The Culture of Extremism

Untitled artwork by Sulamith Wulfing

Untitled artwork by Sulamith Wülfing

When you hear the word “extremist,” you immediately think of “those other people” who like to take hostages or blow themselves up in a crowd in an attempt to further some radical agenda, such as militant Islam or right-wing Christianity (Timothy McVeigh, for example). But the truth is that extremism isn’t limited to the highly religious or political. When you start to take stock, you begin to realize that extremism has not only become common, it has become mainstream.

If you eat meat, you may have had the experience of tucking into your T-bone steak only to have a militant vegan in your party berate you for your choice of meal. They may or may not have valid reasons for their beliefs, but it doesn’t matter because the result is that you feel bugged and disrespected and suddenly find it very difficult to enjoy your meal. Likewise, if your good friend of many years discovers a new diet that works for them, you may find it difficult to enjoy eating in their company ever again. Like religion, food and diet are one of the great bastions of extremist behavior. To a control freak, a rigid diet is like finding the Promised Land. And if you’re married to one, you may find yourself dreaming of hamburgers and french fries.

Of course, I’m not knocking people’s dietary choices. We have consciously made some ourselves. There is nothing wrong with figuring out what works for you. The problem occurs when people decide that whatever works for them is right for everybody, and they can’t stop evangelizing about it. This is a form of extremism.

Another form of extremism is the hatred of science and technology. Science can be a double-edged sword, certainly. Nuclear weaponry benefits no one. On the other hand, science has done much for us that we take for granted, including western medicine. As an energy healer, I certainly believe in the benefits of alternative medicine. Energy healing, acupuncture, ayurveda, naturopathic medicine, and chiropractic care, to name a few, make important contributions to healthcare. But so does western medicine, and to deny this is to leave the middle ground of balance.

Extremism is the same thing as inflexibility. Extremism means that you will brook no contrary viewpoint. Extremism means that you have made a judgment. If you hate western medicine, you have no respect for those who would utilize it. If you hate the thought of eating animal products, then you have no respect for those who do. If you hate anything, then you are an extremist.

By its very nature, hatred means that you would prefer to extinguish what you hate from the the planet. A balanced, compassionate, and understanding nature knows that others may have different feelings and beliefs and respects that. Extremists hate something and fervently believe that the world will not be right unless the hated thing is eradicated. Extremists judge harshly, and the thing they hate always comes up wanting.

This does not mean that people should stand idly by if someone is getting hurt. “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.” But here’s where the trouble begins. The Ego can rationalize anything. So the Ego may convince itself, “You are harming that cow by eating it.” But are you? If the cow is raised for the purpose, is there harm? If the cow is treated well and killed properly and fulfills its life purpose, is there harm? If cows were left to multiply unchecked across the world because no one ate them and people starved, would there be harm? Perception is relative. You cannot trust your Ego to perceive, because it cannot.

We all have opinions and beliefs. We are designed to. But they should not blind us to the truth of others. We become extremists when we judge and condemn without understanding or compassion. When we believe that our truth is the only “right” truth. When we automatically reject opposing beliefs as “wrong.”

Be the change you want to see in the world.
~Mahatma Gandhi

We have the opportunity to stop extremism by stopping it in ourselves. If you are convinced of the wrongness of something, consider that perhaps you are not in the right, either. Consider that angels work in mysterious ways, and that gifts come in unexpected packages. Consider that even if a conspiracy is at work, some good may yet come of it—but only if you are open to it. And most of all, consider that your reality is valid for you, but it may not be valid for someone else. We are all unique sparks of the One.

Former Oregon Senator and Governor Mark Hatfield had a sign in his office that read, “Gray is the color of complex truth.” Truth is a moving target that depends on where you sit. Change positions, and the truth changes with it. It is our job as Divine Creators to accept that there are many truths in the Universe and not just our own limited vision. When we as individuals can be at peace with Gray Truth, we will be at peace as a race.


James Peck in Birmingham, Alabama

James Peck in Birmingham, Alabama

It’s only been the last few years that I became aware of the term “haters.” Apparently, it’s common in the black community (maybe others), and its application is fairly obvious:  it refers to people who simply need to hate other people. I am reminded of the many Eskimo words for snow—when something figures prominently in your world, you come up with new and different words to describe it.

We recently watched the PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders, who were a group of students, black and white, who decided to travel through the American south in the 1960s to challenge segregation laws of the day. At the beginning was a clip of a white man who said, “I’ve got to hate somebody.” Why? For many years, this made no sense to me. Now, of course, I understand that all hatred is really self-hatred, and this man needed to get rid of it—so he projected it onto other people. Of course, projecting hatred does not heal hatred; it only makes it worse.

I grew up with racism and its effects, and I believe that it is violent not just to the people being discriminated against (although that is bad enough), but also to the people perpetrating it. I once wrote a short story for a writing class (now lost), where I attempted to illustrate this point. It was only two pages long. It was a scene in a store, and a very young black child and a very young white child happened upon each other and began to play happily; they had not yet been taught that they shouldn’t. When the white mother came upon them, she jerked her child away (bruising her) and let her know that she was not allowed to play with people of color—only she didn’t say it this politely. I believe fiction should be honest, so my character used the word she would have used in real life, a word I have heard many times growing up in the south.

Still, I was nervous about this usage, so I asked some friends to read it and let me know what they thought. A black man from the Caribbean read it and objected to my use of the word. We discussed this at length, and he felt that as a white woman, I had no right to write about racism. I disagreed, and I submitted the story to the class.

After reading it aloud, a nice young white man commented that he felt that the white woman in the story was a caricature, whereupon the lone black woman in our class interjected, “I don’t!”

Racism is a touchy subject for white people who don’t want to believe that they could harbor such thoughts. Most white people are not going to use the n-word or take a baseball bat to someone just for dating their sister. But there is a more subtle racism that black people understand and white people do not want to see. It’s the subtle racism that causes a white person not to worry when crossing paths with another white person on the street, yet causes them to wince inwardly if a black person does. The gangsta stereotype lives in the white subconscious…

My own parents do not call themselves racists, but they are. When I was in third grade, I was besotted with a black girl in my class. I have forgotten the names of many people, but I remember hers. I’ll call her Katie. She was funny, smart, and beautiful, with deep black skin. I thought she was great. On several occasions, I begged my mother to let me invite her for a sleepover. My mother was uncomfortable and kept finding excuses why I couldn’t. She didn’t think her family would get on with ours. Or her parents probably wouldn’t let her come. Eventually, I got the message, and I knew what the real issue was. I never had to beg to have a white friend over.

By middle school and high school, we lived in a small town in Texas where there were only three black students. More correctly, there were three biracial students, but in the south that is enough to invite discrimination. Those kids were tough, too. They had to be.

For many years, I had a crush on the oldest biracial boy, whom I’ll call Bob. In my teenage fancy, he was, quite simply, beautiful. He had golden-brown skin, a softly masculine build, and a sharp mind. One day, while talking to my parents, I mentioned that I had a crush on Bob. To my eternal shame, my father exploded, “I ain’t having no black grandchildren!” In my shock, I said nothing, but I thought at him, “That isn’t your call, Dad.” It was a long time before I shared my truth with them again.

It is hard to understand someone else’s experience, and I am surely a privileged white woman in this society. I know it. Still, I wanted to understand, but I found it difficult. In my school years, I encountered many black people who were suspicious of both me and my motives. When I transferred to a larger school with a racially diverse population, I wanted to learn from them, and I also wanted them to know that not all white people were alike.

In my first semester at my new school, I took drama. One day we were working with a piece—I honestly can’t remember the play—that was racially charged. This sparked a discussion, and at one point a black woman erupted, “All white people are alike. They’re all racist!” And there it was, the gift of her truth and her pain, hanging in the stunned silence.

For many black people, there is an inherent distrust of white people. I look at it this way. If a circus clown came into your room and beat you or verbally abused you once a day, you might tend to be shy of circus clowns as a result. I once had a dog whose previous owner beat him with a shovel, so you can imagine how this dog felt about shovels.

Still, I did gain some trust. Kindness and respect go a long way. But it was hard. When a young black man asked me out on a date (truly, it was the sweetest invitation I’ve ever had), I had to refuse. I already knew that my parents would not permit me to date a black man, and I could not imagine dating anyone on the sly. It would just be too difficult, and deception is against my nature. I felt like I had no other choice.

I have heard and seen a wide variety of racist expression in my life against people whose DNA differs but slightly from mine. Some of it was overt, and some of it was very subtle. As we watched the show about the Freedom Riders, I was struck by the naïvetė of the first wave, who certainly expected opposition but not the excessive violence they encountered. Alas, I was not surprised. The second wave riders, and all the others who came after, however, surely did know what they were heading into, and that took amazing resolve and courage. They met violence with nonviolence, just as Mahatma Gandhi had successfully done in India. And ultimately, they succeeded, just as Gandhi did.

A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Hating the haters only increases the hate. Meeting violence with violence only creates more violence. It took guts to ride those buses into the south in the 1960s, and having compassion for those who have none for you also requires courage.

Thanks to the courage of many people, laws have changed and so have attitudes. Biracial couples are more common now. I see this as a good thing. The words of an old southerner come back to me:  “If the whites keep marrying blacks, pretty soon there won’t be no difference.” Well, there isn’t any difference, anyway. Oh, happy day when we can just look upon one another and see other human beings, not “a black person” or “a white person” or a “yellow person.” Oh, happy day when we can just see a loving couple, and not a “straight couple” or a “gay couple.” Oh, happy day when we can consign the word “haters” to the dustbin of history.

Jesus was an Idiot – or – We Have a Serious Violence Habit

430px-Christ_Giving_His_BlessingI do not actually believe that one of the most important spiritual masters ever to walk this earth was an idiot, but some people apparently do. While singing the praises of the Prince of Peace, many people simultaneously believe that violence is the only way to deal with conflict. Still, Jesus did say stuff like:

“Inasmuch as ye have done [it] unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [it] unto me.”

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

But people are funny, and some apparently think that there are exceptions, as though after writing it down, Jesus came up to Matthew and said, “Ha! I was just kidding. Let’s go kill some Romans.”

Still, it is a hard thing to rationalize violence if you follow or at least respect the philosophy of a Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, or what have you. But the ego is the best rationalizer in the Universe, so people say things like, “I’m all for peace, but…” Or maybe, “Peace is a great idea, but it’s just not realistic, because they don’t want peace.”

In other words, Jesus was an idiot.

Only a real simpleton would advocate not retaliating after 9/11, right? We were attacked, so we just had to strike back and show them that we are not to be messed with. And strike back we did. We avenged roughly 3,000 deaths by killing or injuring nearly one million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yeah, I guess we really showed them.

Our literature is filled with tales of revenge. By the end of Hamlet, few are left standing. Njal’s Saga, written in the late 13th century, describes a blood feud between two families in which the killing of one family member is avenged, causing the other family to retaliate, and so forth, until Njal and his family are burned alive in their house. That was the end of the blood feud, because nearly everybody was dead. We know, as a race, that violence is a fire that is fed by more violence until it becomes a conflagration that consumes everything in its path, leaving nothing behind except ruin and dead bodies.

Violence is an expression of our anger, and we do it because we believe it will make us feel better. It will make the hurt or the “wrong” go away. But it doesn’t do any of these things. Instead, this “anger in action” only causes more hurt and more wrongs.

If the United States had, in fact, turned the other cheek after 9/11, the world would be a safer and more peaceful place today. We could still have taken measures to secure what needed to be secure. Taking precautions isn’t stupid. But by choosing to feed Al Qaeda’s hate with our own newly formed hate, we fed the fire. By doing so, we confirmed their worst narrative about us—that indeed, from their perspective, we must be a great satan to rain bombs upon their nations and take so many innocent lives. This fed their fury, and Al Qaeda’s fire was able to grow. But if we had chosen not to retaliate, that fire would be embers or ashes by now. We are reaping what we have sown.

Not retaliating was never considered, however. Violence has become such a habit that many people honestly believe that it is the only option we have. If we are attacked, we must hit back. If we don’t, they’ll just hit us again. But there is another option:  choosing not to engage. When my son takes my daughter’s doll, and she gets upset, he keeps doing it. She makes it fun for him. But if she didn’t engage—if she ignored his behavior, then he would stop eventually.

Peace is always available to us as a choice. It is not the fashionable choice. It is not the Hollywood choice—no one would go in with guns blazing. It is not the easy choice, either, because it takes real courage to choose not to respond with anger and violence when provoked.

As the pacifist A. J. Muste said so eloquently, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Like Jesus and so many others before him, he was not an idiot.