The Trouble With Extremism

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A while back, I read this post by M. Merveilleux over at his blog. It referred to a field guide published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”) regarding anti-Muslim extremists. Specifically, there was a furor over the placement of two atheists on a list of anti-Muslim extremists: Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I think it illustrates the difficulty in even defining what extremism is, regardless of whether anyone agrees with the SPLC or not.

Extremism is a tricky thing.
Is it excessive devotion to an idea or thing? If so, I’m an extremist regarding cake. People can be extremists regarding video games, or stamp collecting, or even pacifism. What does an extremist pacifist look like? How does one escalate not fighting? What are the limits of what extremism can be?

Within this context, extremism generally gets used to label people or groups which operate outside some amorphous norm perceived as reasonable. Thus, an extremist cake aficionado might earn the label by being violent regarding the consumption of cake. As long as an undefined majority views this as not okay, the label of extremist sticks.

A quick problem here is that extremism can change over time. Things we do today might be termed as extremist in five, ten, or fifteen years. Campaigning for women’s rights or against slavery and segregation was once seen as a bit extreme. Depending upon the context, it might be labeled as extreme today. Perception and time determines all of this.

How the SPLC is using the word “extremism,” and why it’s causing a stir.
It compiled its list of anti-Muslim extremists based on notoriety and hate speech. The hate speech seems to revolve around saying false things about Muslims and the religion of Islam, although this doesn’t accurately reflect all of the entries on the list. Indeed, if lying about Islam was the main criteria, Mr. Nawaz should not be on that list unless the SPLC can provide a quote supporting that assertion.

That point aside, I think this list has caused problems for the same reason that labeling the Family Research Council as a hate group did: it’s broadening the definition of what hate speech is, which broadens who can be an extremist. Early on, hate speech was simply thought of as something regarding racism and anti-Semitism, usually involving depriving those groups of rights. As time progresses, that definition has changed. Nowadays, hate speech gets used in more contexts than just racial and religious discrimination.

Doing it this way can change how people see what hate is, and some people might object to certain things as being hate speech. It certainly happened with the Family Research Council. Some people argued it couldn’t be hate speech to denigrate homosexual people because it was based in deeply held religious beliefs. Similarly, a few people argued it was unfair for Nawaz and Ali to be put on the SPLC’s list.

This is why we need to have a better discussion of what extremism is.
At a minimum, hate speech and its associated extremism needs to be clearly defined. I think the SPLC has historically provided a great starting point for that definition. Hatred and extremism relies on lies presented as truth for it to exist. Without the lie that other races are inferior to Europeans, the slave trade couldn’t have been excused. Without the lie that homosexuals are criminal deviants, they couldn’t have been jailed and marginalized. Without the lie that some other group is inherently bloodthirsty, it makes it harder to kill them.

And it’s easy to sell those lies, which is an important point of the SPLC’s report. Most of the people on that list (including Ms. Ali) have benefited from lying about Muslims. They have gained citizenship, sold books, sold speaking engagements, and obtained money from lying to people. Certainly that needs to stop.

On the other hand, calling them all extremists might devalue the meaning of the word itself. Right now, they’re profiteering off of anti-Muslim sentiment and fear. While some of their speech might be used by individuals to justify violent acts against people, these profiteers are not actually organizing the violence. I think that needs to count for something. There needs to be a way out for people to take a step back and say, “This is a line I am close to crossing.”

Ultimately, I don’t think these profiteers need to be called extremists in order to criticize what they say. Rather, I think that they can be called out as liars. Then, they should be ignored as such.