Friday, July 15, 2016

On extremism

I will not condemn extremists.

I condemn violence. And these two get conflated so often it is worth asking ourselves why, whose interests are served by this blurring.

Those who use violence in pursuit of their political agenda are regularly labelled extreme. If only they had pursued their goals through peaceful means, we say. Yet this obscures the everyday violence of a system so “normal” that it will never be called extreme.

When multinational banks, fossil energy companies and weapons manufacturers get subsidies, tax cuts, loopholes, political access and nothing more than slaps on the wrist, while indigenous people, single parents, the disabled, elderly, unemployed get austerity, services cut, grievances ignored, working conditions eroded, civil liberties constricted, living spaces polluted, their struggles and small escapes harshly criminalised – that is violence. Holding desperate people in abysmal conditions to stoke and pander to xenophobia for political gain is violence. Suppressing the memory and ongoing legacies of colonial genocide and dispossession is violence. Foreign policy that puts the interests of elites over the upholding of international law, that mutes criticism of useful authoritarian regimes while unflinchingly supporting allied imperialism is violence. Sacrificing a stable climate for the short term profits of a small number of major shareholders is one of the most violent ideas ever conceived. It may not look like a bomb in a market, or a truck ploughing through a crowd of people, but its victims end up just as dead or wounded. The values, assumptions, institutions and practices that sustain it are violent and unjust.

But they are not considered extreme, because they are the status quo. It suits those who benefit from the ways things are to focus our condemnation elsewhere, to channel our outrage into xenophobia, victim-blaming and the relative trivialities of the latest celebrity scandal or sporting upset.

To be extremist is to stand opposed to the status quo. This can be done violently and for unjust goals, but it needn’t be. And when the status quo is itself violent and unjust, then opposing it is the only defensible option. Such opposition can take many forms, but historically, many of the most effective struggles against injustice were considered extreme by the status quo of the time. Martin Luther King Jnr was condemned as an extremist and had the resources of the white supremacist state marshalled against him. Nelson Mandela was gaoled for decades and remained classified as a terrorist by the US even while president of South Africa. Berta Cáceres, the indigenous Honduran environmental activist, was assassinated earlier this year for being an effective extremist. Universal suffrage, the forty hour week, the abolition of child labour, worker’s compensation, basic environmental regulations protecting clean air and water – all these and more were won by movements condemned at the time as extremist.

And the Galilean preacher who disturbed the violence of the Pax Romana with his revolutionary message of the last being first and the powerful brought low, who taught his followers to love their enemies yet to refuse to worship power, to see strangers as neighbours and even the wicked as loved by God, to first take the log out of our own eye, who exposed the collusion between religious, nationalist and imperialist agendas: he was the greatest extremist of all. The movement he began, if it is to remain true to his life and teaching, can never rest comfortably with a status quo where women are killed by their partners, children are forcibly made into soldiers and sex workers, debtors are crushed, whistle-blowers are punished, warmongers profit from their lies, and the habitability of the planet is in peril.

So do not condemn extremism. Condemn violence: especially violence that targets innocents, that targets those who are already suffering, that targets the most vulnerable. Condemn injustice. Condemn the ideologies and practices that uphold a violent and unjust status quo as well as the ideologies and practices of those who oppose it violently and unjustly.

Let us have more extremists: extremists for love; extremists for justice; extremists for peace; extremists for honesty. I am an extremist. Are you?


byron smith said...

"... though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ."

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.

Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

- MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail

Rusdy said...

Thought provoking post as usual. The silence from status quo is deafening. Thanks!

Milan said...

I gave some thought to this a few years ago and I agree.

The most straightforward definition of 'extremism' seems to be being well outside the political mainstream. At least on the issue of climate change, I think that when the full consequences of our choices become plain, the general attitudes held by most people at the present time will be seen by those in the future as unacceptable. To some extent, I think people realize that we are undermining the future for our own selfish ends, but it remains extreme to argue that we need to do what is necessary to end that.