Extremism in Pursuit of…

Everywhere I look, today, large numbers of people are taking things to extremes, and declaring they’re exercising their Constitutional rights. Some are; and quite a few are carrying the exercise of those “rights” to extremes. Even when the extremes are legal, and many aren’t, is this always a good idea? Even when one can make a case for such excess, is it good when so many “rights” are being pushed to the limits… and beyond?

The first amendment grants and protects the “right of the people to peaceably assemble,” as it should, but all too many assemblies these days are anything but peaceable. The first amendment also prohibits abridging the freedom of the press, and with each year the media pushes out more obnoxious, vulgar, intolerant, and generally inflammatory content, with less and less factual substance. It’s become more and more about “stirring people up,” as a fictional politician in the movie Primary Colors once declared.

And somehow, the Religious Right seems to believe that: (1) allowing women to decide whether they want to be pregnant or not violates religious rights of the Religious Right; (2) private corporations are individuals that can impose their beliefs on their employees; (3) while insisting that every zygote be carried to full term and born, they also insist that government should provide no aid or support for all those unwanted children once they are born. And they honestly feel that these beliefs are not in the slightest extreme.

Then there’s the second amendment. Now that there’s no doubt that any gun-lover in the United States can own and shoot semi-automatic weapons with fifty bullet magazines, what’s next? Private armored personnel carriers [after all, the police now have them] or your own suitcase A-Bomb?

How about a little self-restraint? Not that our media will allow that, because restraint doesn’t sell. As a matter of fact, at least one media outlet has suggested just such restraint – and has been roundly criticized in some quarters for betraying “freedom of the press.”

Charlie Hebdo carried freedom of the press to extremes; the gunmen who brutally assassinated twelve people at the newspaper carried their beliefs to extremes. Is this the world we wish to create, where extremes battle extremes, and the one with the most firepower wins?

And, please, forget about declaring that extreme use of words and cartoons isn’t the same as extreme use of bullets. No, it’s not, but what the extreme users of words and symbols so easily forget or ignore is that such extreme use of words shapes social and political structures, and that shaping influences those with bullets, just as the words and “teachings” of extremist Islamists influenced the killers of those at Charlie Hebdo. Being one step removed from causing violence doesn’t remove all the blood from your hands. Like it or not, people are swayed by words and symbols, and the extreme use of either all too often results in disaster. Just look at what Hitler accomplished, and it all began with words… just words.

What’s the reason for all this extremism? Is it because we’re all so busy trying to be heard and to make our points that the din we’ve created drowns out all our efforts… or is it because we’re so preoccupied with what we’re doing that we’re not listening… or is it because we’re so convinced of our own “truth” that we disregard the “truths” of others?

Whatever it is, the result is the multiplication of extremism in all forms, and that is the road to hell, superbly paved with our good intentions based on the assumption that we know best, and that only we have the truth on our side in exerting our “freedoms” and beliefs to their extremes.

13 thoughts on “Extremism in Pursuit of…”

  1. Corwin says:

    What is interesting is that YOU also are presenting an extreme position for each of the groups you denigrate. You are painting them in the worst light. Yes, some are extreme in every group, but you are being guilty of doing the same thing. The whole point of satire, or cartooning is to take a somewhat ‘extreme’ position in order to make it work. Doonsbury from your own country is an excellent example of this. I don’t like extremism either, but it will always be with us in one form or another. All we can do is be tolerant and try to educate and channel the people and forces we face. I think everyone has at least one belief that someone else would consider extreme; it’s how we deal with that that’s important.

    1. I have to disagree — strongly. I’m pointing out the extremist groups that exist within far larger groups, but these groups are neither small nor inconsequential. ISIS or whatever the Islamic State now calls itself is an extremist group. Charlie Hebdo focused on the extreme in satire [and those poor victims are by far the smallest group I mention, I will admit]. I live among second amendment gun extremists, and they’re not scattered individuals, nor is the position I mention extreme for them. You might also remember that the people of the United States privately own over 300 million firearms at last count. Nor are the positions I present for the Religious Right those of an extreme few, but those espoused by millions of Americans. If you believe that these groups are fragmented, scattered, and insignificant, you’re living in a world more more unreal and fantastic than anything I’ve ever created.

  2. Plovdiv says:

    I agree that people should show more restraint, but what is the point of satire if you can’t make fun of people, beliefs, faiths, political ideologies etc? If you self censor for fear of offending someone, then you will end up with a blank page, because there will always be someone who is offended. That is something else that is different today. People are offended much more easily, and think that no-one should espouse views or ideas that conflict with their own. Charlie Hebdo made fun of other religions, but it was only when they satirised the prophet that they suffered out of all proportion.

    1. I never said or insisted that satire was wrong… or that satirists shouldn’t make fun of hypocrisy, idiocy, and other faults shown by public figures, faiths, and institutions, as well as others, when merited. What I suggested was that going to extremes in doing so can often be counterproductive, especially when extremes clash. Obviously, some satirists feel that unless they create great offense, they haven’t succeeded.

  3. Joe says:

    You have no understanding of France or French humor so you are judging out of context. Easy to do, but it makes your comments about as relevant as Fox News stating Birmingham is an Islamic Caliphate.

    Europeans used to burn people at the stake for offending Christianity. (Many witches being the pagans of Europe pre-Christianity). Europeans also invented waterboarding to deal with Muslims (La tortura del Agua, by the “Holy” Inquisition). Laws such as the right to criticize any religious tenet put an end to that… and because modern Galileos aren’t tortured we get to have nice things like food on our tables.

    Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in France. Unlike in the US, free speech laws in France are limited: you cannot insult a people for things they cannot avoid (such as semitic features) but you can criticize any idea mercilessly. And religion is an idea. Worrying about “offense” is an American idea, probably because US law allows one to say much more. Also Americans don’t seem to like debating much: they seem to prefer to take offense and run away Westwards. Freedom in this country seems to be the “freedom to be left alone and own stuff”.

    We are on the quick path back to the dark ages if we allow others’ offense to determine what we can say. Evolution is clearly offensive to those who believe the world is 6000 years old and Jesus rode a dinosaur. If human stupidity, namely taking offense at things, is more important than clear thinking, then humans will die off from famine as the science that allows 7 billion idiots to live on this planet stops being developed.

    The road to hell is accepting other’s “offense”. The road to paradise is putting our puny little brains into gear.

    1. Please don’t tell me what I understand or don’t. That’s appallingly condescending, but then, that’s also French [at least, at times], and also assumes that because my views do not accord with yours, I don’t understand French culture. I understand one thing you clearly don’t. Ideas and ideals — good and bad — can kill or create, and, on this point, history definitively supports my position. So can words… in the fact that they influence behavior. “Offense” may anger me, but I’m not about to shoot people who I find offensive, for whatever reason. That’s clearly not the case with a great number of people, especially those in certain religious beliefs, primarily Islam these days, but certain evangelical Christians have also been known to take up weapons. What I care about is the escalation of extremism, both in acts and in popular and political culture. I happen to think such escalation is a very bad idea. You think it’s the way to paradise, at least in terms of ideas, but you’re clearly basing your assertion on the idea that there’s little connection between what is expressed in the press and in “free speech” and the results that such expression can cause. As for the vaunted French free speech laws, they didn’t stop the Charlie Hebdo killings, and I seriously doubt that they will stop others.

      When people escalate the war of ideas and ideals by seeking ever more disturbing and offensive examples, depictions, and the like, the probability of violence and lack of agreement rises as well. Since, like it or not, in the end “right” is unfortunately determined by the biggest battalions, not the best ideas — unless those ideas can also mobilize their own battalions — “resolution” becomes a matter of force, not ideas. In this context, justifying escalation of extremism in free speech seems to me to be less than an optimal situation, to say the least.

      I also frankly applaud the latest cover of Charlie Hebdo, because it affirms free speech strongly without, at least to me, further escalation. But then, since I’m so clearly not French, perhaps I missed something.

      1. Joe says:

        If taking offense at foreign people’s ideas entitles one to kill them, perhaps those of us who take offense at Sharia law which proscribes death for those of non-Abrahamic religions, which proscribes stoning of adulterous women, and death to homosexuals should rid the world of a few million people who believe in Sharia law… Just as well most of us Westerners don’t apply this logic, because we have more effective weapons than they do.

        I wasn’t being condescending to you. I just happen to be multi-lingual and have lived in other countries all my life. The first thing one does in a new country is assume the people are very similar to oneself. And then one learns they aren’t, that they assume different things, have completely different views, and a totally different humor based on a totally different history. It’s called culture shock. It takes at least 5 years to even start getting the humor. People who haven’t travelled abroad are particularly obtuse to this. And since most Americans don’t have a passport, whereas most continental Europeans live quite close to another country, it’s a particularly American disease. I’d put the Brits a close second, living in Glorious Isolation on a little island. So most mainland Europeans have little tolerance for Anglo Saxons who feel free to sit in judgement over every one else’s culture.

        If Charlie Hebdo was being parachuted into the Middle East, I would agree with you that it was unnecessarily offensive. But it’s sold to 60,000 relatively well educated French buyers and expresses leftist, anti-racist and somewhat anarchist views. Why people from the rest of the world feel the need to have an opinion about its content, I have no idea, but it clearly shows me that globalisation is a mixed bag. Rather than living in a “global village”, it seems we live in a global mental asylum where the only things that are safe are Hollywood’s inoffensive drivel: kill the baddy, get the girl, see some flesh.

        Drawing cartoons of the Catholic Church and the King was part of overthrowing those institutions. Winning arguments is still part of the way French politics works, unlike the US where it’s about looking the part and uttering the correct previously focus-group-approved soundbite. The US second amendment is incomprehensible to the average European (who needs a dangerous weapon in a civilized country?), but makes sense in an American context: in the middle of nowhere, you may need to defend yourself from others (including the natives whose land you’re “settling”) without others to protect you. The right to criticize ideas is equally important to the French since it rid them of corrupt religious institutions that told them how to think, and the divine right of corrupt kings who took whatever they wanted. And without the French thinkers of the time, America might very well not have become a democracy believing in free speech. Voltaire’s thinking has been summarized as “I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

        So context matters. I see “escalation” from the Muslims: a fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the execution of Theo Van Gogh, “Sharia areas” in London, rioting over the Danish cartoons, rioting killing the US ambassador over an unbelievably pointless US made youtube movie, and the killing of 12 people in Paris for drawing cartoons that made you think about certain societal problems. I see no escalation from Europe: we get criticize ideas, like we always have, to improve our culture. It’s how we do things. Guests don’t get to trash the host’s house, or their country, or their culture. And foreigners should concentrate on improving their own culture. Europeans learnt from Islamic countries once before (algebra, algorithms, arab numerals), admire their music and calligraphy, and hope Islamic culture will produce something worth learning again.

        Finally, you should know that pre-15th century art of Mohamed exists. Muslims are not allowed to draw God, but the Koran doesn’t say that applies to anyone else, because we “can’t renounce our Muslim faith” since we never had it. And there is a very large mural of Mohamed going to heaven on a horse on a building in Tehran. So we’re not even talking about all Muslims getting offended. Just the Wahabi Sunnis. Unfortunately they’re rather rich (Sunni minorities usually run oil rich countries, the majority of the population being Shiite) and fund many Mosques all over the world preaching their particular fundamentalist version of Islam.

        1. Joe says:

          Although I don’t believe humor translates well, someone is trying anyway. In the hope that it will help improve transatlantic understanding:


  4. Wine Guy says:

    It is a common misconception that only those who are “extreme” in their views have the courage of their convictions to stand up for something. (as an aside, I have also noticed that most people do not publically define themselves as extremists – it is a label that is externally applied).

    No one recognizes that restraint is a form of power. Could the US end the ISIS threat? Absolutely, if we as a society are willing to discount what the rest of the world thinks of us… and what we think of ourselves. “The ends justify the means” is a common – and ugly – attitude; but nuclear weapons would certainly take care of the situation. Extreme? Absolutely. Unthinkable? By me – yes. By others… who knows?

    No one seems to want to admit that Israel could make their Palestinian problem go away with a well-applied genocide.

    The school-ground equivalent is the average looking kid who keeps getting bullied, by larger kids, by smaller kids with crazy looks in their eyes, and then by people too weak not to be lead around by the nose by bullies… and when the formerly mild-mannered average kid finally does something – returning a punch and then kicking the bully senseless once they’re down as an example – then people assume that ‘He just snapped. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

    Guess what? He was showing restraint before… and then decided to not show restraint. And people were surprised.

    But they shouldn’t have been.

    Yemen Al-Queda has claimed responsibility for the Paris attack. Will they be surprised when special forces groups from several countries attempt to erase them from existence? Or, failing that, drone strikes that kill scores/hundreds?

    They shouldn’t be.

  5. Kristina says:

    “How about a little self-restraint?”–I agree. I would love to see restraint in the media, which as you say, is not likely to happen soon. It is possible individually to somewhat avoid the excesses in the media, however, the consequences of such excesses are paid even by people who choose not to consume such things.

    That question “how about a little self-restraint?” also applies to so many situations. A little self-restraint can prevent so many unwanted pregnancies, and the aftermath of those pregnancies, either unwanted or aborted babies.

    As for the religious right, it is not a thing that believes just one thing or the other. Some who oppose abortion support government help for people who need it. Some who oppose such government help choose to help women who have unwanted pregnancies. There are gradations and variations to what people believe.

    Finally, abortion IS legal, whether people like it or not. Efforts to make abortion illegal are not likely to prevail. Even many laws to restrict abortion are overturned. Many who oppose abortion are trying to restrict the worst of it, such as partial-birth abortions.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    “What’s the reason for all this extremism? Is it because we’re all so busy trying to be heard and to make our points that the din we’ve created drowns out all our efforts… or is it because we’re so preoccupied with what we’re doing that we’re not listening… or is it because we’re so convinced of our own “truth” that we disregard the “truths” of others?”

    When I re-read the post, the quoted paragraph above struck me.

    My replies (to questions probably meant as rhetorical… but if you don’t want an answer, you shouldn’t actually ask…)

    In this day and age,
    1. The art of listening, like chivalry, is dead.
    2. The Age of Me is at hand.
    3. If we consider someone else’s viewpoint… we’re their patsy and/or too weak to have our own.

    Or so popular media and the extrovertive society in which we seem to be trapped right now would have us believe.

    It is hard to be either introvertive or even merely introspective in this day and age.

  7. alecia says:

    The French version of satire is extreme in comparison to that found in most of the USA, as is the satire of Denmark (Kurt Westergaard) & other parts of Europe. For me, the root of these horrific acts are two-fold 1) extremists don’t have a sense of humor, & 2) ISIS(L), Al Qaeda, & whatever are trying to gain power by killing or blowing up, or anything else they can think of. And we’re not responding in a way that is going to prevent further such acts. People who want power, gain it with a violent response – they have engendered a reaction, which is their goal. Until those of us who are their targets learn to address the root cause of terrorism, it will continue.

  8. Phil says:

    I feel the reason for extremism is ultimately entrapment. There are people in societies that feel they can not change the world around them, for good or bad. Many times both. They are pushing outwards against their bounds to achieve a greater freedom for themselves/their beliefs/ their shared beliefs.

    But simply pushing won’t change anything if the world isn’t listening. You need to make statements loud enough to be heard. In a world as bustling and busy as ours, the, “only,” real way for people’s voices to be heard is through violence, (or so they believe.)

    In almost every dramatic shooting, torturous act, bombing or military action there is a message being sent.
    “I’m alone and I want to be heard.”
    “The world isn’t willing to follow the same beliefs I have chosen.”
    “I will not allow you to make the changes you wish in the ways you wish to make them.”

    In each case, there are endless complications with the individual scenarios. Who is pushing out, and who is resisting? Why do they feel powerless/alone/afraid?

    This world is so different, but never separated. Everything is connected. The balance is something that I do not feel we, as humans, have the capacity to responsibly control. I am afraid for our future as we continue to discover more tools to attempt control.

    Extremism is ultimately a product of fear.
    But is fear really something that we can fix on a large scale, over the course of countless cultures/beliefs/persons?

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