"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
.....—Barry Goldwater, 1964
A couple of days ago, I was watching news coverage of the Republican Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. A reporter offered a minor segment on demonstrators who had been handled roughly by riot gear-equipped local police. The reporter seemed to dismiss the protesters’ views, noting briefly that they were “extremists.”
It was as though he were saying, “they’re just extremists, so we won’t bother explaining their beef with the Republicans.”
Why do we think in this way?
In this country, we seem to use the term “extremist” more or less descriptively: an “extremist” is one who holds a view that is at an extreme on the spectrum of views—with regard to politics, more or less.
I add “with regard to politics” because I do not think that most people would use the term “extremist” to refer to someone who, say, took an “extreme” religious view (such people are dismissed as “cultists”) or someone who, say, took an “extreme” view regarding diet, such as a vegan or “meatarian” (such people are dismissed as eccentrics, not as extremists).
Only some extreme views or activities are labeled “extremist,” then. Someone who seeks to overthrow the government is surely an extremist. A “radical” who destroys banks or sewers is an extremist.
Note that a prolific serial killer or “mad bomber” is not an extremist. Extremists need to have an agenda that is in some sense political or social. Extreme activity is not in itself extremism.
OK, so what do we think about these extremists? Well, clearly, we tend to "think" along these lines:
View (or activity) V is extremist.
Therefore V is beyond the pale.
But such reasoning is plainly defective. Our own (American) history provides ready examples of conduct and thinking that was once widely regarded as “extremist” but that eventually prevailed and is now embraced and insisted upon. Think of abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and so on.
So history—our own history—teaches us that what is “extreme” one day can turn out to be “our way of thinking and living” later on. So why do we simply reject extreme views and philosophies?
One might argue that, though the occasional extremist view turns out to be “true” (or whatever we should call it), most extremist views are exactly as absurd as they seem (to many of us) to be, or at least that is the pattern historically.
I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s suppose that it is. What does the alleged factoid tell us? It certainly doesn’t tell us to reject extremist views out of hand. Doesn’t history tell us that we had better be careful not to assume that things that strike us as extreme and outrageous (or ridiculous, etc.) are really so? After all, in making that assumption, we run the risk—OK, the slight risk—of being among the bad guys—like slaveholders, wife beaters, child exploiters, racists, and all the other monsters we absolutely do not want to be.
It is unwise to run a slight but significant risk of catastrophe. Turning out to be like the KKK is surely a moral catastrophe.
The risk is not like the possibility of being hit by lightning. It is the possibility that we are vicious, that we are not trying hard enough, that we are dropping the ball, morally. If we are in error, then we can detect it; after all, we can think about what is right and good, what is wrong and wicked.
We don’t look back at slaveholders and judge them as simply having different values that were somehow wrong values. Rather, we look at them as in some sense having betrayed or failed to live by “our values.” So if an extremist comes along, we can stop and think about what he or she is saying. We should have the humility to recognize that we (who are not extremists) could be in error—we could be incautious or inattentive or stubborn, etc. We should try hard to live up to our values and not assume that that just happens by itself, without effort or thought.
Well, anyway, I can see no justification for simply rejecting extremist views out of hand. We at least need to think about them. Mill was right, I think, when he said that challenges to our thinking are good, for even when the challengers are utterly wrong-headed, by challenging us, they keep us thinking about the meaning and justification of what it is that we think and do. It's never a good idea to be comfortable, morally.
There is a kind of thinking that pops up here and there in our way of thinking according to which the truth is the middle between extremes. But, again, clearly, that is often not true. Anyone can come up with counterexamples.
People sometimes seem to think that it is not possible that either of the “two sides” in a dispute is totally in error. According to this thinking, when there is a dispute, each “side” has at least a piece of the truth, and, if we are wise, we will identify everybody's pieces.
Think of journalists who value “balance.” They drive me nuts.
Clearly, sometimes, one “side” is indeed fundamentally wrong and they are in possession of no piece of the truth. People who insist that the Earth is flat are very silly or disturbed. I’ve read their arguments. They’ve got nothing. Really. Nothing.
Imagine insisting that we must carefully consider their view in order to find that fragment of truth that they bring to the discussion. Consider Holocaust deniers. Is the truth about European history (from 1938 to 1945) some sort of blend of their take on history and the take according to which the Holocaust occurred?
* * * *
For me and some of my friends, both “sides” in the current contest over who should become President are pretty far off the mark. (For us, one side is regarded as much more benighted than the other; nevertheless, both “sides”—both the Democrats and the Republicans—are viewed as hugely mistaken about priorities and such.) We would argue, I think, that, sometimes, the only remotely acceptable view isn’t even on the horizon for most people.
Sometimes, I suggest that “we” should consider urging people to have fewer children. After all, virtually all of the major difficulties that challenge humanity (and the rest of the world!) are related to high human populations. And if we tweak the rate of children-production just a little bit, we actually lower population very rapidly. It wouldn't be hard to reduce the human population vastly in just two or three generations.
Generally, when I make this suggestion, I am regarded as having said something that is so outrageous that it can be rejected out of hand.
I'm sorry, but I'm onto something here. If we could just get people to see the advantages of smallish families—just as we are trying now to get people to see the value of "green living"—then all sorts of difficulties will be greatly ameliorated. Isn't that obvious?
It is frustrating to have no voice at all in so important a debate.
Another example: prima facie, the jury system, as it now exists, is ridiculous. Why can't voices demanding reform even get a hearing? (I'm not sure this view even qualifies as "extremist." Sometimes, I think that what we tend to reject isn't extremism; rather, it is common sense.)
* * *
I have never understood people's reactions to those who resort to violence in combating abortions. I do not think of (most) abortions as the murder of infants. But if I did think that, then I would be horrified by what goes on in abortion clinics. I would be inclined to use terms like "Holocaust." Why wouldn't I?
And, being intelligent, I would realize that there is virtually no hope that a significant number of my fellow citizens will see the situation as I do—as a Holocaust. I would be placed in a terrible moral predicament, for I would have essentially no prospects of stopping the murders through the political process. I would find myself living in a hellish world of terrible violence. (It is easy for people who care about the pain of animals to feel exactly this way.)
When anti-abortionists bomb clinics, I understand that. I don't agree with them that these clinics are committing murders. But I do understand why they resort to violence. I think we should really listen to these people and at least let them know that we sympathize with their plight, even if we don't agree with their premise.
It must drive them mad, being simply dismissed as extremists. But how can they do nothing?