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What is an extremist?7 min read

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Lately around here, we have seen accusations of being part of the "extremist right" or "extremist left."  But what is the difference between an extremist and a person with healthy convictions?

1. Priorities

  • Extremists do not recognize a prioritized list of issues and ideas.  All of their positions are equally true, equally important, and equally non-negotiable.
  • Healthy people differentiate between what is essential to their outlook, and what is negotiable.  They perform a sort of triage on their ideas, and determine which are worth fighting for, and which are actually negotiable

2. The Single Principle Error

  • Extremists often apply one true principle in exclusion to others, or out of any sort of context.  They fail to recognize that all truths exist in a web of related ideas that limit and clarify them.  Without such limits, extremists apply truths "to a fault."  For example, the commandment "do not kill" is limited by the commandments to defend the weak from the violent.
  • Healthy people recognize that all principles can go awry if you apply them in isolation.   They recognize and define the neighboring principles which limit and define the understanding and application of the principle under consideration. 

3. Legislation

  • Extremists want all of their positions put into law, even the controversial ones.  They will often go to the point of martial law, forcing others to capitulate rather than allowing their ideas to win a majority in the public arena.
  • Healthy people want only the essentials put into law, and would rather ensure that legislation remains neutral on questionable issues, or takes a path of partial regulation or affirmation of a position (e.g. labeling of games or tax incentives for saving money, resp.)

4. Logic

  • Extremists favor sloganeering, parading rhetorical statements, and neglecting to provide data for their assertions.  Extremists also fail to argue at the level of their foundational assumptions, and how they logically proceed from them to conclusions. Rather, they argue at the level of their desired ends, rarely examining the validity of their means or assumptions.
  • Healthy people provide their foundational assumptions, and a clear path of logic from them to their conclusions.  They also seek to validate their means, not just their ends.

5. Data

  • Extremists, when they do provide data, are often selective, or fail to
    recognize and discuss conflicting data.  They often reject data, not
    based on criticism of the experimental model or data interpretation,
    but based upon their evaluation of the researchers, and which
    ideological camp they come from.   And while it is acceptable to
    question the data from one ideological camp, it is not acceptable to
    reject their data and conclusions just because they have an existing
    bias – the question is whether or not their conclusions are logical,
    and their experiments were designed to not be affected by their bias.
  • Healthy people entertain all of the data, and discuss the reasons why they have
    rejected or accepted various studies.  They can also accept that the
    data is sometimes inconclusive, and that their opinions have yet to be

6. Attitude and Maturity

  • Extremists often engage in derision, name-calling, ad-hominems, and mockery.  Lacking either the maturity, capacity, or will to make a reasoned argument (or lacking a good argument at all), they resort to what is essentially bullying.
  • Healthy people focus on the arguments, not the people.  They can agree to disagree.

7. Single Polarity v. Balance and Nuance

Most ideological positions fall somewhere on a bipolar scale (though not all can be boiled down to just two alternatives – beware of the logical error of bifurcation or "false dichotomy")

  • Extremists will not admit to any sort of principled compromise between their position and their opponent – often, they remain at their extreme pole because a principled compromise means that the issue is not black or white, which they require.  Like those who engage the slippery slope argument, they eschew the inevitable vagaries of a principled approach rather than a polar, no exceptions, rule-based approach. 

    Unfortunately, they ignore the fact that they are so far to the pole that there is NO reasonable position to the right (or left) of them.  if you ask them, they are unable to define a more extreme version of their position because, well, they are it.  It’s like the old saying, "every group has a person with high emotional needs – if you can’t identify them, it’s probably you." If you can’t identify a position to the ‘outside’ of yours, guess what?  You are extreme.

  • Healthy people are able to define what the extreme, unhealthy position is, and why their own position is reasonable in comparison.  Rather than relying on black and white rules, they use principles to set the scope and limits of their compromise position.

8. The Slippery Slope

  • Extremists love to use the slippery slope argument, which states that any concession, even a small one, on their part will lead to a slide down to the pit of error that their opponents represent.  Their argument is a lazy, fear-based threat of impending danger and chaos if any latitude on their position is taken.
  • Healthy people know that the slippery slope argument is rarely valid, and usually is an intellectual copout for those who would rather not spend the time and energy to define parameters for small compromises that would allow for a little healthy breathing room on their position.

9. Conspiracies and Paranoia

  • Extremists often see their opposition, and all criticism, as part of a larger conspiracy against them.  In fact, they often disallow criticism from within their ranks (all such critics are "traitors").
  • Healthy people know that true conpiracies are rare, even though various power blocks exist in the public arena.  At worst, they chalk up such "blindness" to group-think, brainwashing, or self-deception on the part of their opponents.  They follow the adage "never attribute to malice what can be accounted for by stupidity."

So, what other characteristics of extremists have I missed?   Do you, like me, see yourself in some of these descriptions?  Time to wise up!

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