Extremism and the Good Life – Part 213 November 2023
In the previous post I have argued that we need to adopt a more complex picture of extremists. They are intellectual and practical agents responsive to both intellectual and practical goods. We need to consider how these dimensions interact. How do the practical benefits of extremism interfere with attempts at respecting intellectual agency in the deradicalization process? We need an honest accounting of the ethical costs of deradicalization, and we need a story about how those costs pose barriers to deradicalization.
To illustrate, let me identify some elements of the good life deradicalization requires sacrificing.
First, and most obviously, extremist groups offer value and meaning in the form of relationships and community. For some, extremist ideology isn’t just a belief-system; it is the “glue” that holds together friendships and family. Megan Phelps-Roper – a former rising star in the Westboro Baptist Church, a homophobic, fundamentalist Christian church – has recently written about the “vacuum of meaning and purpose and community” her exit from the church left in her, saying leaving meant she’d lost almost everyone she’d ever loved. For people like Megan, abandoning extremism means losing love, and all the life-defining and life-sustaining goods that depend on that love.
Second, by presenting the world in exaggerated simplicity, extremism enables escape from the burdens of agency. We find ourselves free in a sometimes overwhelmingly complex world. It’s hard to know what to believe or how to act. But we must believe and we must act. Freedom can be experienced both as a blessing and as a curse. As Hoffer writes, “Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure and frustration.” This is a theme that pervades existentialist writing, represented nicely by Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of “anguish.” Imagine walking on a narrow path next to a chasm without any guardrail. You may fear falling into the chasm, but you experience anguish to the extent that you’re frightened not of falling into the chasm but of throwing yourself into it. Less metaphorically, lots of things can go wrong in a person’s life, but some things go wrong because of her decisions. Consciousness of this aspect of one’s agency can be experienced as an oppressive burden. Extremism relieves this burden. It wipes away the messy picture of the world and replaces it with a clean, clear, and crisp black and white picture. It tells you who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. It tells you how you should behave and what you should think. What is right and what is wrong. What is true and what is false. What exactly the world should be like. No nuance. No complexity. Just a refreshingly unblemished perspective on what to think and how to act. Extremism eases the burdens of agency.
Nietzsche thinks yearning for this kind of relief from the burdens of agency – being “utterly desperate for some ‘thou shalt’” – signifies weakness and a diseased will. Personally, I think the relief sounds nice. I wish the world were as scrutable as extremists make it out to be. (I’ll let you infer what Nietzsche would think of me!) I don’t think I’m alone in this. Institutions, groups, and individuals tap into this desire. Writing of the value clarity in games, for example, C. Thi Nguyen explains, “In games, we know exactly what we should be doing, and exactly how well we’ve done. Games offer us a momentary refuge from the nauseating complexity of real world values. They are an existential balm.” The same goes for extremism. The value clarity extremist groups present to their members can provide an antidote to the sometimes crushing burdens of agency.
Consider what all this means for deradicalization. When we ask someone to abandon their extremism, we are asking them not simply to change their mind, but to sacrifice love, remove the balm, take up the burdens of agency, and inundate themselves with complexity. We are asking them to give up community and invite anguish into their lives. Of course, many of us have never experienced the pleasure of escaping the burdens of agency in the first place. And perhaps love sustained by the glue of extremist ideology is not a particularly respectable form of love. But it does us no favors pretending that losing this love and taking back up the burdens of agency are not significant sacrifices.
The list of costs does not end here. Deradicalization can require abandoning meaningful devotion to certain ideals; it can require sacrificing positions of power and prestige; it can require losing a grip on one’s sense of identity; it can be uncomfortably disorienting to rethink your entire worldview; it can require many other painful costs as well.
But a question remains: What does any of this have to do with the intellectual side of deradicalization? If we want to avoid treating extremists as merely practically self-interested creatures and treat them, also, as intellectual agents, why does it matter if deradicalization bears ethical costs? If truth isn’t on their side, they should revise their beliefs, plain and simple.
For any rational attempt at deradicalization to succeed – for reasons, arguments, and evidence to make a serious dent in an extremist’s worldview – we need extremists’ attention and we need their follow-through to genuinely reflect on those reasons and then to choose to pay the ethical costs of deradicalization. Confronting that choice may itself prevent the reasons from penetrating extremists’ minds. Here again is Megan Phelps-Roper reflecting on her state of mind as she first began contemplating leaving her church:
There was no way to consider the magnitude of the devastation that I would soon forever be cut off from everyone I had ever loved: my faculties simply shut down before I could even approach that reality. I was betraying my mother. … How could I leave her? Monstrous.
Merely contemplating leaving her church and her family filled Megan with unmanageable fear threatening her sense of self by casting her as a monster. So, she understandably suppressed the thought. Or rather, as she describes her experience, her faculties shut down before she could even truly consider losing everyone she loved. This is the key to understanding the way potential ethical costs interfere with intellectual attempts at deradicalization.
Which thoughts we let in, which thoughts we genuinely entertain, which thoughts we allow ourselves to seriously consider is constrained by the ethical costs our practical self anticipates paying if those thoughts take root in our mind. If allowing those thoughts to bloom (or fester) means inviting crushing burdens, losing loved ones, and perhaps even losing oneself, better to nip them in the bud—push them away and ignore them. There is nothing special about extremists in this regard. Even if many philosophers’ minds don’t work like this (or if they wouldn’t admit that their minds work like this), I suspect it applies to most people some of the time. It’s just that because a certain set of practical benefits predictably accompany extremism, the kind of thinking deradicalization involves typically forces extremists to confront the limits of thought enforced by their practical selves. The ethical costs of deradicalization are steep. Extremists must have in them at least a trace of willingness to pay them before their epistemic agency can genuinely engage with intellectual reasons to deradicalize.
Now, to be sure different extremist groups will be more or less successful at supplying individuals with elements of the good life. And on balance deradicalization will probably be good for the extremist. But the point is that any attempt to elicit a genuinely reasoned response to intellectual reasons to deradicalize will have to contend with the thought suppression that predictably accompanies the prospect of paying the ethical costs of deradicalization.
What I think this means for deradicalization is that extremists not only need to overcome feelings of fear or betrayal that prevent them from attending to intellectual reasons to deradicalize; they also need to feel like they have something worth deradicalizing for—that they would not be paying the ethical costs of deradicalization for nothing. Neither community nor particular relationships are fungible. Still, if these are among the factors anchoring individuals in extremism, achieving deradicalization may require supplying extremists not only with an alternative vision, but an alternative lifestyle in which to participate, filled with ethical goods comparable to if not fully compensating for those provided by their extremist life. Achieving deradicalization requires offering extremists a glimpse of a different good life.
The Author would like to thank Majo Buteler, Marcello Cabral, Quassim Cassam, Thi Nguyen, Luis Oliveira, and the students in my extremism seminar for discussion of these issues.
 Saslow (2018: 190).
 Phelps-Roper (2019: 166).
 Hoffer (1951: 31).
 Sartre (1943/2018: 66-7).
 Nietzsche (1974: §347).
 Nguyen (MS) “Value Capture”
 Paul Katsafanas analyzes connections between devotion and fanaticism in his intriguing (2022).
 See Tracy Llanera’s (2023) work on women in misogynistic extremist groups.
 Phelps-Roper (2019: 166)
 Things are even worse for many religious extremists. From the perspective of their religion, even thinking of leaving the faith amounts to surrendering oneself to evil by giving in to temptations from the devil. Imagine how hard you might fight the temptation to think something that would itself make you evil and lead to your eternal damnation.
Battaly, H. (2023) Can Fanaticism be a Liberatory Virtue? Synthese 201: 1-27.
Berger, J.M. (2018) Extremism. MIT Press.
Cassam, Q. (2022) Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis. Routledge.
Hoffer, E. (1951) The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Harper & Row Publishers.
Katsafanas, P. (2022) Philosophy of Devotion: The Longing for Invulnerable ideals. Oxford University Press.
Llanera, T. (2023) The Misogyny Paradox and the Alt-Right. Hypatia 1-20. doi:10.1017/hyp.2023.4
Morton, J. (2019) Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility. Princeton University Press.
Munro, D. (2023) Cults, Conspiracies, and Fantasies of Knowledge. Episteme 1-22. doi:10.1017/epi.2022.55
Nietzsche, F. (1974) The Gay Science. Trans. W. Kaufmann. Vintage.
Phelps-Roper, M. (2019) Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. Farrar, Strous, and Giroux.
Nguyen, C. T. (MS) Value Capture.
Sartre, J. (1943/2018) Being and Nothingness. Routledge.
Saslow, E. (2018) Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. Doubleday.