If there is one pattern of thought I dislike more than any other, it’s extremism. More than any single political, religious, or ideological standpoint, it is extremism itself which has always seemed to me to pose the greatest threat to humanity. It is for this reason that one of my primary motivating factors in life is brokering a middle ground, finding a path between two different (often very polarized) perspectives.
I lived happily in a pure and simple distaste for extremism and left it at that. But in the wake of an election season heavily scarred by vitriolic extremism on both ends of the political spectrum, I’ve been forced to think more deeply about this. And out of the half-remembered fog of high school history class came Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.
One criticism among many that was leveled at Dr. King and his followers at the time was that of extremism. It seems that the good doctor and I share an instinctive distaste for this label, for he was disappointed and taken aback at first. But then he has this to say on the subject:
“But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? – ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice? – ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? – ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist? – ‘Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist? – ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
For Dr. King, extremism is perfectly acceptable—desirable, even—as long as it is directed towards just and noble ends. As long as you are an extremist for the right cause, so his logic goes, then it is a noble thing to fight for what you believe in.
If we all agreed on a single objective moral truth, I think that no further discussion would be necessary. But although I agree that an “extremist for love” is a good extremist, and also that MLK and his followers fall into that category, this definition alone will not suffice if we want to combat unhealthy expressions of extremism in the world. It provides us with no ability to police ourselves and our words, thoughts, and actions. There is a fundamental problem of subjectivity with it: that is, what extremist doesn’t think that they are ultimately an extremist for love?
Take ultra-fundamentalist sidewalk preachers—“megaphone preachers,” as I like to call them. They would claim that aggressively shouting at passers-by that they are sinners who are going to Hell is, ultimately, an act of love, because it helps make them aware of their sins. (Of course, this tactic doesn’t actually work—but that is beside the point.) ISIS fighters believe that blowing themselves and others up is an act of love at its core because it is an act that purifies the world by getting rid of Muslim apostates and Western decadence. Extremists on the left in America believe that they are striving to create a world of equality and freedom in the face of racist, bigoted Republicans; equally, extremist right adherents see themselves as noble defenders of a once-proud nation that is under siege not only by outside influences, but also by whiny liberals and soft-skinned millennials. Round and round the circle goes, and few of us ever become much wiser.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the unhealthy expression of extremism is not solely defined by unhealthy goals; it is actually a fundamentally different way of thinking about and acting upon one’s beliefs. I always find it useful to have different words to talk about different things. For the rest of this discussion, I’m going to call unhealthy extremism simply “extremism” and healthy, MLK-style extremism “conviction.”
In addition to providing two different words to talk about what are fundamentally two different things, using the word “conviction” specifically gives us additional benefits. Members of an extremist movement (particularly religious extremists) will generally not label themselves as such; instead, they’ll use words like “convicted” and “passionate.” This makes people who are a part of the same group but more moderate seem to be, by implication, lacking conviction or passion. For example, Catholics who are on the extreme left or right end of the political spectrum, and who use their beliefs to launch passionate diatribes about their chosen political cause (usually abortion, gay marriage, or immigration) view Catholics like me, who are more politically moderate, with some suspicion. I seem to be lacking conviction because I lack extremism in my political views. This is not the case; I am, in fact, quite convicted about the truths of the Church. But when extremists do not separate conviction from extremism, my lack of extremism translates into lack of conviction for them.
But I believe that extremism and conviction are fundamentally different in one key way. The main point that I want to make is this: The source of extremism is fear, while the source of conviction is freedom from fear.
The fear contained within an extremist movement takes on three primary forms. First: Fear that the movement will ultimately not succeed in its aim. Second: Fear that, deep down, the movement professes as truths things which may not be entirely true. These two fears are secret, silent fears. They are not only rarely admitted to but, in fact, vehemently denied. Any extremist worth their salt will claim the divine, inexorable, inevitable success of their movement, as well as their total confidence in the justice it strives to achieve, even if the means are perhaps ugly or dangerous. But the fear exists nonetheless, and we can know this precisely because of their vehement denial, not in spite of it. We used to know when my brother was lying about something because he would lash out defensively when confronted about it. He feared being found out. In the same way, these hidden fears exist within every extremist. It drives them to lash out with anger, which John Steinbeck in East of Eden calls “the brother of fear.” It may be a subconscious fear, undetected even by its possessor, but it is a powerful motivator nonetheless.
The third kind of fear is fear of the Other. It is an integral ingredient, inherent in all such movements. Extremist movements not only admit to being afraid of the other side, but even actively encourage and generate that fear within its membership. Fear of the other side is a primordial uniting force, one that taps into the very nature of what it means to be human. Extreme right-wingers tell their adherents that the far left will plunge the country into nuclear war with Russia; the far left claims that the rise of far right policies in the government will lead to a police state founded on racial and gender discrimination. This fear is total, all-encompassing, and unquestioned. It is a fear which always contains a kernel of truth, but which, like the mustard seed of the Gospel, has been cultivated into a huge and deeply-rooted bush by the leaders of the movement.
So much for fear and extremism. But before we delve into the particulars of what conviction looks like and how it is different from extremism in my personal lexicon, I’d like to write briefly to my many friends who are afraid in our current society. A lot of people, particularly women, minority groups, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, are afraid for their safety in the wake of the election. And this fear isn’t entirely unjustified; acts of violence and verbal abuse targeting these groups have gone up. I don’t want to write something that tries to be a panacea, an aspirin pill that soothes the fears of these groups and maintains the status quo because “there really isn’t that much to be afraid of.” I don’t want to write vague platitudes about everything being fine, delivered securely from my privileged and safe place as a straight white male. Because, truthfully, I don’t know if it will be. There is indeed much to be afraid of today for people who are members of one of those groups. In urging you not to be afraid, I do not want you to think that I’m telling you there’s nothing to be afraid of, or asking you to stop trying to enact change.
Here’s the thing: Facing a frightening enemy does not obligate you to be afraid. In fact, fearlessness is the most effective weapon in our arsenal in these times. Your fear is not a barometer of your desire for change, and those who proclaim their fear loudly from the rooftops, who almost seem to take pride in their martyrdom, are not always the most effective instruments of change. The greatest leaders and shapers of change in the world have always been people of fearlessness, people who, when placed in danger, chose not to be afraid. The nonviolent anti-segregationist protestors of the ’60s come forward once more to provide an example. These were men and women of conviction, who were in very real, very constant danger of being killed for their beliefs. Some, in fact, were killed. But their fight was rooted not in their fear, but in their fearlessness. And for the rest of this article, I want to talk about what conviction looks like. Because it is this conviction, welling up from the deep spring of fearlessness, that really allows us to be agents of change in our turbulent world.
So what does conviction look like, and how does it differ from extremism? Conviction, because it stems from a deep well of fearlessness, is not afraid of the other side. And because of this, a convicted person will use that conviction to reach out to the other side. Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail is directed at people he is in profound disagreement with; nevertheless, he signs it “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.” A person of conviction sees that the only way to change the other side is to reach out to it. Insulating ourselves only widens the gap and increases the danger we face from the other side.
Extremists, in their fear, are unable to do this. I think that many ultrafundamentalist religious extremists in America dislike talking to atheists because they are afraid. They are afraid that their worldview might be shaken or even shattered. But a person of conviction in their faith can and should strive to reach out to atheists. They are not afraid that the atheist person will destroy them—and, if such a thing should happen, a good, convicted person is secure knowing that they will be made better for it. Because people of conviction aren’t afraid of being proven wrong or looking foolish, they are willing to stick their necks out and reach out to the other side. Extremism lashes out; conviction reaches out.
A convicted person asks questions of the other side, too. Extremists assume they know everything about the other side and how They work; their views of the other side have been thoroughly and carefully constructed, and the extremist believes they already know everything there is to know about the adherents of the other side. Thus, they feel no need to ask questions. But people of conviction ask the other side how they work. Rather than attacking the other side, they question the other side with real earnestness.
Let me be clear: Questioning the other side in no way means that a person of conviction necessarily thinks the other side is right. The questions are not asked for the purpose of being persuaded that the other side is right, but rather, with the purpose of building a bridge of dialogue between the two of you. I could write an entire other overlong blog post on why questioning is better for persuading people of something than providing answers, but the short version is this: When you ask someone questions about what they believe in, they’ll answer them. The dialogue that results is the source of persuasion and changing someone else’s mind. This holds true for everything from political discourse to evangelization. The key is to build bridges, and bridges are made from questions, not answers.
In short: Conviction is security, while extremism is insecurity. To be truly convicted of the righteousness of your cause, and to fight for that cause with conviction, means to be questioning, reaching out, building bridges, and facing the other side with fearlessness and confidence. None of this means that you have to agree with, condone, or wish to be persuaded by the other side; these are not ways of compromising your own view, but rather, spreading it to others in a way that actually works. To build bridges requires willingness to make oneself vulnerable; vulnerability requires fearlessness. But ultimately, this is the single best way to help the cause you believe in. And you may die, living this way; Martin Luther King lived this way, and he was assassinated. He had much to be afraid of. But by facing his enemies with fearlessness, he was able to be someone of conviction, and his ability to shape the world around him was tremendously increased.
So especially to all of my friends living in fear right now: Facing the world of fear with courage is the greatest and most effective way of helping eliminate the root causes of that fear. Real, permanent, radical change stems only from this source of boldness and courage. Don’t let the fearsomeness of the enemy make you obligated to fear it; let it instead be a reason to not fear it. That’s how to be a mover and a shaker in this world. That’s how to enact change.