What we define as “Extremism” is understood as a moral problem, a problem whereby an individual, ideology, group or organisation pursues a course of action, in the name of some cause, which violates established ethical and reasoned judgement. In Western historical memory, the term invigorates accounts of unprecedented human tragedies, accumulating in death, destruction, chaos and unimaginable suffering. After all, the most infamous and horrifying example of extremism in human history, Nazi Germany, scars people with the dangers of what such movements can lead to if given popular support.
The moral lessons derived from history’s tragedies are thus not without good reason. The Nazi example has become a benchmark of the potential dangers of things deemed “extreme”. Nonetheless, despite the lessons of the past being there to see, western societies repeatedly fail in their understanding of what gives birth to things perceived extreme. For example, there is a very common misguided belief that movements deemed “extremist” arise purely because people are morally flawed, deceived, or ignorant- therefore, “moralising” the people who support such irrationally driven movements is the apparent answer to make them go away.
Whilst extremism obviously, has to be challenged, the response above represents one of the biggest flaws to popular western political and social thought. The assumption that moral incentives alone drive people’s political decisions. People who believe such have a far too optimistic, naive and trusting perception of human nature. Sane Human beings are not moral for moral’s sake, rather they are moral in the shape of how their social, political and economic interests compel them to be moral. The human ego is self-justifying, it adjusts its moral understanding of the world according to its situation.
The homeowner is satisfied, so why would they endorse an abolition of private property? Yet a starving person in a famished country, compelled by hunger, would by instinct self justify stealing from those better off to survive. Do we believe that by telling the starving and famished thief, with no other hope for food, that is stealing wrong that they will change their course of action? I am sure at one point they were certainly taught it was wrong, yet it does not stop them. Why? Because moral incentives do not trump (pun) self interest. Therefore in politics, self-interest becomes the raw unit of action and behaviour. Moral incentives may lead people to disguise or adapt their interests to be more socially acceptable, but it does not change the way they feel and therefore, how they will choose to act.
Therefore, extremism does not begin with a burning sense of hatred or moral flaw, it begins with a person, or a group of people, who’s economic, political and social needs are not being met by a given state or unit. This can be through inequality, economic decline or any other scenario which allows a sense of deep injustice to formulate within enough people to become serious, regardless of what the moral teachings of that system are. If you are entrapped within a system which you are deeply dissatisfied about, why would you accept that particular political order and its moral teachings? If that system on paper taught liberty and equality, why would you believe it if it did not benefit your needs? why would you have any incentive to endorse it if it offered you nothing? It’s like asking Nelson Mandela why he didn’t believe in Apartheid.
Therefore, if you are feeling so angry, so discontent and so disaffected, you will be drawn towards other incentives instead, things which radically challenge that particular order you have grown to resent. Something which offers you understanding and meaning about your place in the world which the current system isn’t giving you, something which constructs a target to vent your anger at, to blame for your unhappy situation and something which claims to offer you the future you would never have. Often, only extremist causes are left claiming to represent those needs, which is how they progress from the sidelines to the mainstream, giving credence to ideas which would not be accepted in normal circumstances, they will question the entire moral standing of the status quo, seek to dismantle it and replace it with something different. Often, this can open the door for deadly consequences. The more extreme people’s circumstances, the more extreme are the alternative ideologies.
Extremist movements socially shape people’s anger and disaffection, caused by an absence of human need, towards various things. Hitler did not rise because he was telling people not to like Jews, but rather rose because he promised prosperity and glory to a disaffected population not benefiting from a chaotic status quo, thus it became in peoples interest to tacitly follow through with his plans. The Communist Party of China did not arise with a pledge to destroy everything in the cultural revolution, but rose because they offered an alternative to a peasantry crippled by poverty and foreign occupation. ISIS fighters do not start out by wanting to kill people or because “they are Muslims”, but because their extreme isolation, alienation and lack of economic opportunities for the future draws them into an ideology which teaches them to fight the world around them. The group having started out because angry, young Sunni men, living in impoverished and chaotic countries with no life opportunities, continually bombed and invaded by foreign powers, wanted a better future.
Therefore, moral incentives alone do not stop the rise of extremism. For example, calling someone a racist, bigot, etc for supporting Donald Trump, does not change their mind. Why would you want to listen to someone who treats you with contempt? So many things have been said about Donald Trump, despite all the name calling, all the denunciations and all the protests, it still so happens the fabled wall and the “Muslim Ban” are actually becoming realities. American society failed to convince millions and millions of people that it was in their interest to support the status quo. Disaffected people have less reason to comply with a political order which has left them behind. Satisfied, middle class people, attempting to moralise and take a high ground over others achieves nothing.
Therefore, how do you halt extremist politics? You seek to create a society whereby nobody is left behind, a harmonious one, one which everyone can benefit from. A society which is inclusive, rather than exclusive. A society which makes sure that no group of people are neglected or ignored in preference of another. It should be a society which does not preach, but practices instead. A society with equal opportunity, one where it is in the interests of all to follow a moral and just order.
Therefore, you don’t make a better world by preaching to people, you don’t make a better world by asserting your moral superiority over others, you don’t make a better world by signing childish petitions pledging to ban someone from visiting your country. You make a better world by understanding people for who they really are, grasping their situations and helping find alternatives which do not involve resorts to extreme political choices.