20 February 2020

In Extremis

Key quotes from an article by Quassim Cassam in New Statesman entitled "Why Extremism Is a Question of Psychology, Not Politics" and Kevin Dorst at the Stranger Apologies blog.

Is 'extremism' a question of psychology and not politics? This is a question certainly worth asking. Cassam's talking about extremisms on both the right and the left here. His article raises the further question: If extremism is an attitudinal matter, how malleable (or manipulable) are the masses who find themselves emotionally pre-disposed to it? Propaganda, Confirmation bias, Overconfidence, the conjunction fallacy, group polarization, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the base-rate fallacy, cognitive dissonance, and so on all play into its cycles of toxic self-reinforcement.
"A key extremist preoccupation is victimisation – the perception of themselves as victims of persecution. ... 
"Another extremist preoccupation is purity. The purity that extremists are obsessed with can be ideological, religious, or ethnic. ... Extremism’s preoccupation with purity explains one of its key attitudes: its attitude to compromise. Extremists hate compromise because it detracts from purity. Being an extremist is as much a matter of how one believes as what one believes. Extremists see compromise as a form of betrayal, and while extremists may hate their opponents, this is usually milder than their hatred of people on their own side who have, as they see it, “sold out”. ... 
"Another key extremist attitude is indifference to any adverse consequences of one’s actions or policies.  To not be deterred by the practical or emotional damage incurred is the essence of fanaticism, so it follows that extremists are also fanatics. ... 
"Extremists are prone to both utopian and conspiracy thinking. They think in terms of a future utopia to which their policies will lead, and they see conspiracies everywhere. ... 
"...[E]xtremists are also uncommonly angry, and this points to the emotional components of the extremist mindset. Extremist anger is rooted in feelings of resentment about their lot. Another fundamental extremist emotion is self-pity. Anger, resentment, and self-pity are a potentially lethal emotional cocktail. ..." [Emphases mine] Cassam.
Dorst asserts "we are living in an age of rampant irrationalism" which feeds into political demonization, a key component in extremism.
"we are now swimming in irrationalist explanations of political disagreement.  It is not hard to see how these go. If people tend to reason their way to their preferred conclusions, to search for evidence that confirms their prior beliefs, to ignore opposing evidence, and so on, then there you have it: irrational political polarization falls out as a corollary of the informational choices granted by the modern information age.
We refuse to see ourselves and our own opinions as irrational, so we project that irrationalism on the other side. They are the irrational ones. Therefore they are wrong and, what's more, immoral. They are bad, evil, awful. "I hate them because I am _________ (fill in the blank: right, good, moral, rational, pure)." We've made a quick leap to demonization.
"If the problem is demonization—not mere polarization—then part of the solution is to restore political empathy. And if we lack political empathy in part because of rampant irrationalist narratives, then one way to restore it is to question those narratives."
I look forward to Durst's project here and have added his blog to my updating blog roll. You should too.