Feb 10, 2019

An extreme way to look at extremism

In the classic Lewis Carroll book Through the Looking Glass, Alice in has an interesting exchange with Humpty Dumpty. When she expresses puzzlement over how he is using the word ‘glory’, he replies as follows:

  • “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,”said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

This view of language is of at once absurd and inaccurate. In order for linguistic communication to succeed there has to be a common understanding of what words mean. For instance if you insist that yes means no and I believe the opposite we will have one hell of time figuring out what we are talking about. This underlying tacit agreement is not set in stone, however. Words do change meaning over time (‘silly’ once meant ‘blessed’ in English as we see in the German cognate selig) and some concepts are fuzzy (for instance we can disagree on the exact place where red and orange divide on a colour spectrum). But overall the system works well enough to serve communicative purposes.

When it comes to words like terrorism or extremism we do have the option of resorting to what criminal codes have to say or we can rely on common parlance. The former tend to be precise and the latter less so (for a discussion on this check out my first podcast). Again there may be broad consensus but still room for argument.

So what happens when wonky common definitions and legal codes intersect? An interesting example just arose in a Russian courtroom where a Danish man who professes to be a Jehovah’s Witness was given a six-year prison sentence under a law that covers ‘extremism’. The sect’s literature had been labelled extremist as were those who practice the faith. The Economist called the ruling ” the harshest violation of freedom of belief that the country has seen in recent years, and an ominous throwback to Soviet practices.”

Now I don’t know about you but the JW (as they abbreviate their name these days) are not ‘extremist’. They are odd perhaps, certainly not mainstream Christian in their beliefs, and from my perspective a pain in the you-no-where (I do not need people on my doorstep telling me what to believe in thank you very much!), but they are not ‘extremist’ as I understand the term (Humpty Dumpty may differ on that matter).

When we speak of extremism we tend to think violence, but not all extremists are necessarily violent. Certain animal rights activists or anti-immigration right wing advocates or Salafi Muslims are all ‘extreme’ in that their ideologies stray from some nebulous ‘centre’ but they do not have to engage in violence to get their way. Yes they want to effect change and bring others around to their points of view but they aren’t going to blow shit up to do so. In Canada at least – and I am fairly sure in other Western countries as well – extreme views are not just tolerated but must be allowed to proliferate, provided there is no incitement to, or use of, violence. It seems to me that Russia has a different take on this.

With all the legitimate problems we are faced with when it comes to violent acts and behaviours, should we create more by expanding our definitions, and by extension our legal codes, to ban non-violent extremism? If so we establish a very dangerous precedent that has no obvious end point. As if our security services and law enforcement agencies are not busy enough monitoring legitimate threats, do we want to pile on extremists who show no intention of becoming violent (NB if such individuals or groups do embrace violence one day they become fair game for spies and cops)?

I am not sure why Russia sees JW as a threat. Again, The Economist is worth citing at length:

  • To many observers this reflects a Russian policy that fosters “traditional” religion only insofar as it reinforces loyalty to the state. With their pacifist stance and American roots, the Witnesses are at the opposite end of that spectrum. The group’s national headquarters near Saint Petersburg has been seized and branches all over the country have been raided. Their hopes of an easier life rose briefly in December when President Vladimir Putin said it was “nonsense” to persecute them because they were Christians of a sort. Now Russian officialdom appears to have decided otherwise.   

Nothing I say or write is going to change the mind of Russia. Still, their consideration of JW could be a worrisome harbinger of future legal action against ‘extremists’ whose views run counter to government fiat. Recall that in the former Soviet Union dissidents were called ‘mentally ill’ and confined to psychiatric hospitals and kept on regimes of drugs. Are we on the cusp of an analogous phenomenon?

We need to deal with violent extremism harshly in order to save lives. When it comes to non-violent extremism, however, we have to allow views we disagree with. Conflating the two types of extremism is not going to help.