I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
For extremists, their world view is binary; you are either with us or against us, there is no middle ground. J.M. Berger has studied extremists extensively and he has written that “Extremists believe the ‘other’ must always be opposed, controlled or destroyed because its intrinsic nature and existence is inimical to the success of the extremists’ own group.”
What Is Extremism?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu defined extremism as “When you do not allow for a different point of view; when you hold your own views as being quite exclusive, when you don’t allow for the possibility of difference.”
During a World Science Festival in 2019 a group of panelists was asked to define extremism.
Jay Van Bavel is an Associate Professor of Psychology & Neural Science at New York University. He said extremism “means that someone has a very rigid, dogmatic belief system, and they've started to see the world in black and white and lost any sense of grey . . . They see themselves as virtuous defenders as some set of values.”
Child psychologist Katherine Porterfield has worked with people who have suffered torture. For her, extremism also occurs in people with black and white viewpoints “that veers towards ideas of violence, or at least oppressing the rights of others.”
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talked about how extremists “do things that seem possibly incredibly self-destructive. People are willing to face arrest, people are willing to face violence. People are willing to even blow themselves up. Those are acts so far beyond our own self interest, we tend to label those as extremisms.”
How Are Extremists Created?
Before anybody starts on the path to extremism, there has to be a grievance, real or imagined. Economic inequality, low self-esteem, human rights abuses, perceived injustice, failed relationships, and exclusion are some of the triggers that make someone dissatisfied with their lot in life.
For most people, that's where it ends; they settle for what they have even though they feel they have been unfairly treated. Others begin to take a few steps further. The Action Counters Terrorism group notes that if people “already feel alone this can lead them to seek new solutions or behaviours to try and cope.”
They find like-minded people on social media where they gripe to one another. This provides a negative feedback loop that strengthens their bitterness and anger. They are now primed for radicalization.
Extremism can be “understood as a product of group dynamics—the belief that one’s own group cannot succeed or survive unless it is constantly and unconditionally set in opposition to another group.”
J.M. Berger, author of the 2018 book Extremism
Extremists are very clever at spotting people who are vulnerable to being radicalized. They package their messaging in such a way as to make the target feel they belong in this group. They are told the things that have gone wrong in their lives are not their fault; blame for failure is pinned on whoever the particular group hates.
People do not emerge from the womb as extremists, they get to that position through a gradual process that ends with indoctrination and commitment to radical action.
The Action Counters Terrorism points out that “It can happen to anyone regardless of how old they are, where they live or their background. It can be a gradual process or it can happen very quickly, ending with an adult or child being drawn into harmful activities or groups. The person at risk might not even realise they are being radicalised.”
Once the group has been recruited, usually by unscrupulous people who have an agenda of their own to promote, the time has come to light the fuse with inflammatory speeches and stand clear.
What happened in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 was the culmination of years of preparation.
History of Extremism
There's nothing new about extremism, and it has existed throughout recorded history. The internet didn't create the phenomenon, it just made it easier for the virus to spread.
- Two thousand years ago, a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots called the Sicarii made it their business to violently oppose Roman occupation of Jerusalem.
- In the seventh century of the Christian Era, the new religion of Islam had to cope with the Kharijites. They engaged in acts of violence against fellow Muslims who they believed had strayed from the true path of their faith.
- During the Middle Ages, Christian Crusades were launched against non-believers and the Spanish Inquisition tortured and executed people suspected of apostasy.
- In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors slaughtered or enslaved Indigenous South Americans under the extremist ideology that as superior beings they were entitled to carry out these atrocities.
- The rise of white supremacists such as the Ku Klux Klan is founded in the extremist belief that one group of people holds a natural superiority over all others.
- Anti-Semitism has a very long history, but it reached extreme depths of depravity during the Holocaust of the 1930s and '40s. That particular extremism lives on today within many neo-Nazi groups.
- More recently, we have seen the extremism of groups such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Irish Republican Army in the United Kingdom, the Front de Liberation du Quebec in Canada, and the Proud Boys in America. Of course, there is a wide variety of extremists operating under the Islamic banner. The CIA lists dozens of such organizations from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and al-Qaeda to the Islamic State and al-Shabaab. Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center says that in the United States “We track more than 1,600 extremist groups operating across the country.”
A Satirical View of Extremism
In the 1990s, comedian John Cleese released a video satirizing the advantages of extremism. As with all satire, it works well when there's more than a grain of truth in it.
John W. Bailie, Ph.D, is President of a private university in Pennsylvania. He provides us with a shorthand look at the essence of Cleese's thesis by pointing out that “the primary benefits of extremism consist of:
- Providing moral justification for otherwise immoral behavior;
- The promise of easily obtained self-worth derived from simply adopting the 'correct' ideological views; and,
- Projecting blame for all of one’s fears, failures and/or insecurities onto an external threat (usually a group of people).”
- The word “extremist” first emerged in about 1848 and was coined by U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster. He used the word to describe both the defenders of slavery and those who attacked slavery.
- According to the FBI, violent extremism means “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.”
- In 1963, U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater was nominated by the Republican Party to run for President. In his acceptance speech he said “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And, let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
- “Exploring the Root Causes of Extremism.” Barry Hart, initiativesofchange.org, August 1, 2016.
- “What Are the Causes of Extremism?” actearly.uk, undated.
- “Terrorist Organizations.” The CIA Factbook, 2021.
- “President's Blog: The benefits and Pathology of Extremism.” John W. Baillie, Ph.D, International Institute for Restorative Practices, September 20, 2017.
- “A Brief History of Extremism – from Ancient Rome to al Qaeda.” J.M. Berger, BBC History Extra, August 5, 2019.
- “Hate and Extremism.” Southern Poverty Law Center, undated.
- “The Roots of Extremism in Your Brain.” World Science Festival, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor