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