Beware the simplicty of extremists

Article in the Cleethorpes Chronicle  – 29.10.2009

There was a stark contrast between some of the views being aired on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time and the gathering of the Normandy Veterans Association in Westminster Abbey last weekend.  During Question Time we glimpsed the sort of extremism which feeds on demonising a particular group of people and, in contrast, on Sunday the veterans remembered the enormous human cost of combating extremism once it takes hold of power.  Extremism, whether it is political, economic or social, brings in its wake human suffering and misery – how little we learn from history.

The essential feature of the extremist is simplicity.  Simplistic answers to the problems of the age.  In a democracy it is seductive stuff because the simplicity of the extremist offers quick and easy remedies.  In Germany in the 1930’s it was the Jews who were blamed for all the problems and finding a final solution to the Jews would ensure that all would be well.  Tragically there is a long list in modern history where the simplistic answers of the extremists have led to appalling violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing.  In fact I cannot think of any situation where extremism has led to human happiness and flourishing.

The problem with extremist views is that they are cloaked in sounding plausible. Yet they have to distort the truth because they actually have no ability to answer the deep problems of society.    So for the extremist, all asylum seekers are ‘bogus’, people living on benefits are ‘scroungers’,  unemployment  is cause by immigrants and if only we could get back to the purity of the indigenous English people, then all would be well.

D-day vetsWhat utter nonsense it is, yet it is seductive because at elections we want to give power to those who are going to sort things out.  If only life was like that.  Yet as those D-day veterans know only too well – give power to an extremist and it has to be wrestled from them at great cost.

The Normandy Veterans gathering begins this season of remembrance leading up to 11th November.  Once again I will be thanking God for the sacrifice of so many in wresting power from the extremists, whilst praying that we will never again be seduced by their simplicity – for it masks the dark side of human nature which is crucifyingly costly to defeat.

4 Responses to Beware the simplicty of extremists

  1. Chris says:

    Whilst there is much that is true here, we should be careful when we say that extreme ideas have never led to flourishing – a perspective which denies the potential for a genealogical understanding of how we situate ‘the extreme’. In their time the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of black people and women, the permission of homosexual behaviour, and other principles now considered mainstream and moderate, were ‘extreme’. Jesus, in his context, was too extreme for the powers of his day. Similarly, practices which are now harmful, which were understood as extreme at inception, but which are now ‘mainstream’ (and which one is ‘extreme’ to oppose, such as capitalism), have often (always?) prevented human flourishing (at least in advanced forms).

    The problem seems to be that those ideas which are cast as extreme or not are in part designated as such by the interests of the powerful. In times past, this depended on the subjugation of women and blacks, and so interest in their emancipation was ‘extreme’. We can debate how this manifests itself now, but the important part is that, in denying the place of extreme ideas to ever lead to flourishing (and it is the absolutism you propose with which I take issue), we fall into the trap of the powerful and affirm their society, not a more positive one that we seek to create.

    In fact, we’re seeing this now, where one is labelled a ‘domestic extremist’ even if you have never been convicted of a crime, simply for attending anti-war and climate change demos. It has always been the tool of the powerful to label enemies as extremists. Those we look back on as heroes, moderate heroes like Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, John Hume, they were all ‘extremists’ in their day.

    My point is that suspicion of extremism shouldn’t lead to a blanked, simple denunciation. When we judge heroes of the past from our own perspective, who we no longer see as ‘extreme’, we miss the social context which surrounded the change they fought for, and we strengthen the chains holding us in so many insecurities in our own terrible world.

    • Bishop David says:


      Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. You are of course right that extremism is a very subjective description and yesterday’s extremist can become today’s statesman. I think however that the clue is in the title of my piece. It is when extremism deals with simplicity it is at its most dangerous. The human condition is inherently complex and dynamic.
      Extremists who offer simplistic analysis to justify simplistic ‘answers’ seem to be more interested in achieving power than addressing fundamental wrongs. I agree that many of the world’s great change agents have been cast as extremists at different times, but I would argue that they have actually been dealing with complexity when critiquing their age and society.
      You rightly point to Jesus who was indeed an extremist, but it is notable how, when asked to define the Kingdom he was proclaiming, he offers the complexity of nature to avoid the simplicity of definition – it is like a mustard seed etc.
      I think that people like Mandela gain stature precisely when they begin to work at the complexity of the situation they face. I accept your point however that it is difficult to generalise about extremism, yet I still feel that it is when extremists become convinced by their simplistic analysis that they then begin to justify their own immoral acts, e.g. anti-abortionists murdering doctors, animal rights protesters terrorise the families of vivisectionists, fundamentalists becoming suicide bombers etc. A simplistic, single issue approach allows ends to justify means – and morality goes out of the window. You end up with 9/11, Guantanamo Bay or any of the abuses which are justified by claims of security or stability.
      When those who have a moral view point, which others might call extreme, work with the complexity of the situation, then I believe that they are most effective and real agents for the change they desire. On Question Time last week I could not detect any engagement with complexity from the extreme right representative.

      Many thanks for engaging with this.

      • Chris says:

        I think you’re right, but I wouldn’t use the word extremist in this case – in fact, I think it’s dangerous to do so for the reasons you suggest – an extreme and complex viewpoint can be a powerful and wonderful thing. The danger lies more in fanaticism (hence the old tagline ‘an extremist but not a fanatic) – where self certitude replaces self reflexivity, and assumptions become sedimented and unchallenged. We see this from much of mainstream and extreme thinking, where the project to ‘banish the microfascisms which plague everyday life’ goes ignored. I think extremism, at its best, has the power to motivate this project and become the true democratising force. Fanaticism can’t, it’s the antithesis of that very spirit.

  2. Martin says:

    I found this article intellectually stimulating and at the sametime flawed. It contains reference that could apply to anyone at anytime that society holds to be on the fringes. Examples have been put forward by Chris in his comments.

    However, what has not been discussed is whether it is extreme to airlift a huge contingent of the Uk landforces halfway across the world based on a erroneous supposition that if we do not invade Afghanistan we will be the victims of terrorist attacks.

    I would hate to be labelled an armchair strategist, so my background of serving and fighting with the commandoes for nine years I hope will carry some sway.

    You see I have problems with UK forces undertaking ‘fundamental jobs’ when in fact the whole basis for anyone being there is based not on hard bound intelligence, but lies and subterfuge in order to have the support of an already jittery nation who think that every Muslim or sections of them are extremists ready to kill and plunder the UK. I had the misfortune or fortune of being in Kosovo and witnessing the degree of savegery that the Serbs invested in, so as to divert the ethnic Kosovians away from seeking independence.

    The legendary adage ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ runs parallel to one man’s moderate is another man’s extremist.

    Dead men don’t tell tales, but the living make up stories. We need to think carefully and rationally before we support or decry a situation labelling one group as this and another as that. My very own real experiences tell me that it is a time when the liar is believed and the truthful mistrusted.

    Language is a powerful tool which can sway an emotional mass, but it takes a man of courage to stand up and speak the truth in the face of public opposition. He or she then becomes the extremist in a mass of moderates.

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