A few days ago, John Cleese showed up on my Twitter homepage—a video of him, I mean, not the man himself. (That would have been pretty cool, though.) I think the video, a brief discussion of extremism, is worth sharing.
Extremism is a vague term, but it generally describes a cause or belief—or, alternatively, support for a cause or belief—so extreme as to be harmful or irrational.
In just a few words, Mr. Cleese lists benefits of extremism, which are more or less synonymous with some of its flaws:
Well, the biggest advantage of extremism is that it makes you feel good, because it provides you with enemies.
Let me explain. The great thing about having enemies is that you can pretend that all the badness in the whole world is in your enemies, and all the goodness in the whole world is in you. Attractive, isn’t it?
So if you have a lot of anger and resentment in you anyway, and you therefore enjoy abusing people, then you can pretend that you’re only doing it because these enemies of yours are such very bad persons! And if it wasn’t for them, you’d actually be good-natured, and courteous, and rational, all the time. So if you want to feel good, become an extremist!
That’s a problem with extremism, isn’t it? It’s often nothing more than an oversimplification, or a deflection of blame. It deflects the blame for vast, complicated problems toward anyone with whom the extremist strongly disagrees. This enables both wrath and pride, allowing an extremist to act like a jerk and feel like a saint: an appalling hypocrisy.
Most extremists are easily controlled. They want to deflect blame on others. If someone tells them others are to blame, most extremists are only too eager to agree. After all, it’s satisfying to point out a speck in someone else’s eye. It’s much harder to acknowledge that I might have something in my own.
Extremism is alive and well in the world today. It provokes conflicts great and small, from massive terrorist attacks to petty political insults. I like to think I’m not an extremist, but Mr. Cleese’s video touches a nerve—I understand the mindset he describes. It’s easier to blame others than to figure out to whom the blame really belongs… especially if it ends up belonging to me.
I mean, just for example, I could say, “Those extremists! They ruin everything, and I have nothing but contempt for them.”
If I said this, I would admittedly make a valid point: Extremists generally make the world a worse place. However, I would also overlook a point of great significance: By griping about extremists, I’m not exactly making the world any better, am I?
It begs the question: How is my contempt for extremists any different than their contempt for others?
It’s all rather complicated. The world tends to be a mess, after all, which may be why Jesus Christ made a point of summing up so neatly: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
This doesn’t mean that I must accept every point of view. What it means is that I must do my best to respect and understand everyone, even if I don’t agree with them. Disagreement is fine. Extremism—demonizing those who disagree—is never acceptable.
On a personal note, I do tend to blame my typewriter monkeys for all of this blog’s problems. Maybe, instead of deflecting that blame, I should acknowledge that some of it belongs to me. I make mistakes, too. Maybe I should try to respect and understand my monkeys instead of assuming the worst of them.
I’ll think about it.
As a recovering extremist I can say that is definitely true. I also see myself in so many people who go to extremes (on both sides of any particular argument) and it’s very frustrating. Makes me upset, more with myself, but I too often lash out at them as a result. Gotta work on that, continually!
In other news, that John Cleese is an awfully smart guy. So many talks by him are astounding.
I’m familiar with Mr. Cleese mostly through his comedy, but he seems like a sharp guy… and he sure has a sharp ‘stache. 😛