Extremism comes in two forms: behavior (terrorism, crime, cruelty, etc.) and beliefs (morality, politics, attitudes, stereotypes, etc.). Why do people hold such rigid views, why are people constantly committing acts of violence? The vast majority of us are left puzzled and scratching heads when acts of violence are committed. In this post, I’m going to focus on negative behavior as most wonder why people do terrible things.
I haven’t researched every extremist act, but it’s safe to say that there are common themes with most extremists. First, the person has experienced rejection from another, group, or society. Second, there is an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, impotence, and sadness. Third, the individual externalizes personal issues such that blame is placed on the other or world. Next, the extremist loses the capacity for empathy. Lastly, the person goes all in: the extreme belief becomes their identity.
Experience of rejection. Rejection is where it starts. Almost all high-profile (and low-profile for that matter) cases have some degree of rejection. Feeling out of place, being bullied, social isolation, trouble in relationships, and personal (academic, occupational, social) failures are all forms of rejection. Now of course every person has experienced rejection, everyone. This is just one of the components of the process. However, it is rare to see extremists who are successful, happy, and integrated in society.
Overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, impotence, and sadness. These are common feelings after an experience of rejection. Rejection represents not being good enough, being unimportant, and unworthy. This is the perception of the rejected, not necessarily the intent of the rejector (though sometimes it is).
So how does one go from feelings of worthlessness and sadness to extreme, violent behavior? I haven’t written extensively about it, but I view anger as the byproduct of sadness. When you are angry or have angered another, usually you or someone else is feeling hurt.
For example, if someone steals your wallet, you will be angry. If you take a step back to analyze why you are angry, yes it’s because something was taken from you, but at a deeper level there is a sense of loss. Something of yours was taken away and you no longer have it. In this example, we are talking about a material object. Now imagine if a part of you was taken: your confidence, self-esteem, trust, or hope. That sadness and disappointment can quickly turn to anger and rage.
Externalization. Most healthy individuals consider multiple aspects of a situation. If you fail a test, you can externalize the failure by blaming the incompetent teacher or you can internalize the failure and believe you are a student with poor study habits. In the process of extremism, the individual blames the other, a group, or society as a whole. Combine that blame with anger, and it’s a dangerous cocktail.
Void of empathy. This is where it gets scary. Some believe that laws keep order in society. I would argue that our ability to empathize is the fabric of society. Empathy plays a part in any relationship. When empathy is absent, societal and moral codes are compromised. There is now unconcern for members of society and how potential actions can impact other individuals. A person lacking empathy does not consider or care how his actions impact others. Thinking is irrational and rigid; the ability to reason is gone. The extremist dehumanizes others.
Identity. People are multidimensional. If you ask someone for a self-description you will get a number of identities in a reply: student, family member, spouse, religious affiliation, hobby of choice, musician, etc. Extremists usually have a limited number of identities. All of their chickens are in one basket. They start to believe in a “cause”, and are consumed with the one identity. They may appear to be interested in a number of things, but interest is genuinely dedicated to one or two things. Again, when your viewpoint narrows, your ability to reason and think logically breaks down. When our thinking is compromised, poor choices are made.
The extremists mentioned at the beginning are some of the most notorious of the last few years. It’s important to remember that not all extremists are mass murders or even violent. If you find someone whom you may think fits the profile I have outlined above, think about how to help that person or at least how to think about that person’s extreme views.
As a society, we jump quickly to explain a person’s behavior based on their beliefs, identifying characteristics (e.g., race, age, sex), and even location of residence. I argue there needs to be a shift to a deeper understanding. Questions like, “Why did this person adhere to such a rigid belief system?” and “Why now (instead of years ago)?” are questions that need to be addressed. Considering the context is much more exhausting and time consuming than generalizing, but if we truly want to understand human behavior, it’s necessary.
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