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How to Survive the New Age of Extremism

From the expulsion of Iraqi minorities from the cities they called home for millennia to the despicable and still-unresolved kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls by a group whose very name stands against their right to education and self-improvement, extremism is a live issue throughout the world right now. No nation, no city seems to have gone untouched by it. How we understand and deal with extremism is not only a critical element of our global resilience, but of our personal resilience in our own homes and on our own streets, wherever we may live.

Understanding the Beast

We have to begin by understanding what extremism truly is. It can appear in many forms, but all of these threads at bottom trace back to the same human disease- the ability to objectify our fellow human beings according to their affiliations.

Behind it is always a story, a story supporting an ideology. That ideology can be religious, political, racial, philosophical, nationalist or any of a hundred other things. But always there is the belief that we are right and they are wrong, we are good and they are bad, a polarisation of the universe in which the beliefs you hold, or sometimes your genetic heritage or gender, determine your right to live and think for yourself.

Needless to say, extremism provides a focus for blame for whatever evils their adherents or the groups with which they identify have experienced. It makes life into an artificially simple set of problems and solutions by objectifying vast groups of people as targets to be attacked. In the case of religious extremism, this becomes a case of “God hates all the same people I do.” In the Soviet Union, it took the form of a never-ending cycle of purges. As long as there were problems, there had to be a scapegoat to focus the anger of the people and keep them from asking when True Communism would arrive. First it was the Tsar and the aristocracy, then the wealthier peasants, then counterrevolutionaries infiltrating the Party, and then the general staff, and on and on. Hence the birth of one of the saddest and greatest political jokes of that time:

Three prisoners in the gulag are discussing the reasons they were imprisoned. “I supported Comrade Popov in 1937,” says the first one. “I opposed Comrade Popov in 1938,” says the second. They turn to the third. “I’m Comrade Popov.”

Ideology

The difference between an ideologue and a person of principle is that the ideologue believes that his ideology alone is right, and that everyone else should be made to believe it, by force if possible, for their own good. That last is what makes it truly pernicious, the belief that everyone should be made to conform to the same set of ideas for their own good, an argument to be found alike found among communists and fascists, jihadis and militant atheists, rednecks and university professors. Well, okay, joking about the last two, but having known some professors who truly believe that the world is defined exclusively by their pet theoretical dogma, it’s not much of an exaggeration.

The person of principle, by contrast, offers simple allegiance to principles that he or she understands to be universally good, while accepting that he or she does yet understand them completely or perfectly, and that listening to others with different points of view can often increase their wisdom and cultivate peace and understanding within society. This is the socialisation of difference, something many of us learn in school. The other is free to live as they want and I am free to live as I want, provided we all live by a set of common universal values which protect our life and liberty.

David Hawkins’ well-known book Power versus Force encapsulated the difference between ideological approaches and principled approaches. Power is what we experience self-evidently when we encounter universal principles at work. Power does not need to vie with anyone or impose its will on anyone. It is simply there, in our hearts, waiting to be lived. Force, as the name implies, is a coercive impulse of the defensive ego, impelled by fear, anger and greed to impose its will on the world. We can put this in concrete terms as the difference between Christian and Islamist ideas of martyrdom. In the Christian idea, martyrdom is refusing to renounce one’s principles even if one will be tortured and put to death as a result. Inherent in this philosophy is nonviolence toward the persecutors, which requires forgiving them for what they’re doing to you. The Islamist idea of martyrdom is quite the reverse- you die killing the enemies of Allah, thereby gaining certain promised rewards in Paradise.

The Radicalisation Process

You’d be surprised at some of the places where the socialisation of difference has succeeded splendidly. The Balkans for many decades was an example of the possibility of different peoples to live and work together peacefully. This diverse region was not simply a house of cards waiting to fall apart. The disastrous wars of the 1990s were preceded by the appearance of people who, to gain personal political advantage, began to tell stories about what bad people those others are and what they did to us in the past and what we need to do to get out from under their boot. Slowly, populations that had been good neighbours for decades started to avoid each other. Something similar happened in India before the partition of Pakistan, another extremely bloody fight of neighbour against neighbour. This is how radicalisation of a country happens, by creating an us and them through stories.

A slightly different process of radicalisation is happening in the polarisation of the political spectrum in many countries, but noticeably in the United States, where the room for compromise is now so small that much of the business of government has simply ground to a halt.

Radicalisation in our own lives is an equally insidious process. It begins with someone talking about a group of people as “the problem”, about the West and how it’s oppressing those peaceful Muslims, about those pinko socialist Democrats, about those pesky immigrants, anyone to blame for the evils of the world. In China today, it’s the Century of Humiliation narrative. Whether there’s any truth to it (and there’s always some- it functions as the bait) is not the point. The point is the objectification of them versus us, the indiscriminate attachment of blame to all members of a group and the refusal to consider other sides to the issues. Then come the rationalisations, the excuses for resorting to extreme methods and ultimately, the elimination of the other, whoever that may be.

Responses

Knowing the nature of extremism, the way it operates, gives us critical insights about how to respond to it. Extremism operates by polarisation, the separation of irreconcilable opposites. (It’s interesting to note that both Buddhist and Taoist cosmology list this as one of the main sources of suffering that must be overcome.) It creates an absolute group identity, and judges everything and everyone in relation to that identity and conformity with the ideology it holds. It seeks to destroy anyone who will not conform to its wishes.

Going back to Power versus Force, these are all the methods of force. Therefore, not only should they be avoided, but they are inherently unproductive. Hawkins holds up the War on Drugs as a classic example of an adversarial approach that not only has made the problem far worse, but caused immense suffering in the process. At this end of the War on Terror, we must admit that not only is extremism not dead, but it has grown stronger, while democratic values have grown weaker. Extremism exists within the continuum of anger, fear and greed, the basic emotions which attend the defensive ego. Any approach to dealing with extremism which proceeds from these three is doomed ultimately to feed into it. By all means, we must protect those endangered by extremism, but we cannot do so by letting our fears hold our cherished freedoms hostage or cause us to embrace morally bankrupt policies. By operating on the level of fear and anger, we are allowing ourselves to be warped by the very forces behind extremism.

I am reminded of the poem ‘The Second Coming’, by William Butler Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is our job to prove him wrong, day by day, to keep open the space where discussion happens and understandings are formed, in our own minds and in our own daily interactions, to hold the courage of our principles with conviction against the tidal forces of extremism as they try to pull us first in one direction, then the other. Perhaps the most difficult part of this is that we cannot simply reconcile conflicting opposites with hippie aphorisms. Saying “It’s all good, you’re alright and I’m alright, so chill out” won’t make it so. There are hard truths to be told, often to both sides, and no one likes being told hard truths. The point is that we stand for the truth even-handedly, and not on the basis of group loyalty or ideology.

Extremism doesn’t emerge in a vacuum- there’s an economic component, a social component that the society has to deal with. There are sins committed in the attempt to combat extremism that must be exposed. On the other hand, there is a kind of extremism that wants to be ignored under the protecting veil of diversity until it’s too late. The shamefully weak responses to extremist organisations attempting to implement Sharia law in Britain and other Western countries are an example. There is no possible way that a democratic society can accept the imposition of a law other than its own, and certainly not this one which is so contrary to all ideals of democracy and human rights. To stand against this, however, certainly does not require joining the ranks of the burgeoning far-right parties of Europe. The principled person understands that to acknowledge a truth on any side does not require accepting the ideas that ideology bundles with it, which may come free, but leave the mind in chains.

Conclusion

To stand for truth, principle and the freedom of thought is therefore an exercise akin to standing still in the middle of a storm, or meditating in the middle of a loud movie. To remain tranquil and courageous and not be swept away by the dark emotions and empty aggregates of ideology that try to pull us one way or another is truly a challenge. Our response, therefore, is to advocate peaceful coexistence- a peace that defends the innocent, a peace of truth and principle and courage, but peace nonetheless. Peace where extremism is concerned comes about only with the full and honest acknowledgement of the sins of all sides. Only then can violence end and polarisation be resolved.

Now, after all that heavy material, an extremist video courtesy of The Onion. For further information on this terrifying threat, click here😉




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