Political Extremism: Confront it or Transform it?

Illustration: Joven Cuba

By Ariel Dacal Diaz (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – These tense times we Cubans are living in, are a breeding ground for extremist attitudes and behaviors. However, this national reality isn’t alien to the rest of the world, that across all four cardinal points is exhibiting political conduct of this sort. The phenomenon represents a crumbling of the pacts that have been used by the powers-that-be over several decades to coexist. It’s a dangerous symptom of the crisis in civilization we’re witnessing.

Several days ago, there was a forum to exchange views about political extremism at the University of Havana’s Communications Department. It included dialogue, analysis and competing views. Parallel to this, virulent attacks before, during and after the encounter weren’t lacking; living case studies for exploring the subject at hand.

Outside the judgement of experts and high-level conferences, young people and some not so young have opened the topic to debate, since it’s clearly ever more urgent to become aware of it. As an interesting sidelight of the encounter, apparently the extremes most evident on the Cuban political map are part of the problem and not part of the solution, in terms of overcoming the structural crisis we on the Island are living through.

What is extremism? How is it manifested? What might be the antidotes? These were the key questions that accompanied a space in which people essentially shared different understandings. It functioned as a laboratory of ideas and consciousness.

Two of the conclusions that emerged from the collective discussion are: first, that extremism is more present than we had believed in our scenario; and, secondly, that its complexity and nuances demand a deep, systematic, and responsible analysis.

We need to look at extremism beyond its ties with violent or terrorist actions, also observing it within the arena of daily life. That is, we should look at the extremist we have inside us, reveal its characteristics, its origin, its sociopolitical, cultural and psychological conditions, its manifestations, and its ties to the ways of conducting politics.

Roughly speaking, it could be said that the psychological condition of extremism points towards an imbalance between necessities and behaviors, added to an inability to regulate emotions.

Among other variables, this imbalance is conditioned by rigid social concepts: individualism, patriarchy, the culture of immediacy and brevity; competition as a social regulator in which some individuals win and others lose; the tensions that minorities experience in the face of exclusionary models of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ideology, class or territorial origin; as well as the habit of suspicion and distrust.

In addition, said imbalance between necessity and behavior is established by dependent behaviors aiming towards one unique object or ideal: body esthetic, interpersonal relationships, videogames, sports, art, alcohol, religion, ideology etc.  This causes an impact in the cognitive, behavioral, and social spheres and tends also to stimulate behaviors that go contrary to the basic human necessities, including socialization processes.

A specific, distinctive and defining character of extremist behavior is that it sees the world in terms of opposites: “all or nothing,” “black or white,” “yes or no,” “love or hate,” “excess or lack”. In turn, it needs a being to eliminate, a drive which can even supersede the importance they put on their own lives.

Its destructive nature operates from preconceptions foreign to common sense: denying the existence of values in another, who is always seen as imperfect, inferior, and evil-minded. There’s disinterest in the values of society, and ignorance of the existence of social limits and norms. Similarly, the polarized thinking that moves along an extremist scale passes over or downplays the importance of intermediate or grey areas that make up reality itself.

Extremism has expressions that make the scope, structure, and consequences of its manifestations more complex. Its discourses, for example, reflect cognitive simplicity – reducing the complexity of events and providing incomplete or distorted interpretations of them: rigid ideas of how society should function; proposals for simple solutions to complex problems. It then utilizes the tactic of focusing on a particular element of reality and turning it into a whole.

Extremism also makes it difficult to coexist with people who have values that differ from their convictions. It’s defined by intolerance and the inability to listen to divergent opinions; among its features is the assumption that its own vision of the world is a sign of intellectual and moral superiority.  Over and over, the arguments of extremists, far from engaging with ideas, are focused on denigrating, destroying morale, destabilizing their opponents emotionally, as well as publicly “lynching” people with an opposing or simply different position.

There’s ever-increasing evidence that this phenomenon constitutes a social, political, and ethical problem, which demands a comprehensive and systematic understanding. While it’s certainly clear, for example, that the antonyms of extremism are moderation, pluralism, consensus, dialogue, it’s also important to note some of the terms presented as synonyms are inaccurate, since they don’t precisely describe it in equal dimension: radicalism, conservatism, sectarianism, and even fundamentalism.

Extremism represses all difference and dissent; it rejects negotiation; it constricts the field of political ideas and attitudes, while it narrows rights; it entails an understanding of power conceived in extreme binary choices between “truth and lies,” “goodness and wickedness,” “the patriots and the traitors.” It explains the world through one sole doctrine, be it philosophical, political, economic, racial, classist or religious. Its essential character, I repeat, is the elimination of the conditions and manifestations of people who think differently – up to and including their bodily elimination.

Political extremism plays out as a sort of formula that basically combines the ignorance of some people with others’ vocation for domination for the benefit of their group. From this duality it can be assumed that extremist behavior is not homogeneous in its origin and potential transformation.

Although there are some ideological visions that are more akin to it, such as white supremacy and others of that nature, political extremism is not exclusive to right-wing or left-wing currents. More specifically, it refers to political behavior, certain kinds of conduct, a way of pushing concrete interests that, at a particular moment, are closely linked to communities of hatred and practices of extermination.

Confronting extremism emerges as essential for building a social order that promote just coexistence among human beings, different peoples, nations, cultures, and religions. To this end, we need to begin by understanding its manifestations and the bases that sustain it, through the development of critical thinking and by increasingly sharing our knowledge of what empowers it.

One controversial idea from the University of Havana forum that I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection, pointed towards the notion that this issue doesn’t imply a direct confrontation with an extremist individual, but removal of the structural conditions that stimulate extremism.

It should be understood that all human behavior, both individual and social, is learned, and, as such, can be unlearned. Using that as a starting point, we must recognize that challenging extremism doesn’t boil down to an individual transformation, but to a social and cultural one.

Dialogue and its conditions constitute a guidepost for overcoming preconceptions that place some human beings above others. A pedagogy of examining problems can undo rigid and simple arguments and must become a resource for every day and every space. An understanding of the world and the place we occupy in it increases our autonomy. Plurality must be embraced, in all its richness and breadth, as an essential basis for transforming the conditions that feed extremism.

Reproducing inequality, oppression, ignorance, exclusion, limitation of rights, asymmetry of power, stunted democracy, politics for the few, will never remove the conditions for extremism. It’s impossible to transcend extremism by substituting one type of domination for another, nor can we overcome hatred with more hatred.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

One thought on “Political Extremism: Confront it or Transform it?

  • It is rather interesting that The Oxford Dictionary of English, that large and expensive tome, weighing some six pounds, does not use the word extremism, but does define extremist:

    extremist >noun clearly derogatory a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action:

    But Arial Dacal Diaz endeavors to define extremism as applied within Cuba.

    That in turn begs the question, whether being forbidden to criticize a political party or dictatorial rule is extremism? Is the removal of freedom of speech, extremism? Were those brave Cubans who took to the streets of their country on July, 11, 2021, pursuing extremism?
    Was it extremism that led to the implosion of the USSR?

    I would disagree with Arial Dacal Diaz, that that which is learned, can be unlearned. I have detested communism as it has demonstrated its practice and behaviour, since childhood, and having now spent a total of many years in Cuba observing the reality at close quarters, find it impossible to unlearn that detestation of its reality.

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