Human beings have always tended towards definitions relative to themselves. We feel most at ease with that which is somehow intrinsically the same as ourselves, and when we go searching for something new, it is always in terms of otherness – foreign holidays, alien planets, ethnic cooking, as though our own cooking is not tied to our ethnicity.
Humanity’s bitterest exploits have largely centred around that which we see as dissimilar enough to be threatening to our security: tribal warfare, genocide and ethnic cleansing. It has even been said (and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who said it) that the immigrants in France hold a unique power, because they alone define what ‘being French’ is – the only common attribute of all French people being their not-immigrant status.
When I was born, there were still two dominant ideologies persisting alongside each other – though Communism all but vanished during my childhood. The old ‘fear of the other’ was replaced with new fears, many of them badly defined. During the time of Communism, of two poles of power, a clever social doctrine arose that stated that either people were with the West or with the East – there could be no third path, or neutral position. There was Normal, and there was Communist (or Capitalist, if you were in a Communist state).
With Communism gone, the specific nature of “Other” simply broadened. It turns out that non-specific threats are as good as ill-defined goals in making people feel insecure. The threat of the other evokes a lesser reaction the more familiar with the other we become, so why not start at the very edges of otherness, into the undefined, and even indefinable. Enter wars declared on concepts: drugs and terrorism to start.
And so we come to today. Where once we discussed politics in terms of left and right, now the emotive language of “Extremism” has crept in. But what’s most alarming is that every study that compares economic policy (indeed, any policy) shows that manifestos of all parties are moving rightwards. The views of today’s Republican and Conservative parties are themselves very similar those considered to be Economic Extremism during previous generations. Labour and the Democrats, in order to ‘remain relevant’ and not be accused of being out of touch with reality, find themselves pushed into ‘pragmatic’ policies that are very similar to those the Right were pushing just decades ago.
What we are left with, all the things that aren’t considered extremism, is one path of enlightenment. Governments are supposed to be managers of a process towards a single unquestionable end, rather than proposers of completely different ways of moulding a state with differing ambitions. The ideology of the post-ideological is, in essence, that all debate about the kind of world we want is over and all that remains is micro-management. Only Extremists will dispute this, and they can’t be trusted because they’re extreme.
This tendency in political and cultural discourse can have some very odd results. One of these was the decision of "Hope Not Hate”, a group previously committed to fighting the BNP, to poll members on whether to turn their attention on Muslim groups, as if the English and Muslim Defence Leagues are somehow moral parallels of each other. I’m pretty sure the MDL will crumble once the EDL is disposed of, just like any group who’s existence is purely reactionary. Its as if the puerile joke about Socialist and Nazis bring two breeds of the same politics has turned into accepted truth.
The opposite of the Extreme is as often the Centre as it is the Normal. Political conservatives have worked for a long time to move the Centre, rather than the balance of debates, and in some ways its a very reasonable strategy. But if Centre is a synonym of Normal, then Marginal must surely be synonymous with Extreme. Yet democracy is insufficiently democratic if it ignores the needs of the marginalised. At times, it can feel like defending the Marginal is to defend the Extreme – especially when the media have taken to scapegoating poor, black or disabled people.
The need to reject the Reasonable/Extremist binary has never been greater. We have plenty of perfectly useful words for specific kinds of extremism, and many of these are genuinely bad things which we should condemn, such as fascism and those forms of extremism that idolise violence as a means to an end. However, humanity thrives on diversity and wide ranging scope of debate. We need width as much as depth in the search for solutions to problems, and we need to subject ideas and policies to critical thinking. We impoverish ourselves by lopping off vast swathes of spectrum and making an idol of one way of thinking.
If we cannot break out of the mould into which we divide everything into current mainstream thought and extremism, we will not be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and in particular the triple challenge of economic, resource and ecological collapse. The last thing we can afford is to police the more diverse ways of thinking with a mindset that says only those views that fit with the plans of the most comfortably off can be contemplated – down that road lie disasters untold.