The Modern Survival Guide #96
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. My views are pretty moderate, though, and for the most part I think that’s a good thing, especially as we are currently experiencing an upswing in extremist views in the US. Not naming any names, but there’s an orange man in the White House who isn’t helping.
With that being said, it is important for the survival of pluralistic democracy, and therefore very important for your survival and prosperity, that we do not fall prey to extremist ideologies. Any extremist ideologies. There are a bunch of them, but they tend to follow similar patterns no matter which side of the ideological spectrum they fall on. So for the purposes of this article, we’ll be talking about all extremist ideologies as a sort of gestalt mass; you will probably be able to recognize your pet demons in here if you look closely, though.
Let’s get a good description of extremism and figure out why extremism is bad, then we’ll discuss ways to avoid extremist mentalities.
What is Extremism, Anyway?
Extremism is generally defined as holding extreme political or religious views, but when you think about it that isn’t super helpful. What is extreme to you may be normal for me; the concept of “extreme” is based on a consensus opinion that is subject to change. That leaves us in danger of this becoming an “I know it when I see it” subject, so let’s see if we can get a little more precise.
We live in a pluralistic (meaning multiple groups coexisting) democracy (meaning a government system where everyone has a vote) with individual rights (meaning freedoms we think are important enough to enshrine in special law) and freedoms (meaning actions we generally agree should not be infringed upon by others) protected by equal representation (meaning I have all the same rights you do) under the shield of an impartial (meaning not corrupt or biased) legal system.
That’s our starting point, and it’s hard to argue with in general. In terms of specifics, people have been thrashing this out for years, and there’s always, always, always work to be done to get closer to the ideal. But let’s take this as a general starting point and work from there.
An extremist viewpoint is one that disputes this basic set of concepts for ideological reasons of one stripe or another. It’s worth noting that extremism is very much subject to context; things we think are extreme in America may not be viewed as extreme elsewhere, and vice versa. But this is an article for Americans written by an American, so with that caveat, some things to watch for are as follows:
- Rejection of Pluralism: Any group or movement that rejects the notion that we can or should as a general rule coexist with our neighbors is probably an extremist group. “Us versus them” is a theme to watch out for.
- Dehumanization of Opponents: It’s important to remember that in a properly functioning society, people of different ideologies are not supposed to be enemies, they’re supposed to be loyal opponents. “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it,” that sort of thing. So if a group makes a practice of dehumanizing their opposition — casting them as enemies or animals — they are probably an extremist group.
- Rejection of Democracy: Any group or movement that rejects the notions of democratic governance is a de facto extremist organization.
- Rejection of Individual Rights or Freedoms: Any group or movement that categorically rejects the concept of individual rights or freedoms is probably an extremist organization.¹
- Over-Emphasis on Particular Rights or Freedoms: A group that over-emphasizes one particular right or freedom to the exclusion or denigration of others may be an extremist group.
- Rejection of Equal Access to Power: A group that rejects the concept of equal opportunity for representation in government (i.e., barring women or ethnic groups from holding office) is probably an extremist group.
- Rejection of Legal Impartiality: A group that promotes the concept that some laws should only apply to certain groups, or that the same law should apply differently to different groups, is probably an extremist group.
Let’s take a test case: Nazis! I know, I know, it’s always Nazis. But there’s a reason why they’re the go-to case — they are archetypal, they tick most of these boxes, and they’re easily recognizable. That makes them a great example.
Nazis (or in this day and age, neo-Nazis) generally reject the concepts of pluralism, equal representation, and legal impartiality out of hand, while providing archetypal demonization of their opponents. They do this by claiming the whole “master race” bullshit. They reject the concepts of individual freedoms and equal representation by calling for broad impositions of state controls on people they don’t like. And they typically over-emphasize rights of self-defense to justify owning all kinds of weapons.
Nazis are obviously extremists. They’re out-and-proud skinhead marchers; it’s kinda hard to ignore them. It’s the non-Nazis, the quiet groups, that you have to really watch out for, because they’re the ones who sneak up on you.
Why is Extremism Bad?
The core problem with extremism of almost any sort is that it flies in the face of a core tenet of survival in the modern age: the ability to get along with your neighbors. There are simply too many of us, too close together, with too many minor differences, way too many weapons, and far too much destructive potential, to allow groups that foster needless conflict to have a free hand.
If you think about it, a major point of democracy in general, and American democracy in particular, is that we’re trying to build a system in which people live in reasonably harmonious coexistence. There is a very good reason why our system was designed this way: our founders came from Europe, which was a notoriously bloody and repressive place to live in the 1700s. They recognized that systems of government are an important factor in keeping people from ripping into each other, and they designed a system of government which was (for the time) a remarkable attempt to ensure that the citizenry had as few legal reasons as possible to justify hitting each other.²
At this point, it’s important to mention that extremism is always a political statement against peaceful life. It is always an attempt to destroy a system which values coexistence and replace it with a system which does not. And that means that extremism is always dangerous, for three big reasons:
- Extremist organizations will always undermine a democratic system. Extremism is deadly to democracy, and democracy is critical to the maintenance of a stable, peaceful, nation in which citizens can coexist with a minimum of government oppression. If the extremists win, someone is going to be in mortal peril. That someone might very well be you — even if you’re on the side of the extremist movement. After all, people in mortal peril tend to fight back.³
- Extremism is characterized by a rejection of reason and humanity. Most extremists run on ideologies with foundations of hate or fear, neither of which feature heavily in a rational thought process, and deny the basic humanity of their enemies. A country which embraces extremism is therefore embracing a rejection of rational thought processes and humane standards. This tends to have very bad follow-on effects for that nation’s scientific, business, and academic communities, not to mention the citizens’ quality of life.⁴
- Extremism glorifies violence. Extremist groups, as a rule, tend to employ rhetoric that incites their followers towards the destruction of a system of coexistence. This tends to result in the worship of violent acts in the name of the group’s ideology. Terrorist organizations around the world are prime examples of this trait. While violence is sometimes necessary, it is never, ever an act to be glorified or given a place of prominence in any sane society. People who glorify violence tend to employ more of it. If your goal is a peaceful life, this isn’t an ideal state of affairs.
So to sum up, extremism is bad because it undermines the systems and values that make for a harmonious, prosperous society. It’s important to note that this does not matter to the extremists, because their goal isn’t a harmonious society, but rather an exclusionary society, where some people have preferential status and others do not. This makes it rather easy to spot extremists, but rather hard to talk them down.
So here’s the rub: most people who are extremists don’t actually think of themselves as extremists, for much the same reason that most fish would have trouble with the concept of drowning. Extremist converts are surrounded by other people who share similar viewpoints, and they’re exposed to messaging that reinforces their sense of belonging. They’re in the bubble, and everything makes sense to them.
This is partially because most people who are in extremist organisations aren’t really there for the ideology. They’re there because they want to belong to something, and the extremist group picked them up (there’s a lot of overlap between extremist groups and cults). They feel isolated or marginalized in their normal lives, and along comes this organization that tells them they are actually superior, and some nefarious enemy is just keeping them down.
And once they’re in, they have a group that supports them, agrees with them, gives them a community, and gives them a purpose. Few things in life are more dangerous than a lost young person who suddenly finds purpose in the wrong group.
So — we have here the ingredients to make someone an extremist. How then do we combat extremism? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ideas:
- Stop Extremism Early: People become extremist when they are searching for things that society isn’t giving them — purpose, community, and power. Therefore we can all do our part to combat extremism by contributing to school programs and other organizations designed to get young people socially active and interested in cool shit. Robotics clubs, animal rescue organizations, sports, adventure clubs, gaming groups… whatever the activity, if it provides friends, community, and empowerment, it’s a step in the right direction.
- Teach Peace: People become extremists when they haven’t internalized the idea that racism, sexism, and religious intolerance are bad, and that productive dialogue in society is good. If we wish to combat extremism, it is therefore in our interest to ensure that our communities and schools educate people on these concepts, and that we teach our children as well.
- Create Space for Disengagement: Remember why people join extremist groups in the first place — the need to belong. Creating outreach opportunities for someone you think is involved in an extremist group can help them disengage from that group. This might mean inviting them to a volunteer group or church function, or even just extending an invitation to hang out with a different group of friends. Anything that takes them out of the extremist community creates space in their mind for the concept that other ways of being can work.
- Perpetrate Kindness: Every act of kindness pulls the teeth of an extremist’s worldview. There are many, many testimonials of people who were former skinheads or klansmen who got out of the movement simply because a black person helped them out one time. When in doubt, be kind — that’s actually never bad advice.
- Preempt Dangerous Situations: If you know someone in an extremist group, and you think they are about to do something terrible, call the freaking cops. Sometimes combating extremism actually is about shutting down a bad organization before it can do worse things.
- Pay Attention to Prisons: Last but by no means least, pay attention to what goes on in prisons. There are a lot of extremist groups that do their recruiting behind bars. There are also a lot of politicians and interest groups with vested interests in expanding the prison system without much thought to the consequences. Remember, prison in America is a system which actively fosters gang communities for mutual protection. This can change, but only if we vote accordingly.
The End of Extremism
Here’s the thing; like so many other negative aspects of the human experience, there is no “end of history” scenario for extremism. As long as there are humans, there will be extremists. It’s simply how people work. Our job as citizens and persons of conscience is to limit extremism. That should be the expectation, because if we for one moment allow ourselves to believe that there are no more extremists… that’s probably when they’ll take over. Again.
Combating extremism is a major part of modern survival. You can’t get around it. If you’re an adult, part of your duty in life is to do your best to prevent certain things from happening, and extremism is one of those things. And if you read the list of ideas for stopping extremism, you may notice that there is space there for just about everyone.
You don’t have to be a superhero. Superheros do not change the world.
You don’t have to be a miracle worker. Miracle workers are often only good for one miracle.
You don’t have to be rich or powerful. But it sure does help!
All you have to be is a person in the right place, at the right time, with the right message, to pull someone else out of an extremist spiral. And if enough of us do that, the world changes. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and we’re all runners.
And again — when in doubt, be kind. That keeps you from being extremist too.
¹This isn’t to say that groups that disagree on what rights or freedoms mean are extremist. Part of living in a pluralistic democracy with free speech is the bit where we get to disagree with each other on the correct way to live, which almost always eventually leads to a discussion of how far rights go and what freedoms mean. You can disagree on what a right is, and how far it goes, without even coming close to an extremist label.
²The core function of the vote is to provide a measure by which leadership can transition peacefully, thereby decreasing the possibility of civil wars and increasingly the legitimacy of elected governments, while decreasing the odds that our rulers will use their positions to line their pockets at our expense. The whole point of “majority rule, minority rights”-style protections built into our system of government is that most of the time, most of the people are getting most of what they want, but are not seriously harming their neighbors in the process. These two functions work together to radically decrease the potential for political violence in our society, and they have worked pretty well, all things considered.
³For reference, see every single war ever fought by humanity, as well as every single resistance movement and civil conflict.
⁴For example, the Soviet Union was not well known for its biological sciences because its leadership rejected the concept of evolution. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you should probably have a look at the healthcare systems in the Soviet Union.