15 March 2008


While browsing though Wikipedia, I ran across a wonderful quote by the great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

– William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public,” from the Inaugural Editorial in the 1 January 1831 The Liberator[1]

This is a nice quote to keep in mind for the next time I hear someone say that the problems of the world are caused by "extremists."  It's true that the Islamic fundamentalists who murder innocent people are "extreme" in their views, but so are the heroes of history - Galileo, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Adams, Rand.  "Moderation" has come to be understood as a virtue, "extremism" as a danger.  The importance of an idea itself has been supplanted with its measurement; it is not the concept that matters, but its intensity.  

Thus, we have the perverse condition that the justice or injustice of a policy is irrelevant, so long as it's not "extreme."  It doesn't matter if a man is honest or dishonest, as long as he is not "extremely" so.   


LB said...

In this sense, it seems “extremism” has gone the way of “selfishness".

"The truth or falsehood of all of man's conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions." - Ayn Rand

I’m glad to see you are attempting to right the words’ worth.

SB said...

I see what you are saying but it's not quite the same thing. "Selfishness" has become a pejorative term, meaning practically the opposite of true rational selfishness. It has come to indicate something like thoughtlessly stepping upon others in order to gratify one's own short-term pleasures. "Liberalism" is another similar example that comes to mind.

So, certainly we should try to restore the true meaning to these words, as you said. For instance, I would never say something like, "Johnny, stop taking other children's toys from them. You're just being selfish!" Also, I use the word "liberal" when I am speaking of certain 18th century political thinkers, but never use it to refer to modern progressives, who advocate the very opposite of liberty. I call them "so-called liberals."

On the other hand, "extremism" is not a concept that has been distorted to mean something else. In the context in which it is being used, it is not a concept at all. This point is so important, I'll elaborate upon it on the main page.

Burgess Laughlin said...

My understanding is that, except for proper names, words are merely symbols naming certain ideas. The word "extremism," as used by many I have met, names a certain vague notion that is an anti-concept.

Ayn Rand defines an anti-concept as "an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept." ("Anti-concepts," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, citing The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. I, issue 1, page 1.)

She has additional intriguing comments on anti-concepts in "'Extremism' or the Art of Smearing," in the anthology, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

SB said...

Yes, thank you for the comment.

There is also a good audio recording of Ayn Rand available at ARI called The Enemies of "Extremism" that makes the same point.