I am frequently told that there is no point in arguing with extreme ideologues because they are closed-minded and impervious to reason, and that I would do better to save my energies for talking important issues through with more reasonable and moderate people with whom I differ less profoundly. I disagree with this and see value in arguing with extremists for a number of reasons.
The problem of extremism has been becoming increasingly evident in the last few years with the rise of Islamic extremism, the far-right and alt-right, the far-left and various movements and academic theories based on identity politics. In addition to this, the tendency to be extremely libertarian or authoritarian on any issue has become more marked as has the likelihood of being extremely pro or anti religion, feminism, nationalism, globalism, LGBT equality or anti-racist movements from a range of perspectives. The pressure to pick a position and defend it strongly and uncompromisingly has never been so great in my lifetime. The “extremeness” of positions seems to many to call for an equally extreme response and thus Islamic extremism causes many previously moderate rightists to move further right emboldening existing far-right whilst previously liberal Muslims become more defensive of radical ideas emboldening existing Islamists whilst previously moderate liberals move further left emboldening the existing far-left and identity politicians.
There is a temptation to pick a culprit and accuse that group of “starting it” which many cultural commentators have indulged but Islamism exists in its own right as does white supremacy and postmodern far-left identity politics. We can trace the origins of each of these historically and they will differ from culture to culture. It seems to me, in the UK, that the far-left is a significant factor in the rise of white nationalism, and we certainly produce a disproportionate number of Jihadis from our relatively small population of British Muslims. American cultural critics have argued convincingly that their far-left is to a large extent a reaction to a strongly pre-existing far-right whilst American Muslims are quite possibly the most liberal in the world. Cultural factors vary hugely and these are mostly significant only in helping us work out how to deal with the problem.
It seems odd that the rise of extremisms would cause previously moderate people to become extreme in an opposite direction rather than extremely moderate in an attempt to counter it but we are a tribal species which thinks mostly in narratives, and we like the simplest ones best. Whilst it seems clear that most people are not extremist ideologues, and simply seek security and fairness within which to live their own lives, uncertain times tend to push people away from moderation and into extremes. We are living in one of those times.
However, there is hope. I am not alone in perceiving (and experiencing) a change of attitude among moderates of all kinds. The old borders of left vs right, religion vs atheism, progressiveness vs social conservatism have, for many of us, become less important than the border between reason/toleration/openness and irrationalism/tribalism/dogmatism. Many of us have discovered a new respect for moderate and reasonable people from what were previously opposing political, ethical and ideological positions. This is where our strength lies. It is notoriously difficult to persuade someone else to shift their ideological position; to become less conservative, less religious, less socialist, less identitarian or less nationalist but somewhat easier to shift them to becoming even slightly more reasonable, tolerant and open in regards to different views. This is best accomplished by endeavoring to be so to theirs. I, for one, am at a point where I am almost pathetically grateful when someone with a different view to mine even considers the possibility that I might not be evil, and I’m more than willing to offer them the same charity.
At this point, it could be countered that I am not speaking of extremists who will not consider that possibility but of moderates who will whilst the extremists remain out of reach. That is largely true but talking to extremists also serves three important purposes.
Know your enemy
Contempt for extremist views may well be warranted but extremism cannot be addressed except by being addressed, not simply by writing think-pieces about how unreasonable and alarming they are. We need to keep talking to them and asking questions. Even if you think you have a good understanding of their motivations and goals, keeping civil lines of communication open is valuable because narratives change. Even if you cannot shift extreme views, it’s worthwhile having a strong understanding of what they are and where they are coming from to enable you to address the underlying concerns which draw people to them and anticipate what they might do next. It is impossible for reasonable, compassionate people to find common ground with views like “deport all non-whites” “get rid of due process for defendants of rape charges,” “legalize FGM,” “round up the Jews” or “kill homosexuals” but we can at least know what they are saying and the rationale for it, and can take appropriate steps to protect the targets of these and counter the narrative. It is impossible to counter a narrative if you have a facile view of what it is, and attempts to do so will be easily rebutted giving the impression that criticisms of the narrative are unfounded. It is always worth rebutting even those views which seem as though they should be clearly ludicrous to everyone because, obviously, they aren’t.
Get extremists to show their true colors
Extremists have a narrative and they will present this in the best possible light, often arguing that the highly authoritarian, abusive, oppressive or persecutory agenda they advocate is good for society and therefore for people whose best interests they have at heart. Usually, they believe this. However, they will also, necessarily, skip over the bits in which in which they are advocating harming, persecuting or oppressing people. It is essential to get them to state explicitly that they intend to do this so that extremist views cannot hide behind narratives. It is much more effective to get an extremist to state their own worst views that to simply accuse them of having them.
The way to get an extremist of any kind to explicitly state the harm they are advocating doing to others is to persistently assume that they would not wish to do this and force them to spell it out. Assuming the best of them despite all implicit evidence that you should not will usually result in them giving explicit evidence that no-one should. If a white supremacist is advocating deporting all non-white people, ask how this will affect people of color who have known no other home and force them to say they do not care because they are not white. If an extremist feminist is advocating doing away with due process in rape cases, ask how we would protect the innocent falsely accused and force them to say they do not care because they are men. If an Islamist is defending scriptures which condemn apostates, ask how to ensure non-believers can express their views safely and force them to say that they should die for expressing such views. There’s always the chance that saying or typing this will make them internally acknowledge that they intend harm to others but it is more likely that this will impact more compassionate people who are inclining towards their view and motivated to buy into the narrative,
Bring more reasonable people at risk of developing extremist views into the conversation
When I argue with an extremist of any kind, there are nearly always people inclined to think they have a point who join the conversation to argue with me. This is very helpful because I can usually find some common ground with this person who is not yet committed to an ideological extreme, share some of their concerns and agree with some of their points whilst countering others civilly whilst assuming they are a good person. This leads them to want to agree with me as far as they can which often angers the extremist who is not prepared to cede an inch and lashes out furiously, putting off their potential ally. I am also blessed with many thoughtful and reasonable followers who will join the conversation and also argue for moderation courteously and charitably. The desire for validation and to align with popular opinion should not be underestimated. I have seen so many people with a position bordering on an ideological extreme shift away from the extremist’s view and towards a more moderate one in the space of a conversation, because we are prepared to discuss their views civilly and the extremist is not and because the general tone of the conversation leans towards moderation.
On social media, at least, there is a marked tendency towards defeatism among centrists who can see anyone significantly more right-wing as a neo-Nazi and anyone much more left-wing as a regressive and both outside the bounds of constructive conversation. In fact, there is much more scope than this. For many of us who consider ourselves centrists, there are vast numbers of people to both the left and the right who are not ideologically committed to an extremist view, and can be encouraged to shift slightly inwards. There are certainly enough people urging them to go ever further outwards and dismissing inclining-towards-extremism people as extremists is likely to help this effort. An engagement with an extremist is an opportunity to show that there is a position to take which addresses the concerns the extremist seems to address without becoming an extremist. It is an opportunity to pick holes in an extreme narrative, and to uncover underlying irrationalism, inconsistency and less-than-noble motivation which dismissing the inclining-towards-extremism person as a “racist, bigot, regressive, feminazi” does not allow.
There is, of course, also the possibility of realizing that your own views need shifting. I have become less polemical and literal in my perception of religion and more respectful of reasonable conservatives as a result of discussions on Twitter. I have also noticed reasonable conservatives becoming more tolerant of centre-lefties like me. They don’t want the far-right any more than we want the far-left. Being critical of the extremes of your own group is appreciated by the “other side.” I am grateful to the reasonable right for its condemnation of the alt-right and they appreciate leftist criticism of identity politics. Equally, the rise of far-right, anti-Muslim bigots has united reasonable liberal critics of religion with reasonable liberal Muslims in unequivocally condemning them and defending the rights and freedoms of Muslims. In two conversations I have had recently, a Muslim reluctant to discuss the problem of Islamism has become more willing to do so after I addressed the problem of anti-Muslim bigotry.
The only positive thing to result from the emergence of so many extremist views is the new appreciation by moderates and liberals for moderates and liberals of groups other than their own. We need to build on this to create a strong centre and then not forget it. The left is suffering now for having disregarded the views of the centre-right whose respect for our own culture and traditions and stronger resistance to identity politics from the far-left and the far-right could have balanced us. The left became overly confident that it had won the cultural war and failed to curb its own extremes. Naturally, I hope we win it again but also retain an awareness that conservative views exist and have value. However, if conservatives retain an advantage and can acknowledge liberal views and their value, that would be a good outcome too.
Building a strong moderate centre will be our salvation in a way that raging at extremists or refusing to engage with them will not. That simply doesn’t work. Rather, it fuels their extremism. Occasionally, engaging civilly with someone with extreme views can influence their ideas. However, more often it does not and the best we can do is try to diminish their support. Extremists of all kinds are tribalists. They thrive on support and at the moment they have quite a lot of it. People who were previously moderate are drawn to them because they fear global developments and the moderate centre is weak. If we can strengthen it, we can win them back. If the tribal extremes lose much of their tribes, we’ve won.