23 January 2021

when extremism implodes


We have some important work to do and it is a collective work. For every extremist who has been arrested since January 6, there are countless others who are now even more entrenched in their extremist views of reality. I offer these thoughts:

1. Extremist ideologies tend to be dismantled not by an explosion from without but by an implosion from within. Witness the recent failure of the Q-Anon conspiracy when predictions about the presidential inauguration proved false.

2. For the extremist, the implosion creates a personal crisis that has the potential of drawing them out of the vicious cycle of extremism, but this crisis can just as likely further embed an extremist in alternate forms of extremism.

3. Extremism is addictive; it is hard to break because there is always a ready, ample supply of alternatives to feed the addiction. As long as the alternatives bear the qualities of extremism, the extremist will be satisfied with almost any kind of alternate buzz. In fact, when an implosion occurs…those who have been embedded in a system on the extreme “right” are just as likely to move into an extreme “left” system as they are to find an alternate group on the extreme “right” to regain a sense of meaningful belonging.

4. Within a religious system, the move from one extreme to the other is often classified as a “conversion”—but, in fact, there has been no change from within that is substantively different. True conversion is not really an exchange of extremes, trading one set of entrenched certainties for another set. What gives true conversion its remedial power is that it awakens one to the inherent mystery of life. In other words, true conversion is rooted in the humble awareness that one does NOT know and, thus, is called to a lifetime of childlike seeking. True conversion is an experience of greater openness to the world, whereas extremism closes one further off from the world. Pseudo-conversion is unable to effect fundamental change precisely because it addresses the content of a particular form of extremism, but not the quality (or process) of extremism itself.

5. Extremism is reductionist; it reduces one’s perception of reality so that the extremist feels they can control it. This is why extremism in any form (“left” or “right”) has a gnostic quality to it, wherein the extremist claims to possess some special knowledge that will unlock the secrets of life as we know it. It, thus, creates an us-versus-them dynamic. It is infected by a culture of exclusivity and inherently condemns large segments of society who do not subscribe to the tenets of the in-group. You will always find special insider language attached to any form of extremism because that is how the group can easily tell who is in and who is out. Language becomes a key mechanism of indoctrination into the extremist society and its potency lies in the fact that it generates a feeling of belonging.

6. Extremist ideologies all share the distinct peculiarity that they demand to be taken seriously. The extremist is unable to see the inconsistencies within their belief system and, perhaps most tragically, they are unable to laugh at themselves for such foolishness. When an inconsistency is revealed, the extremist tends to become defensive. If consistently pressured, they will go on the attack. The self must be preserved at all costs, no matter how fractured that self has become—and especially /because/ the self is fractured.

7. When someone who has been enmeshed in extremism begins to awaken to their own vulnerability, they cannot be pummeled out of their position. It takes a special friend (or a group of friends?) who can be both strong-and-gentle, faithful-and-immediate, truth-telling and loving to accompany them on the long road to a new way of being. No one was ever condemned into the way of humility, after all. If confession precedes forgiveness, a true confession can never be coerced.

And mere argument will not suffice, since the process of extremism itself is more debilitating than the content of any specific belief. As sappy as it sounds, extremists can only be loved out of extremism.

For every extremist disposed of by violence, three more will take their place—since violence itself perpetuates the cycle of extremism. This presents a conundrum since extremists who intend to commit acts of violence sometimes need to be stopped by means of violence for the greater good. Still, it should be noted that violence used in service to the greater good effects no fundamental progress in the diminishment of extremism itself. In fact, it tends to intensify it.

Nor can extremism be merely silenced by tuning out extremists, since the experience of being voiceless violates one’s sense of the basic dignity of human autonomy. That is why I assert: extremists can only be loved out of extremism.

How to love one another out of the grip of extremism is the urgent question of our time, I do believe. There is at least one thing we can all do, however: each of us can do everything in our power to root out the spirit of extremism in our own heart and mind.

Beyond that, the work to weaken the grip of extremism on society will not be easy, but it is important work that requires face-to-face relationship. To do this, we need to develop the skill of seeing and appealing to the sacred, precious humanity of one another.

That is why I also believe that the work to diminish extremism in our midst is more a work than a “fight.” The word “work” connotes the idea of cooperation, togetherness, unity-by-diversity.

If it is a fight, we must learn to view it as fighting FOR each other, rather than fighting AGAINST each other. Do we have the courage to fight FOR each other? Can we see the humanity in one another? This is our work. It is a hard work, but it is a supremely good work, I am convinced. I pray God gives us the grace, wisdom and strength to do this good work together.


when extremism implodes

reflections by troy cady




11 January 2021

Playfulness and Extremism


In my book on cultivating a more playful life (and society), I try to describe the essence of playfulness in such a way that we capture a bigger vision as to its nature and value. Based on my in-depth study of the play-concept for over a decade now, I observe that as our society sinks deeper and deeper into division, much of it is due to our inability to think more playfully and relate to one another in more playful ways.

The late rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman describes what I am talking about in his groundbreaking book /Generation to Generation/, which I quote in my own book on play. He contrasts the essence of ‘seriousness’ with the essence of ‘playfulness’ as he writes:

“Seriousness is more than an attitude; it is a total orientation, a way of thinking embedded in constant, chronic anxiety. It is characterized by lack of flexibility in response, a narrow repertoire of approaches, persistent efforts to try harder, an inability to change direction, and a loss of perspective and concentrated focus…The antidote to seriousness is the capacity to be playful, which is not to be equated with making jokes…This notion of playfulness has less to do with ‘one-liners’ than with the concept of flexible distance; it has less to do with good ‘come-backs’ than with the ability to distinguish process from content.”*

I can’t help but feel that radicalization is fed by an ideological form of ‘seriousness’ (as Friedman describes) that is taken to an extreme. What makes extremism so dangerous is its intractability. You can’t reason with an extremist because they are unwilling to change their thinking. They lock out all other alternatives and are willing to die (and kill others and tear down society) to stand up for their beliefs. The language of “revolution” and “civil war” that some are touting right now is so dangerous, precisely for this reason.

My concern is that extremism can be easily embedded in both ends of the political spectrum, left and right. As more and more people gravitate to the extreme edges of their own political philosophy, we become crippled in our ability as a society to address the burning issues of our time in a cooperative fashion. Life becomes a game of winners and losers where everyone is doing their utmost to gain the upper hand for their side of the divide. To disrupt this destructive cycle, we must do all in our power personally to reject extremism in all its forms. In other words, we must be willing to change our mind.

This is the very thing that is so hard for us to do, however. It feels like we are losing face, especially when some of us have invested so much time and energy defending our particular spot on the political spectrum (whether left or right). Changing will feel like losing one’s very identity, one’s own sense of integrity. The paradox is: those who are willing to change are more integrated than those who are not. Though the willingness to change does not always mean it is wise to change, the willingness itself is what makes the convicted person an even stronger person—and, when they do see a need to change, it has the added benefit of helping them improve themselves, as well as the society in which we live.   

Though government can help us resist extremism, it is really a personal matter for each individual and it requires all of us to do what we can to nurture our own mental, emotional, and spiritual health so we do not become locked into these extreme ways of being. What that means is we have to get hold of our anger and learn to direct it in constructive ways. We must do all in our power to avoid being unnecessarily inflammatory.

Political memes often contribute to this kind of inflammatory extremism, by the way. They tend to paint others who are different than we are in a kind of caricature which the lies of extremism feed upon. Ironically, political memes have a guise of playfulness to them, but most of them are embedded in the kind of anti-play spirit that Friedman describes. One author (Jerome Berryman) uses the word “pseudo-play” to describe it. Destructive political memes are doubly ruinous in that they positively energize the extremists on one side of the political divide while also negatively energizing the extremists on the other side. Far from generating understanding, they obscure it.

Friends, in this time of crisis, I vow to do all in my power to resist extremism in my own thinking and life as well as in society-at-large. And I sure would love it if others would join me in this by practicing being more playful in the way we engage others. May grace and peace flourish! Lord, have mercy on us.


Playfulness and Extremism

reflections by Rev. Troy B. Cady


*The quote above is from Edwin Friedman, /Generation to Generation/ (New York: Guilford Press, 1985), 50-51 as quoted in /PlayFull: Play as a Pathway to Personal & Relational Vitality/ by Troy Cady (Chicago: PlayFull, 2019), 7.