A Definition of Extremism: Correctly Identifying and Gracefully Handling Extremist Views

In the United States, the labels extremism and extremist are often thrown around carelessly.  Similarly, various words are used to characterize people along the liberal vs. conservative perspective as extremists.  Conservatives use the labels leftist or socialist to convey the connotation of an extreme liberal view, sometimes levying accusations of being unpatriotic or anti-American, whereas liberals use terms like reactionary, and right-wing, sometimes also including accusations of xenophobia and hate.  Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of using these terms inaccurately to label anyone whose views differ from theirs, but there are times when certain views are correctly identified as extremist or hateful.

Man holding sign reading: Catholic Clergy Pedophile Mafia

Extremism is characterized by universally negative generalizations about groups of people. Often, all that comes through from an extremist message is anger, and it is unclear what, if any, constructive action is being advocated.

Mislabelling and incorrect characterization of views as extremist or not can cause considerable damage:

Some views are genuinely extremist and hateful, and it can be very damaging when people embrace such viewpoints as mainstream.  As I argued in my earlier post about media responsibility, extremist views are best dismissed or ignored–giving them press coverage is empowering to those holding them.

It can also create unnecessary polarization when people falsely label someone as extremist just because a person’s views differ from them.  This hinders the advancement of the political debate.  Such labelling can produce an escalation effect, like an angry shouting match.  Extremism can become self-perpetuating for two reasons: (1) the act of viewing those with differing views as extremists is one of the characteristic features of extremism; thus incorrectly characterizing a person or group as extremist actually makes you more extremist yourself, and (2) viewing and approaching people as extremists draws out extremist tendencies in others.  Viewing someone as unwilling to listen will also make you more likely to approach them in such a way that they actually will not listen to you.  The end result of such labelling is that people end up fighting back and forth, sometimes even escalating to violence, rather than working together to solve problems.  Extremism is like a plague or disease that spreads through the minds and rhetoric of people and groups on “both sides” of a political debate.

American Flag Behind Barbed Wire Fence

Extremism is an impediment to democracy; it shuts down the debate that is the fabric of democracy, and threatens the very foundation of democracy, the idea that all human beings have equal inherent worth.

For these reasons it is crucial that we clearly and correctly identify extremism; I propose the following simple definition.

A Definition of Extremism: What is Extremism?

The concept of extremism can be tricky to define, because it is a pejorative term, and few people would identify themselves as extremist.  However, I do think that there is a strong objective foundation for the following definition of extremism:

Extremism is a perspective or viewpoint that demonizes those with opposing viewpoints, using all-or-none thinking to characterize people as either “fully for” or “fully against” the group’s views, and identifying certain people outside the group as having less innate value on a basic human level.

The foundation underlying this definition lies in some relatively recent advances in clinical and cognitive psychology.  Dr. Aaron T. Beck, best known as one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, outlines a compelling theory in his 2000 book Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence.  Beck, a clinical psychiatrist, observed in his treatment of patients that people suffering from anger problems showed a regular pattern of errors in their thinking, which he calls cognitive distortions.  These distortions include dichotomous thinking (thinking about things in black-and-white terms which actually exist in shades of gray) and several other predictable errors.  In the case of violent criminals, domestic abusers, and militant extremists, these cognitive distortions flow into identifying one group as the “enemy”, activating a primal rage which often leads to violent acts.  It is interesting to note that a similar pattern of cognitive distortions have also been implicated in depression; this topic is explored by another psychiatrist, Dr. David M. Burns, in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which is primarily a self-help text but delves into considerable depth on an academic level as well.  Although neither of these books are about politics, I think they both offer fascinating insight into the relationship between psychology and political viewpoints.

The picture painted by this recent psychological research is that extremism is not the same as a deviant or “far out” view.  In fact, extremism can even become a mainstream viewpoint, as in Nazi Germany.  Rather than being characterized by being “out there”, extremism is characterized by being an irrational viewpoint that devalues human life.  It’s irrational because no human being is wholly good or wholly evil–a viewpoint which is supported both by common sense and by all the major world religions.  Extremism devalues human life by suggesting that certain people have less value as human beings just because they have differing views or belong to a certain group.  This sort of perspective naturally lends itself to and encourages violence: although not all extremists advocate for violence, the demonization of whole groups of people encourages and facilitates violence.

How to Handle / Respond to Extremism:

The best way to handle extremist views, speech, and writing differs depending on the context and nature of the viewpoints.  In many cases, extremist viewpoints are best ignored.  In online forums, if the comments are in violation of terms of use (such as expressing hate towards groups of people, or making personal attacks directed at individuals), they can be deleted.  From a journalistic standpoint, I have argued before that extremist views are best ignored, and that when they are covered, their proponents are best not identified by name.

A local government meeting in an auditorium.

People with dissenting views can be afraid to speak up when no one has yet voiced their viewpoint, but once one person speaks up, many others will follow naturally. This is also true of respectful voices in an atmosphere of extremism.

Handling extremist comments in a debate or discussion in which you are involved as a normal participant, however, can be challenging and requires insight, compassion, and social grace.  However, it can be done effectively.  You will be in the best position to put a damper on extremism originating from people whose views are most similar to yours.  For example, a very liberal person will have the easiest time reaching out to a leftist extremist, and a very conservative person will have the easiest time reaching out to a right-wing extremist.  You also will find it easiest to reach out to people who trust you or whom you are close to or who are similar to you in some way or another.  But there are a few tips that can help you to diffuse extremism no matter where you are coming from.

  • Start by finding as much truth as you can in the person’s comments, and agreeing with them.  For example, if someone is making hateful statements about Barack Obama or George W. Bush, and hateful generalizations about all Democrats or all Republicans, you might say: “I agree with you that so-and-so did not handle such-and-such situation well.” or “You’re right that the such-and-such party has deep problems with corruption.”  This demonstrates that you’re listening to the person and connecting with what they’re saying.  Extremists are angry because they don’t feel heard–by making them feel listened to, you diffuse the anger.
  • Consider complimenting the person offering the extremist views, about something associated with their viewpoints or what they are saying. Make sure to be 100% sincere in doing so. There’s almost always a fairly straightforward way to do while remaining sincere.  “I’m glad that you feel so passionately about advancing the interests of the American People.” or whatever the key idea is that they care about…the environment, national security, strong families, economic issues, etc.  This takes the connection farther by demonstrating that you share a commitment with the person to whatever core goal or ideal the person cares about.  This further diffuses anger and goes a long way towards building solidarity–it makes the person more likely to listen to you.
  • Proceed by voicing a more nuanced, balanced opinion or perspective, in which acknowledgement of the complexity of the situation and respect for all people favors prominently.  The key is to present a statement that completely undercuts the fallacy (usually dichotomous thinking and labelling) in the extremist’s thinking…but to do so while staying as far away as possible from making any statement that could be construed as a personal attack.  To this end, it is often helpful to make a more general statement, as this takes the edge off and makes it easier to stomach.  For example, if someone is bashing Muslims or Christians, you don’t even need to identify these groups by name,  just say: “I think religion is complex and it’s impossible to characterize all members of any one faith as wholly good or wholly evil.” or if someone is bashing a politician, say: “Every politician, no matter how much I dislike them, has done at least a few things that I support or agree with.”  These gentle statements don’t require much of a concession, but they help nudge people out of the black-and-white characterizations and get back into a more reasonable mindset.  It’s also helpful if you make general statements that affirm the inherent self-worth of all human beings, the inherent value of human life, and voice a viewpoint of respecting people with differing views.  These are also common-sense statements most people will easily agree with, and they will push the general discussion away from extremism and into a more constructive, realistic, and respectful realm.

It’s also important to note that your responses to an extremist can reach far more than just the person you’re attempting to reason with.  In fact, in most cases, you may not get through very much to the person you’re directly responding to, but you may reach large number of people listening or watching the conversation.  This is true both of discussions on internet forums and other written contexts, and of in-person discussions.

Sometimes it can be hard to be the one person voicing a dissenting viewpoint.  When a discussion is dominated by two sides spewing hateful rhetoric at each other, moderate (or even strong viewpoints of one side that are respectful and not hateful) views can come across as a dissenting view.  But deep down, people know how the world works, they know that most things in life are not totally black or white.  When you voice your common-sense, respectful viewpoint, you may just find that a whole bunch of people come out of the woodwork and agree with you.

Just one final word: extremists are people too, and although it’s not constructive to listen to their message of hate, it’s also not constructive to ignore them as people: they ultimately need to be reached out to as human beings.  Underlying their hateful twisted thinking is a psychological disorder, which often is rooted in very low self-confidence and a lack of close bonds to people who provide better role models of clear, respectful thinking.  Such people ultimately will be more helped by love, understanding, and support, than they will be by being marginalized in society.

What can you do?

  • Learn to correctly identify extremist thinking – starting in your own head – and then exploring people and groups with views similar to yours, and lastly, in those with opposing viewpoints.
  • Refrain from labelling people and groups as extremist; be especially sensitive about this issue when approaching people whose viewpoints differ from yours.
  • When you learn about a person or group voicing extremist views, be cautious about talking or writing about their views, so that you do not lend them legitimacy.  If you do talk or write about them for whatever reason, make sure not to identify the person or group by name.
  • When confronted with extremist views in a debate or discussion, work to diffuse the underlying anger and building solidarity with the person(s) voicing the views.  Then, voice a viewpoint that undercuts the fundamental fallacy of the extremist thinking, such as by promoting respect of people with differing viewpoints, highlighting the value of all human life, or by looking for the good in people or institutions you view as mostly opposed to your views.
  • Approach extremists with compassion and understanding, connecting with them on a human level.  Make an effort to include them in society and encourage and draw out qualities in them that help move them in a healthier direction.
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4 Responses to A Definition of Extremism: Correctly Identifying and Gracefully Handling Extremist Views

  1. Susan Keller says:

    Very rarely do you find an article that succinctly and (I believe) correctly identifies a problem and provides a solution to said problem. I have posted a link to this blog on my Facebook page and I have e-mailed it to a few of my friends.

    Thank you for writing your article and may the voice of sanity be heard and may the good manners of treating others (even those of vastly opposing viewpoints) with decency and respect become status quo.

    Susan Keller

  2. zorach says:

    Thank you! I would definitely like the practice of treating all people, especially those with opposing viewpoints, with decency and respect, to become the status quo. =)

  3. Sylvia says:

    This is interesting too. It reminds me of a geometric illustration of open-mindedness that I came up with in college. It’s like everyone lives on a plane and has their own circle of ideas that they think are legitimate. The bigger someone’s circle is, the more open-minded they are. And if someone has dramatically different views from someone else, their circle will be further away on the plane. Since it’s further away, it looks a lot smaller, so that person appears to be closed-minded even though their circle of ideas is just as big. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it gets me thinking about the vastness of things I don’t understand or agree with.

  4. Melanie says:

    This is awesome. I like a lot of what you said here. It’s nice to see a definition of extremism that actually works; I’ve never encountered one before.

    The advice you give is mostly good, and I intend to put it into practice, but my experience contradicts some of it.

    When I start by looking for common ground with an extremist, they tend to take what I say and run with it, in a whole new rant about why they are right and everyone else is wrong. It’s hard to get a word in edgewise after that.

    I get much better results out of asking kind, insightful questions about what they say. It gives them the respect of having been listened to and understood, but also forces them to slow down and think, which gives me a chance to get my two cents in.

    Also, I often find that in explaining their beliefs to me in a respectful argument, they end up with something much less extreme than their initial statement, while still feeling like they have won.

    I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. It feels kind of dishonest, but I have the impression that it does more to change their mindset than just telling them what I think.

    Of course, that only works if I can avoid getting emotionally involved. Extremism is highly contagious.

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