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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 31-Mar-13


Sunday 31-March-13

Extremism and Anger

In life there is a spectrum of views we can take on a range of matters. There are some topics, however, which seem to attract extreme views, from football to climate change. And of course religion, politics and race.

Not everyone has extreme views and not everyone who has extreme views is an extremist. To be what may be called 'extremist' is to be consumed by a narrow topic to the point that it becomes an obsession. Thoughts about the topic crowd out much other thinking and become more of a compulsion than a point of discussion.

Extreme views are characterized by an unwillingness to see other viewpoints. If I an totally convinced that I am right, then it is obvious that others are wrong. The extremist amplifies this, making themselves always right and others always wrong. And the reason others are wrong is because they are either stupid or bad. Stupid people are inferior and may be ignored or used to help the extremist feel clever. Bad people must be opposed and punished, and this cause is central to the extremists life.

One of the defining characteristics of the extremist is anger. They seldom argue their views in a calm, reasoned way. They do not seek to understand other viewpoints or forgive mistakes. Arguing with anger has the basic message of 'Do as I say or I will hurt you.' Angry people attack rather than listen. They impose rather than accept. Even when they appear cool, anger is always simmering beneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment. Trying to reason with an extremist is unlikely to be successful. They typically have a 'reason radar' and flip into anger as an escape. When extremists do use reason it is in attempts to persuade others to their cause, though they seldom have much patience and easily fall into using fallacies. To an extremist, their views are clear, reasonable and correct, while others are bad, wrong or deluded.

Extremists may not even seek to argue or convert. They just want to hurt their targets. In this way, they act as bullies or worse. When meeting others they draw them into discussion and then escalate and attack. Otherwise they attack from a safe distance, even hiding their true identity away from any response. If you find yourself at the sharp end of an extremist's tongue, the best thing is simply to say little and leave as soon as possible.

Extremists need opposing extremists. They see the world in black and white and take a 'with me or against me' position that creates a useful stream of opponents. While many may be unwilling victims of this manipulation, others revel in it as they take extreme opposite positions. Both sides then derive meaning and perverse pleasure in sustaining a never-ending battle where each dehumanizes the other as evil and so justifies harsh words (and perhaps even actions). Feuds operate like this.

So what does the extremist position do for the extremist? When we are angry, we feel powerful, which helps satisfy a deep need for a sense of control. Extremism is a refuge for those who are uncomfortable with difference and uncertainty. Anger is a way of coping with fear, and fear is a deep and corrosive cause. Inside, extremists are broken.

As with many things, extremism is a spectrum, a continuum from having strong views about something to spending every waking moment pursuing those views. It is hence difficult to identify just when a person becomes 'an extremist', just as it is difficult to diagnose exactly when a person's actions makes them a psychopath. Perhaps the decision is academic and perhaps subjective. The key thing we can know is that arguing with extremists, or even those with extreme views, is likely to be fruitless.


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