Winter is coming: Why extremism is not the answer
Peter Sterančák / December 28, 2018
(4 min read)
Extremism is similar to a snowman, standing solidly in cold and dark times, yet once exposed to sunlight, it loses its foundations and melts into a shapeless puddle. Melting away extremism isn’t easy in such times as ours. Ultra-nationalism, fascism, and different shades of populism pop up everywhere as if planted by some vicious invisible force. Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, Brazil, or France it seems like no country is spared from this new trend. If you are a Game of Thrones fan you may be familiar with the phrase, “winter is coming.” Lord Stark’s dark warning of hard times coming fits not only the fantasy world of the TV series but our current reality, as well. Perhaps that’s why Game of Thrones is so popular - it reflects the current political problems in a fantasy setting. So, where did the cold wind of extremism come from?
My fascination with this question began a couple of years ago when an openly fascist party was elected into the Slovak parliament for the first time in my lifetime. Capitalizing on its success by opposing minorities and migrants wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was the amount of support for those extreme views in my wider social circle. Even friends and family members whom I considered open-minded and liberal began to flirt with those extreme ideas, as if out of sheer exhaustion of viable alternatives. A general disappointment and disillusion of the political establishment powered the anti-establishment mood that the populists and extremists hijacked for their own gains. And while one could analyse this phenomenon locally from nation to nation, I believe we have to adopt a global perspective to understand it fully.
After all, it’s paradoxical how much Islamic extremism in the Middle East has in common with its right-wing Christian fundamentalist counterparts of Europe.
A wave of populism and extremism is flooding the whole world right now. No country is an island and while extremism has many different forms and branches, they are all rooted in one global society. All extremists are subject to one global market, they all use money and modern technology - even Islamic fundamentalists are happy to share their medieval backwardness through modern social media. After all, it’s paradoxical how much Islamic extremism in the Middle East has in common with its right-wing Christian fundamentalist counterparts of Europe. They both want “their country back” from foreign intruders; they both derive their values from religious traditions; they both revolt against modernity and liberal values and yearn for a nostalgic glorious past. And they both have very rigid views regarding the position of women in their societies. The problem seems to be rather global not local. And a global problem requires a global approach.
Climate change, technological disruption, the danger of a nuclear war, the rise of artificial intelligence, migration - these are all global problems. Ultra-nationalism, populism or any other forms of extremism don’t offer solutions to these problems. No country can solve them on their own. Even if Slovakia reduces carbon emissions to zero, if there is no global consensus and policy on those issues, Slovakia or any other country will nonetheless feel the tragic impact of climate change. As Isreali historian, Yuval Noah Harari puts it, when it comes to climate change no country is sovereign.
Another dimension of the problem is individual. It is a cliché to say that the personal is political. However, this truism is still valid. Although we all live in different cultures, countries and environments, one thing that is universal for all people is our biological and emotional makeup. Emotions run faster than rational thoughts. They are processed through quicker routes in our brain. They are easier to arouse and harder to extinguish. Whether it’s the fear of a terrorist attack or a migrant invasion; anxiety over an uncertain future with certain jobs becoming obsolete; anger at the so-called experts whose predictions do not come true - or perhaps they do; disgust of all things political after exposing propaganda and lies'; and worry about an economy that failed so spectacularly in the Financial Crisis in 2008. All play into the hands of extremists who have spun those emotions into a fictional narrative of “Us vs. Them.”
Uncertainty and fear of the future fuels the nostalgia of the past - even if that nostalgia is fictional.
The most successful extremists and populists are good storytellers. They tell us who counts as “Us”, and who are the dirty “Them”. If we can only get rid of those “Them-s” and create a society full of “Us”, we would reach the ideal, their argument goes. In his massive book, “Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” Robert Sapolsky explains how this dichotomy of seeing the world in Us/Them categories has a very strong evolutionary basis, and how we can’t help but seeing the world through this tribal perspective. As social creatures that we are, the yearning to identify with certain groups while vilifying groups of those “others” comes naturally to us. In the absence of convincing unifying global story, extremists win because they understand this on some level. I think the problem of extremism is partially a by-product of the global crisis of identity. As the world has gotten globalized, local identities got less and less relevant and many people started to feel less and less secure. Uncertainty and fear of the future fuels the nostalgia of the past - even if that nostalgia is fictional.
When globalization challenges the sense of our identity, the easiest answer is to identify with what is closest to us - be it a nation, a subculture, a political party or religion.
In his latest book, “The Road to Unfreedom”, historian Timothy Snyder explains how the time perception of reality has changed over the last decade. When we stop believing in the future we are stuck in the present moment, and look for certainty in our past. When globalization challenges the sense of our identity, the easiest answer is to identify with what is closest to us - be it a nation, a subculture, a political party or religion. We tend to reinforce the Us/Them lenses of perception. No wonder that we start looking for someone to blame - Jews, Roma people, migrants, Muslims, gay people - you name it. Uncertainty is not a comfortable feeling and it’s not easy to get over it. But life is marked by complexity, and easy answers get us nowhere. We need to overcome our biological impulses and step out of our comfort zone of local tribalism to solve global issues ahead of us.
The only answer, I believe, is more integration and reinforcing the international sense of identity, supporting international democratic bodies such as the European Union, as well as reforming and making it more inclusive. We can’t afford ourselves the luxury of protectionsim, isolationism, and ultra-nationalism anymore. Perhaps the famous Solzhenitsyn’s quote from his book “The Gulag Archipelago” could give us a good starting point:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts…Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth. Yet, I have not given up all hope that human beings and nations may be able, in spite of all, to learn from the experience of other people without having to go through it personally.”