Barely a day goes by at the moment without some mention of extremism in the news. The government has a counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, Ofsted are busy assessing schools on their extremism and their commitment to British values, and there is an extremism commission in the offing to look at how the government can do more to suppress extremism in all its forms. We are continually reassured that the government is doing all it can to counter the extremism in our midst.
All of which begs the question: is it wrong to be an extremist? To which we must ask: extremely what? Not, presumably, extremely correct or extremely fair. Those sound like good things. So what is this bad form of extremism, and what differentiates it from good extremism, that is, from being extremely good?
The difficulty here is that anyone who truly believes in something and follows through on it is surely some kind of an extremist. What about human rights extremists – people who believe criminals have the same rights as everybody else? Or animal rights extremists, who believe animal life is just as valuable as human life? Or feminist extremists, who believe marriage is inherently patriarchal and should be abolished? LGBT extremists, who believe binary gender is a social construct? Environmental extremists, who believe we should impoverish ourselves to save the planet? Free market extremists, who don’t want the state to provide any kind of support to the unemployed? Socialist extremists, who want the state to take ownership of all industry? Nationalist extremists, who want to end all immigration? Internationalist extremists, who want to abolish all borders?
Surveying such forms of extreme commitment to certain principles quickly reveals how what gets labelled as extremist in an effort to discredit it and suppress it depends entirely on where public opinion, and especially elite opinion, currently lies. It is, in other words, a wholly relative measure of acceptability, one without any absolute or transcendent basis. Indeed, one dictionary definition of extremism is that of ideas which are very different from commonly accepted norms. What we are really speaking about here, then, is extremely different.
Consider the case of same-sex marriage. Despite being introduced less than four years ago, opposition to it is increasingly regarded as extremist by the government, and a recent poll shows that 41% of the population agrees. Only last week the National Trust tried to force all its volunteers at some of its properties to wear badges in support of an LGBT campaign. Defending this, it pointed out that it was committed to equality, and that all its volunteers knew that when they signed up. No indication was shown that this was a particularly controversial area of equality, or any allowance made that someone might reasonably or conscientiously not wish to support this agenda. Strong objections from around 10% of the volunteers did eventually lead to the Trust backing down and making the badges voluntary. But the very fact that they initially saw no problem with enforcing participation as part of their commitment to equality is telling of the extent to which these radical ideas are now deemed non-negotiable. Willingness ruthlessly to enforce an equality policy on contentious sexuality issues is deemed par for the course, while opposition is treated as a form of extremism and given short shrift.
Or consider the case of Brexit. A recent poll showed that 61% of Leave voters deemed that significant damage to the British economy was a price worth paying for Brexit, and 39% agreed that personal hardship such as losing their job would be worth it too. The polling company and press immediately dubbed them extremists. Think about that: extremist, merely for being willing to make personal sacrifices for their beliefs. This is how loose and ill-defined this term is. Yet it is this ‘extremism’ that the government is moving to ban.
Where does the attraction of dismissing things as extremist come from? It comes from a desire to avoid having to call things wrong and explain why it is so. In this relativist age it is much more comfortable just to dismiss something as extreme, that is, too far away from current mainstream or fashionable beliefs, than actually to call it wrong and justify that claim in some rational and objective way.
The problem, though, is that calling something extremist fails to identify what it is that is really being objected to. It is a cop out, a vaguely defined smear, and as a consequence fails to be clear on how the objection connects in different cases, why some things which are extreme are acceptable while others are not. When applied to public policy, it replaces policymaking based on objective and rational criteria with policymaking based on a relative, kneejerk assessment of how different an idea is from a prevailing norm. It fails to take into account crucial differences between forms of extremism, especially in their relation to violence, and fails to give sufficient weight to the rights of conscience and other fundamental freedoms which protect individuals from enforced compliance with state ideology. It is deeply authoritarian and intolerant of unpopular points of view, no matter how peaceable they are. No wonder there is growing pressure from organisations ranging from Christians to secularists and gay rights campaigners for the government to abandon plans to clamp down on extremism as a general category.
The bottom line here is that criticising something as extremist is lazy and incoherent. It is a shorthand, but it is a dangerous shorthand, because it allows us all too easily to slip into thinking that all unfashionable ideas are beyond the pale and may legitimately be suppressed. Instead, we should say what we mean, and be honest about it. If we think something is wrong and warrants suppression because it incites violence then we should say that. If we regard a view as so contrary to the public good that it is ineligible for the usual toleration afforded in a free society then we should make the case for that – though mindful of all the important considerations which it engages, not least the rights of conscience and freedom of religion and expression. Falling back on accusations of extremism is lazy and undermining of a free society. It needs to stop.