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The Psychology of American Extremism

Why are our social views and politics becoming more extreme?

America, the land of Extremism?

Political and social dialogue in the U.S. has become increasingly polarized, with extreme positions now dominating conversations about important topics. At every level – from the macro social level, reflected in our country’s politics and media, to the individual level between friends, neighbors, and family members – dialogue about important issues is paralyzed by extreme, rigid, inflexible views.

“God deliver you, dear reader, from fixed ideas… it is they that make both supermen and madmen.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Political and social dialogues in the media now resemble shouting matches far more than a thoughtful, fact-based discourse for the purpose of developing and finding the best answer and course. Both friends and patients tell me that they have friends with whom they cannot talk about certain topics, because the conversation becomes an immediate, painful conflict. Relationships are being torn apart by disagreements over social issues such as healthcare reform, immigration, gay marriage, and religion. Many of these issues have always been contentious. We've always known that there were some things we couldn't talk with someone else about, because the conversation would just go nowhere. But in recent years, the number of these polarized, landmine-ridden positions and views have magnified exponentially.

My own professional fields of healthcare and sexuality are particularly ripe for this level of extremism. Obamacare, abortion, birth control, pornography, gay marriage and civil rights, and our failing healthcare system in general are all issues where flags have been planted, defining rigid, hotly defended positions. Gun rights, educational standards, and a host of other issues are now “compromise-free” zones.

Research on extremism is still developing, but there are some things that we know, which contribute to our understanding of why American discourse is becoming increasingly, seemingly irreversibly, polarized:

• It's always the “other side” that looks polarized. From within our own pot of boiling water, the changes to our own views have been gradual and subtle. We call others extreme, in their radical disagreement with us, but rarely do we accept the label of extremist for ourselves.

• Society is more likely to label as extreme, the actions of the poor, powerless and desperate, even when actions to preserve the status quo are equal.

• Extremism can be a “one-way ratchet,” in that once started down a path of rigid commitment to unwavering principles and goals, compromise and moderation becomes increasingly unlikely.

• Extremism is not new, but has been a worldwide problem for many tears. Zealots, terrorists, civil rights leaders, and revolutionaries hold extreme views.

• Extremism is not inherently negative nor positive. However, extreme views do become connected to behaviors and actions which are increasingly disruptive.

• Extreme views are sometimes used by groups in order to magnify dissent and enhance political agendas.

“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” Martin Luther King Jr.

“A plague on both your houses!” cried Shakespeare’s Mercutio, slain by the pointless feud between two warring houses. You might think I'm calling the people at Fox News extremist and defending those at MSNBC. Or perhaps it’s the Democrats who are extreme, while the Tea Party is attempting to return to a norm. I don't know, and to be honest, at this point, I'm not sure there's much difference. I have the sense that many people feel lost between these warring views and that the extreme positions leave many bereft, as though they cannot take a side without abandoning their reservations.

Extremism is sometimes called a mental illness by both of the sides of the American political divide. In their efforts to label the other side as extreme, and extremely wrong, both have fallen to the disgusting tactic of calling the other’s rigid views evidence of mental illness. In recent years, conservative Republicans, religious conservatives, radical Muslims, homosexuals and gay marriage advocates have all been called mentally ill. “Munchausen by proxy,” is the latest cry, claiming that one side or the other is “making the country sick” in order to achieve their ends.

Extremist views are connected to distress. The more oppressed, fearful, discounted, depressed and hopeless people feel (both as individuals, and as communities), the more susceptible they are to expressing and endorsing extreme views.

Extremism is predicted by relatively “shallow” levels of understanding of issues. In other words, the less a person knows about a topic, the more likely they are to endorse extreme, rigid views on the topic. Further, the more confident a person is in their knowledge (especially when it's actually quite limited), the more likely they take extreme views. So it is the person who knows little but is sure that they know enough that can often take extreme, unbending, and uncompromising positions.

In today's world of constant information access, it's seductively easy to feel like an expert. A couple minutes on Google or Wikipedia, and we're good to go. Right?

The media plays a tremendous role in this social shift towards polarized, “extremified" views. I starting a few years ago, when suddenly the word “extreme” was everywhere in the news. Weather and news channels were suddenly talking about “extreme weather.” Conflicts, incidents of crime, and extreme violence suddenly dominated the headlines. The attention to these extreme issues is important, but subtly, the dialogues and conversations about important topics in the media lost nuance and shed any hint of compromise.

I've done lots of media around the world and am usually given some coaching and encouragement by producers prior to a broadcast dialogue. “We want you to have passion and fire in your argument. Act like this is the fight of your life. That's what makes for good television.” Sadly, nuanced, expert opinion that recognizes individual differences and the power of contextual factors doesn't make for good television or radio. It doesn't give good quotes for print media. It’s not as powerful politically.

Extreme, polarized, frightening, and anxiety-producing views make for good media, good television, and incendiary political conflicts. They sell commercials, get attention, raise money, and get people fired up. But they're not so good at solving problems. In fact, extreme views live in the world of “I'm right, you're wrong, and until you admit that, we're going to keep having this fight.”

“Do you want to be right? Or do you want to have a relationship/marriage?” is the question I often ask people. Which is more important to you? We need to ask ourselves this question. Do we want to be right, or do we want to have a healthy, vibrant society built on a diversity of views?

People today are scared; they feel helpless and uncertain about the future. Things are changing so fast on a daily basis. Healthcare today, gone tomorrow. Every news cycle seems to flip the last one on its head. There are lots of individual and social reasons for the extreme views in political and social dialogue today. I can understand how we got here. Now, how do we get out of it?

How do we return to dialogue?

Don't use my words here to point out to somebody that their extreme, rigid views reveal that they are actually pretty ignorant on the topic. Instead, use this as an opportunity to examine your own rigid views. Where are you unyielding and intolerant of opposing ideas? Can you learn more about those topics, and if you did, do you think more views might be more nuanced? When you present those views to others, are you listening to the fear and anger and helplessness in your own voice? Say instead, “These topics are so hard, and so scary and I get so worried that this argument is just going to go on forever, until something awful happens.”

"What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents." Robert F. Kennedy

You can follow David Ley on Twitter, @DrDavidLey