Extremism isn’t only riots
President Biden has started an investigation into the threats of Extremism in the United States. It is something we should consider on a wider, cooperative, basis. Because extremism isn’t only riots, though it often manifests that way. It isn’t merely storming the Capitol in Washington, though such an act is demonstrably treasonous. It isn’t temperatures in the 50s and Arctic ice floes melting so fast that rising sea levels swamp low-lying islands. Nor is it more species disappearing faster than ever before. These are all the consequences of extremism.
Extremism starts in your mind. As a child you probably said “I hate you” to a small peer who stole your picnic or your friend. That was the first sign of extremism in us. Or we may have been translating what we saw on the screen as mythical violence into a culture of revenge, a desire to dispose of those we see standing in our way, blocking our path to triumph.
We know so little about how our brains and minds work. And yet we know so much more than we did even twenty-five years ago. We know that a culture of learning can develop into arrogance, a practice of worship into blasphemy, a behaviour of kindness into exploitation. We do not know – or pretend that we do not know – the lasting effects of cruelty, of abuse, of deprivation, of theft of another’s life. Some of these things are too painful to bear, some too easy to ignore.
As a researcher into how advertising worked in the 1950s, I learnt a lot about the impact of subliminal messages, the power of repetition and the causes of inhibition. Our knowledge in these areas has developed exponentially in the last seventy years. Only now, with AI becoming an active part of our lives, do we begin to understand the biases and prejudices that make up our personalities. The painful but exotic journey to discover who we are is just beginning.
In future our education systems may seem little better than Amazon tracking apps, our attempts at conflict resolution merely a bumbling attempt to avoid ruthless and expensive war and our laws and legislative programmes, a poor substitute for reason and measure. These are developments yet to come but they are already within view. We should be helping their progress towards what used to be called common sense – something now so rare that it is seldom mentioned.
If thoughts can be the foundation of extremism then behaviour can be the manifestation of idiocy. Our continued use of indestructible plastic choking the oceans, our relentless felling of forests struggling to regenerate the planet’s oxygen, our apparent total disregard of the population limit our planet is capable of, all amount to a failure to educate, to encourage, to empower and to sustain. They all start because of a small, simple thought, act or reaction – or, even more frequently, for lack of one of these. Translating cataclysmic happenings to the planet into daily acts of moderation and prudence still seems beyond the minds and disciplines of most of us.
This is odd because the same used to be the case with charitable giving. When we were individually poorer, giving to the less well-off was too hard on the family. As we became richer the old habits of self-protection first persisted for a while but then substantially gave way to greater generosity. Today the very rich vie with each other to be seen to be supporting those in hardship. Why are we not competing to show our support of the earth and its future inhabitants?
It is because moderation is seen to be dull. Every documentary we watch tells us how this or that is the longest, the greatest, the heaviest, the brightest. It fails to tell us of the simple beauty of what is already achieved, of the durable calming of our natures by observing what we already have and of the physical contentment of appreciation. As we have grown away from our religious beliefs so, too, we have lost much of the art of gratitude.
You may or may not believe that individuals have souls and, if they do, that those souls are immortal. These are things we won’t learn yet. That humankind, animal species and the grasses that grow on our planet have a collective soul is, I think, indisputable.
We’d better start thinking that way anyhow or our planet’s soul will prove to be mortal indeed.