When we hear the word ‘extremist’ we envision loud, angry, vitriolic tirades. We envision rage filled belligerent protests. We envision threats of violence and persecution. We envision lethal acts of violent terrorism. These are all certainly examples of extremism and horrifying ones at that but they are manifestations of extremism not definitions of it. They are what happen when extreme ideologies meet extremist modes of thinking and perceiving.
An extreme is something which is at the outermost reaches of a given spectrum. The farther away from the central norm the greater the extreme. This applies to any spectrum of any kind, including any form of physical or behavioral phenomena. Minus fifty degrees Celsius is extremely cold as plus fifty degrees is extremely hot. Two feet tall is extremely short for a human as eight feet is extremely tall. Brushing your teeth twenty times a day versus brushing them only once a year are extremes of behavior. All spectrums have their central norms and their outer extremes.
When we add –ism or –ist we move from simple occurring phenomena to deliberate actions. They denote a particular way of perceiving and approaching things, a specializing or intentional narrowing of focus putting the target of that focus at the heart and center of all considerations.
1: a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory
2: an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief
1: one that adheres to or advocates a (specified) doctrine or system or code of
To be an extremist does not automatically mean being explosively angry or violent nor does it require fixating on ideas or perceptions which are out at the drastic ends of a given spectrum, though that is what we most commonly associate it with. Extremism is the act of not just fixating on a central focus but the willful, stubborn, arbitrary, and vehement narrowing of the focus to the point of deliberate exclusion, delegitimizing, and even outright denial of anything and everything outside of that narrowed focus.
It may sound odd but even the most central and commonly shared aspects of a spectrum can be treated with extremism. Take freedom of speech for example. Freedom of speech is something the vast majority of us, especially in Western societies, can agree is important and valuable. Freedom of speech in some form or another is written into the constitutions and charters of virtually all developed nations. We agree it needs to be protected as a ‘right’ but we are also all too familiar with the debates, arguments, and intense conflicts which can arise around what should or should not be considered part of that freedom.
Some view freedom of speech as something only a very select few should have access to, and more harmfully that members of particular groups should not. Some view freedom of speech as something which only applies to certain specific topics and genres of information, and more dangerously that certain topics and ideas are irredeemably hazardous and therefore to be entirely forbidden. Some view freedom of speech as an absolute which cannot and must not be hampered or impinged in any way for any reason.
Regardless of how they are presented or which groups or topics fall into which categories all of these are extremist perspectives. Not because they are radical or anarchistic but because they have a very specific and narrowed definition at their focus with counter denials hardwired into them. The moment a perspective begins declaring there is, and only ever will be, one singular definition or answer regardless of circumstance or context that perspective has become extremist.
The image we most often conjure in our minds when we hear words like ‘extremist’ or ‘extremism’, the volatile and violent outbursts, is the result of what happens when this kind of deliberate and aggressive narrowing of thought and perception gets applied to ideas and concepts which are at the extreme outlying ends of a spectrum. An extremist extreme if you will.
The intensely narrowed approach exacerbates the existing stresses and conflicts which naturally arise from the differences and disparities between norms and outliers. Societal norms have a tendency to become tyrannical if even only inadvertently. We have a reflexive assumption that if the majority of people behave a certain way or have a certain characteristic then it is somehow meant for everyone to be the same, which is ironic considering how much we enjoy novelty and value individuality.
The pressure to conform can engender defensive hostility in outliers creating an all too fertile playing ground for the zealously narrowed extremist approach. The experience of an outlier can be difficult and painful giving rise to a perception of an ‘us versus them’ scenario with a small misjudged us versus a sprawling and evil them. A broad sweeping generalization encompassing enormous numbers of people might apply on a massive scale but it is functioning from an aggressively narrow extremist definition.
Once definitions have set in place wherein only one group can be right and the other must be wrong then the game is rigged to fail. The more one group digs in the more strongly the other group presses, both sides convinced the only solution is for the other to acknowledge their complete ‘wrongness’ and reverse their answer to the ‘right’ one. The more emotionally charged the issue at hand, the greater the perceived stakes, the more intense the pressures and conflicts.
But not all extremism manifests in such overt ways. Even when the extremist focus is fixated on extreme ideas and concepts sometimes it can be presented in manners and tones which appear calm, rational, and well-reasoned. The horrifying villains are the one who commit ghastly atrocities with a calm congenial smile on their face.
“Everyone knows that…”, “I’m just asking questions”, “Yes, but what about…” Innocuous enough sounding phrases and in truth sometimes there are precisely that. But they are also small alert flags of potential extremism at work. Who is the ‘everyone’ being referred to? Are they asking questions seeking openly to learn or are they only seeking answers they have already decided on? Are they adding new information to consider or are they dismissing what is being said and restating their existing perspective as the only ‘correct’ one?
The primary function of the extremist approach, whether it is applied to a common or extreme concept, is to narrow the focus to a singular, absolute, inflexible answer while declaring it as rules of doctrine that not only are all other answers and information wrong and invalid but the presenting of them is to be viewed as an attack.
The distanced and overly filtered nature of our virtually dominated world makes it all too easy to distort our views of the world into deceptively narrowed and limited perspectives. Since there is so much information accessible to us online it can be tempting to feel like a cursory glance through a highly directed search has shown us all there is to see. Simply having access to it all is good enough, we don’t actually have to look at it all. The first few links which appear in the search results must represent the majority of the information there is to know.
Even though we are aware of the algorithms which are used to tailor-make and streamline our online activities we are all too quick to dismiss their impact on the information we find online. The algorithms are aimed at enhancing convenience by funneling the information we are presented with towards our already demonstrated interests. The trouble is it warps our lens on the world making it seem more as we already assume it to be than is actually the case.
Thanks to this filtering applied to our social media platforms we are able to find enough other voices with similar ideas to feel vindicated in our fixations. We are able to filter out voices and information we don’t like further reinforcing the perception that conflicting evidence or information does not exist or is less valid. And we feel freed to lash out in defense of our fixated ideas because of the anonymity of online interactions.
Take any large societal issue and it is fairly easy to spot the extremist approach at work on any and all sides. Freedom of speech, Black Lives Matter, abortion, political affiliation, religious affiliation, gun control, anti-discrimination legislation, pandemic safety precautions, grand scale social issues are broad ranging and complex making the desire for a simple answer understandable but the argumentative digging in of heels signature of the extremist approach makes any attempt to find solutions far more difficult not easier.
Whether it appears in deceptively reasonable or belligerent form the key to combating extremism is to not engage. That doesn’t mean not addressing it or not confronting it. It means being alert for inflexibly narrowed definitions and refusing to get pulled into the unwinnable trap of one side being completely right and the other completely wrong.
No answer will ever be that simple, no solution will ever be perfect, and generic appeals to ‘everyone’ as a supporting authority will never be enough to build a workable solution on. Actual solutions can only be found by truly conversing with and listening to one another and looking at as much factual information as we can, including that which might not match with what we would like to see. Demanding others see things exactly the way we see them only leads to battles over who is ‘right’ not actually making progress on the problem at hand.