Beliefs, Fundamentals, and Extremes

From what I’ve observed, and from what history reports, the majority of violence wreaked in human history has been primarily caused by two kinds of people – by those who are mentally unbalanced, either temporarily or permanently, and by those with extreme views of some sort [and some might claim that extreme views are a form of mental imbalance, but I’m not in that camp]. Since I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, I’ll forgo, at least for now, in commenting on mental instability, save that there appear to always have been those who are mentally unstable, and make a few observations on extremism.

To begin with, extremism leading to violence always seems to manifest itself in beliefs of some sort.  These beliefs may be religious, political, social, or even in some other secular area.  This does NOT mean that all extremists are prone to violence, but it does mean that the tendency to violence is far more prevalent in those with extreme views. I’ve certainly met some fairly extreme vegetarians and environmentalists.  I’ve even met a few, believe it or not, extreme pacifists. Certain religions at certain times seem to have created more extremists prone to violence. 

I’d submit that extremism is usually an offshoot of fundamentalist tendencies in an individual’s belief structure, again whether religious, political, or secular.  Those with fundamentalist beliefs of whatever sort share the conviction that adhering to a simple, basic, belief structure is the only “right” way.  Such fundamentalists can be violent and vicious, sometimes against others who believe only slightly differently.  One has only to look at the Hundred Years War, the internecine violence in England in the time of Henry VIII and his immediate successors, the present violence between various Shiite and Sunni factions in the Middle East.  This can occur along political lines as well.  The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party has been merciless in trying to weed out moderate and liberal Republicans.  I’ve been attacked fairly violently for suggesting a few restrictions on gun ownership, and I’ve in no way proposed taking away all guns.

So why do so many “fundamentalists” of all sorts get so angry – and sometimes violent, especially when challenged?

Someone I respect, who has great insight, suggested that it is because everyone has a core set of beliefs, and that those who become most violent are those who, first, identify most strongly with a simple and basic set of beliefs, and second, feel threatened by those who do not believe as they do.  I also think that such individuals are easily angered when they feel others do not “respect” their views.  The last factor is economic.  Often, extremists feel that those who do not respect their views will force them to conform or even take either “rights” or property from them… or they feel that such others already have.  This last case was clearly a factor in the rise of both Communism and Nazism, where the political leadership tied the both real and perceived hardship of the people to specific groups who became the focus of group violence.  Certainly, income and social inequality, real and perceived, have fueled a great deal of extremism  

Do extremists with tendencies toward violence become attracted to fundamentalist extremes, or do groups with fundamentalist extremist views influence their believers toward violence?  Or is it even possible to separate the two.

What is clear from a reading of the present, the past, and history is that there have always been extremists, and that the majority of violence comes from them… and that they go to great extremes [of course] to justify their both their views and their acts as being necessary for either the greater good or for self-defense.

What else is new?

5 thoughts on “Beliefs, Fundamentals, and Extremes”

  1. Therman says:

    It’s an interesting theory and I won’t deny that it seems a majority of sensationalized/reported violence does involve either the unbalanced or extremists. I also won’t argue that extemist beliefs tend to encourage individuals to more easily resort to violence in defending those beliefs. I do have a couple of problems with the theory. First, extremism, as I understand it is a subjective term. What is extreme in one culture may not be in another and trying to make an argument that extremism is fundamental cause of violence can get bogged down on this point. More importantly though, my assessment is that most violence is situational or for power/profit. Though you could argue that your run of the mill criminal is unbalanced and though they may be extremist in some way, I don’t think extremism is the reason for the violence they commit. I think criminal violence constitutes the majority of violence and is committed for reasons other than ideological extremism. If you are saying that extremism is the root cause of wars, mob violence, etc. you may have a point but it is a very complicated subject and though extremism certainly plays a part, there are many other reasons as well. Something to think about though.

  2. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’d disagree, though also accept that this goes right into that subjective issue you raised.

    After years as a criminal investigator I would say that all criminals are extremists. Not in the sense of a religion or political agenda as so many associate the word, but in their behavior.

    I’ve found nearly all criminals become what they are based on two very simple things. They feel that only what they want matters and they tend to be very lazy.

    They want whatever they want (Power, wealth, etc) and they feel that they shouldn’t have to put in any real effort towards earning it. (Which is funny since some spend so much more time and effort on being criminals that it would take to just be successful normally.)

    I would argue that that base selfishness, that inate, almost sociopathic lack of concern for how what they want affects anyone else, is an example of extremism.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I think I know where you’re coming from with this, Mr Modesitt. There is certainly this fact, I’d say, that most of the greatest atrocities in human history have been caused by religion or by political stances. We had the Crusades, there’s the Islamic revolution of Iran, and many other wars – international or otherwise – that have been borne out of religious or political issues.

    I also think it’s possible for war to be seen as having a more honest (if you will) start. If you look at civil wars in particular, you may find people fighting together not out of an extremist belief, but out of a need to survive. A fight for social rights and liberties or for more reasonable taxation is not, in my opinion, an ‘extremist belief’.

    I think Ryan Jackson above me made a point I wanted to, perhaps unintentionally. I think his closing paragraph sums up political/social extremism, especially on the ‘right’ side of the spectrum. It is, in those cases, about a minority group wanting to exercise control over a majority. The anti-equal marriage brigade (Westboro, NOM, Orson Scott Card, etc.) are very much extremists in Ryan’s view point – they have a sociopathic concern for themselves, not for others. They don’t want gay people to get married because they feel it’s an attack on their own marriage. They don’t see their beliefs as an attack on gay people.

    But would you say someone fighting for equal rights was an extremist? Does the term “extremism” not carry negative connotations? So someone who puts a lot of time and money into fighting for, say, African-American rights, would they be considered an extremist? And would that be fair?

  4. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’d argue the word, as used by myself at least, though also the feeling and definition I’m interpreting from Mr. Modesitt is that hitting that extremist lable is when you decide whatever cause or purpose it is you’re supporting is more important than other’s safety and well being.

    So no, I wouldn’t say that your example of a person fighting for African rights is an extremist. But if they then went a step further and started actively harming others because they decided the rights of Africa are more important than the wellbeing of others.

    For that matter though, you have a point in that such behavior isn’t automatically “evil” or bad. But even if it’s for the best of reasons. Even if it’s for a noble ideal with a good person at the helm. The behavior would be extremist.

    As an example in fiction I’d look to Mr. Modesitt’s books. As an example, both Rhen in the Imager books and Secca in the Spellsong basically level countries. They have a body county much much higher than their enemies were realistically going to cause. Now don’t get me wrong, in both cases I actually agree and support the actions of our protagonists. But they were still extremist acts. So I’d argue while the word has negative impact, it doesn’t automatically have to be negative.

  5. In the United States, at least, I’m not aware of overt acts of violence or terrorism committed by advocates of equal rights or the Pro-Choice Abortion movement. I am aware of violence perpetrated by their opponents. While there were extensive riots in black/African-American neighborhoods following the death of Martin Luther King and the Rodney King incident, as well as a few others, the vast majority of black rights activists stayed well away from preaching or advocating violence, and historically, most of what one could call directed violence (as opposed to the violence arising out of frustration and anger) has been perpetrated by opponents of greater real rights for minorities.

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