Islamic extremist, Christian extremist, animal rights extremist, leftist extremists…the list goes on. For every cause, religion or philosophy you can think of, there is a solid chance that someone, somewhere has done something extreme and violent in it’s name. I realize that I am opening myself up to comments full of “Nuh-uh, Pollyanna, there was this one group once that didn’t! U R sooooo wrong!” So be it, that’s fine, but it’s going to miss the actual point of this blog post.
Point is, summing up any act of extremism in a one or two word description completely undermines the goal of understanding extremism. It hints at an explanation that isn’t actually any explanation at all. “Oooh”, says the average newswatcher. “So it’s a Christian/American/Islamic/Arab/ lefty/righty thing. Gotcha, and yes, they must be bad people.”
The description is meant to be an explanation, but the real reasons are not about that description. See, the thing about extremism is that it is way more complex than what screams out from newspaper headlines or is mentioned as a lead into a 30 second news story. While the group involved likely has an easily definable goal they can state, the process of getting to that level of extreme action is what should be the concern.
There are plenty of of people in the same religious, racial, or ideological group that don’t do these things and are absolutely sick over the fact that there are other people doing horrible things in the name of what they believe in. Most large groups have a few extreme members, so why are we looking at the group as a whole and not the thread that runs between the most radicalized of any group?
While I’m certain some of the extremists are mentally ill, particularly some of the key leaders and instigators of these organizations, I’m not convinced all are. If it isn’t mental illness, and it isn’t simply a [insert your choice of religious, ethnic, or ideological group here] thing, what is it?
The more I look, the more I am convinced that extremism is a product of desperation that turns into hatred and rage. It seems to draw those who feel that they don’t have a voice, that there is no productive way out of disagreement, and that they simply don’t matter. The extremist group gives the frustrated individual a sense of belonging and meaningfulness that they simply did not achieve through more productive, reasonable channels.
With our tendency to break it down into two word descriptions, we are reinforcing the Us vs Them idea. We dont talk about the reasons behind the choices they made, many of which have nothing to do with their groups goals, but instead, we try to define them as quickly and simply as possible– you believe X, so you are X. Not only that, if you believe X, and you are X, you believe exactly the same thing as anyone else in that group.
Promoting human rights while eliminating the factors that push people towards division are key here. We need to send the message that everyone deserves rights, regardless of religion, race, gender or philosophy. We must stop thinking in the us as the good guys, them as the bad guys mentality. It’s counterproductive and wrong; we all know great people who have different beliefs from as us as well as really jerky people who have the same beliefs as us.
Dropping the one word description and the ideas behind it will help immensely. Let’s call terrorists what they are: terrorists. Although certain ideas are promoted in extreme agendas, let’s get to the real reasons behind these actions and not blame a religion, idea, or race that is by and large, peaceful. Let’s focus on the extremism itself and find out why these people are angry enough to kill. If we can come to an agreement on that, only then will we be able to find a real solution to it.