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The influences and motivational forces that propel a society are many, but what is it that drives individuals or organisations to become extreme? Whether it be Islamic fundamentalists, white racists, Osama Bin Laden or George Bush, is there a common pathology that links them all?

Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘extreme’ as: “exceeding the ordinary, usual, or expected.” It is through extreme effects that Alexander Graham Bell unearthed the telephone, Benjamin Franklin, electricity and George Washington Carver, over 300 uses for the peanut. Are we not a society of extreme efforts and behaviors? The emergence of reality shows have made us a culture that obsesses and celebrates extreme behavior. We’ll watch to what extreme a person will reconfigure her body through plastic surgery, how many cow eyeballs someone can eat ,and how many strangers someone can live with and for how long. We tune in with baited breath to watch extreme, sometimes dangerous, and oftentimes disgusting challenges with the promise of money for victory and fifteen minutes of fame. We’re not without recognizing, though, the ills of extreme behavior.

Stedman's Medical Dictionary defines 'addiction' as: “habitual psychological and physiological dependence on a substance or practice beyond one's voluntary control.” Do extremists carry characteristics that would define them as addicts? Addicts for their cause? Addicts for their beliefs? Are ‘pro-life’ individuals who are willing to kill abortion doctors, who believe that personhood begins at conception rather than at birth, addicted to the cause of life? . . . At the price of death? A basic psychological profile of the extremist personality shows an individual starting out with unlimited faith that his prime value is good, and then decides that you can't have too much of a good value-- the more the better. Isn’t that how addiction begins? One night you’re at a party dancing with a lampshade on your head, and the next you’re investing in Altoids, the curiously strong mint, and popping them before a parent-teacher meeting hoping they don’t report you and your ‘morning breath’ to child welfare services. Where is the line? An extremist, defined as someone who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm, particularly in politics, seems to come from a place of wanting to modify an extreme situation, hoping to swing the pendulum in the other direction.

A group like The Black Panther Party saw the extreme racial ills in 1960’s America and counteracted that extreme with a swing of the pendulum and defined themselves as a controversial black-American Civil Rights and self-defense organization. Founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966, the organization initially addressed societal oppression with a code of armed resistance in the interest of black American justice, though its objectives and philosophy changed radically throughout the party's existence. They didn’t half step. They called for exemption from military service that would utilize black Americans to “fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America.” These extreme words and positioning attracted a diverse membership, making the ideological consensus within the party difficult to nail down and differing perspectives within the party base often clashed conspicuously with those of its leadership.

The Nation of Islam (NOI) also spoke very specifically to the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of the black men and women of America and the rest of the world. It is a separatist, religious, and socio-political organization founded in the United States by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930 with a declared aim of resurrecting black people from the ills of institutionalized racism, classism and poverty. Its controversy comes from a myriad of criticisms, namely that the organization’s teachings are not accepted by Muslims, who consider its teachings to be heresy by equating a human being with God, among other issues. And though supporters have praised the Nation of Islam for improving poor neighborhoods, helping black businesses, and encouraging black men to be sober and respectful of women, the current leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, never known to hold his tongue, is among other leaders who have been criticized for being racist, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and sexist.

Islamic fundamentalism is a religious ideology which advocates literalist interpretations of the sacred texts of Islam, Sharia law, and an Islamic State. Islamic fundamentalism, like other movements, charges that the problems of the world stem from secular influences and believe the path to peace and justice lies in a return to the original message of Islam, combined with a scrupulous rejection of all Bid'ah, ‘innovation,’ and perceived anti-Islamic traditions.

Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is classified as an Abrahamic religion because of the centrality of Abraham in their shared traditions. Christianity is a monotheistic religion presented in the New Testament. Christians believe Jesus to be the Messiah and God incarnate and thus refer to him as Jesus Christ. With an estimated 2.1 billion adherents in 2001, Christianity is the world's largest religion. It is the predominant religion in the Americas, Europe, Australia, and large parts of Africa. It is also growing rapidly in Asia, particularly in China and South Korea, Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Christianity has also brought with it its cast of extreme characters such as the renown and beloved Billy Graham. There is also the former fundamentalist, now evangelist, Jerry Falwell who took over the Praise the Lord (PTL) television show, with average viewers numbering over twelve million, after former hosts Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker divorced following Jim’s indictment on federal charges of fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering. Soon to follow was Jimmy Swaggart’s fall from grace. Jimmy Swaggart denounced PTL minister Jim Bakker for committing adultery, calling him “a cancer in the body of Christ.” A year later he tearfully begged for God's forgiveness on national television, bawling, “I have sinned against you, my Lord.” The exact nature of the transgression, he never explains, referring only to a vague “moral failure.” It was later revealed that he had relations with prostitutes and was addicted to pornography. In November 2000, he found enough salvation to call the Prophet Muhammad a “pervert” and a “sex deviant.”

Religion often speaks to a population of people who want to bring a defined morality in a world that seems to lack it. But when followers as well as figureheads take such a grand stance on their platform, are they not setting themselves up to fall farther from grace than if they took a more humble “work in progress” position? A study conducted by Sherif and Hovland in 1961 shows that “patterns of judgment displayed by extremists arise from their ego-involvement in the issue in question. Here, extremists’ ‘own stand’ and the norms or values associated with membership of an extreme group are seen to detract from dispassionate ‘factual’ appraisal of stimuli.” Do extremists feel they’re above the law or even the ability to falter? Philosopher Aristotle saw the error of the extremist. According to his view, “extremists are prone to error because they are victims of one or many of primitive id impulses, mental patient status, deviance, maladjustment, anxiety, intolerance of ambiguity, inflexibility, desire forcertainty, ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, rigidity, and dogmatism.”

Do religious and social action groups offer a more palatable menu than groups that have historically tried to ethnically cleanse populations of people? What swung the pendulum for them? Even though since 1945, Nazism has been outlawed as a political ideology in Germany, as well as forms of iconography and propaganda from the Nazi era, there are still remnants and revivalists, known as “Neo-Nazis” who continue to operate in Germany and abroad. Similar to white supremacy, which holds an ideology that the white race is superior, Nazis believed in the superiority of an Aryan master race and individual leadership in a strong, centralized government. They also claimed to be defending Germany and the German people (including those of German ethnicity abroad) against communism and Jewish subversion and tried to form a new, cleansed world order. Perhaps they wanted to strike a balance with the post-war efforts in Australia to boost the population with the post-war migration program. In early 1942, before WWII ended, the Department of Information, headed by Arthur Calwell, began to develop a plan to populate Australia. Many non-British migrates came from Europe and the mixture of cultures amongst migrants brought some dissension, particularly amongst people who had been enemies only a short time before.

Further profiles on true extremists also show that they ignore the consequences of their actions. Compromise, giving weight to other values, is a curse for such folks. They avoid the painful process of thinking through and weighing issues, in the struggle for truth and harmony. Beneath the surface of their exterior facade of certainty and conviction, there is deep inner ambivalence and uncertainty. Tajfel and Turner's social identity theory of 1979 states that peoples’ group memberships impact psychologically on their sense of self, so that, in some conditions ‘we’ is just as important for self-definition as ‘I’ is in others. A central message here is that groups have psychological impact on the individual and, what is more, this impact transforms individual psychology leading to group behavior that is qualitatively distinct. In an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Like Hitler, leaders that emerge from extremist groups go from the forefront of their cause and make their way into our consciousness in a startling way. The controversy of Farrakhan, Ahmadinejad, Bin Laden, and Mussolini develop a cult-like fascination for us. What is it about their particular style, tactic, and leadership that creates such a watershed in our history?

Aristotle set the framework for contemporary social psychological research into extremism in three important ways. First, he clearly defined moderation as a normative benchmark against which all other positions were to be compared. Second, he considered moderation and extremism as mutually exclusive absolutes, each of which was associated with a discrete set of outcomes whose merit could be independently established. Finally, he pointed to patterns of judgment associated with extremism that seemed to challenge this valid ordering of things. He concluded that extremists could be identified as people who failed to see moderation for what it is: truth and virtue. If you are not an extremist, when do you come to terms with your competing values? When do you do recognize that there’s a time for war, or that ‘evil’ cannot be condoned, or that truth must sometimes prevail over peace? When considering basic humanity, must truth be compromised or sacrificed for peace? To what extreme will you go?

1st October 2006
The Politics of Extremism
By Desi K. Robinson