Chapter 28. Idealists can be very dangerous. Why people become extremists.


Have a friend who is a zealot? Wondering what makes him/her tick?

Take a look at Dennis Prager’s ideas on extremism.
Here is his basic list. It is a starting place in examination of what motivates zealots all around us.

1. Extremists usually believe in a good value.

A good deal of evil emanates not from selfish or cruel motives, but from good motives. This is particularly true regarding extremism. The most important thing to appreciate about extremism is that it is usually based on a good value. One reason it is so difficult to fight extremists successfully is that those who oppose them often hold the same decent value the extremists holds – only more moderately.

2. Extremists think you can never have too much of this good value.

What distinguishes extremists from those moderates that share their good value is that extremists believe it is impossible to have too much of that good value. Extremists start by affirming a fine value, then draw the understandable, but completely erroneous conclusion, that there can never be enough of it. The extremists mottos is “More, more.”

3. Extremists do not acknowledge competing good values.

Extremists believe that the value they affirm is supreme, and thus higher than even goodness. Extremists do not acknowledge that life has many good values, and that theirs is only one of them. Moreover, good values are often in competition with one another. All good values need to be expressed in our lives. When you hold that you cannot have too much of one of them, you push other values out of your life.

4. Extremists ignore consequences.

To extremists, the values they affirm are so important that they ignore any adverse consequences of their commitment to them.

5. Extremists cannot compromise.

On the rare occasions when extremists do acknowledge that some bad has come from their position, they still wont consider changing course. To change, they believe, is to compromise, and to the extremist, compromise is the road to hell.

6. Extremists have the advantage of “Purity”.

Extremists see themselves as purer than the rest of us. Thus even when we also affirm the importance of their value, but without the same intensity, we are perceived as less pure than they in our commitment. Thus we, not the extremists, are nearly always on the defensive. Compared to them, we are “compromisers”, less devoted to the ideal, and thus less pure.

7. Extremism is often a response to extremism.

People who are repulsed by extremists often become extremists themselves because they conclude that the value that fanatics affirm is unworthy. But the denial of any legitimacy to extremists values is itself usually extremist.

8. Extremism is more comfortable than moderation.

Non-extreme idealists frequently are plagued by the realization that competing good values almost always exist, and are always assessing the consequences of their commitments to any given value. Extremists have no such problem. They latch onto one good value, feel pure in their unswerving commitment to it, and have little anxiety over the consequences of their position.

Life is filled with moral ambiguities.