Extremism in defense of principles; good or bad?
- That's the question this week on the Dallas Morning News blog. So, I entered that discussion as well.
Here's the link, text and readers' comments to the time of the writing of this message:
TEXAS FAITH: Is extremism in defense of principle bad?
Tue, Mar 30, 2010
From: William McKenzie/Editorial Columnist
We're hearing plenty these days about extremism, whether it's in domestic politics or in the international arena.
Just last week alone, there have been two compelling examples.
First, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington to vigorously defend Israel's decision to build settlements in East Jerusalem. P
resident Barack Obama objected to Israel's moves so strongly that he kept his Israeli colleague waiting for 90 minutes while he went to eat dinner. In diplomatic terms, that was seen as a sharp rebuke.
Second, the aftermath of the health care debate has been nothing but a showcase in extremism. The Republican right-wing went after the plan's supporters with a vengeance, with even one Texas Republican lawmaker shouting "baby killer" at Democratic colleagues after the bill passed.
Not to be outdone, liberals pounded conservatives for trying to repeal the health care bill. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman went so far as to write about the GOP that:
"It's a party in which paranoid fantasies about the other side - Obama is a socialist, Democrats have totalitarian ambitions - are mainstream. And, as a result, it's a party that fundamentally doesn't accept anyone else's right to govern."
With so many strong positions being taken, some worry that we are losing the political center. But what if they have this wrong? After all, some of our most admired patriots brooked no compromise with the British during our nation's early days. And religious texts are filled with stories about figures that stood on principle, even to the point of death.
With that as background, here is this week's question:
Is extremism in defense of principle a bad thing?
Read on to here what our fiesty -- and thoughtful -- panelists have to say.
GEORGE MASON, Senior Pastor Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas
To paraphrase Barry Goldwater's famous line in defense of freedom, "Extremism in the cause of truth is no vice." But if it is truth you are committed to, then you can't shade it or distort it and remain committed to it.
The Apostle Paul spoke to the Christians in Ephesus about this: "Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another." Now he was speaking about members of the church, sisters and brothers in the body of Christ. But surely there are not two standards for speech conduct - one for church members (or party members?) and another for outsiders. Surely he doesn't think distorting the truth, slandering an opponent, or characterizing someone else's position in the worst possible light could be justified as long as the larger issue of one's cause is advanced.
The apostle goes on to say: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."
What if our social and political discourse took this as law? What if we were radically committed to the common good, extremists for the binding together of the social fabric, so much so that we worked to find a way together instead of insisting on our own way only?
Conviction of the truth does not equal certainty of the truth in this life of shadows. We should live in and out of all the light we have, but at the same time show deference to and kindness to others who are seeking to do the same.
DEAL HUDSON, President, Morley Publishing Group and Director, InsideCatholic.com
It's one thing for a GOP congressman to proclaim the health care bill a "baby killer," which it most certainly is, and quite another to shoot a gun through the window of GOP Rep. Eric Cantor in Richmond, VA. The spontaneous exclamation of disapproval hardly competes with an action that could have resulted in the death of a Cantor staffer or volunteer.
Holding that distinction in mind, keeping Netanyahu waiting, or standing him up for dinner, hardly belongs to the category of "extremism." Instead, it would be more appropriate to attach the label "discourtesy" or boorishness," about which the Israeli prime minister should refrain from throwing stones.
Neither the shout nor the rudeness qualify as "compelling examples" in comparison to life on the West Bank, for example, where Palestinians put their lives on the line every time they challenge the injustice of the Israeli government's insistence on taking Palestinian land.
DARRELL BOCK, Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary
Extremism in defense of principle is bad when the principle is not well thought through or calamity that might be avoided is the potential result (some calamity may be inevitable given the opposing views). Having judgment here is key.
I am just back from Israel where interviews with Palestinian Christians gave me a good glimpse of how they feel about the land issue. If peace there is a key goal for all sides, then what is gained by land moves that stop such discussions in their tracks and are viewed as a slap in the face? Why not work for an agreement and then get into issues impacted by land use and zoning.
Sometimes sequence is important and the possibility of progress in steps needs to be weighed.
CYNTHIA RIGBY, W.C. Brown Professor of Theology, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Extremism in defense of principle is a bad thing when it entails unfairly caricaturizing the positions of others. This is because falsely representing others stymies conversation, blockading possible avenues to transformation. Extremism in defense of principle can be a good thing when it shakes us out of our comfort zone and into new, life-giving ways of thinking.
Keeping someone waiting while I go off to eat dinner for an hour and a half doesn't seem as problematic as showing up on time and accusing them of totalitarianism (especially if they are, in actually, committed to democracy!). But why? I think it is because, in the case of Obama and Netanyahu, Obama's dallying can readily be interpreted as a rhetorical move that honors (however rudely) the seriousness of the disagreement between them. While Netanyahu was undoubtedly annoyed that Obama kept him waiting, it is probably not the case that he felt misunderstood and falsely labeled. Whatever else might be said about it, Obama's action didn't distort Netanyahu's view; it rather highlighted that the two have real disagreement.
In the case of the GOP accusing Democrats of "totalitarianism" (and other "extreme" name-calling going back and forth between the two parties), most everyone feels misunderstood and falsely represented. The accusations are not serving to clarify disagreements and reinforce principled positions; they are rather serving to confuse and to distract us from where we actually stand, and what our true positions really are. It seems to me that such extremism has no "up" side, but serves only to promote hate and destruction.
Jesus, at times, engaged in extreme name-calling. He was particularly hard on the Pharisees. "You brood of Vipers!" he called them. "You white-washed sepulchers!" Interestingly, Jesus with his name-calling was not putting down the positions of the Pharisees. Instead, he was "calling them out" on their hypocrisy. Washed and clean on the outside, crammed with rotting flesh on the inside. Ostensibly holy; actually malicious and manipulative. Upholding the righteousness of the Law without caring a fig about the people the Law is meant to serve.
Jesus wanted the Pharisees - and everyone - to be honest about who they were, what they thought, and what they were really after.
Talk about extreme.
MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
"Extremism" is a tricky concept, because it is defined relative to the status quo.
In 1860, those who wanted a complete abolition of slavery were an "extremist fringe;" by 1870, those who would argue for its re-imposition were the "extremists." Did the moral legitimacy of a pro-slavery or anti-slavery position change in those ten years? No. What changed were the prevailing cultural and political circumstances, radically reconfiguring the "mainstream" in discussions of slavery.
We should be wary of anyone who tries to defend his own position, or dismiss someone else's, by labeling opposing views "extreme." It is a lazy way to avoid truly engaging the underlying premises of an argument, however radical it may appear, and dangerously assumes that the prevailing social consensus is normative and ought to constrain debate.
Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa were both extremists, in that they challenged the prevailing ethos of the world around them in profound ways. So too were the Christians in the Roman Empire who decried the widely accepted practices of infanticide and gladiatorial combat. So, in a sense, was Jesus, who referred to his adversaries as a "brood of vipers" and who, rather than seeking an accommodation with the moneychangers in the Temple, charged in and overturned their tables.
So vigorous, spirited, even angry critique of misguided or immoral ideas and policies is not a bad thing. In fact, a bland, measured response to evil is far more dangerous.
What is problematic, however, is the tendency to demonize those with whom we disagree. This temptation is succumbed to much too often by people of all religious and ideological persuasions. Why seriously debate an idea when we can dismiss it (and it proponents) with a hyperbolic and pejorative label, be it "socialist," "fascist," "racist," etc.?
A civil tone, which is generally desirable, should not be confused with tepid arguments that hew carefully to the prevailing ideological center. We should confront that which we believe to be wrong, even if our critique appears "radical" to many, but we should avoid venomous ad hominem attacks that do ourselves, our opponents, and our society no good.
GEOFFREY DENNIS, Rabbi, Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound; faculty member, University of North Texas Jewish Studies Program
It is a funny thing for a person of faith, but I find I have become increasingly suspicious of the word "purity." I find the word is used mostly by extremists: "pure faith," pure religion," "pure capitalism," etc.
In life pure things have their appeal, but also have profound limitations. As a former blacksmith I know that pure iron is the least helpful form of iron when you want to make something durable. Its purity is its weakness, it's too soft. In fact, it is the presence of a little impurity that makes it workable and useful. Same is true of water. Pure H2O, while desirable on one level, is not what you want to be your only drink - without the impurity of minerals, it will make you sick in the end. Life too works best as a compromise. Ideas are most useful when they are alloyed to other ideas.
This is true on a political and social level as well. I have people I admire from the past who were deeply, passionately single-minded in their devotion to a cause - I think of William Lloyd Garrison, for example - but all my favorite people, like Winston Churchill or Yitzchak Rabin, were able to moderate their positions, change their positions, and be pragmatic in their decisions.
And in our present circumstances, where I see neither great men nor a great crisis on a par with slavery or world-conquering Nazis, I see the 'purity people' as doing way more harm than good when they try to over simply complex problems. Hyperbole is not the right approach to every issue. This argument about the future of our health system has (at least) two sides. Certainly the people who cast this in absolute terms, who are flying their flags upside down because a piece of legislation has passed, or using words like "Armageddon" to describe giving more people access to health care, are not serving our Republic well.
DANIEL KANTER, Senior minister, First Unitarian Church of Dallas
Plato expresses in The Republic that to know the nature of the good life, we must rise above the prejudices and the routines of everyday life. From the ancient text he encourages us to get beyond our routines and not hunker down only with those who agree with our point of view. To live moral lives that do good in the world and not harm we must be willing to be confronted with new realities and other's perspectives. This is difficult for people of faith who hold on tightly to their treasured 'truths' and remain segregated each week preferring the safe sanctuary of their worshipping communities to useful dialogue.
To live lives of moral reflection requires friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, members of a faith community, and families to help us with perspective not isolation. This is the problem with extremists; they surround themselves with people who tell them they are right and together they create mob mentalities that hinder seeing the value of another's being, thoughts, religious practices, or political views. To visit if not to live in the center of the extremes is the only way we will make societal progress and decisions that benefit us all.
JOE CLIFFORD, Pastor, Head of Staff, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas
As Christians are celebrating Holy Week, and Jews have just observed Passover, it's an interesting time to think about whether "extremism" in defense of principle is a bad thing. It could be argued that when Moses murdered an Egyptian soldier who was brutalizing a fellow Israelite, he took an extremist position in defense of principle. This event ultimately led to freedom for the Israelites from slavery. Perhaps the Egyptians saw this simply as a labor dispute. They valued free labor, no matter the human cost. From their perspective, Moses was an extremist. He valued freedom and human dignity, and took those values to the extreme. Moses defense of principal was ultimately a good thing.
Looking toward Good Friday, I am reminded the crowds were given a choice of freeing one Roman prisoner: Barabbas or Jesus. Both could have been called "extremists." Barabbas murdered a Roman soldier during an insurrection. Some might call him a terrorist, others an insurgent, still others a freedom fighter. He valued violence to achieve his goals. Jesus told people, "Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you." The cross demonstrated the extremes he was willing to go to in order to keep his principles. That's pretty extreme. Given the choice between these opposing principled extremists, the crowds chose Barabbas. They always do.
It seems the decision regarding extremism has to do with what one values. Moses valued freedom and human dignity. Jesus valued love. They were willing to take these values to extremes. Ultimately, that was a good thing. My sense is that many of today's extremists value themselves and their own interests over anyone or anything else. Such extremism can lead to devastating consequences.
RIC DEXTER, Men's Division Chapter Leader, Nichiren Buddhist Soka Gakkai lay organization
The Buddha teaches that a path of moderation between extremes, the middle way, is the path of wisdom. The middle way does not mean compromise; it is a teaching that finding the positive aspects in the extremes, and discarding the negative aspects in each, is the way to create the greatest value in life.
In looking at the history of great figures that were unyielding in their convictions, we can find that their pursuit of the truth was not in holding to extremism. Nichiren, in 13th century Japan held that the Lotus Sutra was the highest teaching of the Buddha. In standing up for his conviction he remonstrated with the government and religious leaders of his day. For that conviction he was sentenced to death.
Jesus held to his conviction on the true nature of God in defiance of the religious and state authorities. For that conviction he was executed.
These two great religious leaders looked beyond the petty extremes of daily existence and chose to stand up for greatest good against greatest evil. For them the middle path was the willingness to sacrifice their lives for the good of mankind.
In the history of our country, and many others, individuals pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to find the middle way between tyranny and anarchy. Tyranny held that a people must have a governing body, anarchy held that each person had a right to direct their own lives. These elements were incorporated into the government our founding fathers built. Tyranny held that the governing body must rule the people, anarchy stood for license to do as you choose. These ideas were rejected. Enlightened leaders stood for a free people, not for either extreme.
It is entirely appropriate to state your position, even if it is an extreme one. In this way we can look for the value, and for the anti-value in that position. We see in the political arena today a polarization of extreme positions, to the point that insults have become common, and that any attempt of moderation is looked upon as weakness. When one locks them self into their position, and fails to look for the value in opposing positions, a disservice is done to all. This kind of polarization masks itself as "extremism in defense of principle".
A search for the middle path takes nothing away from either side of a question. It is a path that elevates and enriches us all.
Posted by jhr1
@ 2:33 PM Tue, Mar 30, 2010
If by extremism you mean blowing Hussein's head off, yeah that would be wrong. If you mean trying him for treason, convicting him, and then standing him before a firing squad, I've got no problem with that.
Posted by RelicMM
@ 2:52 PM Tue, Mar 30, 2010
To quote the rather astute Barry Goldwater correctly: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
Where would early Americans be without the extremism of the revolution? We must fight for the return of the Republic our nation was meant to be. Our founders told them what was right, and the Tea Party volunteers are defending those issues against the latest threat to freedom. Don't expect them to moderate their concern toward those who are seeking to destroy the Constitution. Revolution is still on the table. Patriots know how well it works when necessary.
As for Israel, how does a nation bargain with any group of people that swore to destroy it from its beginning? How many innocent Jewish men, women, and even children have been killed by Palestinian suicide bombers that have been groomed from early childhood to believe that their greatest religious act is to kill Jews? Israel is not the offender in the Middle East. Benyamin Netanyahu knows the issues he faces in the Middle East much better than an upstart president with Muslim sympathies.
The future of our Christian nation again depends on a patriotic surge against those seeking to establish socialism whatever the cost.
Posted by Dale
@ 2:52 PM Tue, Mar 30, 2010
If the founders of our nation would have lost
the war against the British, they probably would have been tried for treason. As it stands, they are heroes.
1 person being extreme is just another person's
being normal when a time of emergency arises.
I am surprised people haven't eliminated Supreme
Court judges for their pro-murder stance of the unborn.
Current leadership may have reason for concern for their lives regarding their recent decision
since it is against the constitution.
The Minute Men are disbanding because things are
so out of control regarding the illegal alien
See paragraph from an article on this.
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which posted hundreds of civilian volunteers along the U.S.-Mexico border over the past five years, has disbanded, citing what it called "rising aggression" in the country and decisions by lawmakers in Washington who have "pushed amnesty down our throats."
Posted by Dennis
@ 3:43 PM Tue, Mar 30, 2010
The example of Sen. Cantor's bullet would be more compelling if there were any indication he and his staff were actually targets. As it turns out, his window was the random victim of a bullet fired into the air in the neighborhood. It might make more sense to point to the aimed, intentionally directed brick thrown through the window of the Democratic Party office in upstate New York with the very words we are discussing tied to the projectile. Sadly for the argument, the the real example of violence seems in concert with the rhetoric, rather than standing in contrast to it. Words can hurt us, when they call for the throwing of sticks and stones.
Posted by Chuckwalla
@ 4:06 PM Tue, Mar 30, 2010
Unless you are willing to look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that, yes, you should organize a state, declare it sovereign, declare war on the United States, or better yet, go your own way and wait for the United States to declare war on you, march across the countryside, burn crops and houses, shoot people very much like you, and accept the, you know, collateral damage of the occasional dead woman or child just because you think Glenn Beck was right, then, yes, you are honestly saying that extremism is proper in defense of principle. Just be careful about whose principle you are defending.
Posted by RLBaty
@ 4:27 PM Tue, Mar 30, 2010
The question was:
> Is extremism in defense of principleIn the other recent matter, from Sam Hodges, involving the question of whether religious groups should be taxed, it seems one or more may have characterized my efforts as "extreme" as I have defended certain principles (e.g., that the IRS should not compromise the agency, the law, certain private schools, and the church in response to political influence from the likes of George H.W. Bush and Omar Burleson).
> a bad thing?
It might not be near as exotic an issue as Arab-Israeli relations or Health Care Reform, but we can't all solve the world's problems.
Was I extreme in defending my principles regarding IRC 107 and the Bush/Burleson deal?
Was it a bad thing?
Any opinions on that?
Am I being "extreme" in asking such a question here?