a movie about a family who have chosen to live in the wilderness in an effort to avoid the toxic excesses of modern life. They hunt for their own food, live off the grid, and avoid consumeristic and materialistic ways of living. The six kids are highly educated (from quantum mechanics to Maoism), endure military-style physical training, and are completely ruled by their father, who is portrayed as tough-minded but caring towards his kids.
The movie opens with the family getting word that their mother, who is in a psychiatric facility for severe mental disturbances, has committed suicide. The father, despite the fact that he was explicitly not invited to the funeral, decides to take the kids out of the wilderness into the world of modern indulgences in order to fulfill his wife’s last wishes for her burial. Cue the clash of cultures between modern American life and Rousseauian family. They rob a grocery store, celebrate Noam Chomsky as if he’s some sort of Messiah, and crash the funeral armed with the righteousness of their own beliefs. The kids end up at their grandfather’s upper-class home, complete with backyard golf course and enough empty space to raise all of them. The kids, however, are disgusted by the unethical use of space and disgusting materialism of the property. The father is so outgunned by the power of his father-in-law’s wealth that he ponders leaving them in the care of their grandparents.
If I’m being completely honest, the movie is about raising children and specifically about how children are influenced by the strengths, fetishes, and foibles of their parents, but that’s not what I want to talk about. At the end of the movie, the father, Ben, comes to see how his radical behavior has effected his children and his ability to parent his children. The movie closes with Ben and his kids on a small (presumably organic) farm, in a humble farmhouse, and sending his kids to (gasp!) public school.
The message, I think, is that finding something in the middle is probably the best way to go. Large estates are wasteful. Retreating to the wilderness isn’t practical. So, let’s find something in the middle – maybe a small organic farm with no consumer electronics and participation in a community through school activities. The message is that finding something in the middle that you can live with is the reasonable option. If you find something in the middle you can follow your convictions, but you can also participate with power and agency in wider society. The middle is the best of both worlds. It’s the best place to be.
I call this the “Myth of the Middle”, because it’s a societal myth that we tell each other. In just about every discussion on just about every topic I’ve ever listened to, I hear people walk away and say something like “the truth is probably in the middle.” Because we’ve been taught that the middle is reasonable and safe. Honestly, the middle might be an okay place to be sometimes. For instance, you can abstain from alcoholic beverages, or you can be a drunkard. Or, you can find a middle ground where one or two drinks at a sitting is acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Overall, though, there are two problems with the Myth of the Middle. The first problem is that the poles of most debates are movable, and therefore finding this reasonable middle ground is dependent entirely on how you frame the debate to begin with. In the poorly drawn figure below, you can see what I mean. If you start with positions A and B, then “the middle” is substantially different than if you start with positions C and D. In fact, the middle solution in either group isn’t even in the realm of possibility for the other group! Which is the reasonable and safe middle ground? Things can get even crazier if the poles of the debate shrink (E and B below). The middle ground suddenly seems to be more tilted towards one side than the other.
The movie Captain Fantastic falls prey to this. One side is extreme materialism, the other is radical communalism. But the poles were chosen to facilitate the desired conclusion in the movie. The movie Cider House Rules does something similar.
I’ve heard people say that political parties in America have fallen prey to this same way of thinking. When a party tries to become more moderate (moving towards the middle), the opposing party can move their position so that the middle ground more and more favors them. I believe this is evident in the ways the Tea Party and their like have moved the Republican party to the right, and correspondingly, the middle between the parties moves more and more into conservative territory. That’s one of the reasons that I think healthy debate at the wide poles of the issue are a good thing. It’s one of the reasons that Bernie Sanders was such as intriguing candidate in the last election cycle – he pushed the democrats back to the left and forced a rethinking of what middle position might actually look like.
Which leads me to the second problem with the Myth of the Middle – it may not reflect truth. Categories like “best” are subjective, but I think we can all agree we should be looking for the best solutions, not just the middle ground in a debate. The truth often lives outside of the positions that are common in our American life. The truth might be in the middle, but that’s more often a happy accident than a strategic outcome. And yet most people continue to strive for the middle because it’s safe. It makes them seem reasonable. It diffuses the emotions that charge tightly held positions in a debate. It can usually be arrived at quickly. But it’s a false sense of reasonableness, because being in the middle only placates people, it doesn’t usually drive things forward. I’m on a quest for truth, whether or not the poles of the current debate support it. And I’m on a quest to convince people to give up less effective ways of arriving at truth, so that we can quest for it together. This is an arduous quest, it takes time and effort and patience in so many ways, but I’m convinced it’s the way to great things.