Laird Wilcox on Extremist Traits
Robert F. Kennedy wrote:
"What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists
is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant.
The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what
they say about their opponents."
In analyzing the rhetoric and propaganda of several hundred
militant "fringe" political and social groups across the political
spectrum, I have identified a number of specific traits or behaviors
that tend to represent the extremist "style"...
1. CHARACTER ASSASSINATION.
Extremists often attack the character of an opponent rather
than deal with the facts or issues raised. They will question
motives, qualifications, past associations, alleged values,
personality, looks, mental health, and so on as a diversion
from the issues under consideration. Some of these matters are
not entirely irrelevant , but they should not serve to avoid
the real issues.
Extremists object strenuously when this is done to them, of
2. NAME-CALLING AND
Extremists are quick to resort to epithets (racist, subversive,
pervert, hate monger, nut, crackpot, degenerate, un-American,
anti-semite, red, commie, nazi, kook, fink, liar, bigot, and
so on) to label and condemn opponents in order to divert attention
from their arguments and to discourage others from hearing them
out. These epithets don't have to be proved to be effective;
the mere fact that they have been said is often enough.
3. IRRESPONSIBLE SWEEPING
Extremists tend to make sweeping claims or judgments on little
or no evidence, and they have a tendency to confuse similarity
with sameness. That is, they assume that because two (or more)
things, events, or persons are alike in some respects, they
must be alike in most respects. The sloppy use of analogy is
a treacherous form of logic and has a high potential for false
4. INADEQUATE PROOF FOR
Extremists tend to be very fuzzy about what constitutes proof,
and they also tend to get caught up in logical fallacies, such
as post hoc ergo propter hoc (assuming that a prior
event explains a subsequent occurrence simply because of their
before and after relationship). They tend to project wished-for
conclusions and to exaggerate the significance of information
that confirms their beliefs while derogating or ignoring information
that contradicts them. They tend to be motivated by feelings
more than facts, by what they want to exist rather than what
actually does exist. Extremists do a lot of wishful and fearful
5. ADVOCACY OF DOUBLE
Extremists generally tend to judge themselves or their interest
group in terms of their intentions, which they tend to view
very generously, and others by their acts, which they tend to
view very critically. They would like you to accept their assertions
on faith, but they demand proof for yours. They tend to engage
in special pleading on behalf of themselves or their interests,
usually because of some alleged special status, past circumstances,
or present disadvantage.
6. TENDENCY TO VIEW
THEIR OPPONENTS AND CRITICS AS ESSENTIALLY EVIL.
To the extremist, opponents hold opposing positions because
they are bad people, immoral, dishonest, unscrupulous, mean-spirited,
hateful, cruel, or whatever, not merely because they simply
disagree, see the matter differently, have competing interests,
or are perhaps even mistaken.
7. MANICHAEAN WORLDVIEW.
Extremists have a tendency to see the world in terms of absolutes
of good and evil, for them or against them, with no middle ground
or intermediate positions. All issues are ultimately moral issues
of right and wrong, with the "right" position coinciding with
their interests. Their slogan is often "those who are not with
me are against me."
8. ADVOCACY OF SOME
DEGREE OF CENSORSHIP OR REPRESSION OF THEIR OPPONENTS AND/OR CRITICS.
This may include a very active campaign to keep opponents from
media access and a public hearing, as in the case of blacklisting,
banning or "quarantining" dissident spokespersons. They may
actually lobby for legislation against speaking, writing, teaching,
or instructing "subversive" or forbidden information or opinions.
They may even attempt to keep offending books out of stores
or off of library shelves, discourage advertising with threats
of reprisals, and keep spokespersons for "offensive" views off
the airwaves or certain columnists out of newspapers. In each
case the goal is some kind of information control. Extremists
would prefer that you listen only to them. They feel threatened
when someone talks back or challenges their views.
9. TEND TO IDENTIFY
THEMSELVES IN TERMS OF
WHO THEIR ENEMIES ARE: WHOM
THEY HATE AND WHO HATES THEM.
Accordingly, extremists may become emotionally bound to their
opponents, who are often competing extremists themselves. Because
they tend to view their enemies as evil and powerful, they tend,
perhaps subconsciously, to emulate them, adopting the same tactics
to a certain degree. For example, anti-Communist and anti-Nazi
groups often behave surprisingly like their opponents. Anti-Klan
rallies often take on much of the character of the stereotype
of Klan rallies themselves, including the orgy of emotion, bullying,
screaming epithets, and even acts of violence. To behave the
opposite of someone is to actually surrender your will to them,
and "opposites" are often more like mirror images that, although
they have "left" and "right" reversed, look and behave amazingly
10. TENDENCY TOWARD
ARGUMENT BY INTIMIDATION.
Extremists tend to frame their arguments in such a way as to
intimidate others into accepting their premises and conclusions.
To disagree with them is to "ally oneself with the devil," or
to give aid and comfort to the enemy. They use a lot of moralizing
and pontificating, and tend to be very judgmental. This shrill,
harsh rhetorical style allows them to keep their opponents and
critics on the defensive, cuts off troublesome lines of argument,
and allows them to define the perimeters of debate.
11. USE OF SLOGANS,
BUZZWORDS, AND THOUGHT-STOPPING CLICHES.
For many extremists shortcuts in thinking and in reasoning
matters out seem to be necessary in order to avoid or evade
awareness of troublesome facts and compelling counter-arguments.
Extremists generally behave in ways that reinforce their prejudices
and alter their own consciousness in a manner that bolsters
their false confidence and sense of self-righteousness.
12. ASSUMPTION OF MORAL
OR OTHER SUPERIORITY
Most obvious would be claims of general racial or ethnic superiority--a
master race, for example. Less obvious are claims of ennoblement
because of alleged victimhood, a special relationship with God,
membership in a special "elite" or "class," and a kind of aloof
"highminded" snobbishness that accrues because of the weightiness
of their preoccupations, their altruism, and their willingness
to sacrifice themselves (and others) to their cause. After all,
who can bear to deal with common people when one is trying to
save the world! Extremists can show great indignation when one
is "insensitive" enough to challenge these claims.
13. DOOMSDAY THINKING.
Extremists often predict dire or catastrophic consequences
from a situation or from failure to follow a specific course,
and they tend to exhibit a kind of "crisis-mindedness." It can
be a Communist takeover, a Nazi revival, nuclear war, earthquakes,
floods, or the wrath of God. Whatever it is, it's just around
the corner unless we follow their program and listen to the
special insight and wisdom, to which only the truly enlightened
have access. For extremists, any setback or defeat is the "beginning
of the end!"
14. BELIEF THAT
IT'S OKAY TO DO
BAD THINGS IN THE SERVICE OF
A "GOOD" CAUSE.
Extremists may deliberately lie, distort, misquote, slander,
defame, or libel their opponents and/or critics, engage in censorship
or repression , or undertake violence in "special cases." This
is done with little or no remorse as long as it's in the service
of defeating the Communists or Fascists or whomever. Defeating
an "enemy" becomes an all-encompassing goal to which other values
are subordinate. With extremists, the end justifies the means.
15. EMPHASIS ON
EMOTIONAL RESPONSES AND, CORRESPONDINGLY, LESS IMPORTANCE ATTACHED TO REASONING AND LOGICAL ANALYSIS.
Extremists have an unspoken reverence for propaganda, which
they may call "education" or "consciousness-raising." Symbolism
plays an exaggerated role in their thinking, and they tend to
think imprecisely and metamorphically. Harold D. Lasswell, in
his book, *Psychopathology and Politics*, says, "The essential
mark of the agitator is the high value he places on the emotional
response of the public." Effective extremists tend to be effective
propagandists. Propaganda differs from education in that the
former teaches one what to think, and the latter teaches one
how to think.
16. HYPERSENSITIVITY AND VIGILANCE.
Extremists perceive hostile innuendo in even casual comments;
imagine rejection and antagonism concealed in honest disagreement
and dissent; see "latent" subversion, anti-semitism, perversion,
racism, disloyalty, and so on in innocent gestures and ambiguous
behaviors. Although few extremists are clinically paranoid,
many of them adopt a paranoid style with its attendant hostility
17. USE OF SUPERNATURAL
RATIONALE FOR BELIEFS AND
Some extremists, particularly those involved in "cults" or
extreme religious movements, such as fundamentalist Christians,
militant Zionist extremists, and members of mystical and metaphysical
organizations, claim some kind of supernatural rationale for
their beliefs and actions, and that their movement or cause
is ordained by God. In this case, stark extremism may become
reframed in a "religious" context, which can have a legitimizing
effect for some people. It's surprising how many people are
reluctant to challenge religiously motivated extremism because
it represents "religious belief" or because of the sacred-cow
status of some religions in our culture.
18. PROBLEMS TOLERATING
AMBIGUITY AND UNCERTAINTY.
Indeed, the ideologies and belief systems to which
extremists tend to attach themselves often represent grasping
for certainty in an uncertain world, or an attempt to achieve
absolute security in an environment that is naturally unpredictable
or perhaps populated by people with interests opposed to their
own. Extremists exhibit a kind of risk-aversiveness that compels
them to engage in controlling and manipulative behavior, both
on a personal level and in a political context, to protect themselves
from the unforeseen and unknown. The more laws or "rules" there
are that regulate the behavior of others--particular their "enemies"--the
more secure extremists feel.
19. INCLINATION TOWARD
Extremists, their organizations , and their subcultures
are prone to a kind of inward-looking group cohesiveness that
leads to what Irving Janis discussed in his excellent book Victims
of Groupthink. "Groupthink" involves a tendency to conform
to group norms and to preserve solidarity and concurrence at
the expense of distorting members' observations of facts, conflicting
evidence, and disquieting observations that would call into
question the shared assumptions and beliefs of the group.
Right-wingers (or left-wingers), for example, talk
only with one another, read material that reflects their own
views, and can be almost phobic about the "propaganda" of the
"other side." The result is a deterioration of reality-testing,
rationality, and moral judgment. With groupthink, shared illusions
of righteousness, superior morality, persecution, and so on
remain intact, and those who challenge them are viewed with
skepticism and hostility.
20. TENDENCY TO
Extremists often wish for the personal bad fortune
of their "enemies," and celebrate when it occurs. When a critic
or an adversary dies or has a serious illness, a bad accident,
or personal legal problems, extremists often rejoice and chortle
about how they "deserved" it. I recall seeing right-wing extremists
celebrate the assassination of Martin Luther King and leftists
agonizing because George Wallace survived an assassination attempt.
In each instance their hatred was not only directed against
ideas, but also against individual human beings.
21. EXTREMISTS OFTEN
FEEL THAT THE SYSTEM IS NO GOOD
UNLESS THEY WIN.
For example, if they lose an election, then it
was "rigged." If public opinion turns against them, it was because
of "brainwashing." If their followers become disillusioned,
it's because of "sabotage." The test of the rightness or wrongness
of the system is how it impacts upon them...