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What Makes an Ideological Extremist

Updated on September 24, 2017

When we hear the word extremist, for many the first thing that comes to mind is Islamic extremism. It is true that this is the most violent and worrisome form of extremism in our world today. However, any ideology can be taken to extremes. When does an idea cross that line into extremism. Sometimes it is the idea itself that is extreme. Often though, ideologies that are held by reasonable people are taken to extremist levels by others. So in these cases what are the lines that are crossed that makes someone an extremist? Here are some of the characteristics of extremism.

A Sense of Moral Superiority

These days it seem to be enough that your ideas are better than that other guy's. No, in order to go for the hard sell, you need to convince others that you are on the side of the good and pure and the other guy is the epitome of wickedness and evil. The person who disagrees with you doesn't just have a different point of view, he hates and wants to destroy America, mom, apple pie, orphans, the poor, whatever. He is filled with evil intent. An extremist sees his point of view as inherently good, and therefor anyone who disagrees with him must be inherently evil. They must hate everything that is good about life, otherwise they would think exactly like me, right?


A Sense of Intellectual Superiority

It can be a bit of a stretch for someone on even the highest of moral high horses to believe that everyone on the other side is actively seeking to be pure evil. So, why would someone subscribe to an idea that is obviously diabolical unless they just wanted to watch the world burn? Obviously, they are just too stupid to see the truth. Sometimes this will be couched in softer terms, such as easily led or gullible. If only everyone was as smart as me, then they would see through all the lies and distortions and know that they are supporting pure evil. With this and the last point, narcissism obviously is a contributing factor on the part of the extremist. It feeds into their need to feel special. Only, instead of doing something real to set themselves up for notice, they play a mental game of tearing everyone else down.


All the world's ills are caused by those other people, obviously if everyone thought and behaved like me the world would be a paradise. This kind of thinking seems to be addressing things at a large level, but is actually very personal on the part of the extremist. Being a narcissist, they cannot understand why they are not more successful, rich, powerful, or important. They know they are exceptional, so it must be that others who are not as exceptional are dragging them down. There is an inability to ever accept fault for their own decisions, and instead point to vague and nefarious forces out to destroy them. Once you engage in this sort of thinking it becomes easy to transpose these forces of destruction onto the world stage.

Forcing Conformity

Maybe it's believing they will get 72 virgins, or maybe it's thinking that banning gay marriage will throw us back into the hetero utopia that was the 1950's (though gay sex was still happening in the 50's, sorry to break that to the homophobes), but all extremists have a strong belief that by making everyone live by their standard will bring about unheard of peace, prosperity and harmony to the world. They don't understand that forcing people to live in a way that is not right for them will always lead to unrest and strife. Ironically, in the U.S. the people who think this way tend to lash out at Socialists and Collectivists, not seeing that this is a very Collectivist way of thinking. Life is messy and will always be messy, it is up to us to try to muddle through, and we can do that best together. However we shouldn't do it by forcing people to lie and think as we do, we have to understand that different people are going to want different things.


Since the extremist thinks that his position is unassailable, when he is shown evidence contrary to his world view he cannot process it. Forget about him thinking over counterpoints and coming up with reasoned rebuttals, or heaven forbid even rethinking his position. He is going to instead bring up some other point which might or might not have some relevance to the original discussion. A typical exchange over the last year was, "I can't believe people support Trump after women came out saying he supported them." "Oh yeah, well what about Bill Clinton?" As though the moral shortcomings of one side excuses the same shortcomings of the other side. This is a clear sign that they know their position is indefensible, and they are not even going to try. Instead they are going to try to distract you and put you in the defensive.


A Willingness to Hurt Others

The most important and dangerous ingredient for extremism is a willingness to hurt others to impose your belief. This can take shape in many forms, not just physical, but emotional and financial as well. I have often heard justification for prejudice voiced as "Well, over there they cut people's heads off." Just because you are not calling for actual death or even physical abuse for the people you stand against does not mean you are not an extremist. If you tell someone they are mentally ill, or stupid or evil for living life in a way you do not wish to, you are an extremist. If you try to ruin someone's livelihood because they disagree with you, you are an extremist. And honestly it's not a huge step from being okay to ruin someone's financial life, their reputation, and their emotional well being, to physically assaulting them. It is all part of the dehumanizing process that makes it okay to treat people like trash.

If the above describes you, then guess what? You are an extremist. Come to grips with it, realize that you are not smarter or better than everyone else, you are to blame for all your own shortcomings, and there are always going to be smart, good people who believe differently and live different lives. Also, don't fall for the notion that extremism only lives on the right or the left, or only among that religious group, or people who live on lifestyle. If you are not able to see the extremists on your side of an issue, you just may be one of them. No idea is more important than treating people with compassion, kindness, and love. In fact, the world could use more people who were more extremist about being nice.


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