Sunday, May 08, 2005

That word: "Extremism"

The rhetoric used by some sincere and well-meaning human relations groups—"extremists of the left and right," "religious political extremists," "radical religious right," etc. — can actually unintentionally undermine civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse by demonizing dissent and veiling the complicity we all share in institutionalized forms of oppression in our society: racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism, Arabophobia, and Islamophobia.

In the 1960s the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at first bristled at being labeled an "extremist" by a group of clergy upset with his brand of activism. King's response was contained in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail." King wrote that he considered the label, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

Two issues are raised by King’s clever reversal of the attack on him as an "extremist." First is that the term "extremist" has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the "mainstream" norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a "centrist" position. Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any non-normative idea or action defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy—or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.

Ultimately, the concept of "extremism" is of little value in studying prejudice and ethnoviolence. Sociologist Jerome Himmelstein argues the term "extremism" is at best a characterization that "tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels," and at worst the term "paints a false picture." Often, analysts use the term "extremism" in a way that implies that ideas and methodologies are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology. King’s ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism. Given the way the term "extremist" is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees. We need to use terms that are more precise.

We are studying people and groups that promote supremacy, prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, and hate. We are studying people and groups that use intimidation and violence against a targeted group or individual based on their perceived identity. This language teaches people to see the dynamics of societal oppression, rather than allowing them to dismiss acts of ethnoviolence as caused by not-like-us "extremists" from hate groups.

Calling the Christian Right "extremists" tends to lump them together with members of organized hate groups. That's a real problem, especially since most people in the Christian Right would willingly join in a coalitions to confront racist and antisemitic hate groups.

One of the reasons the term "religious political extremists" was picked, was that liberals tended to think the term covered everyone from conservative Christian evangelicals to armed neonazi terrorists. That's just plain wrong. it's time to stop using this type of language.

Adapted from Chip Berlet, (2004), "Mapping the Political Right: Gender and Race Oppression in Right-Wing Movements." In Abby Ferber, ed, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. New York: Routledge.

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog


Blogger Dr. Bruce Prescott said...


What you say makes considerably more sense than what I initially expected.

I agree that we need to speak with greater precision about the positions we are opposing.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Frederick Clarkson said...

Sorting out issues of language such as this can, among other things, advance our capacity to expand our knowledge, instead of reenforcing ignorance.

It is important that we mean what we say, and say what we mean. On this blog, I hope we will be able to raise the bar.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Chip Berlet said...

Hi Paul and Fred,

The hard part is coming up with language that has greater precision. In the past we have talked about the broader "Hard Right" or the narrower "Christian Right."

We have used terms such as "theocracy," "dominionism," "triumphalism."

But we still need to spend time thinking about words or phrases that reframe the debate. Not easy.

9:10 AM  

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