February 18, 2020


Why extremism is a question of psychology, not politics (QUASSIM CASSAM, 2/18/20, New Statesman)

To be an extremist is, first and foremost, to have an extremist mindset. It is often pointed out that people at opposite ends of the political spectrum have much in common. What they have in common is their mindset: their preoccupations, attitudes, thinking styles and emotions. To understand these elements is to understand why the extremist label is not one that anyone should be happy to own. 

A key extremist preoccupation is victimisation - the perception of themselves as victims of persecution. While extremism can be a reaction to genuine persecution, many extremists are obsessed with fantasies of persecution. For example, so-called "incels", men who describe themselves as "involuntarily celibate", believe that they are oppressed by women who refuse to have sex with them. This is a classic extremist persecution fantasy.  

Another extremist preoccupation is purity. The purity that extremists are obsessed with can be ideological, religious, or ethnic. Ideological extremists are not just strongly committed to a specific ideology or belief system. Their commitment is to what they see as the purest or most unadulterated version of their favoured ideology. Their biggest fear is dilution, and they see themselves as virtuous because of the purity of their beliefs. 

Extremism's preoccupation with purity explains one of its key attitudes: its attitude to compromise. Extremists hate compromise because it detracts from purity. Being an extremist is as much a matter of how one believes as what one believes. Extremists see compromise as a form of betrayal, and while extremists may hate their opponents, this is usually milder than their hatred of people on their own side who have, as they see it, "sold out". 

Another key extremist attitude is indifference to any adverse consequences of one's actions or policies. To not be deterred by the practical or emotional damage incurred is the essence of fanaticism, so it follows that extremists are also fanatics. The reverse, however, is not true; one might be indifferent to practicalities, but not preoccupied with purity and victimhood as extremists invariably are. 

[See also: How to get on with your political enemies]

As for extremist thinking styles, these are powerfully articulated in Richard Hofstadter's essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Extremists are prone to both utopian and conspiracy thinking. They think in terms of a future utopia to which their policies will lead, and they see conspiracies everywhere. Many extremist conspiracy theories, such as the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are anti-Semitic.

In Hofstadter's terms, extremists are also uncommonly angry, and this points to the emotional components of the extremist mindset. Extremist anger is rooted in feelings of resentment about their lot. Another fundamental extremist emotion is self-pity. Anger, resentment, and self-pity are a potentially lethal emotional cocktail, especially in combination with other elements of the extremist mindset.  

You can't actually embarrass extremists, but one of the delicious plaints from the Right is that "we don't necessarily agree with Donald but look at how the elites condescend to us! It's only natural we react."

Posted by at February 18, 2020 2:17 PM