Friday, 2 September 2022

Are you now, or have you ever been, an Extremist?

"Observe, in politics, that the term extremism has become a synonym of 'evil,' regardless of the content of the issue (the evil is not what you are extreme about, but that you are 'extreme'—i. e., consistent)....
    "Of all the 'anti-concepts' polluting our cultural atmosphere, 'extremism' is the most ambitious in scale and implications; it goes much beyond politics. Let us now examine it in detail.
    "To begin with, 'extremism' is a term which, standing by itself, has no meaning. The concept of 'extreme' denotes a relation, a measurement, a degree. The dictionary gives the following definitions: 'Extreme, adj. — 1. of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average. 2. utmost or exceedingly great in degree.'
    "It is obvious that the first question one has to ask, before using that term, is: a degree — of what?
    "To answer: 'Of anything!' and to proclaim that any extreme is evil because it is an extreme — to hold the degree of a characteristic, regardless of its nature, as evil — is an absurdity ... Measurements, as such, have no value-significance — and acquire it only from the nature of that which is being measured.
    "Are an extreme of health and an extreme of disease equally undesirable? Are extreme intelligence and extreme stupidity ... equally unworthy? Are extreme honesty and extreme dishonesty equally immoral? Are a man of extreme virtue and a man of extreme depravity equally evil?
    "The examples of such absurdities can be multiplied indefinitely — particularly in the field of morality where only an extreme (i.e., unbreached, uncompromised) degree of virtue can be properly called a virtue. (What is the moral status of a man of “moderate” integrity?)
    "But 'don’t bother to examine a folly — ask yourself only what it accomplishes'....
    "This brings us to the deeper implications of the term 'extremism.' It is obvious that an uncompromising stand (on anything) is the actual characteristic which that 'anti-concept is designed to damn. It is also obvious that compromise is incompatible with morality. In the field of morality, compromise is surrender to evil.
    "There can be no compromise on basic principles. There can be no compromise on moral issues. There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction.
    "If an uncompromising stand is to be smeared as 'extremism,' then that smear is directed at any devotion to values, any loyalty to principles, any profound conviction, any consistency, any steadfastness, any passion, any dedication to an unbreached, inviolate truth — any man of integrity.
    "And it is against all these that that 'anti-concept' has been and is being used."
~ Ayn Rand, combined quote from her essays 'The Cult of Moral Grayness' and 'Extremism: The Art of Smearing'


MarkT said...

This made sense when I first read it 30 years ago or so, and it still does, particularly in the political context she was addressing. But I'm thinking there's some nuances worth expanding on.

There are many instances where you can have too much of a good thing. Food is good for you, but too much food makes you fat. Lifting weights is good for you, but too much done too often causes injury and doesn't let your muscles recover.

This can change as you broaden your concepts. Rather than look at whether food is good, or exercise is good; you can say that optimal health is good, and you can't get enough of that. Reaching extreme health requires an optimal amount of food and exercise, rather than an excessive quantity of either. You could argue that once you define your concepts appropriately, an extreme of something is a good thing.

But even then, an overly extreme focus on health can be detrimental. It can consume your life and leave you not enough time for other things that give life meaning.

So I think it's correct to acknowledge that in many things, extremity, either too much or too little of something is a bad thing. You have to find balance. That's the reality that people intuitively know, so they're open to the suggestion it's bad in politics too.

The exact mechanism by which we separate those instances, from cases where extremity is good is something I'm going to ponder.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post! Rand was onto it all those years ago

Nigel Sim said...

Then of course, there's the people from all walks of life in NZ who have been smeared as "extremists" ...

Peter Cresswell said...

@MarkT: It's not so much getting 'balance,' IMHO, but looking at the fullest context. That is, the full context is not 'lifting weights,' but 'focus on health, well-being, and happiness' - in which case the degree to which you lift weights is measured by that standard. In which event, if done properly, you would have fewer weight-liftint events, and more glass-lifting events.

MarkT said...

@PC - Yes, I appreciate that if you go to the fullest context in that example, you get to a point where an extreme of one thing is good and the other extreme bad. But I'm not sure how much that helps you find the optimum - i.e. how much weight lifting versus glass lifting? It becomes too broad a context to offer any meaningful guidance, in this example anyway.

Also, I'd add that it's not just the widening and going to the fullest context that gets you to that point, it's narrowing too. For instance, in the context of the 20-25 minutes of high intensity resistance training I've committed to several times a week, I get great benefits from going to extremes and pushing myself to the limit of what my body can handle comfortably. Finding 'balance' with any glass-lifting during that short period unless it contained H20, or even resting too much between sets would be detrimental.

To be clear I'm not suggesting we have the same issue with politics. If you go the wider fuller context you end up with a political philosophy that works for humans based on our nature, and we can use to evaluate any specific political policy. Nobody does that better than Rand. I'm just pondering whether the fallacy that 'extremism' is necessarily bad in politics has gained traction because in some things in life, it is bad.