08/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Three Characteristics of Extremism

If you, like me, grew up in the 1960's, were a bit of a nerd, dreamed of a brighter future, and loved science fiction, you were a Star Trek fan. If so, you may remember an episode titled "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield". The story features two antagonists, one named Lokai, the other, Bele, whose species have been at war for eons on their shared planet, Sharon. They resemble humans in physique, but their pigmentation is very different; half white, half black, split vertically down the middle of their faces. Bele tries to explain the reasons of the war to Mr. Spock:

"It is obvious to the most simpleminded that Lokai is of an inferior breed." Bele says.
"The obvious visual evidence is that he is of the same breed as yourself." Spock objectively replies
"Are you blind, Commander Spock? Well, look at me. Look at me!"
"You're black on one side and white on the other."
"I am black on the right side."
"I fail to see the significant difference."
"Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side." Bele says in indignation.

The episode ends as Sharon is completely destroyed by war. Communications Officer Uhura -- the voice of compassion -- looks at the ruined landscape and says,
"It makes no sense",
Spock turns to her, and says,
"Did you expect sense from men of such extreme viewpoints?"

Although this episode is usually seen as an allegory for the insanity of racial prejudice, a deeper message lies just below the surface: the dangers of extremism. Both Lokai and Bele are literally black and white thinkers: one sees only rationality, the need for control, and the call of justice; the other sees only emotion, the need for change, and the call of freedom. Both are completely dug-in to their own view point, so common ground can never be found. The point of the episode is to tell us that extremists -- who believe that they represent opposite viewpoints -- are actually the same, except one is "white" on the side where the other is "black".

This dualistic view of the world as black and white is a very young stage of development that all children go through, but some folks get stuck at this stage, which they then bring in to adulthood. All extremism is born in the deep insecurity that comes from such a black and white world view. In general, extremists, whether religious fundamentalists or dogmatic atheists, straight-line Republicans or Democrats, conspiracy theorists, racists, and xenophobes, share several common characteristics and beliefs. The following description captures these characteristics. It is important to recognize that each of us, at one time or another, adopts one or more of these, but it is the combination of all the qualities that creates dangerous extremism.

1. Unquestioned certainty about one's position
An extremist is certain that his position is absolutely and completely true, and will go to great lengths to defend it. The underlying insecurity that accompanies this certainty stems from the fear that any element of doubt would negate the person's self-identification and, therefore, his very existence. As Joseph Soloveichik famously noted,
All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist.
This insecurity drives the extremist to assert that not only is his view right, but is, in fact, the only view that holds truth. In the most extreme form, he will silence, and even kill, those who present the possibility that he may be wrong, in order to keep from ever exposing the fragility of his own position.

2. Demonizing those who disagree
A hallmark of an extremist is the often vile language used to attack those who disagree or hold different viewpoints, blaming the other for all the ills of the world. In a gentler form this takes the form of sarcasm and attacking the other's character, but the intention is the same. It seems that many crave this type of language, perhaps in order to clarify one's position, arouse passion, or create a "team" in which to belong. An extremist, though, can't allow himself to see one who disagrees as a fellow human being, with the same essential needs, desires, and hopes, as himself. This would open the door to compassion, which may lead to doubt -- something an extremist cannot allow.

3. Desire for a Final Battle, or "Holy War"
Most disturbing of all extreme views is the belief in the inevitability of a Final Battle that will -- usually violently -- sweep away unbelievers and usher in an era of world-wide unity under the Truth of one view. There seems to be a glee behind this, and one only needs to listen to a "hell and brimstone" preacher, of any faith, to feel this strange eager anticipation of chaos. Apocalyptic visions are not the sole property of religion, though. Just listen to the mad ranting of Nazi propaganda, or the cold plotting of the Soviet Union's plans to topple the evils of capitalism and bring in a worker's paradise -- or to some of the current voices of extreme atheism that urge the end of any form of religion and spiritual belief.

I am not proposing that we adopt a radical post-modern, completely relativistic position in which there is no right or wrong, or that we not challenge others and defend our position. That is a bland vision of undifferentiated grey, keeping us from powerfully moving forward in confidence. The choice is not between absolute conviction and complete moral relativism, but instead involves the willingness to openly examine divergent viewpoints, clearly determine the merits, and arrive at a more comprehensive view that sees the world in its infinite array of vivid colors. This takes mature confidence, knowledge, and compassion; the three positive qualities that are most needed if we are to avoid confronting one another in our own Last Battlefield.