Getting It Exactly Wrong: Extremism

Often you’ll hear or see someone making the statement, the “problem” is extremism. Sometimes the term extremism is replaced with fundamentalism. There is a problem with this statement, if you examine what is meant by that, nobody believes it and contrary to being the problem, extremism is exactly what we are supposed to be doing. Extremism is not a vice, it is a virtue. More than that, pretty much everyone would agree that this is so.

Examine common extremists, Olympic athletes, professional athletes, and the top researchers in physics, mathematics and chemistry are all what we would regard as extremists. They have devoted their entire life, to borrow from the Bible have, devoted their pursuit of their goal with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. What they are doing is how extremism is defined. They are taking their pursuit of excellence, be it a time in the dash or a proof of an abstract concept … it consumes their attention, their life. Breaks from that pursuit are (typically) intentionally taken to bank their coals, to spur them to higher and greater efforts when they return. I’d mention politicians, who can often also show great zeal in their extreme efforts mostly in the pursuit of … (yikes).

Oh, comes the objection (from the marginalia), but we mean religious extremism is what is bad. Hmm. So, secular extremism is good, religious extremism bad? Except that isn’t quite so. The most common example of religious extremism a common religious in these parts, are monks. Monastics, like those athletes, devote themselves entirely to God, withdrawing from the world. Horrible they are not. Secular extremism is also bad when the thing pursued is a vice (alcoholism for example).

This may yield a clue.  Extremism may be seen as human in pursuit of particular excellence (as opposed to general excellence). One concentrates on one thing, as exclusively as possible and devotes ones life to that. If the thing for which you pursue is is a vice, or generically “is bad”, then this form of extremism is harmful. But pursuing vice is bad, in and of itself, that is the loci of the “badness” of extremism to the cause of a vice, not the extremism itself.

See also “arete” or what the ancient Greek’s would have recognized as common extremism.

Next up: why fundamentalism, is also not problematic.

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7 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    Of course secular ‘extremists’ are bad too. For example, everyone would agree that a Giants fan who starts attacking fans of the opposing team is bad. Yet his ‘extremism’ is clearly not religious. And I never heard anyone assert the Dali Lama was bad, even though he fits your definition of religious extremism.

    Here I think extremism has a more simple definition…someone who finds justification in doing harm to others.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    I disagree. A soccer fan’s willingness to do violence is not in proportion to the fervency in which he supports his team. For soccer hooliganism you’d probably be better served to correlate numeric density, blood-alcohol levels, age, and testosterone levels which are better predictors of the violence than tracking indicators of how closely they support and track their team. If you agree with that then you agree that a fan’s devotion is the source of the problem, i.e., extremism is not bad, in fact often it is very very good. Aristotle called it a virtue. Why do you think it isn’t?

    And I never heard anyone assert the Dali Lama was bad, even though he fits your definition of religious extremism.

    But he is. Extremism is taking things to the extreme, devoting your life to a thing, all your efforts, your intentions and your thoughts. That is what is extremism. Today would like to subvert this and pretend that hooliganism = extremism, but it just isn’t true. It’s a conceit on the that would like to equate the martyrdom of the 21 Copts in Libya with their killers. This is an injustice being done by subversion of vocabulary. A pretense that fervent belief in religion is the problem. When clearly there is a far cry between humanitarian charity practiced by the Copts and the violence done to them by their killers. Both are examples of extreme faith, willingness on the one hand to die before denying one’s faith on the one hand and embracing monstrous acts on the other for their faith.

  3. Boonton says:

    Ahhh, it is the old “I’m going to pretend a word that has two definitions really only has one so I’ll correct everyone who uses the other definitions”

    Extreme is often used in the context of someone taking something overboard thereby producing bad results. The guy who loses his job because he plays video games all hours of the night, for example.

    Or it can be used as you want to use it, for example ‘extreme sports’.

    Neither definition is wrong.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    No, it isn’t. The understanding I (and likely you) get from a person “being an extremist” locates the problem in their fanaticism, their lack of moderation. Again, every person who excels in their field is an extremist in exactly this way. So, why is this lack of moderation a bad thing?

  5. Boonton says:

    No, it isn’t. The understanding I (and likely you) get from a person “being an extremist” locates the problem in their fanaticism, their lack of moderation. Again, every person who excels in their field is an extremist in exactly this way. So, why is this lack of moderation a bad thing?

    Errr because you’re conflating two equally valid definitions here. One definition is always a negative thing, the other definition may or may not be a negative thing.

  6. Boonton says:

    It strikes me that you can also look at this another way.

    Olympic athletes, professional athletes, and the top researchers in physics, mathematics and chemistry are all what we would regard as extremists. They have devoted their entire life, to borrow from the Bible have, devoted their pursuit of their goal with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. What they are doing is how extremism is defined

    An Olympic athlete, or chemist, or singer may be living as an extremist but their extremism is not totaltarian. The runner pushes his body at running but when he isn’t running he isn’t badgering the mailman, the ice cream eating guy on the park bench, his mother, his neighbor why they aren’t running too. His extremism represents a personal renounciation of everything besides running. He understands things other than running exist, he understands that other people will indulge in those other things, his mission, though, is his own.

    But if this guy started to become the type of extremist who is not only internal but external, then he wouldn’t be such a friend to society. If he started demanding that everyone else run, that cars be banned, if he started to try to hurt people who have no interest in running, then this type of extremism is no longer very tolerable for society.

    If your extremism in Orthodoxy causes you to spend hours in study and prayer, no one has a problem. If you start burning down Roman Catholic Churches because they espouse what you consider an error about the nature of the Trinity, your extremism is a problem.

    So this works even if we only allow your definition of extremism!

  7. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You’re making my point for me.

    The runner pushes his body at running but when he isn’t running he isn’t badgering the mailman, the ice cream eating guy on the park bench, his mother, his neighbor why they aren’t running too. His extremism represents a personal renunciation of everything besides running. He understands things other than running exist, he understands that other people will indulge in those other things, his mission, though, is his own.

    Look. A runner, your example, who is “extreme”, i.e., he is consumed with running performance almost every conscious effort is pointed at his performance, may or may not “badger” those around him about his running, their running and talking about running. If he doesn’t then he isn’t “totalitarian” about it (your word, one I think is not exactly right .. but I get your point). The point is, problem isn’t the extremism it’s about his forcing his views on others, which is where you locate the actual problem. I agree 100%. The problem isn’t extremism, in fact that is usually considered a virtue. Talking with other about just that isn’t even a problem. It’s when you violate the rights of others with your views that becomes problematic. That is the crux of the problem, and it has nothing to do with extremism. Extremism is often good, especially when the thing you are aiming for is a virtue, be it spiritual, athletic, or intellectual excellence. On the other hand when you violate the rights of other with your views, even if you don’t hold those views especially strongly that is bad (see football hooligan, who when not drunk and not in a crowd of like-minded fellows may be not exactly the super fan his violence would indicate).