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Monday, August 07, 2006

a bit on the extreme and extremism

We acknowledge that "extreme" is an adjective, the sort of word used to modify nouns and their respective meanings, and that since "extremism" is an "-ism" it is a noun. The definition of it (the adjective) is fairly simple. "Extreme" can also be used as a noun and it's still simple but overly vague (in fact that is why it is too simple). The adjective, for example, from Merriam-Webster:
Main Entry: 1ex·treme
Pronunciation: ik-'strEm
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin extremus, superlative of exter, exterus being on the outside -- more at EXTERIOR
1 a : existing in a very high degree <extreme poverty> b : going to great or exaggerated lengths : RADICAL extreme diet> c : exceeding the ordinary, usual, or expected <extreme weather conditions>
2 archaic : LAST
3 : situated at the farthest possible point from a center extreme north>
4 a : most advanced or thoroughgoing extreme political left> b : MAXIMUM
5 a : of, relating to, or being an outdoor activity or a form of a sport (as skiing) that involves an unusually high degree of physical risk <extreme mountain biking down steep slopes> b : involved in an extreme sport extreme snowboarder>
synonym see EXCESSIVE
- ex·treme·ness noun

Defining the noun, extreme, demonstrates how the word is even less useful.
Main Entry: 2extreme
Function: noun
1 a : something situated at or marking one end or the other of a range <extremes of heat and cold> b : the first term or the last term of a mathematical proportion c : the major term or minor term of a syllogism
2 a : a very pronounced or excessive degree b : highest degree : MAXIMUM
3 : an extreme measure or expedient extremes>
- in the extreme : to the greatest possible extent

It's a term of relativity, only utilitarian in a sense of precision if one has a notion or grasp or knowledge of what the set standard is. Quite rarely is that middle point common knowledge and in the terms of public rhetoric, especially politics, "extreme" is a moral declaration, and thus made totally worthless, for a more than a few reasons.

I think I'll only go over the few reasons.

First of all, since to be extreme is to be distanced from a fixed point in order to intelligently use the word as a moral judgement you have to judge the zero-standard to be moral and thus morally good, declare it to be so, and then you have to justify that stance. Declaring that you are"not extreme" and thus are standing on good moral ground is both arrogant, and automatically counting on your audience to consist primarily of ignorant boobs. It is also an action of speaking literally meaningless things. Something can only be extreme if someone is being extreme in regard to something else. Otherwise we are left to assume and infer. Explicitly stating that you are not something, say "extreme" is implying that you are something else, and if not extreme then you must be at a middle point. In politics there is no zero point nor is there truly a median value. There is a spectrum of accepted political positioning in this country/society, with placement determined by comparative stances on specific issues, and the majority of active, successful political parties in the United States (as well as American elected officials) exist within that narrow band of the political continuum. To be inside this stretch is normal, and inside of that there is a right and a left but the closest thing there is a median value does not literally fit the definion. One can be a moderate.

To a lot of people being a moderate is a virtue. That being a political moderate is to be virtuous is in fact a (political) philosophical stance. Not many agree. For many the defense of political moderates is a reaction to attacks from other political factions and for others it's the starting ground for their assault/condemnation on extremism. But what's wrong with being extreme? Paging Jonah Goldberg...
Self-appointed guardians of our national "discourse"... constantly disparage partisanship, ideology and, most of all, "extremism" as inherently bad.

This hatred of extremism is a bit odd. Nowhere else in life do we think extremism is inherently bad regardless of context. When doctors use "extreme measures" to save a life, we don't tar the surgeon as an "extremist." Meanwhile, the moderate or middling thing to do is often morally and intellectually indefensible. A surgeon who agrees to work on a patient for three hours but no more — because that would be extreme — is negligent. Refusing to perform "radical surgery" for fear of being an extremist is criminally childish. In other words, sometimes the "extreme" thing to do is also the right thing to do.

The word "extreme" is stupid! We're discussing what is the right thing to do, as well as the alternative. Unless we're talking about physical activity, mechanical use, consumption, or something of that sort, then whether or not something is extreme or not is an irrelevent description given that what action we're supposed to take is not something that's determined by comparing anything to standards of middling! Also, if there is a debate between something that is right and something that is wrong (there's always a group that believes and thus argues that what is wrong is right and what is right is wrong; that's what a debate is made of) then the middle-ground between those two positions is not what's right! Between accurate and inaccurate the middle ground between the two still is not accurate!
On issue after issue, the left and right get into a tug-of-war over their preferred policy solutions. And politicians, extreme people-pleasers that they are, try to split the difference. The journalists who cover politicians are cynics and assume that true believers are by their very nature suspicious. Moreover, because politicians and mainstream journalists alike get the most grief from "partisans" of the left and the right, they both assume that the middle is the most enlightened place to be, since they think that's where they are. But compromise is not always the smartest way to go. Leaping a canyon in one jump may or may not be stupidly extreme, but it's a hell of lot smarter than the more moderate approach of trying to leap it in two jumps.
Lest I seem too bipartisan myself here, it should be noted that the bias against extremism is not a purely centrist phenomenon. It comes in large part from a sustained liberal campaign against conservatives. The most famous illustration of this is probably Barry Goldwater's perfectly sensible declaration that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. But for a generation of liberals, extremism was something to be found only on the right, never on the left, and Goldwater's observation was taken as code for extremism liberals don't like.
Paladins of bipartisan moderation may not realize how responsible they are for today's polarized climate. In America, it is impossible to gain traction on an idea unless you first assure everyone that it's not "extreme" or "radical." Assurances that "this is a moderate, centrist reform," and that "this is mainstream," proliferate whenever a policy is put forward. There's a deep cynicism in the assumption that Americans will only agree to things that aren't too inconvenient. But, more important, there's a profound dishonesty to such assurances, which inevitably cause people with opposing views to get very, very angry.
One can certainly see then how "extremism" is a codeword sent to trigger a visceral reaction in stupid, ignorant people who believe they pay attention.

Let's all keep in mind then that declaring a set of moral stances or ideas as "extreme" then insults these people and yet if you don't automatically see "extreme" as synonymous with "excessive" in the sociopolitical context, then in fact to be extreme is the ideal, and the compliment, which is what led to the best interpretation of and the intended meaning of Barry Goldwater's axiom. The unfettered pursuit of what is right, proper, and good is not a sin. There are lots of things that are right. There is one word to describe anything that isn't right and that word is "wrong". Declaring someone else as extreme when you see yourself as something else is obviously an attack. For the most part I find it dishonest. It is dishonest. It's polarizing without clarifying. Putting someone in the evil zone without clearly delineating the lines ahead of time is a dirty trick. Overall it's not seeing and saying where everyone is in the real world.

That's the problem with "extreme" being a word that's too vague. It's used as an attack because it's vague and because people are usually too shallow to question what's so extreme about something or what's so bad about it anyway. As said before there is an acceptable stretch of what is good and bad for political beliefs. To be truthful there is nothing conventionally extreme about any of the standard beliefs, stances, and visions held by the Democrats and Republicans. There is the Liberal and the Conservative and that is alright. Beyond that on either side we radicals, reactionaries, communisits, fascists, socialists, (sometimes anarchists), and the far ends of the spectrum are totalitarian philosophies. Traditionally asserting that someone is extreme (still in the context of politics) is suggesting that someone holds to these beliefs. The issue is not what lies between the Liberals and the Conservatives, the political philosophies that follow neither of those nor their movements: the Moderate. This is not about the Moderates. Moderation is a virtue when it comes to taking care of your body but not when it comes to the body politic. The problem with being a Moderate may be that it is more difficult to anticipate the ideals of the Moderate (and it is) but the relevent thing is that casting someone else as "extreme" is implying that the opponent is outside the norm, when in fact it simply is far from the Moderate in position, yet still inside the acceptable terms. Claiming otherwise is dishonest.

Which extreme is it? We the just proclaim that an extreme is a clearly delineated point or stance. We know what's right and it's just to pursue that! It's better to pursue that than to work to appear as acceptable to all. There's one more saying that I take as an axiom: those who sit in the middle of the road have a tendency to get run over.

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