Extremism and the sensible centre

Jan 20, 2023
Right-wing extremist poster, damaged by anti-fascists.

The labelling of people as ‘extremists’ or ‘radicals’ – as abolitionists and women’s suffrage advocates were once called – is determined not by the soundness of the views expressed, but by the relative scarcity of the people expressing them in proportion to the amount of people holding different views in the ‘sensible centre’. Given the various noxious myths that have pervaded Australian politics for so many years, it is surely time for a dose of good new political radicalism.

There are a plethora of terms in widespread political and social use that often obfuscate more than they elucidate. One of those is “terrorism” and its derivatives such as “terrorist”, but I have had my say about this elsewhere, most recently in my 2021 book The Meaning of Terrorism and will simply commend it to readers. Here I want to address instead the cluster of expressions around “extremist/extremism”, “radical/radicalism” and best of all “the sensible centre”.

Typical quotes about extremism show the standardly condemnatory nature of its widespread current usage. Examples are almost endless, but here are two examples from very different well-known people: “A people inspired by democracy, human rights and economic opportunity will turn their back decisively against extremism.” – Benazir Bhutto; “Extremism means borders beyond which life ends, and a passion for extremism, in art and in politics, is a veiled longing for death.” – Milan Kundera.

As for the “sensible centre”, if we forget the “sensible” qualification, for the moment, the term at least draws attention to the fact that the primary use of “extreme” and its derivatives is range or spectrum related, where the spectrum in question is one of opinions, outlooks, views, or theories, often of a political nature, and of the people holding them. Position on the spectrum is a matter determined by quantity, usually the quantity of people holding the views in question. The centre is constituted by the bulk of those at it, the extremes by the relative paucity of those at it. As for the reference class of the people constituting the spectrum concerned, it can be the whole of some population or a significant segment of it depending on the speaker.

This analysis should suggest at once that position on the spectrum is a purely descriptive matter and as such has no negative or positive evaluative connotations. The adjective “sensible” however adds a positive evaluation, and connects with the fact that the extreme is commonly treated in political usages in strongly negative terms as noted already in the expression “extremism”. Sometimes the negativity is accompanied by a restrictive adjective such as “Left wing”, “Right wing” or “violent”. The two extreme ends of the spectrum stand opposed because of some strong contrast in content or manner of action.

The adjective “sensible” here can import two very different meanings. It may be a concession that not all centrist views are sensible, unlike those of the speakers and their friends in the middle. Or it may be claiming that the centre is where all the correct, or sensible, views are to be found. On the first construal, centrism is a necessary but not sufficient condition of the sensible; on the second, it is both necessary and sufficient. Either way the question arises why mere position at the centre of the spectrum constitutes any sort of ground for rational approval, pre-eminence, or truth.

The implausibility of centre-worship is illustrated by the fact that political views move over time from either end of the extreme to the centre. This happens without the content of the view changing notably in any respect. Consider the history of the struggle for women to receive the vote. The movement for voting rights for women was for a long time in the Western world a distinctly minority movement, and the view that women deserved such an equal right with men was therefore long considered an extremist view, and denigrated as such, even by many women. The mood began to change in the late 19th century, but even when it was shifting towards the centre, the generally reformist British Prime Minister William Gladstone opposed a motion in Parliament to give a modest degree of such equality saying: ‘I have no fear lest the woman should encroach upon the power of the man. The fear I have is lest we should invite her unwittingly to trespass upon the delicacy, the purity, the refinement, the elevation of her own nature, which are the present sources of its power.’

Such well-meant but essentially condescending and disempowering views took a long while to shift substantially, but the displacement of the female voting rights issue from the fringe to the centre came about as a result of the “extremist” agitation of men and women who were undeterred by their positioning on the margins.

Similar points could be made about the minority forces opposed to well-established slavery throughout the world over the centuries, but it was such “extremists” who eventually won the day so that their then extreme views on the vileness of the practice became so central as to be unremarkable. Many other examples could be given of this transformation in which basically good but unfashionable views that were then marginalised and even despised by the majority constituting “the centre” came to occupy in time the very centre itself, usually a result of the extremists refusing to be intimidated by their positioning, and hence advocating and agitating for their views.

Of course, the same shifting phenomenon occurs with morally awful views, as we can see in the rise of Nazi ideology in Germany in the 1930s from a minority outlook to occupation of the centrist position. It is noteworthy that Hitler drew upon widely held ingredients in German culture such as centrist anti-Semitism to fashion his ideology, but that sort of thing was also true of transitions of good extremisms to the centre, for example, the anti-slavery movement drew upon widely held (if not correctly practiced) Christian views of the equality of all human beings before God.

The variation across groups in the same national community is also instructive. The same outlooks can be extremist in one group and centrist in another in the same diverse breaths. So, in Australia, privatisation of the publicly-owned Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) may be “mainstream” centrist amongst the “neo-liberal” Institute of Public Affairs membership and followers, though it’s possible that a few extremists in the group would want to maintain the ABC status quo while remaining otherwise free-marketeers. Across most of the national community, however, maintenance of the ABC’s nationally-owned identity is centrist and the privatisation advocates are extremists. Again, the crucial question is not where such views are on some spectrum, but whether they are coherent and correct.

The addition of the adjective “violent’ to the terms “extremist” or extremism” may be thought to rescue the extremism discourse from my criticisms. But first, the violence bit is an acknowledgement that the real issue is not place on the spectrum, but content of the views or activities involved. Second, there is a suggestion that the violence terminology is in place to show that the evil of violence is restricted to all or some of those located at an extreme. This is of course factually wrong. The centre, sensible or not, has been a place on the spectrum at which violence is commonly successfully advocated, and often enough unjustly. All wars for instance are essentially employments of violence, occasionally legitimate, much more often not, as are some policing activities whether legitimate or illegitimate. Clearly, centrists, such as many mainstream political parties, are invariably dedicated to the use of violence in their defence policies, and often enough engage in or promote warfare. In the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, not only is defensive violence a centrist position in Ukraine, but centrist opinion and activity in many Western countries actively support that desperate defensive violence against the unjust invasion.

Another confidently asserted muddle arises from the discourse around the terms “radical” and “radicalisation”. These also have come to be used as condemnatory terms and have a hint of the spectrum flavour in that use—the radicals are pictured as being at an extremity—but the term “radical” has a semantic history connected to its etymology of designating the getting to the root of a matter or attempting to do so. Radical outlooks or proposals will invariably be something new confronting what has so far prevailed. This sense is at work when scientists or other theorists are not getting adequate solutions from following extant techniques and seek new and more radical investigative methods. Similarly, radical outlooks or proposals can be good or bad, depending on their content and whether they get to the genuine root of a problem or not. Important advances such as democracy or female equality have in the past been denounced as radical by centrists dedicated to some paternalistic social and political status quo and that continues to be the case in some parts of the world.

Much of the talk about the necessity and problems of deradicalisation or of preventing radicalism in the first place dangerously ignores these pitfalls in the fashionable use of the concepts. Democracy in its origins was radical and now stands in need in many places of radical re-evaluation. Some such evaluations are good and some bad, indeed very bad. Amongst the good (in my view) are proposals for much less governmental secrecy, especially that supported by the invocation of the deeply ambiguous concept of “national security”. Amongst the bad, are the moves to what he calls “illiberal democracy” by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, moves that include reducing the independence of the judiciary, muzzling a free media, and extending censorship. But again, whether these re-evaluative ideas and practices are radical is not the issue, it is whether they are good or bad on their merits or defects. Given the various noxious myths that have pervaded Australian politics for so many years, such as trickle-down economics and climate-denialism, not to mention the supposed value of slavish devotion to supporting American foreign policy efforts, including successive hapless wars, it is surely time for a dose of good new political radicalism.

Two final points: I do not of course deny that some of things or views condemned with the vocabulary of extremism deserve condemnation, the point rather is that, when they deserve it, they deserve it for what they are or propound and not for a position on some spectrum. Nor do I propose any form of linguistic censorship of the regrettable fashions I have discussed, partly because that would be unworkable, and partly because of my distaste for any form of censorship. But I hope to have highlighted a greater need for awareness of the intellectual and political pitfalls involved in the current spate of denunciations and proposals deploying the concepts I’ve hoped to clarify here.

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