My oldest passion is studying history. As a kindergarten student, I remember devouring any books I could find on history- many of which were way above the usual kindergarten reading level. Because of my readings, when we played “cowboys and Indians”, I was always on the side of the natives. I read whatever I could find on history: non-fiction, historical fiction, facts, Time Life books.
When I was around 12, I read about the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. This shifted my attention from general history to trying to understand how events like the Holocaust could happen. What made populations susceptible to propaganda? Why was it so easy to manipulate their fears? How could people be so complicit with evil?
History does not really repeat itself, but it’s patterns do. Although a lifelong curiosity, history took somewhat of a back seat until 2016. In Trump’s shocking rise to power, the leftist violence in the form of Antifa and college protests, to internet trolls, I saw a repeated pattern. By combining my knowledge of history with current events, I became re-interested in answering this question:
Where does extremism come from?
Short answer: extremism is a mental illness. But there’s so much more to it than that.
Here is a sketch I created simply called “The Extremism Loop”.
Let’s break it down …
The root of all extremism is fear. Fear is the ego-mind’s primary role. It’s designed to keep us alive. However, when this fear is exploited and stirred up by ideological and religious beliefs, the fear becomes our identity.
The fear produces a type of low consciousness. Essentially, putting the central nervous system into flight-fight-freeze mode. This creates a defensive posture where everything is a threat. This wiring is especially present for people with untreated trauma wounds.
Low consciousness creates binary thinking. Everything is seen on a pathological level – healthy or sick. Or a moral level – good vs bad. Again, binary thinking is a feature of the ego designed to keep us alive. But when it is manipulated, it creates an us-vs-them lens.
Binary thinking inevitability manifests as tribalism. This is us-vs-them taken to extreme levels. This is first voiced in language. On the right, the entire motivation is “owning the libs”. On the far left, it is talk of systems destruction. Your “side” becomes your identity and produces a false two-sided war – especially in a crisis.
Some additional observations …
- If you are already a fearful, low conscious, binary thinker, you are far more likely to be attracted to tribalism in the form of either religious extremism, authoritarianism (nationalism or fascism) or revolutionary ideology (anarchy, Marxism, etc). All of which become the beer goggles of rational thought.
- The Extremism Loop spins faster during a crisis. Each of the four areas are exacerbated by propaganda. Unlike some countries, most propaganda comes from the private-sector – with the two biggest influences being right wing media and evangelical leaders.
- Extremism produces its own echo chambers and encourages a kind of anti-intellectualism. This, in turn, creates conspiracy theories and rumors that are shared and repeated. This homogeneity of thought makes these echo chambers even more toxic.
- History shows that extremism does not just fade away. It comes to a fiery end as the result of two things: idolatry and violence. Evidenced by brutal beatings by leftists of people wearing MAGA hats and alt-right white supremacists committing acts of violence against counter-protestors. Thanks to social media and extremist-based media, it’s easier than ever to worship and promote your idols and incite violence.
So what is the antidote to extremism? This is probably a good topic for another post, but I would say these three things:
- Practice healthy skepticism (especially of your own thoughts and feelings).
- Seek to understand those that think differently than you.
- Have Love be your root motivator, not fear.
If you are interested in other readings on this topic, check out:
The works of Hannah Arendt