Friday, September 28, 2012

Extremism: A Matter of Perspective

With today's media coverage, it does not take long for an outrageous comment from a disgruntled citizen or an offbeat belief of an aspiring politician to find its way into the ears of the American public.  We are all familiar with Akin's now famous comments on what he describes as "legitimate rape."  Many of us frown upon the Mormon practice of posthumous baptisms.  When the American public becomes familiarized with beliefs like these, we are quick to ask the question, "What were they thinking?" or "How could they be so foolish?"  Certainly, beliefs such as posthumous baptisms or that rape could be considered legitimate seem to go against the grain of popular opinion.  

Let us examine what was the grain of popular opinion was just a few generations ago.  Girls who wore skirts that ended above the knee were considered promiscuous whores.  Black people had no role in society other than to do the white man's bidding.  A woman joining the workforce was considered a blasphemous joke.  Slavery, at one time, was just as common as eating dessert after supper.
 Today, in a dramatic turnaround, a black woman wearing a low cut top to work does not warrant a raise of the eyebrow.  Abolitionists and feminists were once seen as extremists and in some cases as threats to America.  In hindsight, we realize that abolitionists and feminists were perhaps not extremists, but moderates living in an extreme time.  What if we are still living in an extreme time?  What if the slaughtering of animals for food is comparable to the enslavement of black people in the 19th and 20th centuries?
In her article “The Lures and Dangers of Extremist Rhetoric”, Amy Gutmann claims that, “Extremist rhetoric insidiously undermines the democratic promise of mobilizing citizens on the basis of some reasonable understanding of their interest and the public interest.”  In the same article, Gutmann states that “not all extreme or extremist rhetoric is necessarily bad for democracy.  Indeed, some perilous times may need a healthy dose of extremist rhetoric.”  This apparent contradiction begs the question of how a community is supposed to know when it is a “perilous time” in need of “a healthy dose of extremist rhetoric.”  Certainly the slave owners at the turn of the century did not see the times as perilous just as many today do not see our current culture to be in peril. 
The question of what constitutes as an extreme stance on an issue is simply a matter of perspective.  For example, the Christian practice of praying before meals is viewed as a very tame, expected custom to a Christian-accepting American mindset.  To certain Sunni Muslims, sacrificing one’s body in an act of jihad is also considered a normal, expected practice.  Of course, most Americans view jihad as simply another act of terrorism.  However, if we look at these two events through a lens labeled- “What makes sense for the respective religion”- without any other considerations, suddenly, jihad ceases to appear as a mindless, indecent act. 

          With this philosophy, any stance, opinion, or action can be warped to be seen as extreme as well as moderate.  An obvious case would be that of a marathon runner.  To runners, running a marathon is an ultimate goal.  Finishing a marathon is one of the highest honors that a runner can obtain.  In contrast, to non-runner, running a marathon is an idiotic and dangerous adventure.  Someone who runs a marathon could be presumed to have had some mental trauma as a child.  
          A less obvious case of how an “exreme” person could be viewed a “moderate” is Marilyn Manson.  Marilyn Manson is a satanic, provocative, drug-crazed rock star far from the realm of societal norm.  His music, many argue, encourages drug use, sexual activity, and violence.  After the Columbine shooting of 1999, many moderate Americans pointed their fingers at Manson for being the root cause of the massacre.  The shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were indeed big fans of Marilyn Manson’s anger filled music.  It seemed as if a rational and responsible stance was to pin a great deal of the blame for the shootings on Manson’s negative influence on these high schoolers’ decision making process.  Manson thought otherwise.  In Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Manson gave an answer to the question, “If you could talk directly to the kids of Columbine and the people in that community, what would you say to them?” that pointed the finger right back at the so-called moderate America.  Manson boldly states "I wouldn't say a single word to them.  I would listen to what they had to say, and that's what no one did."  It seems ridiculous to assume that one man could have influenced a couple of kids to perform an act so malicious and terrifying as the Columbine shootings.  Manson's witty response forces us reverse our perspective and look at ourselves.  We allow bullying to happen everyday.  We ignore young adults who are clearly fighting an internal struggle.  It seems as if the now extreme stance is one that fails to address these factors, and instead diagnoses Marilyn Manson's music as the primary influence in Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's decision.  With this mindset, Manson begins to appear as neutral threat that has little influence in our nation's youth.
     Perspective is a powerful thing- perhaps more powerful than any figure in history.  Had African Americans perceived Martin Luther King Jr. as an impatient loudmouth, he would not have attracted as much of a following as he did, thus, reducing his power.  Had those who listened to Jesus speak thought of him as a fraud, Christianity would have never been created.  A person's mindset coupled with their preconceived notions about a subject will in turn determine how that person perceives said subject.  There are always multiple sides to every story.  Extremism itself is not a danger to democracy.  Rather, becoming tunnel-visioned into understanding only one perspective of any given idea, person, event, or opinion is the biggest threat to this country.  

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