Friday, September 26, 2014

What words mean 1: 'Extremism'

'Extremism' is all over the news at the moment, mainly in relation to the activities of the so-called 'Islamic State'.  Sometimes 'extremist' is used with qualifiers - 'Islamist extremists', 'Sunni extremists', 'religious extremists' - but often just by itself 'extremist groups'.

But what does 'extremist' even mean?  It conjures up an Aristotelian view of life in which the mean is the ultimately desirable thing.  For Aristotle (or at least the Aristotle of parts of the Nicomachean Ethics), extremes are in general to be avoided.  For example, on a spectrum of abject cowardice through foolhardy bravery, both extremes are to be avoided; the mean is a cautious bravery.  Is this the sort of thing that people mean when they talk about extremists?  Apparently not.  I don't think that when the BBC writes about Islamist extremists that they mean that one ought to strive for moderate Islamism, or that a Sunni extremist is someone who thinks and acts like a Sunni Muslim more than they ought to.

Can I suggest that what is actually meant by 'extremist' is usually something more like 'someone who doesn't take the blasé, indifferentist approach to questions of reality and life which is preferred within our liberal democracies'.  The average Westerner in the 21st century thinks that ultimate reality is pointless, and therefore holding serious beliefs about ultimate reality is pointless.  Arguing about metaphysics makes no sense.  Believing, on the basis of one's convictions about ultimate reality, that there is a right and a wrong way to live and to order society is just daft - and probably offensive.  Everyone ought to confirm to the bland, beige reality of secular life, and if they do entertain speculations about the true nature of the world and human life, keep it to themselves.

An extremist, then, is just anyone who thinks that things really matter, that there is a higher reality than the economy and a few beers at the weekend.  Western society, as a whole, finds such people intolerable.  People who try to live in a way which is logically and practically consistent with a particular view of ultimate reality are dangerous.

I am very much okay with extremism.  I think a society which cannot contain extremists is already broken.  The problem I have with IS is not that they are extremists (in the sense outlined above), but that the beliefs which they hold and try to live out are wrong, and therefore wicked.

My contention would be that the language of extremism is used to avoid having to ask questions like: 'are their beliefs about ultimate reality true or false?'  This is a question which must be avoided, because it leads to other questions like 'do Islamic beliefs (or some variant or subset of these) about ultimate reality lead, when taken seriously, to IS and its like?'  I don't propose to answer that; only to show that the point of talking about extremism is to put people a priori beyond the pale, so that we don't have to consider their actual beliefs, something that our mushed together Western non-culture will always struggle to do.

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