Pathological centrism, the barrier to reform | HBR Talk 70


The concept of centrism is explained by as “a tendency to avoid political extremes by taking an ideologically intermediate position.” The article goes on to point out that “Political centrism is... by definition a relational concept,” basically because what constitutes the “center” of a spectrum depends on where the ends are.

A centrist, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person who holds moderate views,” is not necessarily wrong. For instance, the center position between complete pacifism, and an aggressive warmongering police-dog position in which a country (like the United States) gets militarily involved in other nations’ conflicts to promote its own interests, would be to take the position of supporting military preparedness, with the stipulation that force would be used “only in the nation’s own defense against a direct and compelling attack.” Such a position would probably be looked at as pacifism by warmongers, but as warmongering by full-on pacifists. In reality, it would be more balanced than either of those… sort of a sleeping-dog position.

But what if there were no pacifists? 

In a world where the spectrum of ideas regarding military force was self-defense-only vs aggressive meddling to promote the nation’s interests, what would be the centrist position? Quite likely, it would be a standard regarding which of the nation’s interests merited aggressive meddling, vs which cases of meddling would be considered overreach.
But the outlook would still be pro-meddling… sort of a junkyard-dog position.

And what if there were no aggressive meddlers?

In a world where the spectrum was no military force vs direct self-defense only, what would be the centrist position then? That would likely be a standard regarding how much external aggression and meddling the nation should tolerate before responding with military force, vs which cases of self-defense would be an over-reaction.
But the outlook would still generally oppose the use of military force... sort of a dog-that-sleeps-with-one-eye-open position.

Were the two faux centrists to encounter each other, each would consider the other an extremist for being outside their considered spectrum of ideas. They’d both be wrong. Calling a position centrist doesn’t determine what is actually extreme.

Functional centrism wouldn’t necessarily be a point on the grid, but instead a selection from the full spectrum of ideas, promoting the beneficial & rejecting what’s counterproductive. What if a nation was largely pacifist, and mostly practiced non-interference, but openly kept apprised of building threats, and openly displayed its capacity for force as a deterrent? How would the world have been different, if America were always the dog that sleeps in the sun, with one ear to the ground, and one eye open? How would the lives of men have been different?

What would be the centrist position between that, and where we are now? Would it be better by virtue of taking the middle ground?

The laziest centrism of all is what I’d call pathological centrism.’s definition of the word pathological includes “caused by or evidencing a mentally disturbed condition,” and cites hoarding as an example, indicating that useful behavior (like storing some extra resources in case of an emergency) can become evidence of a mentally disturbed condition if overdone or done to a detrimental degree. Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word includes “being such to a degree that is extreme, excessive, or markedly abnormal,” and cites “pathological liar” as an example. Both fit my usage here.

Pathological centrism is centrism taken to an extreme or excessive degree, wherein the condition of being centrist is more important to the individual than following the principles of functional centrism, such that it becomes detrimental to rational assessment of the merits of political ideas, often out of an irrational fear of being associated with tribalism. In the face of conflicting beliefs, the pathological centrist seeks to find a comfort zone regardless of the implications of the ideas he or she espouses. This usually involves ignoring nuance that differentiates between the natures of generally opposing positions, to focus on their labels, or oversimplified strawmen of their outlooks.

Where do we hear this the most?

“MRAs and feminists are just two extreme sides of the same coin!”

You guys know the drill:

“‘The’ MRA is just a backlash against feminism!
You both say the same things!

You’re just as bad as they are!
You’re both wrong!

Why do we need a male version of feminism?
MRAs just want to take away women’s rights!
Oh, so you think MEN are the ones who are oppressed!”

And then there’s the notorious, “Yes, feminism has made a mess of things, but Men’s Rights isn’t the answer!”

I especially love when I ask people who throw that last one at me, “Yeah? Well then, what is the answer?” and they respond with a description of the general goals and interests of the men’s rights movement. 

That betrays a partial basis for their pathological centrism: inaccurate views of the movements themselves. Many people see feminism as a women’s rights movement that has spent the last century fighting to reform law, policy, and social conditions under which our male-dominated society has been oppressive to women, and has only recently gone too far because they just didn’t realize when they’d achieved everything they originally set out to do. That is probably the most common misconception I hear about the movement. It’s not always held out of ignorance, either, but sometimes a result of willful blindness.

Many of the same people have no idea why there is a men’s movement, much less what it entails. It’s a very uncomfortable thing for them to examine, once they do begin to find out what men’s issues are. It’s often even harder for folks to confront the fact that any need for reform exists because of laws in place today as a result of past feminist lobbying. Accepting that means accepting that in women’s name, feminists persuaded our society’s leadership to throw men under the bus. The next logical step is to wonder, how did we let this happen?

That’s ugly, and it comes with a built-in guilt-trip that your average citizen doesn’t want - might not even be equipped - to take. 

So we encounter people who can’t, or who won’t. They put on their blinders, duck their heads, and limit their perspective to view the two movements as opposite ends of a continuous political spectrum, a zero-sum human-rights game between the sexes, each fighting to get law and policy passed to “reserve all the rights” for their sex, while denying the other. 

Their avoidance-response to reform advocacy often takes the form of drawing false equivalence between damage done and measures taken to repair it, or at least to stop it. “You’re the same! You both advocate for changes to law and policy using the victim label!” Not only are they incorrectly equating recognition of wrongness to victimhood, but they’re also incorrectly labeling all victimhood invalid. This is much like demonizing a long-bullied kid at the park who finally stands up for himself, calling him equally violent, and demanding that he stop. But what would happen if he did? 

The truth is not so simple as these particular critics would like. The described law and policy already exists, created in women’s purported interests, operating to men’s detriment. Attempting to dial it back isn’t aggression. It is defense against the damage it is currently doing. If activists working toward reformation give up because they’re being accused of doing that which they’re attempting to undo, what happens? The bad laws remain, and the damage continues. 

The picture the pathological centrist misses here isn’t just bigger. It’s entirely different. It’s not even all along a straight line. Feminism and the men’s rights movement both touch on another spectrum; full recognition of and legal consideration for human rights, vs a totalitarian society in which no consideration is given to human rights at all. That lives in a political environment in which the preferred manner of defending and promoting human rights considerations is under debate along other axes: Authoritarianism vs anarchy, collectivism vs individuality, altruism vs self-interest. And all of that is housed within the context of common understandings of what constitutes a human right… and those understandings have been constantly in flux throughout the evolution of human civilization.

Our conflict isn’t over whether one sex or the other deserves greater recognition of their rights, but over whether the concept of human rights should be gendered, or universal. Feminists have pushed for a gendered outlook on human rights, wherein excluding men and boys from consideration, legal protections, legal recourse, and social accommodation would be accepted whenever doing so would advantage women. Men’s rights activists aren’t pushing for the polar opposite, but for an outlook that includes both sexes, and involves rational discussion on human rights. MRAs do not seek to flip the sexes regarding exclusion from the human rights dialogue, but simply to bring men and boys into it. We recognize that a condition defined as a human right must apply to all human beings. If it cannot be applied to all humans, it’s not a human right, but a special privilege. Human rights merit protection as part of the general social order. Special privileges do not. For this, we get called extremists by both feminists and pathological centrists.

Like feminists, the men’s movement isn’t a monolith, but unlike feminists, we should be able to admit that we have that one, central pillar around which we can unite. And based on that pillar, we can, as a movement, maintain enough common ground to advocate for legal reform. 

We don’t all have to agree with the current relationship between marriage and the state to be able to agree with each other that family law shouldn’t incentivise one sex to initiate divorce and engage in malicious prosecution. 

We don’t all have to be rugged individualists to recognize that a falsely accused man isn’t made guilty by virtue of other men’s criminal acts. 

We don’t have to consider men victims of everything to recognize that areas of law and policy that do discriminate constitute a raw deal. 

And we don’t have to wear masks that other people slap onto us to give themselves the illusion of having properly understood and accurately judged us. We don’t have to be chained down by misconceptions, or discouraged by lies.

We have enough to handle combatting the propaganda of junkyard feminists who aggressively hate on the movement because they don’t want to lose their advantage. I’ll be dog-gone if I’m gonna sit by while people do it just to make themselves more comfortable.

Talk about barking up the wrong tree…

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