Time to Rethink Using the Term "Extremism"

Every time the government uses the term "extremist" it helps justify political repression against political opponents.

Every time the term "extremist" is used to describe a political opponent, it marginalizes political dissent across the political spectrum.

Every time liberals and leftists use the term "extremist" it undermines the movement for progressive social change.

The term "extremist" is often used by those in the political center to demonize dissidents on the political left and right. As a label, the term extremism is elastic enough to cover everything from nonviolent nuns committing civil disobedience to neo-Nazis gunning down their enemies. More precise language and distinction is needed in a society that claims to be a democracy.

We need to rethink the use of the term "extremist." This is especially important now given three trends:

  • The use of the term "extremist" to demonize the Tea Party movement and other forms of right-wing activism. This use primarily is by political pundits and fundraisers for the Democratic Party.

  • The use of the term "extremist" to marginalize progressive critics of the failures of the Obama Administration. This use primarily is by centrists who want the Democratic Part to move to the "center," by which they mean continue moving to the political right.
  • The use of the term "extremist" to demonize and harass political dissidents, especially antiwar activists, Muslims, and radical environmentalists. This use primarily is by government law enforcement and anti-terror agencies and right-wing ideologues.
  • Jerome L. Himmelstein, professor of sociology at Amherst College, argues the term "extremism" when used in social science is at best a characterization that "tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels," and at worst the term "paints a false picture."

    The rhetoric of some human relations groups -- "extremists of the left and right," "religious political extremists," "lunatic fringe," "wing-nuts" -- undermines civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse by demonizing dissent and veiling the complicity we all share in institutionalized forms of oppression in our society including racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism, Arabophobia, and Islamophobia.

    The popular use of the term "extremism" developed from a social science analytical model called "Classical Theory" or the "Pluralist School." This set of theories lumps together political and cultural dissidents, populists of the left and right, supremacists, and terrorists into an undifferentiated irrational lunatic fringe threatening society. In the mid-1960s, racist segregationists and civil rights activists were both denounced as "extremists."

    The Rev. Martin Luther King at first bristled at being labeled an "extremist" in the 1960s by a group of clergymen upset with his activism. In his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," King wrote that he thought for a while, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, "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 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?"

    Two issues are raised by King's clever reversal of the attack on him as an "extremist." First is that the term "extremist" has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the "mainstream" norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a "centrist" position. Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any non-normative idea or action defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy -- or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.

    Analysts use the term "extremism" in a way that implies that ideas and methodologies are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology.

    King's ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism. Given the way the term "extremist" is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees.

    We need to use terms that are more precise. We need to analyze people and groups that promote supremacy, prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry. We need to stand up against people and groups that use intimidation and violence against a targeted group or individual based on their perceived identity. This language teaches people to see the dynamics of societal oppression, rather than allowing them to dismiss acts of ethnoviolence as caused by not-like-us "extremists" from "hate" groups.

    It is time to rethink our use of the term "extremist."