extremism n : any political theory favoring immoderate uncompromising policies
extreme ideas or actions
- Croatian: ekstremizam
- Czech: extremismus
- German: Extremismus
- Portuguese: extremismo
Extremism is a term used to describe the actions or ideologies of individuals or groups outside the perceived political center of a society; or otherwise claimed to violate common moral standards. The term is invariably, or almost invariably, used pejoratively. Extremism is usually contrasted with moderation, and extremists with moderates. (For example, in contemporary discussions in Western countries of Islam, or of Islamic political movements, it is common for there to be a heavy stress on the distinction between extremist and moderate Muslims).
The terms extremism or extremist are almost always exonymic — i.e. applied by others to a group rather than by a group labeling itself. Rather than labeling themselves extremist, those labeled as such might describe themselves as, for example, believing in militant action. There is no political party that calls itself "right-wing extremist" or "left-wing extremist", and there is no sect of any religion that calls itself "extremist" or which calls its doctrine "extremism".
Radicals as extremistsThe term "extremist" is used to describe groups and individuals who have become radicalized, in some way, even though the term radical originally meant to go to the root of a (social) problem. The term "radical" is one not normally regarded as pejorative (except perhaps in the United States of America) and, unlike "extremist" is sometimes used by groups in their description of themselves.
The term "extremist" is often used with reference to those who use or advocate "violence" against the will of "society at large", but it is also used by some to describe those who advocate or use "violence" to enforce the will of the social body, such as a government or majority constituency. Those described as "extremist" would in general not accept that what they practice or advocate constitutes "violence" and would instead speak in terms of "acts of resistance" or "militant action" or "the use of force." The word "violence" cannot be regarded as "value-neutral". Ideology and "methodology" often become inextricably linked under the single term "extremism".
The notion that there is a philosophy which can be described as "extremism" is considered by some to be suspect. Within sociology, several academics who track (and are critical of) "extreme right-wing" groups have objected to the term "extremist", which was popularized by "centrist" sociologists in the 1960s and 1970s. As Jerome Himmelstein states the case: "At best this characterization tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels; at worst it paints a false picture." (Himmelstein, p. 7). The act of labeling a person, group or action as "extremist" is sometimes claimed to be a technique to further a political goal — especially by governments seeking to defend the status quo, or "political centrists". In any event, the term "extremist" — like the word "violence" — cannot be regarded as "value-neutral".
On the other hand, according to George and Wilcox, the "extremist" label has been historically applied to both the "extreme right" and "extreme left", but they claim that some academics on the left wish to change the frame of reference to one in which only the "far right", but not the "far left", lies "outside the pale of societal acceptability."
"Extremism" as part of a spectrum of behaviour"Extremism" is not a stand-alone characteristic. The attitude or behavior of an "extremist" may be represented as being in a spectrum which ranges from mild interest through "obsession" to "fanaticism" and "extremism". The alleged similarity between the "extreme left" and "extreme right", or perhaps between different religious "zealots", may mean only that all these are "unacceptable" from the standpoint of a supposed mainstream or majority .
Uses of the term in "mainstream" politicsJohn F. Kennedy paraphrased Dante by saying "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality" (from Dante, Inferno, The Divine Comedy).
Barry Goldwater said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue" at the 1964 Republican Convention in a sentence attributed to his speechwriter Karl Hess.
Robert F. Kennedy said, "What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."
Purported characteristics of extremismLaird Wilcox, who has been described as "an American researcher specializing in the study of political fringe movements" identifies 21 alleged traits of a "political extremist":
- A tendency to Character assassination
- Name calling and labeling
- The making of irresponsible, sweeping generalizations
- The failure to give adequate proof of assertions made
- Advocacy of double standards
- A tendency to view opponents and critics as essentially evil
- A Manichean (bipolar) world view
- Advocating some degree of censorship and/or repression of their opponents and critics
- Identifying themselves by reference to whom their enemies are
- A tendency to substitute intimidation for argument
- Widely use slogans, buzzwords and "thought-terminating clichés"
- Claim some kind of moral or other superiority over others
- Doomsday thinking
- A tendency to believe that it is justified to do bad things in the service of a supposedly "good" cause
- An emphasis on emotional response, as opposed to reasoning and logical analysis
- Hypersensitivity and "vigilance"
- "May claim" some kind of supernatural, mystical or divinely-inspired rationale for their beliefs and actions
- An inability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty
- The personalization of hostility
- A tendency to assume that the system is defective if one is defeated
(full article here)
Eric Hoffer and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. were two political writers during the mid-20th century who gave what purported to be accounts of "political extremism". Hoffer wrote books such as The True Believer and The Passionate State of Mind about the psychology and sociology of those who join "fanatical" mass movements. Schlesinger wrote books such as The Vital Center, championing a supposed "center" of politics within which "mainstream" political discourse takes place, and underscoring the alleged need for societies to draw definite lines regarding what falls outside of this acceptability.
In this way, both Communism and Fascism were described by some in the postwar "western democracies" as "extremist" movements, as were (arguably "fascist") groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. The term was also used at times to describe groups which held views outside of the "mainstream" but which did not necessarily advocate the use of physical force to achieve their objectives. Examples of such groups might be the John Birch Society, the Nation of Islam, and the movement for nuclear disarmament.
Other termsThe term "subversive" was often used interchangeably, in the United States at least, with "extremist" during the Cold War period, although the two words are not synonymous.
"Fringe" or "lunatic fringe" have also been used as synonyms or near-synonyms for "extremist".
- George, John and Laird Wilcox. Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America Prometheus Books, 1992. (ISBN 0-87975-680-2)
- Himmelstein, Jerome L. All But Sleeping with the Enemy: Studying the Radical Right Up Close ASA, San Francisco: 1988
- Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Various editions, first published 1951.
- Schlesinger, Arthur. The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. Various editions, first published 1949.
- Wilcox, Laird. "What Is Political Extremism", retrieved from The Voluntaryist newsletter #27, 1987
- Hawk, Tony. Tony Hawk: American Wasteland. 2006.
extremism in Arabic: تطرف
extremism in Czech: Extremismus
extremism in German: Radikalismus und Extremismus
extremism in Estonian: Ekstremism
extremism in French: Extrémisme
extremism in Hebrew: קיצוניות ורדיקליזם
extremism in Dutch: Extremisme
extremism in Romanian: Radicalism
extremism in Russian: Экстремизм
extremism in Swedish: Extremism
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