Our solutions to problems are frequently muddled, and often don’t solve problems as effectively as they cause them to multiply. A part of this of course is because the problems are actually complicated; I’m not disputing that or saying that the world is really a very simple place. However, we make it more complicated than it needs to be because our own convictions are confused. They get in our way.
Let me give an example from the recent news. A cruel and violent group of militant Muslim nationalists attempts something very like a genocide in Iraq and Syria; David Cameron, Prime Minister of Great Britain, calls for measures to defeat such extremism. In this he is fairly conventional; we talk about “extremism” all the time. Certainly the self-proclaimed Islamic State is extreme–if we were to compile a list of adjectives to describe them, “extreme” would likely appear–but is “extreme” the central and most defining feature of it? Does that even make sense? Shouldn’t we, at the very least, ask, “Extremely what?”
The possible answers are fairly obvious. They are extremely cruel, for example. Just as obviously though, the problem is the cruelty not the amount of it. We would still object to them if they were cruel in moderation. We would still object to them if they reined in their violence a bit, published fewer videos of beheadings, and focused their genocidal onslaught on fewer groups. That is to say that we would still object to them if they did the same things, but were less extreme about them. (Perhaps we might object to them less, but only because they would be easier to ignore, and shame on us for that.)
For a different perspective, imagine if they were just as extreme, but about different things. What if they were extremely generous, peaceful, forgiving, and hospitable? Would we still object to them? I suspect quite the opposite.
The problem isn’t extremism at all, but what is taken to extremes. We can know this from our own experience with living. We object to extreme illness not because it’s extreme, but because it isn’t health. We object to extreme destitution not because it’s extreme, but because it isn’t prosperity. We object to extreme unrest not because it’s extreme, but because it isn’t peace. (Extreme health, prosperity, and peace are not objectionable at all.)
None of us hopes for trouble at the holidays, so that we might be happy moderately. None of us hopes that failure will follow on the heels of every victory, so that we might succeed moderately. None of us hopes to die at middle age so that we might live moderately.
We want extremes; we just want good extremes. We can even take that a step further and say that we want extremists; we just want good extremists. For example, did anyone really wish that Mother Theresa was less beneficent? When Mr. Cameron denounced extremists, he talked around the issue rather than about it. He was confused not clear, cowardly not brave. He ought to have denounced evil.
I suspect a part of the reason he didn’t is because he is a very modern man living in a very modern country. The modern world is very sheepish about good and evil; it doesn’t know what to believe–if it’s even possible to believe anything–and so it assumes that the safest way to believe is to believe moderately, to go by half-measures so that it’s easy to change one’s mind. It can’t easily denounce evil because denouncing evil requires clarity and commitment. It can denounce extremism though, as contrary to it’s own nervous stop-gap.
Unfortunately, this is rather like battling organized crime by denouncing organization; if you can’t identify crime, you simply can’t help the situation. You can hurt it though. A disorganized police force, a disorganized society, only helps organized crime. Nor is the solution to make crime disorganized. A disorganized society with disorganized crime is just a mess. It would be better to have an organized society with no crime. That is to say, it would be better to realize that crime, not organization, is the problem.
Similarly, a society opposed to “Extremism” only helps the evil extremes. There is no extreme good to stand against them. There is no extreme good even to idealize. At best denouncing extremism aims at a mixed mess of moderate goods and evils, a situation combining distress and hopelessness into a social agenda. It would be better to have a world of extreme goodness and no evil; it would be better to identify evil for what it is, and to oppose it for what it is, and to oppose it with a likewise clear goodness. Evil, not extremism, is the problem.