How extremists cope with widespread dissent

July 28, 2011 at 3:41 am (Humans, Politics)

How do extremists continue believing what they believe? The recent attack in Norway, I think, has brought up this question in many people’s minds (helped by the fact that the perpetuator is white and blonde and thus ought to be perfectly normal). The usual response is that they must be either unintelligent or mentally disturbed. Neither, from my observations, is true. In fact, those who take a definite political position have on average a higher intelligence than the “moderates” and the politically unaffiliated, and political extremists are well-represented in the academia and in prominent professions.

The most common trait among extremists, I would say, is the ability to rationalize why others disagree with you, a trait that is usually seen by others as a form of cynicism – for example, a central tenet of Marxism is the fundamental role of ideology, or that what people believe tend to be a result of their socio-economical circumstances. A second and related trait is the belief that their beliefs are misrepresented by others to be something related and wrong, but that they themselves are in fact different. For example, Marxists are notorious for their many ideological streams, each of which criticizes and fights against the others; while the neo-Nazis take great pains to distinguish themselves from the Nazis.

For a practical demonstration, here are two excellent examples of how extremists deal with ideological insecurity, one from the Marxists and one from the neo-Nazis:

1. Badiou: On Different Streams Within French Maoism (an interview with Alain Badiou, a prominent French “philosopher” and probably the most famous Maoist in Europe)

2. Do you ever lose faith in your racist beliefs? (a thread on Stormfront, the largest neo-Nazi forum on the Internet)

I do not imply by this post that extremism itself is a bad thing. In fact, I have plenty of extreme beliefs, such as my atheism and my belief that family as a social institution ought to be abolished; and I am sure we can find in history countless examples in which an extreme minority turned out to be correct (by beliefs, I mean only falsifiable beliefs, not opinions relating to moral values, although these two are often confused with each other).

However, most beliefs held by an extreme minority are probably false, and this is especially true for those that have been out of favor for years – in the above two cases, the Maoist beliefs about class struggle and the viability of central planning; and the fascist belief that race is a fundamental determinant of personality.


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