Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America

By John George; Laird Wilcox | Go to book overview

2 What Is Extremism? Style and Tactics Matter More Than Goals
Laird Wilcox

If it's a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

Kahlil Gibran, 1923

In A Dictionary of Political Thought ( 1982) Roger Scruton defines "extremism" as:
1. Taking a political idea to its limits, regardless of unfortunate repercussions, impracticalities, arguments, and feelings to the contrary, and with the intention not only to confront, but to eliminate opposition.
2. Intolerance toward all views other than one's own.
3. Adoption of means to political ends which show disregard for the life, liberty and human rights of others. 1

This definition basically reflects my own experience, that extremism is more an issue of style than of content. In the twenty-five years that I have been investigating political groups of the left and right. I have found that most people can hold radical or unorthodox views and still entertain them in a more or less reasonable, rational, and nondogrnatic manner. On the other hand, I have met people whose views were fairly close to the political mainstream but were presented in a shrill, uncompromising, bullying, and distinctly authoritarian manner. The latter demonstrated a starkly extremist mentality while the former demonstrated only ideological unorthodoxy, which is hardly to be feared in a relatively free society such as ours.

This view of extremism, which may seem novel to many people since in today's climate the term is usually used as an epithet, is held by many writers and authorities, especially those who approach the issue from a relatively evenhanded and nonideological point of view. Milton Rokeach, whose book The Open and Closed Mind is a classic in the field of dogmatic thinking, prejudgment, and authoritarianisn, has this to say about it:

To study the organization of belief systems, we find it necessary to concern ourselves with the structure rather than the content of beliefs. The relative openness or closed-

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