" A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses.
It is an idea that possesses the mind."
It is an idea that possesses the mind."
"Fanaticism is the defense mechanism of doubt." From: Edmund Husserl's Project of "Phenomenology in Ideas."
Hallmarks of extremism include:
- Attempting to change reality and history by propaganda and controlling what is taught in school,
- Setting and policing strict social and/or religious norms,
- Fanaticism (religious and/or secular) and tenacity,
- Putting belief beyond everything else, including factual evidence, logic, and all life forms on this planet,
- An extraordinary faith that confidence is the same as competence,
- Evidence contrary to the extremist view is ignored, denied, or suppressed, and
- People not conforming to the extreme view are often harassed, imprisoned or just murdered.
Extremism permeates all societies and all walks of life. Typically extremism is fostered by the few who believe with passion that they are on the right track. Unless extremism presents a clear and evident danger or damage as it did on 9/11 and events on both sides leading up to it, it is described as a harmless eccentricity or aberration. But is it different--other than in subject matter and degree or harm? We think not.
The extremist persona well fits the Authoritarian Personality -- identified by Adorno, Milgram, Zimbardo, and Altemeyer as explaining the success Hitler had in swaying the German masses to essentially commit genocide, then national suicide. Ironically, Hitler himself identified the Authoritarian Personality as being a Jewish characteristic. See Hitler.
Fundamentalism is the religious extension of extremism and is what we have to deal with today -- on all sides. Some groups such as Heaven's Gate, turn inward and perform mass suicides. Al Qa'ida has the stated goal of killing as many infidels as possible. Whether their fear or anger is directed inward or outward, each type comprises a charismatic Authoritarian leadership and followers of the same mindset.
Extremism can be religious or secular Right or secular Left, or economic as in a plutocracy. Extremism exists in industry and even in education. The persecution of Galileo, the crusades and Stalin's Gulag were extremist expressions. The burning of the "witches" of Salem, and the Oklahoma bombing provide further examples of how extremism permeates societies. Today's perspective of history sees Witch Hunts as terrorism. That was not so true during witch-hunt times.
Democracy is not all that immune to politicizing science. See for example: New Scopes Trials -- The Nation, Eric Alterman & Mark Green.
Extremism certainly has deep emotional roots, deep enough to motivate suicide among terrorists. It is too often not recognized for what it is by those living it.
Institutional extremists, Stalin's Lysenko and and Hitler's Himmler, imposed restraints on progress. Each considerably set back science, engineering, and technology in their totalitarian states. And of course, Hitler and Stalin killed something like 50 million people between them.
Nevertheless, science has its own mini-extremists of a sort--those who avidly pursue demonstrably-wrong ideas for part or even most of their lives. By this definition, one might ask if the stubbornness of Fleischman and Pons in their pursuit of cold fusion of the atom was tainted by extremism. Extremism is indeed a common human condition that arises from fears, biases, and attitudes that their owners are hardly aware of.
Even double Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, seems to have been afflicted with an extremist attitude in his zealous pursuit of vitamin C as a cure for the common cold and other ills. Vitamin C is necessary for and protective of health, but it does not attack disease organisms directly; it helps the body fight off disease while minimizing symptoms in some cases.
Extremist attitudes are most dangerous in politics. When extremist people are also charismatic,--Hitler being a prime example--they can can doom millions.
Extremism has escalated dramatically as a danger to humanity over the last 60 years. See Nuclear Terror and Terror Groups. [The war in Iraq motivated the Iranian mullahs to squash the budding democracy that was coming into being. This event, in fact, escalated the nuclear danger.]
What some commentators have had to say:
Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world's ills, and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all. John W. Gardner
At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols. Aldous Huxley
Fanaticism consists of redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim. George Santayana [The dispersion and rebirth of Al Qa'ida may be a contemporary example.]
Each of the above fits the Authoritarian Personality.
Links to extremism
Causes of Terror
Extremism in Israel
Extremism in Pakistan
NOW and Extremism
Religious Extremism in America
Religious Extremism in Saudi Arabia
Roots of Extremism, BBC
If you have time for only one book on extremism in America, "The Fundamentals of Extremism -- The Christian Right in America," edited by Kimberly Blaker, is a good choice. It provides an excellent description of what is going on. It is exhaustive and well documented.
A second valuable book is Jessica Stern's "Terror in the Name of God.;" since Stern does not discuss the psychological drivers, one might question how fundamental it is. Nevertheless, it is a gold mine of information, unique and thoughtfully presented. Forces she described are not unique or confined to any one culture.
Yet a third book of essentially equal value is Karen Armstrong's "The Battle For God," -- A History of Fundamentalism.
It is probably no accident that the above three books were written by women.
To illustrate current extremism in the US, Blaker's book quotes Pat Robertson:
"When the Christian majority takes over the country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more abortion on demand and no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody to practice it."
His word choices were inflammatory. Their real message is the "Christian Majority" [a euphemism for the radical right comprising no more than about 20% of the US electorate] if in power, would decide what behavior, what color, what ethnicity, what religion, what interpretation of scientific evidence is acceptable. It would decide what is moral, what medicines and medical procedures to withhold (from young women especially), and what is taught in schools for all ages. And all these issues would be decided on myths, not modern logic that has eased and extended our lives while relieving our daily fears dramatically.
What was Robertson thinking? As leader of the "Christian Majority," which is not a majority, Robertson would impose a regressive structure on the most innovative and progressive society the earth has ever known. He would end democracy as we know it--our most basic strength. In other words, Pat Robertson would lead a Protestant Inquisition. In power, he would exercise that right as lord and master--at the expense of the rest of us--and for the world as well. Many Muslim extremists are working hard to restore a Caliphate with exactly these same controls on society.
The difference between the Evangelical Christians and the Muslim extremists is a regard for secular law and the much stronger tendency for the latter to engage in open warfare of the terror variety. Jerry Falwell would be little different from Pat Robertson, but we think he would not agree.
The very term "Christian Majority" itself in this context is propaganda. The implication is that he leads and represents the majority, and, being good little authoritarians, we should vote for him and his kind. Fortunately, the majority of Christians do not buy into such extremism.
Nevertheless, beliefs such as Robertson's are permitted, and his right to have them and to state them are protected by the Constitution. This is true pluralism. That right is addressed and protected by the First Amendment.
Pluralism by definition is the quality or condition of existing in more than one part or form. "Form" (pluralism) of course embraces Asian, Caucasian, and African "races." It embraces Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. Pluralism embraces genetic differences people are born with, such as gender preference, intelligence, temperament, and even "character." It embraces the rich and poor and the various philosophies. Political parties, if there is more than one, are a form of pluralism.
In its scope and control features, Robertson's scenario looks much like Fundamentalist Islam. Evangelical Christians and extremist Muslims alike are digging in their heels in a fight against modernity. Karen Armstrong's:"The Battle For God," -- A History of Fundamentalism, illustrates vividly how this state of affairs came to be. The same trend is there for each monotheism.
Robertson has his anti-counterpart:
"The real differences around the world today are not between Jews and Arabs; Protestants and Catholics; Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it; between those who look to the future and those who cling to the past; between those who open their arms and those who are determined to clench their fists." William J. Clinton, 1997
As Robert Bolton said, "A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses. It is an idea that possesses the mind." Extremism results from just such an idea, and it numbs all objectivity as it enslaves the mind and hardens hearts. The psychology of extremism is complex. In one of its roots, extremism can arise as follows:
[Defense mechanisms arise from successful (healthy) coping with fears. If such coping is long enough in duration or sufficiently fearful, the coping method may go underground, below our awareness. In later life, when dealing with similar stressful situations, they take over the way we relate and do so in ways detrimental to the mechanism's owner, much less humankind. Fear is at the root of defenses and so it is with fanaticism and extremism. - Ed].
See Authoritarian Personality, Fundamentalism, Humiliation, and Suicide Terrorism for more on extremism:
Posted by RoadToPeace on Saturday, July 16, 2005.