Unconscious extremism

Conservative politicians repeatedly label the Australian Greens “extreme” in an attempt to marginalise them and the one in ten Australians who regularly support them.  The word “extreme” has become a slur in our political discourse, though it means neither good nor bad unless paired with something tangible.  Certainly, there are bad extreme things: one can be extremely bigoted, selfish, callous or apathetic, but equally there are good: one can be extremely kind, compassionate, intelligent or wise.  Despite this, there is a long history of “extreme” implying something negative, and the idea has various names such as the Goldilocks principle or the Golden Mean. 

Aristotle, the most influential philosopher in Europe for centuries from the late middle ages onwards, perhaps most famously expressed the idea.  He said that if we took a virtue such as bravery, not enough of it would make a person cowardly, but having too much of it would make a person rash and foolhardy.  It was the middle between these two extremes, the ‘Golden Mean’, that was the virtuous path. It has been compared to a string on an instrument, which achieves its tone by being neither too tight, nor too loose.  Similar calls for being centrist in all things have been put forth by many philosophers, religions and cultures through the ages.  This is not without good reason; it is a simple rule to follow and to find the middle ground requires us to at least think about different sides of a topic.  In our increasingly complex world, however, simple rules often lead us astray.

A quote which has been misattributed to various Nazi leaders, “the bigger the lie, the more likely it is to be believed,” was discussed on the notorious racist website StormFront.  They interpreted the quote to mean that the more extreme claims racists like themselves make, the more it creates a space for the middle ground of opinion to shift towards their views.  Because of people’s tendency to conform in order to get along or be likeable, the cultural context of which they are only peripherally aware can shift their views.  By pushing the outlines of the debate as far to the fascist side as possible, they hope to automatically move the beliefs of the many people who instinctively try to dwell in the centre.

In order to ensure we are not unwitting victims of attempts to use human tendencies to manipulate us, the only real defence is wider knowledge and conscious independent thinking.  We need to have an understanding of the whole marketplace of ideas, and make our own decisions on moral and intellectual truths rather than accepting our cues from the cultural context.  We must try, as difficult as it is, to think from first principles and to consistently re-evaluate positions, including our own. Perhaps most importantly we must be well informed.  

Unfortunately on average Australians aren’t well informed; in fact, we are less interested in news than almost any other developed country.  Australians also don’t tend to access different sides of issues and tend to rely on a limited number of news sources; over a fifth say they rely on only one.  Our dominant news sources are owned by large corporations and our ruling conservative self-described “party of business” is exercising unprecedented control over supposedly public media.  Thus the limited news we get is mostly serving the same ruling class interests.

This is a problem because, as much as we may believe otherwise, there are limitations to the freedom and individuality of our thought.  Our range of thoughts on political issues, just like our range of language, is a product of the culture in which we are immersed and the sources of information we are exposed to.  Unless we are in our Prime Minister’s social circles, what we think of him is largely going to be dictated by the representations we are given by the media. Thus even the small number of people who try to think critically are trapped in this prison of available information.  We are consuming information designed to perpetuate and reinforce the status quo served up by the people who benefit from it.

We can transcend this intellectual prison by consciously choosing information.  We can take in a spectrum of sources, paying particular attention to ownership in understanding the bias of what we are consuming.  We should also be careful of our own biases and be looking for information which is most likely to challenge our ideas.  Ideally we would consume news from sources with a commitment to honest, historically informed journalism; journalism that is more concerned with educating us than manipulating us, and which has less of a focus on the sensationalism of the moment.  These are not easy to find in a market funded by advertising to encourage consumerism, but try we must for the sake of our intellectual freedom.

Contradicting the Golden Mean is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, “when you are right, you can’t be too radical”.  On the face of it this seems dangerous, much more so than Aristotle’s middle ground.  How do you know when you are right?  The people who are surest of their opinions are often the least well informed.  The Dunning-Kruger effect shows us that the lower people scored on a test of knowledge, the more likely they were to overestimate how well they had done.  An effect of the lack of intelligence is the inability to comprehend how we compare to other people, and how limited our understanding and world view might be.  Doubt is a more important part of our consciousness in deciding how and when to intercede in the world than certainty, indeed certainty may be a hint that we are oversimplifying an issue.

Knowing when we should be certain enough to act requires understanding ourselves, our flaws, biases and opinions in the widest possible context.  Are we the sort of person who prefers to be right than truthful, who trusts intuition over learning, who doesn’t feel the need to engage with inconvenient facts?  If we are this sort of person, perhaps we aren’t ready to embrace radicalism until we have done the intellectual work to honour it.  However, if we have managed to escape the obsession with ego, if we can underpin our thoughts with self-reflection, questioning and doubt, then we have a moral duty to take heed of Martin Luther King’s words and act. The change we need must be just as thoughtful as it is radical.

Our world has a long list of inconvenient truths which are extreme in the suffering they will or do cause, and their solutions will not come from people taking centrist positions.  Species extinctions, hundreds of millions in poverty, violence, war, inequality, ecological destruction, the risk of nuclear annihilation, tens of billions of animals suffering in factory farms, the threat of climate instability.  It is the opposite of extremism to oppose these things. What is extreme is living in such a way that helps drive the economic and political model which underpins the terrible problems in our world. Passively watching as we burn the world is extremism, and this is collectively what we are doing.

Consumerist individualist society in all of its selfishness, disrespect and ignorance towards the natural beauty of life requires from us a proportionate countering response.  We should not fear extremism itself, as to heal ourselves and our world is going to take extreme wisdom, compassion, love and positivity.  If the insane march of humanity into a sixth mass extinction event that may include ourselves is to be halted or even slowed, then the only place for the sane, centrist person is out on the radical fringe.  Each day we wait to join in the resistance to consumerism is another day of unconscious extremism.