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Frayed Edges: The Dangers Of Extremism

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Extremism and its many facets have set the public discourse ablaze, yet again.

From UK’s prime minister Rishi Sunak denouncing far-right and Islamist fanatics as a threat to British democracy, to political opinions affecting the creative and sports spheres, to aggressive online debates about transgenderism, society has never been more fragmented. It seems that some form of fanaticism is revived on a cyclical basis so that, once or twice every decade, discord explodes and rambling accusations are thrown at the ether. Any topic is ripe for the picking, be it the perceived or real threat of mass immigration, one’s religious beliefs clashing with popular demands, or even something as trivial as the colour of a clothing article (the ‘gold or blue’ dress from 2015 even gained its own Wikipedia page).


Extremism is a relatively new word, entering public discourse only from the mid-1800s, despite being an apt description for many pre-occurring events (Spanish Inquisition, anyone?). It is loosely defined as ‘the holding of extreme, political or religious views’, which sounds self-explanatory, but it also includes the ‘advocacy of other illegal, violent or other extreme measures.’ The latter part of the definition is particularly relevant nowadays, with arguments over the legality of Israel’s self-defence tactics over Gaza or the rightfulness of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s easy to fixate on the ‘political or religious views’ section and see them as an inevitable precursor to violence when, most times, they serve mostly as its justification to the masses. These measures are not necessarily linked to extreme beliefs, but they are an example of extremism in and of themselves. 


Dictionary aside, the specific connotations of extremism are left to individual countries’ interpretation and it has no basis in international legal standards. The UK government is working on improving the wording of the term, which is currently defined as the ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values’, including ‘democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.’ Other countries, such as the US and China, have no official definition for such a widespread phenomenon, often conflating it with terrorism. The issue is, perhaps, that extremism is innately linked with an individual’s perception of the world, making it difficult to encapsulate what is a wide range of experiences within a few sentences. Convictions that seem acceptable to some may be flagged as fanaticism by others and vice-versa, with often not enough information for a decisive verdict in either’s favour. Yet, the accusation of being an extremist is easily thrown around, in real life and on social media. 


From a glance at the last 100 years of history alone, extremist thinkers seem to create more problems than they purport to solve. Blindly following a singular political doctrine rarely leads to permanent success, as Stalin’s fractured USSR and economic inequality-riddled US can attest, not to mention wartime Germany and Italy. A quick Google search on extremism will yield mainly results highlighting Islamic fanaticism as the plague of the modern free world, but that is only one of the many examples. Fanatics can spawn from any area of society, so the Hamas terror attacks filling recent news are in good company with Trump-fuelled, right-wing supported attacks (the US Capitol Attack happened only in 2021), Christian fundamentalists targeting other beliefs (51 were killed in the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch), and white-supremacist terrorists channelling their displeasure via mass murder (77 young activists died and 350 were injured in the 2011 Norway terror attacks). No ideology is entirely good or bad in itself, and many opposing creeds share more core principles than one may think. Often-at-odds Christianity and Islam both have a series of very similar tenets prescribing not to kill, to be generous towards others, respect one’s parents, and only worship the rightful God, as one of many examples. 


As such, any non-scientific system of beliefs holds the potential for extremism, because their subjectivity lends them to be thwarted into intolerance and violence. Personal ideals cannot and should not be used as universal standards because of their very nature. Even when there are scientific and economic grounds for or against an ideal, not many of us have the intellectual authority to publicly impose our opinion on the matter. More often than not, unfortunately, the most heated arguments are held by people who have very limited knowledge of the subject at hand. Someone with traditional religious views may be staunchly against abortion because they see a foetus as a living human and its disposal as murder; on the other hand, a humanist perspective may argue that abortion is essential for women’s safety and that the life and will of the mother come first. Who is correct? It is a difficult verdict for many trained doctors, likely the only parties with enough specialist knowledge to make an informed decision. That is part of why it takes years for certain laws to be amended or come into place. The point is that extremism exists within all of us, but it becomes a danger when we want to impose our own limited yet absolute views on the rest of society. 


Patterns of fringe ideals fighting to become universal law only to cause widespread problems are taught in many a history class, and still, we keep repeating the same mistakes. Part of it is a very human, psychological reaction to uncertainty. Things start happening outside people’s control, from natural disasters like earthquakes or dramatic shifts in climate patterns affecting food production to mass contagions like COVID-19. Adapting to better face these issues would sound, to most, like the logical thing to do. However, occurrences like the above are precisely what drag extreme beliefs to the surface. Religion is often presented as an example, but many self-professed atheists and agnostics hold convictions just as absolute and unproven. There is no definite evidence that veganism is the holy grail to solve all health and farming issues, yet some vegans will fight to convince others to change their diet. Whilst it is great to have more options available (eating too much meat is a very real problem in some countries), forcing or faulting meat-eaters for wanting to stick with their source of protein is a form of extremism. Similarly, supporters of the LGBTQIIA+ movement ask for changes over personally identifiable information (sex, pronouns, name, etc.) to be more flexible and universally accepted, when the laws are currently fuzzy on the topic. It is true that LGBTQIIA+ people have often been marginalised and deserve respect and safety, yet those disagreeing with some of the group’s—non-scientifically nor legally confirmed—ideals have received online threats and been outcasts. J.K. Rowling is the most famous example, but Sussex University professor Kathleen Stock is a more worrying one, as academia should be a beacon for freedom of speech for all.   


Ultimately, beware of the frayed edges of belief. Each of us is entitled to our ideals, and having informed and open discussions about them should be encouraged because, no matter how popular or disliked they are, points of agreement will eventually come to light. Communication and comprehension are key, and attempts to demonise or prevent it are acts of extremism themselves, leading to disastrous consequences. The promise that one’s conviction trumps others’ without any solid proof of the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ is a mirage at best and a cruel lie at worst. Politicians call extremism a threat to democracy, and they are partly right. Fanaticism, as history teaches, is bound to ruin the ecosystem it grows in, whether it be a democratic regime like the UK, a theocracy like Iran or a dictatorship like North Korea. This does not mean we should remain opinionless, but that we must learn to hold onto the edge of our beliefs with one hand whilst stretching the other in the opposite direction. 

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