What Is Political "Extremism"?
by Laird Wilcox
From Issue 27 - Aug. 1987
Roger Scruton, in the Dictionary Of Political Thought (Hill & Wang, New
York, 1982) defines "extremism" as:
"A vague term, which can mean: 1. Taking a political idea to its limits,
regardless of 'unfortunate' repercussions, impracticalities, arguments and feelings
to the contrary, and with the intention not only to confront, but also to eliminate
opposition. 2. Intolerance towards all views other than one's own. 3. Adoption
of means to political ends which show disregard for the life, liberty, and human
rights of others."
This is a very fair definition and it reflects my experience that "extremism"
is essentially more an issue of style than of content. In the twenty-five years
that I have been investigating political groups of the left and right, I have
found that many people can hold very radical or unorthodox political views and
still present them in a reasonable, rational and non-dogmatic manner. On the
other hand, I have met people whose views were shrill, uncompromising and distinctly
authoritarian. The latter demonstrated a starkly extremist mentality while the
former demonstrated only ideological unorthodoxy, which is hardly to be feared
in a free society such as our own.
I don't mean to imply that content is entirely irrelevant. People who tend
to adopt the extremist style most often champion causes and adopt ideologies
that are essentially "fringe" positions on the political spectrum.
Advocacy of "fringe" positions, however, gives our society the variety
and vitality it needs to function as an open democracy, to discuss and debate
all aspects of an issue and to deal with problems we may otherwise have a tendency
to ignore. I think this is the proper role of radical movements, left and right,
in our system. The extremist style is another issue altogether, however, in that
it seriously hampers our understanding of important issues, it muddies the waters
of discourse with invective, fanaticism and hatred, and it impairs our ability
to make intelligent, well-informed choices.
Another, perhaps more popular, definition of "extremism" is that
it represents points of view we strongly disagree with, advocated by someone
we dislike whose interests are contrary to our own!
Political ideologues often attempt definitions of extremism which specifically
condemn the views of their opponents and critics while leaving their own relatively
untouched, or which are otherwise biased toward certain views but not others.
To be fair, a definition must be equally applicable across the entire political
In point of fact, the terms "extremist" and "extremism"
are often used thoughtlessly an epithets, "devilwords" to curse or
condemn opponents and critics with! I find, however, that the extremist style
is not the monopoly of any sector of the political spectrum. It is just as common
on the "left" as it is on the "right," and sometimes it shows
up in the political "center" as well!
In analyzing the rhetoric and literature of several hundred "fringe"
and militant "special interest" groups I have identified several specific
traits that tend to represent the extremist style. I would like to caution you
with the admonition, however, that we are all fallible and anyone, without bad
intentions, may resort to some of these devices from time to time. But with bonafide
extremists these lapses are not occasional and the following traits are an habitual
and established part of their repertoire. The late Robert Kennedy, in The Pursuit
Of Justice (1964), said; "What is objectionable, what is dangerous about
extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil
is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."
1. Character Assassination.
Extremists often attack the character of an opponent or critic rather than deal
with the facts and issues that he raises or debate the points of his arguments.
They will question his motives, qualifications, past associations, values, personality,
mental health and so on as a diversion from the issues under consideration.
2. Name Calling And Labeling.
Extremists are quick to resort to epithets (racist, subversive, pervert, hatemonger,
nut, crackpot, degenerate, Un-American, Anti-Semite, Red, Commie, Nazi, Kook,
etc.) to label and condemn an opponent in order to divert attention from his
arguments and to discourage other from hearing him out.
3. Irresponsible Sweeping Generalizations.
Extremists tend to make sweeping claims or judgments on little or no evidence,
and they have a tendency to confuse similarity with sameness. That is, they assume
that because two (or more) things are alike in some respects they must be alike
in all or most respects! Analogy is a treacherous form of logic and its potential
for distortion and false conclusions even when the premises are basically correct
4. Inadequate Proof For Assertions.
Extremists tend to be very fuzzy on what constitutes proof for their assertions.
They also tend to get caught up in logical fallacies, such as post hoc ergo propter
hoc (assuming that a prior event explains a subsequent occurrence simply because
of their "before" and "after" relationship). They tend to
project "wished for" conclusions and to exaggerate the significance
of information which confirms their prejudices and to derogate or ignore information
which contradicts them.
5. Advocacy Of Double Standards.
Extremists tend to judge themselves in terms of their intentions, which they
tend to view generously, and others by their acts, which they tend to view very
critically. They would like you to accept their assertions on faith but they
demand proof for yours. They also tend to engage in "special pleading"
on behalf of their group, because of some special status, past persecution or
6. Extremists Tend To View Their Opponents And Critics As Essentially Evil.
Their enemies hold opposing views because they are bad people, immoral, dishonest,
unscrupulous, mean-spirited, cruel, etc., and not merely because they simply
disagree, see the matter differently, have competing interests of are perhaps
7. Extremists Tend To Have A Manichean Worldview.
That is, they tend to see the world in terms of absolutes of good and evil, for
them or against them, with no middle ground or intermediate positions. All issues
are ultimately moral issues of right and wrong. Their slogan tends to be "he
who is not with me, is against me!"
8. Extremists Very Often Advocate Some Degree Of Censorship And Repression
Of Their Opponents And Critics.
This may range from an active campaign to keep them from media access and a public
hearing, as in the case of blacklisting, banning, or "quarantining"
dissident spokesmen, or actually lobbying for repressive legislation against
speaking, teaching or instructing the "forbidden" information. They
may attempt to keep certain books out of stores or off of library shelves or
card catalogs, discourage advertising with threats of reprisals, keep spokesmen
for offending views off the airwaves, or certain columnists out of newspapers.
In each instance the goal is some kind of information control. Extremists would
prefer that you only listen to them.
9. Extremists Tend To Identify Themselves In Terms Of Who Their Enemies Are,
who they hate and who hates them! Accordingly, they often become emotionally
bound to their enemies, who are often competing extremists on the opposite pole
of the ideological spectrum. They tend to emulate their enemies in certain respects,
adopting the same style and tactics to a certain degree. Even "anti-extremist"
groups often exhibit extremist behavior in this regard!
10. Extremists Are Given To Arguments By Intimidation.
That is, they frame their arguments in such a way as to intimidate others into
accepting their premises and conclusions. To disagree with them, they imply,
is to ally oneself with the devil or give aid and comfort to the "bad guys."
This ploy allows them to define the parameters of debate, cut off troublesome
lines of argument, and keep their opponents on the defensive.
11. Wide Use Of Slogans, Buzzwords And Thought-Stopping Cliches.
For many extremists simple slogans substitute for more complex abstractions in
spite of a high level of intelligence. Shortcuts in thinking and reasoning matters
out seems to be necessary in order to appease their prejudices and to avoid troublesome
facts and counter-arguments.
12. Doomsday Thinking.
Extremists often predict dire or catastrophic consequences from a situation or
from failure to follow a specific course, and they exhibit a kind of "crisis-mindedness."
It can be a Communist takeover, a Nazi revival, nuclear war, currency collapse,
worldwide famine, drought, earthquakes, floods or the wrath of God. Whatever
it is, it's just around the corner unless we follow their program and listen
to their special insights or the wisdom that only the enlightened have access
13. Extremists Often Claim Some Kind Of Moral Or Other Superiority Over Others.
Most obvious are claims of general racial superiority -- a master race, for example.
Less obvious are claims of ennoblement because of alleged victimhood, a special
relationship with God, membership in a special "elite" or revolutionary
vanguard. They also take great offense when one is "insensitive" enough
to dispute these claims or challenge their authority.
14. Extremists Tend To Believe That It's OK To Do Bad Things In The Service
Of A "Good" Cause.
They may deliberately lie, distort, misquote, slander or libel their opponents
and critics, or advocate censorship or repression in "special cases"
involving their enemies. This is done with no remorse as long as it's useful
in defeating the Commies or Fascists (or whoever). Defeating an "enemy"
becomes an all-encompassing goal to which other values are subordinate. With
extremists, the ends often justify the means.
15. Extremists Tend To Place Great Value On Emotional Responses.
They have a reverence for propaganda, which they may call education or consciousness-raising.
Consequently, they tend to drape themselves and their cause in a flag of patriotism,
a banner of righteousness or a shroud of victimhood. Their crusades against "enemies"
may invoke images of the swastika, the hammer and sickle or some other symbol,
as the case may be. In each instance the symbol represents an extremely odious
concept in terms of their ideological premises. This ploy attempts to invoke
an uncritical gut-level sympathy and acceptance of their position which discourages
examination of their premises or the conclusions which they claim necessarily
derive from them.
16. Some Extremists, Particularly Those Involved In "Cults" Or
religious movements such as fundamental evangelical Christians, Zionists, members
of the numerous new age groups and followers of certain "gurus," claim
some kind of supernatural, mystical or divinely-inspired rationale for their
beliefs and actions. Their willingness to force their will on others, censor
and silence opponents and critics, and in some cases actively persecute certain
groups, is ordained by God! This is surprisingly effective because many people,
when confronted by this kind of claim, are reluctant to challenge it because
it represents "religious belief" or because of the sacred cow status
of some religions. Extremists traits tend to have three things in common:
- The represent some attempt to distort reality for themselves and others.
- They try to discourage critical examination of their beliefs, either by false
logic, rhetorical trickery or some kind of intimidation.
- They represent an attempt to act out private, personal grudges or rationalize
the pursuit of special interests in the name of public welfare.
Remember, human beings are imperfect and fallible. Even a rational, honest, well-intentioned
person may resort to some of these traits from time to time. Everyone has strong
feelings about some issues and anyone can get excited and "blow off"
once in awhile. We still retain our basic common sense, respect for facts and
good will toward others. The difference between most of us and the bonafide extremist
is that these traits are an habitual and established part of their repertoire.
Extremists believe they're doing the right thing when they act this way in the
service of their cause.
The truth of a proposition cannot be inferred merely from the manner in which
arguments in its behalf are presented, from the fact that its advocates censor
and harass their opponents, or because they commit any other act or combination
of acts suggested in this essay. Ultimately, the truth of any proposition rests
on the evidence for it. To impeach a proposition merely because it is advocated
by obvious "extremists" is to dismiss it ad hominem, that is, because
of who proposes it. The fact is that extremists are sometimes right -- sometimes
very right -- because they often deal with the gut issues, the controversial
issues many people choose to avoid. So, before you perfunctorily write off somebody
as an "extremist" and close your eyes and ears to his message, take
a look at his evidence. It just might be that he's on to something!
[Laird Wilcox is editor of The Wilcox Report Newsletter , Box 2047, Olathe, Kansas
66061. He is founder of the Wilcox Collection on Contemporary Political Movements
in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas]