The Problem with Extremism

A number of times in past blogs, I’ve often pointed out that one of the problems with politics in the United States today is political polarization and either the unwillingness or the inability of the two major political parties in Congress to compromise in order to accomplish constructive ends.

A recent article dealing with game theory and radical religious extremists, especially Islamic extremists, gave me definite pause for thought, because the author pointed out that compromise is impossible between a secular government and any group whose defined goal is destruction, whether that destruction is aimed at a concrete object, a society, a country, a government, or a way of life, because total destruction is an absolute with which there can be no compromise and those pursuing that goal will give their lives before accepting any compromise.

The same problem arises even in democratic or republican forms of government when any individual or group insists on an uncompromising “absolute.” This has been demonstrated recently in U.S. domestic politics. For a fundamentalist believer in the “right-to-life” of every fetus, regardless of the cost to the mother, including her life, or to society, or even to a non-viable fetus, there is no compromise. For someone whose faith requires male supremacy, the compromise of equal rights can never be acceptable. For those who believe in the only form of marriage that should be recognized by government as that between one man and one woman, no compromise is acceptable. For those who believe that the only laws are those of one particular faith, no compromise with secular authority, or even another faith, is possible.

Absolutes in religious faith of whatever nature, and in some “secular faiths,” are usually not amenable to compromise, and so-called “compromises” are merely pauses while the absolutists attempt to make further “progress” toward their absolute goal.

While the Founding Fathers, so far as I’m aware, didn’t state that they wanted to avoid religious absolutes specifically, they certainly were aware of the problem, which was why they stated in Article Six of the Constitution that no religious test shall ever be required for public office or public trust and why the first amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

But the problem today is that various groups are pursuing not only religious absolutes, but also secular absolutes, as exemplified by the religious-like fervor over “gun rights,” where the extremists on one side insist on the absolute right to bear any kind of arms in any kind of situation and those on the other side insist that guns have no place at all in a civilized society. Each side demonizes the other’s attempts to come up with a solution to the 13,000 or so annual deaths from firearms, because each believes that the other will not stop until they reach an absolute position.

Absolutism has never worked, and it likely never will, but that doesn’t seem to stop those who believe in absolutes. The problem with that, especially with religion-based terrorists, is that, short of destroying such absolutists, and, in effect becoming another kind of absolutist, there’s no middle ground. In politics in the U.S., however, there should be room for a middle ground. Certainly, the Founding Fathers thought so, but perhaps Franklin was thinking about the tendency toward absolutism when he said that they had created “A republic, if you can keep it.”

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Extremism”

  1. Jim says:

    Alas, Ben had the right of it. It’s scary and depressing that I can’t see a smooth segue back to moderation and real-world compromise.

    At least I can look forward to 10/11!

    Be well.

  2. John Beumer says:

    Hummm… There’s a little bit of a false equivalence going on here. I don’t believe I know anyone who is advocating a ban on all firearms in the US. But I know a lot of people who would like to see stronger controls on who can purchase them and when they can purchase them. Stronger licensing would be nice and perhaps a ban on automatic weapons, large capacity magazines and nuclear weapons over one megaton in capacity would be a good idea.

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