Political extremism is by definition problematic. Extremism prevents meaningful discussion and debate and it precludes appropriate compromise — something that in a pluralistic society is necessary as only a tyrant can get 100% of what he wants. The rest of us must, discuss, debate, and work with others to find reasonable and workable compromises.
But extremism isn’t simply believing you’re right. Virtually, everyone who has thought about an issue believes that they are right. That’s entirely normal and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Extremism creeps in when you are so sure you’re right that you feel everyone must agree with you, and that anyone who doesn’t must be forced to accept your views. An extremist doesn’t believe he needs to engage in discussion or debate or build support for his ideas by the logic and power of his arguments. An extremist is willing to use the societal levers of power to force compliance. An extremist has no respect for others to see things differently.
We’ve seen extremists kill others that they deem unworthy or to promote their ideology through fear. This, of course, is extremism in its most heinous and obvious form. We’ve also seen extremism when mobs destroy property, kill others, endanger lives, and demand that the rest of us capitulate to their demands as a result of their threats. This too is easy to condemn. But sadly, some won’t condemn this sort of behavior when it is done by people that they see as aligned with their own views.
But there is another more subtle form of extremism that is widely used in America today and stunningly it is used by many who vociferously claim to be fighting against extremism. What is this form of extremism? Labeling everyone with whom you disagree an extremist, and using the levers of societal power to silence, dismiss and marginalize them.
In the extremist’s mind, other views are not merely wrong — they are so wrong and so entirely without merit that the idea must be silenced and the people who hold that idea must be marginalized and punished. Despite all the talk of unity since the election, there is little evidence that unity is actually sought by the extremists. They demand capitulation and compliance.
For the past decade or longer, Americans who believe that a nation must have secure borders and that immigration must be done according to reasonable and fair laws have been routinely called racists and extremists. Many of these positions were bipartisan or mainstream points as recently as a decade ago.
Likewise, Americans who believe that forcibly shutting down the economy and closing schools during the COVID pandemic was unwise, unnecessary, and even unhelpful are routinely dismissed as not caring about health or life, and now even as Neanderthals. Even the science and data that show little if any benefit from the most strict lockdowns is derided and deemed unworthy of public conversation. The extremists decided that such things couldn’t even be discussed by medical doctors and researchers. In the name of science these topics were forbidden — proving that they have no understanding of what science means.
The label “extremist” is not thrown about because millions of Americans are actually fanatical extremists. Generally, their views have some measure of rationality — if you bother to listen. You don’t have to agree with them. You just have to realize that they are not raving lunatics. You might have different priorities and different interpretations of the facts, but that doesn’t mean their views are so utterly stupid that they must be silenced and marginalized.
The truth is the label “extremist” is too often used as a weapon to silence a large segment of the population, or if it cannot silence them, to dismiss them as unworthy of participating in a national debate. Falsely using the label “extremist” to silence, marginalize and delegitimize others is itself an extremist instinct. A rational and reasonable person is willing to discuss and debate the issues. An extremist doesn’t feel the need to discuss or debate because they already know that they are 100% right, that you are 100% wrong, and that you must be silenced.
This is done daily online with ideological bullies like FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter and Google. The so-called fact checkers label false and misleading almost anything that they disagree with. The “fact checkers” tend to do this zealously to one side, but are more tolerant of the “satirical” or “metaphorical” posts of those they generally agree with. I’ve also noticed that their claims of wanting to provide more “context” is disingenuous because they seem to provide said context mostly for the views with which they disagree and rarely for the ones that support their bias.
Sadly, many of the so-called fact checkers have extremist instincts, and exercise those instincts daily — all while telling us that they are combatting extremism.
The entire point of a debate is to allow both sides to make their best case. If both sides make good cases, great. If one side makes a good case and one does not, that’s good too. It all helps inform the public. But when fact-checkers try to intervene and declare one side is correct, they are simply short-circuiting the debate process. That is far more dangerous than most appreciate — particularly when it is so clearly politically motivated.
I’ve recently seen how this type of extremism can even encourage violence. My mother, also a great grandmother, attended a sign wave during the presidential election, along with about a dozen other senior citizens.
Only a few minutes after gathering, a very angry man in his 20s or 30s stormed over, ripped the signs out of their hands, and shouted threatening profanity while denouncing the senior citizen’s support for the then-current President. My mother asked for her sign back and he hit her so hard that he knocked her to the ground and she lost consciousness. Fortunately, police were nearby and stopped the man and arrested him. My mother has since had surgery to repair her arm that was damaged in the politically motivated attack.
This man was so sure that he was 100% right and that my mother and the others were so completely wrong, that he didn’t need to engage them in a discussion because they were not worthy of a discussion. The online bullies and the media bullies taught him that he needn’t respect people who supported that man. So he decided it was acceptable to steal their signs, physically intimidate them, and assault them.
Additionally, a week or two before the election, I got a call from a concerned citizen warning me that an extremist group with a history of organizing and promoting mob violence had created an online interactive map that was marked with targets that they were directing their groupies to “visit.” I learned that my name and address were marked on the map as a “target” to help the angry mob find me. Evidently, because I’m a conservative, I am worthy of intimidation, threats and perhaps even violence.
This is extremism at its core. And yet, the self-proclaimed opponents of extremism online and in the media are generally silent. It is now acceptable for people to maintain an “enemies” list for the purpose of preventing political adversaries from finding gainful employment. The people who do this are not silenced or marginalized. But the people they do it to are silenced and marginalized.
We should all stand up for free speech and robust discussion and debate. Let’s oppose violence and intimidation wherever and wherever we see it, and not make excuses for it if its practitioners are sympathetic to us. Likewise, let’s oppose the extremist instinct to silence and marginalize people that we disagree with. Sadly, this form of extremism is alive and well in America and it does great harm to the health of our society.