Punchinello’s Chronicles

April 18, 2009

Extremes and Being an Extremist

Filed under: Word of the Day — Punchinello @ 3:36 pm
Tags: , , ,

There’s a lot of hoopla in the news about the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on so-called right-wing extremist groups. Secretary Janet Napolitano issued the report to suggest to local law enforcement agencies what types of people and groups should be more closely observed. One suggestion was that returning war veterans might be such a group, given their training in violence and the use of weapons.

Following the publicity surrounding the report, talk show hosts have been looking at the concept of right-wing extremism, conservative or liberal ideology, and so forth. But a much bigger question has to do with the word “extreme.” Nobody seems to be interested in defining the term. We’re all just supposed to know, somehow, what the word applies to.

You can’t have ANY kind of extreme without first having a continuum. There has to be a zero point, then an upper and lower limit. The measures have to be declared, increments between measures, and of course the outer (upper, lower) limitations to the continuum.

Numbers have no extremes. We have a zero point, that’s for sure. It’s simply the number zero. But what’s an “extreme” number? Is 20 extreme? Lots of people would say no, but without any kind of context surrounding the number, nobody can make that judgment. For example, would it be extreme to have 20 children? Probably so. But what if you have 20 dollars in your wallet, is that an extreme number? No.

Continuum means a measuring line of some sort. We can have lines that go up and down, left and right, forward and backward, in and out. There are all sorts of lines, some of which have negative numbers, others of which that don’t. We can have an arc that swings to the left or right of a “straight ahead” point, like a navigational course.

We also have to consider the idea of a typical, average, normal, and median group within a continuum. For example, we consider it normal for a car to stay pointed in the direction you’re steering. We don’t usually notice a car wobbling back and forth to the left or right. Nor do we consider it normal for a car to speed up then slow down in a jittery fashion. Same with an airplane, where “pitching and yaw” describe abnormal, unusual behavior.

For the past half century, a whole lot of people promote the idea that there’s “normal behavior” in a society. Nobody’s ever defined that normal behavior. We’re all just supposed to know, somehow, what’s considered normal.

But isn’t the continuum that describes normal behavior based on values? A value is the specific event, unit, item, or example we assign to a variable. A variable is a placeholder we use in our thinking to describe “the set of all things with the same attribute.”

We say that we want to spend money. Money is the variable. The next immediate question is, “How much money?” The number is the value. Another question might be, “What currency?” US dollars or British pounds would be the value.

Ordinary society generally assumes people living together without being in danger. Violence tends to be considered extreme for a typical social system. But violence is considered normal in a war situation. We might say that violence is an extreme, but what’s the continuum and what are the increments (and standard) of measure?

Without having units of measure and a standard for those measures, we can’t form a continuum. As such, we can’t have normal and abnormal. We can’t have ordinary and extreme.

It’s all well and good to create metaphors, saying that ideology might have a “left” and a “right.” But a metaphor is only symbolic of an underlying reality. The problem we have today is that people want to use metaphors to replace reality! We want symbols to be as real, or perhaps even more real than reality itself.

Ordinary disagreement in a civil conversation means…what? How about “just saying no to drugs?” Does that even mean anything at all?

Even violence has to have measures and increments, if we’re going to talk about “extreme” violence. Would it be extreme to kill someone 15 times? How about the word “torture,” meaning extreme violence? When I listen to modern rap music, I consider it to be torture. The continuum is my personal feeling of comfort. I “sense” when I’m not comfortable, therefore label something extreme.

Is that how we should set forth the policies and procedures for the entire United States of America? By taking a poll on each of our individual feelings? Yes, of course! That’s the major trend that’s taken place for nearly half a century. Many Americans believe that “voting” is a referendum on their individual feelings at any given moment. Therefore, “torture” means whatever the consensus feels to be torture.

A person who exhibits the behavior on the outer sections of a continuum would be an “extremist.” Anyone who advocates actions that fall within those outer sections would also be an extremist. That’s fine, but what’s the continuum? What unit of measure are we using?

Nobody knows. It’s a mystery.

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