In today’s age of widespread doublespeak, probably one of the most illuminating examples is the use of the word “extremist.” The painting of various individuals, groups, or ideas with the brush of “extremism” has given a new loaded and negative connotation to the word, in contrast to its clear and precise definition. The word has at least six definitions according to Wiktionary, all boiling down to drastic, severe, radical, or fundamental. Yet, none of these meanings are loaded or negative as is the sense in which the word is widely used in media or common language.
For example, the use of extremism in “extremist Islamist terrorists” gives the strong impression that not only terrorism but extremism too is wrong. Otherwise, the use of extremism in that sentence would have been a redundancy: one could condemn terrorists by calling them such without adding the label.
The truth is that there is nothing wrong with extremism per se. To be an extremist is simply, as the dictionary says, to hold ideas that are radical, fundamental, or drastic. But why is holding extreme ideas necessarily wrong? One can be an extremist and be right or wrong; just like one can have moderate view and be either right or wrong about them.
A brief look at the history of mankind shows that many ideas we comfortably accept today were very extreme when they first emerged. Think about the abolition of slavery, the idea that the earth is not flat, the non-divinity of absolute kings, democracy, women’s rights, same sex marriage, landing on the Moon, etc. All these ideas were considered extreme, radical, or even crazy in the beginning, whereas today they are held to be evidently true by most people who attribute a great deal of human progress to their acceptance.
What’s to say that the extreme or radical ideas of today don’t have the same capacity for positive change and that therefore the label of extremism should not be used as a condemnation? We should be careful to distinguish bad extreme ideas from the good ones; but because they are bad and not because they are extreme.
One extreme ideology is libertarianism, perhaps paradoxically so because it rests on the common sense and widely accepted notion that no one is morally allowed to initiate physical violence against somebody else (the non-aggression principle). Libertarianism is extreme because it claims that without radically changing the present society—in which the State habitually violates the principle of non-aggression—the welfare of mankind can’t be meaningfully improved.
The libertarian wishes the world didn’t require extreme changes and that the ideal society would come about through small steps here and there. However, he must recognize the bitter reality for what it is: innocent men, women and children killed by drones, the Fed destroying currencies and creating recessions, government schools indoctrinating and dumbing down kids, ever-increasing taxation, the abhorrent Drug War, the welfare State, and so on. In the light of these despicable facts, the libertarian can’t help but conclude that meaningful change can arise only through extreme steps. In this, the libertarian is very much fond of the adage that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.
While the philosophy of libertarianism has gained a great deal from constructive criticism, it has unfortunately also been a victim of the mistaken assumption that it must be wrong simply because it is extreme. Sadly, this mistake has not escaped even serious academics who instead of challenging libertarian arguments chose to dismiss them out of extremism even when they were not extremist at all.
Common with the charge of extremism is also the characterization of libertarian ideas as utopian—a world in which everything and everyone works in perfect harmony. This is despite the fact that libertarians propose solutions which are not imaginary but have existed in various forms during the history of mankind. To the libertarian, the real utopians are those who think that the present system can continue like this or be improved with only moderate changes.
But has the negative connotation of extremism arisen entirely due to ignorance? There’s probably more to it and it helps to ask cui bono—who benefits from this. It is no secret that States want to continue existing and ruling over their subjects, all while seeking ways to expand power. This has been evident in the power increases that have occurred in the last few decades. From their perspective, it makes a lot of sense to freeze the status quo and prevent changes because any change will alter the power that States possess. The fact that States hate revolutionaries exists since the first days they were created.
Not so for science because science is about giving every argument or idea a chance. Science tells us we must rationally judge arguments instead of assuming them away because they are extreme. Science tells us we must discuss about whether ideas are right or wrong, and not weasel out through excuses. Doesn’t it make sense to choose science over ignorance and propaganda?