In the wake of the horrendous attack in Norway, I've been hearing the term "extremism" thrown around a lot as a synonym for hatred and bigotry.
But in reality, while these terms can sometimes be accurately used to describe the same ideologies, they are not the same at all. And "extremism" is a word that does more to obscure the issues and dynamics at the root of violence than it does to clarify them.
Writing about the use of the word "terrorism" in the wake of 9/11, Colombian sociologist, Ricardo Vargas Meza, said:
"'Global terrorism' is a loaded term that both hides realities and legitimizes policy decisions. In fact, those decisions are often pre-determined by the term's very use. [ . .. ]To begin with, it hides the political motivations behind dramatic acts of terror. Global terrorism is so shocking that it causes most to ignore the particularities of the conflicts that engender it - conflicts which generally involve multiple actors, dissimilar positions and in general a complexity of relations. The term has a sense of 'the present' that ignores historical trajectories. Time is thrown out of order. . [ . . . ] It also confuses a means of irregular war, 'terror,' with an end in itself. It gives the appearance that there are no fundamental causes of conflict: what exist are terrorists, agents of insecurity, terrorist sanctuaries."
In a similar way, the word "extremist" lumps together people with widely disparate ideologies -- from white supremacists to Islamic fundamentalists to radical environmentalists -- based on the perceived distance between their views and societal norms. Implicit here is the assumption that society's norms are reasonable and morally correct -- and that there is a moral equivalency to all political positions that deviate from them.
But history tells us that societal norms are not always just or compassionate -- slavery, Jim Crow laws, apartheid, Nazism were all considered normal and right within the moral frameworks of the societies that spawned them. And strong opposition to them was considered extremist. In condemning extremism as such we lump together Ossama bin Laden and John Brown, David Duke and Nelson Mandela.
But the problem with the ideologies of Al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan is not that they are extreme -- its that they are hateful.
And this is more than just a matter of semantics.
For one thing, political discourses about "extremism" tend to lead toward demonizing all dissent, be it violent or non-violent, and giving the state the tools to persecute and prosecute those whose politics fall too far outside the "mainstream." Witness the historical example of the harassment, imprisonment, and murder of civil rights and anti-war activists under the FBI's COINTELPRO, or the current grand jury investigations of anti-war and solidarity activists in the U.S.
But more to the point, making "extremism" rather than hatred the issue prevents us from asking the difficult and essential questions about the relationship between white supremacist and Christian supremacist ideologies and the "mainstream" beliefs of European and European-American societies with long histories of institutional and societal racism. And it prevents us from looking in the painful mirror that reveals our own unexamined racism.
Instead of opposing "extremism" lets embrace love and its fierce challenge to the violence and hatred woven into the fabric of our culture.