Where Logic Meets Love

Finding the Other Extreme

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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Finding the Other Extreme | Faith Permeating Life

It seems like most people like to think of themselves as being in the middle of two extremes, and this means a really large group of people reach for the label "moderate" in their political ideology, perhaps acknowledging what leanings they do have by saying they're a "moderate liberal" or "moderate conservative."

This happens even when someone's views would be considered extreme by others. There are plenty of explanations for why people on the far right or far left would think they're actually rather moderate -- people surround themselves with others who think similarly (the echo chamber, confirmation bias), and people often identify themselves in contrast to the most extreme or simplistic version of an opposing view (strawman fallacy). So it's easy to think of one's own views as "normal" and everyone else on the extremes.

Recognizing this, I've always been unsure how to classify my own ideology -- I know I fall squarely on the liberal/progressive side of most things, but don't think of myself as an "extreme liberal" or "extreme Democrat." Yet it seemed that in conversations on any issue, either I agreed with the speaker/writer or was farther to the left. Moderate means you disagree with people on both sides of you, not just one side, right? Maybe I was more of a flaming liberal than I thought.

Yesterday, I stumbled across the other extreme.

Whoville, like much of the West Coast, tends to be a fairly progressive place to live -- one of the reasons we like living here. It's a strongly "blue" area, and it's a good bet that most people I talk to will share my views, particularly on social issues. (The one exception is religion -- people here tend to be far more skeptical of faith and religion than any place I've lived, but living on a Catholic campus balances this out nicely.)

This means that people generally aren't afraid to bring up political topics, and tend to assume that those around them agree.

I volunteer for a local organization, and yesterday joined a group of volunteers helping with the very boring task of folding and labeling newsletters. As you might imagine, this task doesn't occupy much brainpower and thus opens up the opportunity to spend an hour or so chatting with other volunteers while sending newsletters down the assembly line. On finding out one of the other volunteers was studying to be a social worker, I asked him what his thoughts were on the new DSM.

This quickly turned into a conversation between two volunteers ranting about healthcare. It was the first time I'd heard people say they were disgusted with Obamacare for still allowing the existence of private insurance companies, and they both expressed the belief that a government-run universal healthcare system is simply inevitable and that everyone will see very shortly that it's the only good option. The rest of the conversation, which spanned (among other things) vaccines, zoos, and recent Supreme Court decisions had me repositioning myself on my mental political spectrum closer to the middle than I might have previously thought.

What I realized later, though, was that what made me classify these individuals as more "extreme" than myself had less to do with what they believed and more to do with why they believed it and how they expressed it. Looked at this way, I found there was surprisingly little difference between people I consider "extremely conservative" and these people I thought of as "extremely liberal."

These were the traits I noticed:
  • Speaking in broad, overly simplistic terms about the world.
  • Assuming that any reasonable person would agree with their conclusions.
  • Relying on or citing highly questionable "facts."
  • Dismissing anyone with a different viewpoint as having ulterior motivations.
  • Presuming to speak for other people's wants and needs.
  • Believing that the progression of events along their ideal path is inevitable.
  • Expressing their beliefs in such a way that providing an alternative viewpoint seems entirely pointless.
I'm sure there are probably studies that have been done that have generated similar lists, maybe with even more traits, but these are the things I most noticed. And essentially it boils down to the idea that people I think of as having extreme views are extremely closed-minded.

I'm reflecting on this list for two reasons. One, because it provides a way to check myself on how I'm thinking about and expressing my own views to ensure that I'm not being (or coming across as) closed-minded. And two, because it is a way to recognize when I'm mischaracterizing the "other side" on a particular issue by only focusing on the people who have these traits.

So am I conflating ideological position and closed-mindedness? Perhaps. But it makes sense, in a world as complex as ours, that the only way to hold fast to the most liberal or most conservative position on everything is to refuse to consider alternative viewpoints or conflicting evidence. After all, isn't the reason that most people want to be considered "between the extremes" because they recognize that the most extreme viewpoint is rarely correct?

Are you able to identify positions to both the left and the right of you on most issues? Do you think there's a link between extreme viewpoints and closed-mindedness?


  1. Great post, Jessica! What you say about people with extreme views having certain rhetorical similarities across the political spectrum is very true. And in my experience, even the most moderate among us have at least one or two issues on which we lean toward this type of behavior. The correct solution just seems so obvious to us that it's difficult to take any other viewpoint seriously. Psychologically it's much easier to classify our political adversaries as thinking and speaking this way, but really no one is immune. This is something I find myself noticing increasingly, particularly as my own political views become more moderate or more complicated (at least on some things).

    Have you read the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion? I haven't yet, but it's been recommended to me as a great one on how people explain their political and moral beliefs - or, more to the point, fail to explain them. As far as I can tell, the author's thesis is that many political beliefs on both right and left are essentially formed on an almost instinctive level and then logic is found or created to support them - and that's why political conversations can be so difficult. I wouldn't say that's true in every case or for every person, but it does seem to explain a lot about how polarized our current political climate is.

    1. And in my experience, even the most moderate among us have at least one or two issues on which we lean toward this type of behavior.
      Oh, absolutely, which is why I think it's helpful to be mindful of these traits. If I'm really concerned with seeking the truth, I have to remain open-minded to the possibility that I could be wrong.

      I haven't heard of that book before, but it is going on my to-read list now! Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. To me the word "radical" seems like a good one for the traits in your bullet points. I think you're exactly right about why most people consider themselves moderate or at least sort of moderate.

    When I was in high school in small-town Oklahoma, my journalism teacher told me, "One of the great things about going to college will be that you won't be the most liberal person you know!" I bet this would have been true even if I'd gone to a state U. At the college I did attend, I heard some views so liberal I'd never thought they existed! For example, I'd always been told, "There is no such thing as pro-abortion. We are pro-choice." but at my college there were a few people who really did believe that most pregnancies should be aborted for the sake of women's liberation, population control, and reveling in the "fact" that there is no God and no such thing as objective morality; they eventually stomped out of the Association for Reproductive Rights to form their own group, which was a relief. I also met women who believed that all women should be lesbians who never engage in any penetrative activity because "all penetration is rape." Yowza. I felt like a moderate by comparison!

    On the other hand, one of the first people I met at college was a Southern Baptist who was "conservative" in most ways but was angry to see a synagogue with a pro-Israel banner; he had a friend of Palestinian ancestry and understood that the Palestinians had some valid points, too, which was something I realized I'd never even considered. I had no idea how right-wing my view on the subject was until I met this right-winger whose view *on that* was to the left of mine. :-)

    At the moment, everybody's expecting me to rejoice about the Supreme Court overturning DOMA because this is considered a win for liberals... but to me, it's only a very tiny bit of progress, because it's still basing your tax status on your sex life, which is still wrong and silly. Sigh.

    1. Those are some great stories to illustrate what I'm talking about. It's also a good reminder not to assume that a particular viewpoint doesn't exist anywhere (as in the "no one is pro-abortion" case). In fact, the existence of such a viewpoint may actually be a better argument than saying no one holds such a viewpoint -- as in, "No, I'm not pro-abortion; this is what being pro-abortion looks like."

      I found your article on marriage and tax status thought-provoking and am still mulling it over. I guess my position is similar to what I think about our election system -- I dislike the two-party system and the electoral college, and I think there are good reasons not to have either, but I also recognize that that's unlikely to change anytime soon, so my most immediate concern is eliminating discrimination and other problems that exist within the current system.

  3. A thought on the issue that a friend of mine once raised to me: the problem isn't "extremism" so much as being right or wrong. I would add to that, not simply being right or wrong in our views, but in our character. Close-mindedness is quite simply a flaw in our character, even if we are right. Quite often I find it stems from pride in ourselves and a fear that we might be wrong.

    As an example: coming from an evangelical family, I know they would consider someone who gave up marriage and family and even their material possessions an extremist. And yet we respect our spiritual mothers and fathers who did exactly that for their devotion. I think there's a good case to be made that it's not the extremism that's the problem - it's at the heart the pride that makes it hard for us to admit we might be wrong.


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