We should stop describing acts as being extremist

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Following the attacks on Paris, the word ‘extremism’ has been in the news a lot recently. However, when discussing if ‘extremism’ is ever justifiable, it is apparent that this term has come to be used almost universally as a criticism of actions with which the writer disagrees. As a result, in using the word ‘extremism’, nothing is said about the act itself; all that is shown is the speaker/writer disagreeing with the act.

The first problem with trying to justify ‘extremism’ is that it is a subjective description, with different meanings for each person. Extremism can change for people over time. This can be seen in Conservative Party members’ reactions to Nelson Mandela; in 1985, a small youth group went as far as to publish posters calling for his hanging. Upon his death, however, Mandela was lauded by leading Conservatives as a hero and freedom fighter rather than an extremist. It seems that when we ‘justify extremism’, we are only justifying our version of it.

The change in perception of Mandela demonstrates another part of the problem; inherent in the description ‘extremist’ is a criticism. The difficulty is that in describing an act as ‘extremist’, what is being suggested is that that act was out of proportion to what it was reacting against. But if a tank is advancing towards your family home with the intention of destroying it, trying to stop it by violent means is not extremist, despite being an extreme act. Implicit in using the term is a judgement that we feel some acts are not reasonable in relation to what they are reacting against.
Using ‘extreme’ instead of ‘extremism’ describes only comparisons with alternative acts and says nothing about what they are in response to. It involves no predispositions. And so, a more useful question is: will any of the extreme acts in 2015 be justified?

Justification of extreme acts depends on the answers to three questions: what are they fighting for, what is it in response to, and what alternatives are there? Violent action towards another individual is generally seen as justifiable when in response to violence, when what causes someone to act in this way is the desire to stop oppression, and when it is reasonable to think that there is no viable alternative way of achieving this end. Committing an act of violence then is most likely to be justifiable if it aims to secure freedom from oppression. Without an aim, all justification is lost.

Whether violent acts can ever be justified turns on whether there are any acts, committed out of desire for freedom, which are committed both in response to violent suppression and where there seems little viable alternative. History is rife with examples of undeniable and obvious violent suppression by states. Around every recent Zimbabwean election, before the Syrian Civil War started, and in many pre-2011 Northern African countries, the states in question were involved in the deaths of hundreds of dissenting citizens.

An alternative to extreme acts is to pursue change via legal methods. Yet, even if this does work, it often proceeds at a very slow pace. The legal fights against slavery, against colonial rule and for women’s franchise each spanned a century.

While social media enables dissidents to coordinate and mobilise faster today, such avenues themselves will not cause oppressive leaders to fall.

It is easy for us to call on the oppressed to take non-violent routes, being largely free already. However, if legal routes can take longer than a lifetime, are the oppressed not justified in using violence to secure what they rightfully should have?

In 2015 there are still many cases where people are oppressed and have no ability to dissent legally and peacefully. In Mauritania, for example, ten per cent of the population are estimated to be slaves. For people across the world, where no clear alternative exists, extreme acts may not turn out to be the most successful, but they can certainly be justified.

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