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Sometimes Extremism is a Good Thing

Michael Kazin has an article in Dissent doing something that is rarely done, praising extremism. Yes, extremism is often very dangerous and very unhealthy for society. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what seems radical and unthinkable at one point in time is the overwhelming consensus in later years. An example:

Sometimes, those who take an inflexible, radical position hasten a purpose that years later is widely hailed as legitimate and just. Extremism is the coin of conviction, whether virtuous or malign. It forces middle-roaders to crush the disrupter or adapt.

In the 1830s, the “moderate” way to abolish slavery in the U.S. was to compensate slave-owners and ship their former chattels, nearly all of whom were American-born, to Africa. Extreme abolitionists argued, loudly, that it was a sin to hold human beings in bondage; nothing but immediate freedom would do. “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?,” asked William Lloyd Garrison. “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation.” A little over three decades later, his principles were written into the Constitution.

Over time, certain other extremists on the left also turned out to be prophets. Moderate authorities in politics and the media once lambasted such pioneer woman suffragists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, militant opponents of Jim Crow like Ida Wells Barnett and W.E.B. DuBois, and early critics of the war in Vietnam like the members of Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. But who would now claim that only men should vote, the races should be segregated, and that it was a good idea to send more than a half a million soldiers to Indochina?

All good examples. So when is extremism good and when is it bad? The examples above all have one thing in common: They were movements to correct great injustices. Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was right, even if some of the things that he considered a threat to liberty were quite the opposite and some of the things he thought were justice were not.

Comments

  1. alanb says

    There is a difference between extremist goals and extremist tactics. There have been a number of extremists in history that were right on the issues but not necessarily productive in the manner in which they tried to implement them.

  2. cptdoom says

    It can certainly be argued that the violence during the Stonewall uprising was extremism, and that it made a point no other act could have.

  3. Captain Mike says

    But who would now claim that only men should vote, the races should be segregated, and that it was a good idea to send more than a half a million soldiers to Indochina?

    Vox Day?

  4. MyPetSlug says

    I always liked the Martin Luther King quote “The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”

  5. lofgren says

    I think this post conflates extreme positions with extremism. Most abolitionists worked within the systems of their day in order to accomplish their goals. An extremist would be John Brown, who led an armed insurrection to rescue slaves. Likewise calling W.E.B DuBois an extremist seems more than a little, well, extreme. To my knowledge, at least, DuBois advocated education and legal action to accomplish his goals, not violence. Extremists are defined more by the tactics they advocate than the positions.

    The final paragraph also conveniently punts on defining “good” vs. “bad” extremism. Every extremist everywhere ever has claimed to be working in the service of justice. Ultimately you are advocating extremism in every area of political life. ACA doesn’t do enough for the unemployed? Blow up Congress! Voting Rights act rendered toothless by the Supreme Court? Lynch the justices!

  6. laurentweppe says

    And how many legs does a dog have if you call it’s tail a leg? Being labelled an extremist by the Powers That Be does not make one an extremist. History has shown us that corrupt rulers are quick to call “extremists” the people who merely refuse to fake deference toward them, and even quicker to strikes deals with authentic extremists.

    ***

    ACA doesn’t do enough for the unemployed? Blow up Congress! Voting Rights act rendered toothless by the Supreme Court? Lynch the justices!

    Oh you hippies and your weak half measures: If this is extremism you want, at least go to the dekulakization: exterminate the one percent: all of them, from the newborns to the senile centenarians, and while you’re at it, slaughter every of their middle-class lackeys, including everyone who ever voted even once for a right-wing politician: purge society from all bourgeois vice by removing every element suspected of potentially arboring them: it works wonder
    /sarcasm

  7. gingerbaker says

    If violence in the service of justice was never considered moral, would we ever have had an American revolution? Nobody these days ever publicly states that violence is ever to be even contemplated, yet that was not the position of the Founding Fathers, was it?

    What other remedy is there when plutocrats own the politicians, the courts, the police, the press? One of the reasons that the standard of living and the hallmarks of social justice are much higher in Europe than in the U.S. is that the citizenry of Europe was not afraid to riot, strike, even maim and kill targeted individuals in the pursuit of social justice.

    The reason that 1% of the population has 40% of the wealth in the U.S. is because we don’t eat them yet.

  8. Doubting Thomas says

    There was a time in the 60s when long hair and hippie fashion was an extreme statement, now everyone dresses that way. A minor example sure but at the time it merited threats of bodily harm.

  9. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    This strikes me as a rehashing of the Overton-window theory.

    This theory posits that on any given issue there’s a range of “acceptable” viewpoints/statements, the so-called “Overton window.” If someone makes a statement or adopts a position that is outside of this window, one possible effect of this is for the window to move. To use the example of slavery, Garrison et al refusing to shut up about the necessity of absolute abolition enabled other people to (1) hear this viewpoint and (2) advocate it themselves, which, in time, led to an overall shift in what was considered acceptable in the abolition debate. Of course, the window can shift in the opposite direction, such as someone saying openly/doing something that many people have an intense negative reaction to, which causes a rejection of that viewpoint and a consequential shift of the window in the opposite direction. For example, the decision of Emmet Till’s mother to have an open-casket funeral for her son (and the publication of the photos) sparked a wave of revulsion at what had been done to him, which contributed to the overall social movement against lynching.

  10. says

    Forgive me my typos and any sloppiness of presentation. I’m on iPad and forgot my reading glasses, so I’m fumbling with enlarging the viewing area, and well..

    As I’ve gotten older, I have more and more trouble with the meaning of Goldwater’s claim. I think people can hear it in one of several ways. One is that Goldwater is endorsing regular use of extreme tactics and rhetoric in defense of liberty. But this can sound like license to employ any tactic in pursuit of freedom. I don’t think that’s good advice as a general rule in a democracy once all adult citizens have the right to vote. We’ve seen in recent years how Tea Party rhetoric has polluted political discussion with insanity, largely driven by the idea that extremism in pursuit of liberty isn’t a vice. This extremism had undermined belief in the legitimacy of democratic governance.

    If we move beyond rhetoric to extremism in tactical actions we move increasingly into territory where people feel moral license to engage in dishonesty and even violence. I’m not saying that’s what Goldwater was endorsing, but that’s what his statement means to many people because it doesn’t even hint at the need for any restraint. The moral license to act seems too broad.

    Another way his statement is heard is that only some purist notion of liberty is morally acceptable. Even if we could settle on a shared definition of what liberty is, I don’t think that purism of ideology is ever a good thing when you have lots of people who have to live together. While some people can bring a sense of restraint to pursuit of the ideological, I fear that to many purity seekers have a fundamental disturbance that drives them to demand greater and greater purity, with the smallest impurities being regarded as outrageous.

    And, as suggested above, even settling on a shared definition of liberty is itself a problem. And yet Goldwater was granting broad moral license in pursuit of something that doesn’t have a clear universal meaning.

    I’m not saying that people should never act in extreme ways, but I find the endorsement of extremism troubling when it’s a central, driving principle of action in a democracy that’s supposed to support universal suffrage, In fact, it’s been the extremists among us who have been doing their best to undermine the right to vote. Democracy is the enemy.

  11. says

    Extremism is a positive thing because, when it achieves its goals, it does not allow for the complacency of inadequate half-measures. What if Congress had decided to compromise on suffrage – women could cast provisional ballots which would be counted in the event of a dispute, or only married women over age 30 could vote, or women would be allowed to register only with a man’s character reference. And over time, even those allowances would be chipped away: the age requirement raised, two characters references, etc.

    We are already seeing this with abortion: it’s still legal. But only before 24 weeks then 20 then 12 then 6. Pregnant defined as medically pregnant then possible date of fertilization which is long before she knows she’s pregnant then first day of last period which is before a woman has even had the sex which might lead to fertilization which might lead to pregnancy. Abortion performed by medical clinics, then ambulatory surgery centers, then only in buildings with doors X inches wide, then only on days when the moon is in the sixth house and Mars is ascending.

    Extremism isn’t required to win a right or right a wrong, but sometimes extremism is require to make those rights and justices real and meaningful.

  12. lofgren says

    exterminate the one percent: all of them, from the newborns to the senile centenarians, and while you’re at it, slaughter every of their middle-class lackeys, including everyone who ever voted even once for a right-wing politician: purge society from all bourgeois vice by removing every element suspected of potentially arboring them: it works wonder

    This is actually a good illustration of what I am talking about. There are plenty of people who want to eliminate the 1% and prevent them from accumulating their power again. If you advocate doing that by democratically passing economic policies that redistribute wealth and help the lower and middle classes, you’re not an extremist. If you advocate doing it through a bloody purge, then you are.

    If violence in the service of justice was never considered moral, would we ever have had an American revolution?

    I would argue that there is a point where violence is no longer an extreme reaction, but the only rational and useful one. John Brown was an extremist, but a few years later, after secession and Fort Sumter, it was clear that violence would be required to free the slaves. I think Dr. X is right about this:

    Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but for the ideologue, we’re always living in desperate times.

    Of course, rational people may disagree on what exactly constitutes a “desperate time.” It seems to me we’re not quite there yet, but it certainly seems possible it could happen soon.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    lofgren @ # 14: … rational people may disagree on what exactly constitutes a “desperate time.”

    By the time we get to agreement, it’s probably too late (viz: global warming).

    Effective action usually needs to precede consensus.

  14. Wylann says

    I think Dr. X @ 12 sums up the potential problems with this idea. In this age of rapid information dissemination, the demagogues have a leg up on everyone else because they don’t have to fact check. If we are always in a crisis, the message may get diluted, but the slightly unhinged are always a danger.

    Also, this can lead too easily to an ‘end justifies the means’ mentality, but what we’re talking about is just the ends. The ends might be extreme in either a good way or a bad way, but the extreme means are always bad for someone (but still not always unjustified).

    Hope that made sense….. :p

  15. says

    It’s a big can of worms, especially when you add in the well-covered tendency for the privileged to denounce peaceful opposition as “extreme” or “militant.” There are times when I think we should just reject those words as inherently meaningless.

    Speaking often and loudly for a good cause the public doesn’t support? I won’t complain about that sort of “extremism.” Even if it’s for a bad cause, I think it’s better in principle to have people speaking their mind so that ideas can be publicly scrutinized. From what I know of history, silence usually benefits oppressors more than the oppressed.

    Civil disobedience, bending or breaking minor laws while remaining non-violent? It depends on how bad the resisted injustice is, how ineffective other methods are, how entrenched the opposition is, and how apathetic the public is. When it gets to that point, as long as it’s no one gets significantly harmed, I’m typically tolerant with it.

    Threats of violence? You’d better be damn certain there’s no viable alternative, that the dangerous injustice is imminent, and that you have an airtight justification.

  16. iknklast says

    But who would now claim that only men should vote, the races should be segregated, and that it was a good idea to send more than a half a million soldiers to Indochina?

    Ann Coulter?

  17. freehand says

    Pierce R. Butler” lofgren @ # 14: … rational people may disagree on what exactly constitutes a “desperate time.”

    By the time we get to agreement, it’s probably too late (viz: global warming).

    Effective action usually needs to precede consensus.

    I agree. It’s difficult to imagine what effective extreme action would be, however. For example, for violence in the US to succeed in making effective changes regarding the production of greenhouse gases, etc, then we would probably already have the majority needed to vote the right people into office.

    In fact, when things do begin to seriously and rapidly fall apart because we have ignored the consequences of our physical processes (like global warming) then I predict the first internal violence in the US will come from the Tea Party and religious fundamentalist crowds (largely the same group), who will roam the streets looking for the cause of God’s wrath. Namely, atheists, gays, liberals, and scientists.

  18. says

    Regarding the slavery, who were the extremists? Those who advocated abolition, those who rejected extension of slavery into new states relying on the ballot box for change or those who chose secession and armed rebellion?

  19. lofgren says

    who were the extremists?

    It can be a “circle all that apply” question rather than a “choose one” question.

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