The comedian and actor John Cleese has an interesting take on extremism, arguing that what some people see as extremism in those they perceive as enemies can often be used to justify their own equally extremist reactions to it. “You can be as nasty as you like and feel your behaviour is morally justified”.
In other words, extremism begets extremism – it’s just that our own certainty that we are right and ‘they’ are wrong risks blinding us to the fact our own behaviour is no less extreme.
Extremist ideology of whatever nature blooms in closed networks of ideological echo chambers (like internet chatrooms, social media, and hidden-in-plain-sight YouTube videos) where individuals find validation and support for their extreme views, leading to a heightened sense of belonging and identity.
Extremism exploits the social alienation and disenfranchisement that comes from disconnection from mainstream society where narratives that promise empowerment, purpose, and a sense of belonging amplify a vulnerable person’s need for validation.
We become most vulnerable to extremism at times of exceptional personal crises that are often defined by a struggle for identity and feelings of purposelessness.
And through the megaphone of propaganda and manipulation extremism uses skilled messaging and persuasive rhetoric to manipulate information, distort facts, and exploit emotional vulnerabilities to convince individuals to adopt their ideologies.
Once extremism gets its claws in deep, it creates a complex social structure in which the victims become dependent, financially, emotionally and ideologically, on and addicted to the cause to provide the validation and affirmation they need to in order to see value and worth in themselves.
And from this grows an almost messianic fervour that shuts out reason and logic and rational thought.
Extremism, then, is the toxic cocktail of narcissism and culture in which those who peddle it gamble that in providing a deformed version of the certainty people crave is preferable to, and more attractive than, the rational uncertainty that some people find deeply discomforting to live with but which has been and will forever be part of life on earth.
The rise in modern extremism has grown from many spores, not least in the near-total erosion of the trust we once had in social infrastructure and organisation to hold all our disparate and unique tribes together in some semblance of order.
The greatest friend of extremism is divisiveness, and the greatest tool at our disposal that makes this possible is the internet and social media, which allows us to magnify every slight and every slur a billion-fold at the click of a mouse.
Culture wars have been around for centuries, but they have always been the malformed child of politics.
The most recent and most significant culture war of modern times was the Covid pandemic, a version of Dante’s inferno on a scale that even Dante himself could hardly have imagined possible.
Life is not binary, but arguments are often presented that way.
Which is how we came to live through the absolute madness of one side of the room arguing black (masking alone in their own cars, viewing every other being as a contagion, othering those who chose not to take the vaccine), the other side arguing white (loftily declaring themselves ‘purebloods’, transitioning rapidly to Flat Earth) and neither one being able to see the vast sea of grey that lay between them.
We had the culture war caused by the Trump administration over myriad issues – separating migrant children from their families, the border wall, the President’s financial and tax affairs etc.) – that ended in an actual war of sorts at the Capitol building in January of 2021.
The instances, even in the last two years, are prodigious.
There was the deathless 2021 headline “Law student cleared after saying women have vaginas”. There are the ongoing Just Stop Oil protesters chaining themselves to pretty much anything they can ‘tie on’ to. To the magical thinking on steroids that was QANON. And the social disintegration continues.
Let me be crystal clear – it’s absolutely vital to fight on the issues that are threatening what is vital to us and our children. But it’s even more vital not to lose all sense of grounding and balance.
It all began in when we were all sent down a social rabbit hole of isolation in which some of us got badly lost and finally emerged gasping for air and foaming at the mouth with the conclusion Andrew Tate was the saviour we’d all been waiting for simply because he had a few hot takes on Covid and the gym
Everyone needs role models, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that Andrew Tate is not the answer. Yet in buying into his particular brand of toxic his devotees perpetuate a dangerous, misogynistic and incredibly dysfunctional ‘truth’.
The real irony is that those who cry ‘Freedom!’, whether freedom from restrictions, or the freedom to breathe clean air, often then spiral into extremism which looks nothing like freedom but a different, new set of rigid rules that, in some cases, they are insistent have been downloaded direct to their personal hotline with God Himself – who appears to be telling people that women shouldn’t have the right to vote and disapproving of their ‘bodycount’ – some of the worst purveyors of this ‘righteousness’ are women, the self proclaimed ‘female misogynists’ spouting counterfeit ‘pick me’ purity, aka turkeys voting for Christmas.
And extremism always finds a home – usually on Twitter or some other corner of the internet where validation of almost anything awaits you.
And of course, no-one thinks they are extreme – they just think they’re right. And therein lies the ultimate flaw. You’re only as good as your last album has become you’re only as good as your last tweet, and the fight for dominance, or even relevance, in social media shock-jockery has become increasingly intense
The extremes of both ends of the scale are digging for dominance, and the middle ground of rational human existence is the battleground.
Perhaps the main problem is that being reasonable and balanced doesn’t really get you that many clicks and grey areas aren’t very sexy. But much of life is grey and is all the better for it.
This is why so many lost and confused people end up in cults seeking certainty and meaning.
The internet has made it easier than ever to go off the deep end, especially if we’re not secure in our own sense of self and identity. When we don’t know ourselves as well as we could we are actually all capable of being brainwashed when given the right (or rather wrong) conditions.
So, what is the answer – where is the middle ground? Knowing yourself as well as possible must be the first priority for all of us. We can’t possibly expect ourselves to know what will happen or how things will pan out, but we can all work on letting our inner adult guide us so we don’t get dragged down a cul-de-sac of outrage and vocal self-righteous indignation that is carte-blanche to abuse those who don’t agree with us.
When we ask ourselves why so many have fallen for the Tate-style self-mythologising on social media and YouTube, the answer becomes clear: certainty is seductive – and if nothing else, extremists are dogmatically certain they are right.
Given what we’ve all lived through over the last decade – and regardless of the wrongs and rights of it (which we’ll never all agree on anyway), it’s easy to see why we are less inclined to trust those in power and why we’re tempted to turn to alternative sources of news.
But the explosion of ‘news’ outlets and declining standards of reporting make the majority of these sources unreliable. Most news outlets – even the supposedly impartial ones like the BBC – have an ulterior agenda – and without a single version of the truth it’s easy for black and white thinking to take over.
Believing nothing that mainstream media says is just as unhealthy as believing everything the Government says.
But we should fear the pull of certainty. That’s easier said than done when anxiety is high and we’re looking for an emotional lifeboat. But when we become seduced by certainty we can miss the opportunities we have in life and we’re also more open either to being manipulated or becoming manipulative.
Good mental health doesn’t need the cult of certainty. Good mental health says it’s okay to not know everything. Unfortunately, ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t sell products, ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t go viral. ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t have a value.
Maybe if we are to recover as a society we need to do it individually by understanding that uncertainty is part of the essence of life, part of its vitality.
The mind is a brilliant, complex tool. But it’s flawed. With enough evidence presented to it in the ‘right’ way, it can be coerced and convinced, and the less grounded you are, the more trauma you may have suffered and the less tethered you are to rationality, the higher the risk of getting caught up in mass formation psychosis, from either the left or the right.
It’s impossible to stress how important it is that we all work on understanding ourselves better than we do right now, because psychological control, mass hypnosis, extremism – thrive in those who know themselves the least.
By contrast, extremism and the peddling of false certainty is the veil that stops us living the life that is there for us and forces us to live in an artificial world of paranoia and fear.
One of the ways addicts overcome poleaxing addictions is by taking life ‘one day at a time’. Perhaps we could all do with taking many things one day at a time rather than living half of our lives in a dystopian future hell, because extremism from the left and from the right is rapidly becoming a veritable horseshoe of deep un-wellness.
Extremism is kryptonite to mental health, and we need to recognise its false prophets for who they really are.
When Justin Trudeau stands up and declares that he stands with the peaceful protests of farmers in India and then, in the next breath, sanctions laws that close the bank accounts of farmers and truckers who oppose him in his homeland, we should see that contradiction for what it really is.
Or put another way, when you hitch your wagon to the train, you need to be damned sure you know where it’s going, and who’s steering the horses.