A slur to silence dissent
A spectre is haunting our political class, the spectre of extremism. Despite being a word that means little by itself, “extreme” is used to summon fear, to banish thought, to characterise ideas as beyond the pale of acceptable opinion and ensure they are not engaged with. Labelling an idea as extreme without defining how is powerful, for it leaves the mind to paint in whatever nameless fear unsettles us.
Like so many words that refer to concrete ideas and positions, such as fascist, nazi, terrorist, communist, once it has become an accepted negative term in the culture, people then try to attach the word to anything they wish to slander, anything which holds a counter position to their own.
A sane majority?
In “Sane Society” Erich Fromm posited that psychoanalysts had tried to reconcile people with society on the assumption that this was where wellness lay. Following Freud, they believed that the mark of sanity or insanity was relative according to one’s ability to navigate the status quo of the culture. Fromm believed many individuals had been damaged by analysts trying to get their patients to conform to a society that was dysfunctional and situations that were the cause of their problems.
The word extreme has inherited a similar toxic legacy, the assumption that society maintains some central moral position, and those holding positions outside the status quo are extreme by their opposition to the centre. Let us examine that moral, sane centre, and whether that status quo is not itself extreme.
The extreme status quo: poverty
736 million people are estimated to live in extreme poverty globally. This is substantially less than the 1900 million estimated to live in poverty three decades ago which has meant major progress for human wellbeing. Whilst this is to be celebrated, it is also unclear how far this progress can or will continue as it has been being based on technological advance and economic growth. There may be a limit on how many people working in sweatshops the market needs, especially as artificial intelligence and robotics advance. Extreme poverty brings with it child mortality, preventable diseases, poor education, substandard housing, physical insecurity and many other evils. We are a culture comfortable with leaving hundreds of millions of people in poverty when we have more than enough resources to end it at relatively little cost to ourselves. The extreme status quo of the market says that people only deserve basic dignity if someone can make a profit from them; that the right to have a luxury car or a holiday home, is more important than the right to access water, education, housing, or healthcare. The extreme status quo says poor people need to wait for the market to get around to finding a use for them, if it ever does.
The extreme status quo: environmental devastation
The rise of humanity has seen the background extinction rate of other species multiplied by a thousand. 60% of wild animals have been lost since the 1970s as a result of human activity. 90% of large fish in the ocean have been lost since the 1950s, and by 2050 it is predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. 96% of land mammal biomass on this planet is now humans and livestock. The future will be bleaker still; half of all plant and animal species are at risk of total extinction by the end of this century due to human-caused climate instability. The extreme status quo says that only human life has real worth, that this is our world and the life and death of others matters little; that having the power to dominate other species and take everything that makes life worth living from them, even life itself, means it is morally right to do so.
The extreme status quo: animal abuse
To stand near a factory farm is to begin to smell the horror of the lives within them. Animals existing crammed together in conditions offensive to life itself. Spending their days on concrete floors, in wire cages, having every small mercy of life taken from them, including all their natural pleasures and behaviours. Their beaks, tails, horns, genitals, removed without pain relief so they are no threat to others, human and non-human when they lash out at in the madness of their confinement. These creatures who seek to be free as all do, often only glimpse the sun or smell untainted air for a brief moment as they are transferred from their prison to the slaughterhouse. This is the life we have made for them. The extreme status quo says that animal suffering on an enormous scale is acceptable, not even something we should be told about. It says that anyone saying that non--human animals should have a chance of happiness is an extremist.
The source of the problem
The above issues receive much less attention in our society than celebrities, gossip, sport and consumerism. Tariq Ali wrote a book called “The Extreme Centre”. For him, it was a set of economic and foreign policies shared by governments which had terrible consequences and faced little serious questioning amongst the ruling classes. Most analyses of this kind tend to blame our situation on corporations, the wealthy, the political class, colonialism etc. I agree to some extent, but ultimately the ruling classes are made up of people with the same human flaws as the rest of us.
Talking to people I meet, at work, in my social circles, the odd stranger, I don’t see many taking responsibility for the world they inhabit. They are decent people but they refuse to give up their cars, their meat, their air conditioning, their regular holiday flights. They refuse to consume less, move their money to more ethical banks, pay the small premium the power companies charge for green energy, donate to charities or vote for political parties which have more compassionate and environmentally sensible policies. I have met too many people, seen too much selfishness, apathy, and self-absorption to believe that the ruling classes are the problem and that if they were somehow replaced the world would be instantly better.
The solution is in our hands
Change is only going to happen when enough of us stop blaming others and accept personal responsibility for the state of the world. People are trying to change things; if we aren’t joining them we are part of the problem.
We should begin by accepting that we are part of the extreme status quo.