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Opinion

More to extremism than harsh labels

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March 12, 2009

Extremism is a problem that exists all over the world. It can take many different forms, and in most of them it is illogical and dangerous.

There are pro-life extremists who attack doctors or bomb abortion clinics; other religious extremists who use God’s name to justify violence, terrorism and their own ambitions to control society; military extremists who rehash imperialistic ideas and limit their people’s freedom with the excuse of self-defense or national security. And of course we have political extremists, who try to convince the public to share in their exaggerated fantasy world by overstating (or simply making up) the latest controversy or crisis.

As easy as it would be to take up the rest of my space with random complaints and stories about this stuff, I wanted to go deeper. I’ve looked for a meaning behind it all, and whether you think I’m right or wrong, at least I can say I tried.

What do we think of when we hear the word “extremist?” Some of us might think of different groups we’ve opposed in the past and present, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or religious fanatics like the ones responsible for 9/11.

Or on the other hand, maybe we think of a person, an irrational and closed-minded person, so insecure that he/she seems to have no life beyond an ideology. Maybe we think of people who try force their beliefs on us. And that’s where the meaning is. Their character and their actions are what really make them extremists, not their particular philosophy or group.

What if there’s nothing inherently awful about any system of values? Not Christianity, atheism, Scientology, socialism, anarchism or even Satanism? After all, those are just different sets of ideas. They’re stationary mental constructs; you can take them or leave them. No matter how unappealing some of these systems might sound, you can edit, adjust and shape them to fit yourself. You can live by them and still be a happy, healthy person.

I think the real problems arise when you get things backwards, completely editing and shaping yourself, to fit the philosophy. That can be a dangerous trap. Fall too far in, and you might take your system across the line of common sense and other people’s rights. Your ideas can harden into beliefs, and then into rigid imperatives. You might start to believe that your ends justify the means. Your solutions can begin to sound even worse than the problems you’re trying to solve.

That is what makes you an extremist, and it can happen to anyone.

So ultimately, what is the point of this column? Not that we should be afraid to have our own values or convictionsÑthat in itself is fine. It’s built into our nature. The real lesson is the old, corny adage: “be yourself,” and don’t let your beliefs overpower you. We all have to stand for something, but we don’t have to bend over backwards for it.

Maybe it can help if we just redefine ourselves. You have an identity, and you deserve better than the labels we use in everyday life. There is a difference between your ideals and your true self. So don’t be just a Christian, be a man who believes in God. Don’t be a conservative, be a woman who values small government and states’ rights. Be more than a feminist, be a person who believes in equal rights for women.

These distinctions may not seem important on the surfaceÑbut by the logic I used earlier, there can be a world of difference between them. Beliefs are important, but they are not a substitute for awareness. If we can appreciate the world outside ourselves and our own convictions, maybe we’ll remember not to take those convictions too seriously.