Why we are all extremists

This article is part of a series of political and religio-sociological essays intended to provoke thought and discussion. You can find the first here.

“The myth of the age is that it is possible to hold an accurate, fact-based or reasoned objective view.”

Extremism is everywhere. It’s in our news, on our social media, we see it on our TVs and phones. It’s in our street. It’s next door to you. It’s here. It’s you.

There is a very good case to suggest that we are living in the most polarised world we’ve known for  at least the last 50 years. The irony, at least in my lifetime, is that this seems to have come out of a post-war mood of reconciliation, peace and renewed desire for mutual understanding which gripped a world devastated by fighting during the Second World War.

With so-called Islamic terrorists taking the lion’s share of the news for nearly 20 years we’ve become used to the term ‘extremist’ and its variations to the extent that I suspect primary school children could probably spell it and give a fairly accurate description. But have we actually come to a point where we have stereotyped the idea of ‘extremism’ and made it synonymous with ‘terrorism’?

Shaffer’s Equus

I remember reading a superb play by Peter Shaffer in the 80s when I was a young man. The plot follows a psychiatrist trying to uncover what made a boy poke out the eyes of several horses. The boy himself won’t talk about it. It’s a highly disturbing idea – especially as previously this same boy seemed to love horses so much. How could anyone commit such a sick crime?

Like all good plays, Equus takes us from one way of thinking to another. We find out that the love of horses is really a substitute for the desire to worship which was thwarted by the boy’s aggressive atheist father. The horses become, in effect, God. But when the boy begins to discover sexual desire in the form of the sensuous stable girl where he works, the clash of an all-seeing God and desire to commit sexual sin is too much and the boy’s mind snaps.

Interestingly, it is the psychiatrist who comes to envy the boy. He has lost his way with the bitterness of life and does believe in anything any longer. He is almost jealous of how this boy can believe with such passion.

In a sense, the boy in Equus is an extremist – his need to worship something is excessive. But so is the atheist father who refuses to countenance any (Christian) images or church-going in his house. The psychiatrist has to face his own extremism – a belief that psychiatry can help others – when he is forced to acknowledge in the final scenes that he is lying to the boy when he says ‘it will be okay’. It won’t be okay and there’s nothing he can do to help this young man. His belief in science is wrong.

“History tells us that much we take seriously today will be scorned in the future.”

The impossibility of objectivity

The myth of the age is that it is possible to hold an accurate, fact-based or reasoned objective view. We’re trained from school age to reason things, to state hypotheses and test them accordingly. Science, we’re told, is reliable and is the golden mean by which we should test everything.

In the social sciences and journalism worlds, the myth is enforced that by referencing sources and holding to key principles such as ‘primary sources’ and citing ‘reputable experts’ that you can remove bias and subjectivity. As a result, your work is ‘valid’ and useful.

But increasingly it is being recognised that the experiment to write in such ways is flawed. In fact, the guiding principle in science is not to prove anything at all but to disprove it. This is a fact which is often forgotten by scientists themselves but is the foundation for all scientific research. The aim of experiments is to find that something is false. It is an iterative process: you replace what is false with something slightly less false, and so make another step nearer to the truth.

When Rutherford and his assistants discovered that the atom is ‘mostly empty space’ he did so working with the ‘Christmas pudding’ theory of the atom which thought that the atom was a bulbous mass of neutrons and protons with electrons ‘studded’ around the outside like raisins in a round Christmas pudding. It was only through firing alpha particles at a thin gold sheet that he found that the particles go through the sheet for the vast majority of the time and only occasionally reflect off it. From this he concluded that the nucleus of an atom is actually tiny compared to the radius made by the electrons on the outside and so most of the atom is empty of particles. The Christmas pudding model, which served well enough up until then, was wrong. Quantum physics then went on to obliterate much of what was considered solid fact in the physics world and researchers in this field continue to find data which contradicts or skews what was believed before.

This is nothing to be scared of and, indeed, most cutting-edge scientists are excited by all this. Rather than a dry process of just deepening whatever is known already, the scientific world is an exciting place where tomorrow a new discovery could mean everything we thought we knew is now replaced by a new theory of how the universe really is. Such discoveries often result in new technology which couldn’t have been possible before. It’s a conundrum but most of the technology we enjoy in life today has come about even though the original inventors didn’t really understand what was going on inside. They worked with faulty theories which were close enough – but that didn’t make them right.

Similarly, in the social sciences, citing an ‘expert’ doesn’t mean you now have an inerrant viewpoint. There is nothing special about one person’s view over another. All an expert is, in the end, is someone who has managed to get published more and be listened to more loudly. That is not to dismiss such people as charlatans or fools (though from time to time it’s found that they are) but to say that their words do not have a magic power of accuracy. Indeed, the number of experts or theories which have been ‘discredited’ over time is astounding. School textbooks abound in humorous stories of the things we all believed, 200, 100, 50 or even 20 years ago and laugh at today. History tells us that much we take seriously today will be scorned in the future.

“…even moderation is a form of extremism.”

The extremism of moderation

There is no such thing then as a purely objective view; not in science nor in social science or journalism. We all work from belief systems of some sort or another. Slowly, this view is coming to be accepted in the academic world though I’m sad to see that some journalists still cling to the view that their writing is unbiased and objective. In fact, we need to be more honest and appreciate that we all come with our biases, prejudices and lenses for interpreting the world around us.

While I consider myself a moderate in almost all persuasions, even moderation is a form of extremism. If we believe that tolerance is important, that we should be free to believe whatever we wish as long as we do not impinge on the lawful pursuits and rights of others we have, de facto, denied the rights of those who do not believe the same things. This is not some vaguely convoluted philosophical argument; it impinges on the real world. The days of traditional mainstream religions being acceptable pursuits are nearly over. Christianity, in the UK, is close to effectively being outlawed if fully believed according to traditional (but no longer popular) values. More widely, if an scientific atheist view is strictly adhered to then the belief that we are just part of the animal kingdom then makes a mockery of human rights and the idea of laws. In fact there is no moral order which has a universal truth – only rules agreed on by relatively few people and enforced by a weaponised few. There is, in reality, no reason why someone cannot choose to rape, murder or declare war on others other than because a majority say they can’t.

The belief in human rights, a lawful system, protection of the innocent, the right to lead peaceful lives that do not impinge on others – all these are an extremist view which contradicts (either subtly or in full) the views of groups which do not believe the same things. They are extremist because, if you take each idea one at a time, most people on a global scale do not agree. Such laws, rules and philosophies are not followed by most. They are then, extreme.

Take homosexuality for one simple example. Accepted and lawfully practised in the West, it is a given in popular modern society that this is an acceptable and appropriate lifestyle. But in reality those who think this are still in the minority around the world. Homosexuality is illegal in many (perhaps most?) Asian and Middle Eastern countries (India briefly toyed with making it legal and then promptly rescinded the law). But even in America, UK and Europe, there are a sizable number of people who still believe it anywhere between ‘disgusting’ and ‘a sin’. Put together and you will almost certainly find less than 50% of the world considering homosexuality ‘ok’ with many believing it should be punished corporeally or even capitally. Globally then, acceptance of homosexuality is still an extreme position even though it is not as extreme as it was consider 50-100 years ago.

Taking a position

I would like to stress at this point that in bringing up a number of views and ideas here I am not insinuating that I agree or disagree with any of them. The purpose so far as been merely to argue that an objective, universally agreeable sense of truth is impossible. This has been argued for and against many times by philosophers but here I am taking a pragmatic, real-world view. In the end it boils down to this:

I cannot say that your view is any more right or wrong than mine.

Except that I can – and herein lies the crux of the matter, potentially unpalatable though it is.

I propose that I can indeed decide that my view is better than yours. I just have to be honest about the fact that I cannot justify it, quantify it, reason it or otherwise persuade you of its veracity. In the end it boils down to belief. It may be that I believe it because of a religious doctrine I follow, or because I use Greek principles of reason, or because my parents brought me up to believe in law and order or because God told me in a dream or, simply, because it suits my own needs and purposes to believe it. I may believe something which millions or even billions around the world also believe (in which case, I will probably be left in peace – for the most part – to believe it) or I may believe something which no one else believes (in which case I am likely to suffer persecution and be labelled ‘deviant’). The attitude towards my belief may vary from country to country or even region to region. In my area, for instance, I am unlikely to curry much favour if I loudly promote my positive views on immigration. If I move to London however, I am likely to find a more welcoming audience.

Like the psychiatrist off Equus, we need to acknowledge that we have no other standard by which to judge the actions of ISIS or other unpopular groups other than by our own personal belief system. But so then are members of ISIS (or any other group) at liberty to believe according to their own systems.

Does this mean I condone the actions of ISIS? No, of course not. But that’s because I follow a belief system which says that their actions are evil and I am against bigotry, prejudice and oppression of people in all forms. My view is an extremist one and not one that I can justify by calling to any universal and globally accepted truth. I believe it, and that is sufficient.

This may sound very negative and lacking in hope. But it could be very liberating. Ultimately, I do not need to be scared of what you believe. I don’t need to fear my beliefs being hurt by your beliefs. I can hold firmly to my own views and simultaneously accept yours. I can believe that you are wrong and yet remain your friend. I can accept you because I choose to without having to justify it in any way.

Instead of trying to push our views by deception – claiming evidence and reason as our assistants – we can merely explain our views and listen to those of others, always acknowledging that there is no ultimate proof, no intransigent theory, no revealed higher power which makes our view any more or any less valid than the opposing one.

And in doing so, perhaps we can take away something of the murderous urge groups and countries seem to have today to prove themselves right.

If you liked this article then please share on your own social media (tag me on twitter @DKenPowell ). Thank you!

Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out over summer – don’t miss them! 

Sign up for Ken’s new writing project – ‘The Pukur’ – at Patreon.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com

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12 Responses to Why we are all extremists

  1. Equus sounds most intriguing. Btw, I didn’t understand ‘moderation is another form of extremism.’ I thought this was the best method, since it paves the way for both sides to come a step closer.


    • D K Powell says:

      It may appear that moderation is the best way but that comes from the current (largely humanist) belief system of the day. If there is no god, as this essay takes as a starting point, then there is nothing to say that extremism is ‘wrong’. To therefore impose ‘moderate’ views on all is actually a form of suppression and, ironically, therefore it’s own extremism.

      We tend to see moderation as being the centrepoint of a line with extreme views on either side. But what if it’s not a line at all but a triangle? One can argue morality and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ from a religious view of course but that makes the points of this entire piece moot as then we follow whichever God or gods we see fit and their rules must de facto be right.

      This is not just a philosophical nicety – it has a very real impact because what is considered ‘moderate’ today becomes unpalatable tomorrow. Humanist atheism is by far the fast-growing faith system in the world today and while we live in the glory of moderation quite happily, leading moderates such as Dawkins are increasingly arguing that ALL religious sentiment is extremism and, the name of civilisation and moderation, should be banned. My predication is that I will still be alive when this becomes the prevalent view and by then it will be too late to realise that moderation is just as extreme as any terrorist imam, crazed evangelical or loopy guru.

      Yuval Noah Harari writes on all this far more eloquently than I in his ‘Homo Deus’ which I heartily recommend. Not as good as his ‘Sapiens’ yet still very challenging stuff. He criticises all faiths including humanism but is quite convinced that ‘God is dead, but it takes time to bury the body’…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. fonald says:

    Fairly coherent, good job Ken


  3. Atheist vs believer war itself is played so seriously by both sides. Should it really matter what the other group thinks if they are confident in their own skins? The stress comes from trying to convert one into other. If only they agreed that both can co-exist, it wouldn’t be a cause of bloodshed.


  4. N says:

    Brilliant Post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very good piece in my opinion!

    Liked by 1 person

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