Milner Library Site Voices of Extremism

Walter Mead

About Extremism
by Walter B. Mead

Even when two people engaged in discussion speak the same language, such as English, if some of the words they are using mean different things to each of them, they are, in a sense, not really speaking the same language, and serious misunderstandings can occur as a result. This can be a special problem in political discourse because (1) in political discourse ideologies (defined as a systematic, or theoretical, framework of perception significantly influenced by an individual's or a group's self-interest, or narrowly construed presuppositions) abound and can have great effect -- deliberately or unwittingly -- in reshaping the meanings of words to serve the speaker's specific and manipulative purposes. We might suggest that political concepts, or labels -- like 'right,' 'left,' 'liberal,' 'conservative', 'radical,' 'extremist,' etc. -- easily become, in effect, partisan 'footballs' hurled across 'ideological goalposts' to score rhetorical points for the speaker, often generating more heat than light, more misunderstanding and confusion than responsible communication and enlightenment. And this can be a serious problem particularly in political discourse because (2) misunderstandings in politics can lead to the most severe and destructive of consequences, as history has demonstrated by the countless misunderstandings the have led to war.

However, merely clarifying one's use of words or concepts is not sufficient to provide for responsible discourse. Whereas, on the one hand, language could not exist without the kind of categorization, labeling, and linguistic organizing, or grouping together of thoughts or objects under the scope of a word or a phrase, while through that same word or phrase distinguishing them from other categories of thoughts or objects (that's what words are; that's the function they are intended to perform), and only were a well-developed language exists can human beings function as reflective and rational beings, engage in responsible discourse, and have a thriving culture; on the other hand, poorly formulated and applied words and concepts can only be a major impediment to responsible discourse and, therefore, to a truly civilized and humane existence.

Someone has suggested that the easiest way to dispose of an idea is simply to put a label on it. Therefore it is not unusual for conservative politicians simply to label their opponents 'liberal' rather than listening to, and reflecting on, their ideas, or for liberal politicians simply to label, derisively and dismissively, 'conservative' critics . . . and to give no further consideration to what they may have to say. Assuming that the Wall Street Journal is appropriately considered a 'conservative' newspaper and the New York Times a 'liberal' newspaper, one can usually reliably predict that self-declared 'conservative' person if far more likely to be informed by the Journal than by the Times, and that the reverse is true for the self-acclaimed 'liberal.'

The labeling of an idea or a system of thought as 'radical' or as 'extreme' will commonly bring serious discussion of that idea to an abrupt halt, even before it has begun. In such cases these labels are interpreted as meaning simply something like 'irresponsible,' 'stupid,' or 'not worthy of consideration.' But, if we may take an illustration from the field of medicine, recourse to 'radical' surgery -- such as performing an inherently risky heart transplant when the only alternative appears to be the patient's imminent death, such 'extreme' or 'radical' surgery would appear to be the most responsible course of action to take. Similarly, in the realm of political action, sometimes extreme or radical action is properly and responsibly called for. We must be cautious and yet open in our use of words and application of labels so that they further constructive discourse rather than foreclosing it.

Whatever serious misuse has been made of certain terms, concepts, or labels, responsible communication would obviously be impossible without them. Words are labels, or unifying concepts that embrace, bracket, and thereby enable us to give meaningful expression to our experience. We cannot imagine having even an unexpressed idea without experiencing that idea in terms of some label or concept. Therefore, even though we must make use of labels and concepts if we are to experience serious and constructive reflection in our own heads as well as in our responsible and constructive dialogue with others, we need to be very careful in our use of labels and concepts, that is, in the appropriateness, precision, and consistency of such usage. This means, first of all, that we must define our concepts as clearly as possible.

Certainly among the most commonly used -- and inconsistently used -- terms in political discourse are the words 'liberal,' 'conservative,' 'right,' and 'left.' The British made use of the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' as early as the 17th century when popular movements arose urging fundamental constitutional changes in both the role of the Church and in some of the long-established political and social institutions in England, including its landed aristocracy. Those who advocated change and who embraced many of the changes introduced through England's subsequent Industrial Revolution were referred to as 'liberals' and those who favored adherence to the tried and tested traditions of English society with, at most, gradual change were labeled 'conservative,' and a British party system began to emerge along these lines. By the end of the 18th century, with the rise of the French Republic, the seats in the new French General Assembly were arranged with the elected members of the Assembly advocating a return to monarchy seated on the right (from the perspective at the front of the Assembly hall), and those advocating democracy were seated on the left. Therefore, 'right' came to represent the views of those advocating authoritarian rule and 'left' came to represent those favoring more popular involvement in government.

It is not my intent here to suggest only one correct usage of these terms, but rather to suggest that -- contrary to common practice -- however one may choose to define these terms, that the speaker or writer (1) clearly define his or her usage of such terms and (2) then consistently use these terms accordingly. Throughout my teaching career, students have often asked me whether I was a 'liberal' or a 'conservative." (I'm pleased to be asked this question since it suggests to me that I'm not easily pegged by my students to be categorically either, for the reason I'm about to indicate in [2] immediately below.) My immediate response to them has been in the form of two questions I pose to them: [1] "How do you define these terms, 'liberal' and 'conservative'"; and [2] "In regard to what issue?"

I've already indicated why I think that discourse must begin with clear definitions of key terms. However, when I ask these students to indicate the issue they have in mind, I am suggesting that a responsible approach to politics, at least as I have defined 'liberal' and 'conservative' as poles of a gradient that extends from 'no change' to 'considerable change,' will generally find one to be at different places along this gradient according to the issue that must be dealt with. In my case, I come out quite liberal -- that is, in favor of change -- on such issues as civil rights and quite conservative in regard to fiscal management -- that is, I resist spending public funds when this entails a large public debt or, alternatively, I will advocate increasing revenue, perhaps through raising taxes, at least temporarily, when such expenditures appear to be strongly recommended.

'Left' vs. 'right' and 'liberal' vs. 'conservative' are just two of the polarities that are necessary for sustaining responsible public discourse. They must be considered essential parts of the 'responsible middle' of social and political dialog. As I've already suggested about the possibly responsible taking of 'radical' and even 'extreme' positions in politics, as one moves from, e.g., 'left' to 'far left', or from a moderately 'liberal' to a still more 'liberal' position on a particular political or social issue, this does not necessarily imply that one is moving closer to what we would call an 'extremist' or even an 'irresponsible' stance. It depends entirely on the nature of the issue and the context in which that issue must be dealt with -- that is, e.g., whether 'far . . ., ' or 'extreme,' or 'radical,' action is reasonably called for in a particular set of circumstances.

So, what I am suggesting is that, when one is considering what constitutes an appropriate and responsible policy or course of action, that is, the substantive question of policy and action, this cannot be determined abstractly. 'Extremism' itself, in this sense, is not reliably defined in terms of what one advocates -- such as higher or lower taxes, more or less involvement on behalf of the central government, the decision to go to war or to abstain from war, etc. Whatever substantive conclusion or recommendation is being considered, in order to judge responsibly whether a recommendation is 'extremist' or 'irresponsible,' or neither of these, requires that the mode, or style, of thinking (such as openness to considering such things as circumstances, alternatives, and the consequences of embracing various recommendations) and not simply the recommendation, or substantive conclusion, itself.

Between the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, we have come to confront very different issues and in the context of very different circumstances. Current substantive policy recommendations by responsible participants in the political process, therefore, often need to be quite different from what could be responsibly recommended fifty years ago. And the flip side of this observation is that what could be regarded as, substantively, an extremist and irresponsible policy recommendation a half century ago could well be regarded as very responsible today. Therefore, it is misleading to define 'extremism' in terms of policy content, or substantive positions; these are always subject to redefinition as objective circumstances change, perhaps even from day to day. Besides, when one yields to the popular tendency to define 'extremist' or 'non-extremist,' 'responsible' or 'irresponsible' according to particular substantive stances on policy, this easily degenerates into defining these terms merely according to whether someone agrees or disagrees with one's own position.

It is important to note, further, that extremists occasionally reach correct conclusions even when employing their characteristically faulty modes of thinking -- what I have referred to in my book on this subject as "irresponsible cognitive styles." And people who engage in thoroughly responsible modes of thinking can come to false conclusions. The history of scientific inquiry, following the most rigorous and responsible procedures, has been characterized by, a sometimes centuries-long, reaching of erroneous conclusions that must await a further mining of data before being vindicated by new insights and demonstrably correct conclusions. Therefore, I have resisted defining either 'irresponsible' or 'extremist' thinking in terms of the substantive content of its pronouncements, that is, in terms of the rightness or wrongness of its conclusions.

It is the styles of thinking of extremists that invariably and universally set them off from non-extremists, or more responsible participants in discourse, political and other. I have described these styles as (1) simplism, or simplifying beyond what the facts warrant. Note; Mere simplicity, one of the positive characteristics of a good scientific theory, is not here being characterized as irresponsible, least of all as extremist; (2) doctrinaire thinking, or the forcing of data to conform to, or to be interpreted in terms of, rigid preconceptions. As I've previously noted, all of our experiential data must be organized linguistically in terms of concepts or categories if we are to think intelligibly. Therefore, please note that my definition of doctrinaire thinking emphasizes the narrow and inflexible nature of its preconceptions, or constitutive categories that are unresponsive to reality and to the constructive potential of an appropriate organizing of data; and (3) non-dialogue, or simply a premature closure that shuts one off from being confronted with differing, but possibly constructive, ideas and perspectives. Note: the emphasis here is upon premature closure, indeed a closure that, in the extremist mode of thinking, is present virtually from the very beginning of the extremist's thought processes. By way of contrast, responsible thinking, although not free of closure, delays closure until the practicalities of life require the reaching of conclusions in order to take action. And, even then, responsible thinking regards closure as tentative, that is, subject to correction and further development.

As one examines the recorded interviews, speeches, and other pronouncements of specific individuals who have been included in the present Voices of Extremism collection, because of their appearing to be positioned at various points along a gradient extending from somewhat irresponsible to clearly extremist actors in the American political scene, it can be observed that irresponsible and extremist pronouncements are usually characterized by more than one of the three irresponsible cognitive styles that have just outlined, and that often all three of these styles are present and, indeed, are synergistically related in their supportive relation to each other.

Also, it should be noted that, although responsible liberal (like responsible leftist) expressions of thought are characteristically vastly different from responsible conservative (like responsible rightist) expressions in terms of what they advocate, the same expressions, examined in terms of the cognitive styles that lead up to and are represented in the formulation of these expressions, indicate a perfect convergence among the styles, on the one hand, of responsible left and right, liberal and conservative expressions and, on the other hand, of irresponsible left and right, liberal and conservative expressions.

Spherical diagram illustrates the convergence of all expressions of extremism Spherical diagram illustrates the convergence of all expressions of extremism in terms common styles of irresponsible thought. (W.B. Mead, Extremism and Cognition, p. 136.)

In other words, from a stylistic perspective, the traits of the various substantive dimensions of responsible thinking as well as the traits of irresponsible, including extremist, thinking converge. That is to say, whereas an analysis of the substantive content of the various dimensions of responsible thinking reveal considerable diversity at any given point in time and considerable change over a period of time, an analysis of the stylistic, or cognitive, aspects of both irresponsible and extremist thinking, displays a universal stylistic character among its various substantive dimensions, and an unchanging stylistic consistency regardless of changing time, circumstance, and context.

A more extended description of the three cognitive styles by which I define "extremism" is presented, with concrete examples drawn from specific extremist pronouncements, in the recording shown above.

About the author: Walter B. Mead is Professor Emeritus, Department of Politics & Government, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, where he taught courses in Political Philosophy, Constitutionalism, Totalitarian Systems, and Political Extremism. He received a B.A. degree from Carleton College where he majored in Philosophy, his M.Div. degree in Theology at Yale University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Political Philosophy from Duke University.

During his graduate studies in North Carolina (1960-63), he clandestinely attended meetings of the KKK and the White Citizens Councils, was actively involved in the civil rights movement, and served a sentence working, in the summer of 1962, on a prisoner chain gang in North Carolina for this involvement. His Ph.D. dissertation on Extremism and Cognition: Styles of Irresponsibility in American Society was published as a book by that title in 1971, and he has subsequently lectured extensively at the National War College and on numerous campuses in the United States and abroad on this subject.

His book, The United States Constitution: Personalities, Principles, and Issues, was published in 1987. He is also the author of dozens of articles that have appeared in The Journal of Politics, The Review of Politics, The Political Science Reviewer, Tradition and Discovery, Judicature, Interpretation, Modern Age, Transaction/Society, and The Intercollegiate Review. His current research and writing is in the field of epistemology. Professor Mead served as President of the Michael Polanyi Society from 2006 to 2009 and is currently on the Society's Board of Directors. He can be reached at

Select the collections to add or remove from your search