Friday, November 18, 2011

Thinking Beyond the Extreme

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about extremism. She was okay with the existence of extreme views as they provided the bookends in defining an issue. I was more uncomfortable with an extremist stance but agreed that without the parameters they provided we would have less creative thinking. Solutions to life issues can arrive when we bump up against the rigidity of the extreme and look for compromises and new pathways. The problem, of course, is that extremism tends to promotes resistance which can set up its own form of extremism.

Extremism of any sort comes down to black and white thinking: this is good; that is bad. We all do it to varying degrees: “organic food is good”; “pollution is bad”; “democracy is good”; “capitalism is bad”. Most of us, however, are willing to state our view but also hear the opposing side. Yes, pollution is bad but what causes pollution can also provide jobs. Yes, organic food is good but is it still good when it travels 1000 km to our plate?

Extremist views — the rigid kind, the ones not open to debate —are based in fear. If I don’t believe or act this way, something bad will happen. If I compromise, I will be seen as weak, or maybe even die. If I don’t believe this, then who am I?

Fear, as I’ve written before, is a factor of the bystander effect and is what gives bullies their power. It creates victims and pyrrhic victories and is what keeps us from acting interdependently. Fear, however, is not a “bad” emotion (even if there was such a thing). It is part of what makes us human. Fear lets us know where there is danger or something unfamiliar. It helps us be cautious and provides the adrenalin to get us into action. The problem comes when fear is unacknowledged. Unconscious fear sets the stage for unconscious expression: we lash out or hide, hurting ourselves or others. This kind of fear stops us from manifesting our humanity and brings on the rigid, uncompromising extremist beliefs that polarize our communities.

I just read about an abortion conference that took place last year in Princeton’s University Center for Human Values. Both sides of the abortion debate, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, were present and the extremes of both sides were well represented. In reporting on the conference, William Saletan wrote an article on how the two sides of the abortion debate can learn from each other— how they could seek an understanding that is progressive rather than threatening or hostile. How, in other words, pro-lifers and pro-choicers could step down from their fears and be more creative in their thinking. I’ve included the links to his article below.

Part one is “What pro-lifers can learn …

Part two is “What pro-choicers can learn …

I invite your thoughts…


  1. Yes, extremism might define an issue by providing bookends, but in doing so they also limit options - thinking outside those parameters.
    The two links were excellent. Wouldn't it be great if we could come up with a mutually inclusive approach to this thorny issue?

  2. I am glad you liked the links, Bonnie. You know, I used to agree with you about "limiting options" but this discussion I had with my friend made me see how extremism can also be the catalyst for pushing past those bookends... like it did (or seem to do) for the author of those links.