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How to take an extremist seriously

25 December 2023

With the rise of polarization and support for right-wing populism, there is a call to take seriously the perspectives of those who seemingly turn away from liberal democratic ideals. But what if this involves taking persons seriously who are in the grip of QAnon, racism, climate change denialism, or The Great Replacement theory? If a person is so clearly epistemically and morally wrong, is it even possible to take them seriously? Setting aside the question whether and when it is desirable to engage with such a person, this blog unpacks what taking them seriously entails. It does so for the context of interpersonal encounters between civilians.[1]

One can take another person seriously by critically engaging with their views. Critical engagement is characterized by evaluating reasons, reflecting on underlying assumptions, and so forth. The point of critical engagement is to advance truth, knowledge, and justification and, collectively, to improve the information that we share and rely on and protect it from influences such as misinformation.[2] Usually, critical engagement is open-minded. But should someone consider arguments for The Great Replacement theory with a willingness to follow the argument where it leads? When a view is so extreme, open-mindedness not only seems unrealistic, but also irrational or even immoral.[3]

One might just bite the bullet: we shouldn’t open-mindedly engage but do so with a closed mind instead. This is difficult to reconcile with taking the other seriously. True, there are asymmetrical relations, such as therapist-patient or teacher-student, where such an asymmetry in attitude might benefit and not be detrimental to the exchange. But when we are not in such a hierarchical relationship, closed-minded engagement seems precisely the kind of engagement in which the other is not taken seriously. If the core of critical engagement is evaluating arguments and establishing who’s right and wrong, then insulating one’s views from the exchange seems presumptuous and disrespectful.

What’s more, critical engagement presupposes some common ground for discussion, which is precisely what seems to be lacking when encountering, say, a QAnon-believer. The QAnon-supporter relies on different information sources (not the mainstream/lamestream media!), different experts, different values, in other words, on a whole different framework of what the facts are and who and what should be trusted to gain knowledge of them. But without common ground, the parties will see each other’s reasons as stupid or even evil. This makes it even more difficult to take the other person seriously and might even lead to mutual rejection and animosity instead (deRidder 2021). The failure to recognize the reasoning of the other person will only lead to further alienation.

So, what should we do? There is another kind of taking seriously that aims not at learning from but about other points of view. We are all situated: our background, social position, and experience partly determine our perspective. An implication of this is that we cannot easily imagine what it is like for someone who is differently situated, and has had entirely different life experiences (Collins 1990; Harding 1991). Rather, learning about other perspectives relies on information obtained from the inside of those perspectives. In other words, to understand the point of view held by a group, we need to listen to its members. This conclusion also applies to extremists.

But one can listen in different ways. For example, one could seek merely to retrieve information. A journalist or detective might listen by just taking note of the other person’s reasons. This might require curiosity about the other’s perspective, but the inquirer’s own perspective remains untouched. Another form of listening goes a step further by trying to understand the other person on their own terms. Situatedness often entails a lack of shared vocabulary in addition to lack of knowledge. The meaning of what someone says depends, at least in part, on their lived experience, conceptual horizons, and worldviews.[4] Seeking to understand another person, trying to make sense of them, to interpret what they mean, thus requires awareness of the limitations of our own perspective and how that might obstruct our understanding (Beatty 1999).

What is crucial here is that there is no requirement of fully fledged open-mindedness. What is needed is epistemic openness that goes beyond retrieving information and aims at understanding. This openness includes a willingness to develop awareness of one’s own situatedness and how that might influence one’s inquiry.[5] There are three dimensions to that awareness. First, awareness of the limitations of one’s own perspective helps to counter prejudice, bias, and misunderstanding by reflecting on one’s responses and interpretations (Beatty 1999). Second, awareness of the presuppositions of one’s own discourse helps to understand the meanings, evaluations and prejudices that are associated with the words and labels we use (Vadeboncoeur et al. 2015). Third, awareness of our social and political positions facilitates reflection on how inequalities might obstruct taking the other seriously.

This, I admit, is only the beginning of an answer to the question of how to take an extremist seriously. Importantly, it remains to be explored how such listening avoids the danger of platforming, mainstreaming, or normalizing extremism. This might require an institutional setting or, at least, a context where it is clear that the aim of the exchange is understanding, and not sympathizing.[6]


This blog is the first post of the series “Extreme Beliefs and Behavior.” With thanks to the Extreme Beliefs Project (, especially Nora Kindermann, Jakob Ohlhorst, and Rik Peels. Research for this post has been made possible through the project Extreme Beliefs: The Epistemology and Ethics of Fundamentalism, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) in the program Horizon 2020 (851613) and by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.


Beatty, J. (1999) “Good Listening.” Educational Theory 49 (3): pp. 281-298.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.

deRidder, J. (2021). “Deep Disagreements and Political Polarization.” In Political Epistemology. Oxford University Press.

Euben, R.L. (1999). Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism: A Work of Comparative Political Theory. Princeton University Press.

Fantl, J. (2018). The Limitations of the Open Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gadamer, H.G. (1985). Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad.

Harding, Sandra (1991). Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kloosterboer, N. unpublished manuscript. “How to take an extremist seriously.”

McCormick, M.S. (2023). “Engaging with “Fringe” Beliefs: Why, When, and How.” Episteme: 1-16.

Vadeboncoeur, J.A., Alkouatli, C., Amini, N. (2015). “Elaborating” dialogue” in communities of inquiry: Attention to discourse as a method for facilitating dialogue across difference.” Childhood & Philosophy 11(22): 299-318.


[1] There are many more contexts where taking an extremist seriously plays a crucial role, such as that of the media or of research, in eliciting context-specific questions. The research-context is the focus of the next blog in this series.

[2] This is in line with the widely accepted standard of J.S. Mill and more recently argued by, for example, DeRidder (2021) and McCormick (2023).

[3] As Fantl (2018) argues, one should only be willing to change one’s view with relevant counterarguments, not when views are clearly misguided. An important reason for this is that it is difficult to show that an argument is false, especially in our current situation where disinformation, fake news, and cleverly disguised false arguments are prevalent (think of propaganda, for instance).

[4] This is a central pillar of the hermeneutic tradition (Gadamer 1985).

[5] Euben (1999); Vadebonceour et al. (2015).

[6] This is what I am developing in my current work, see for instance Kloosterboer (ms.).


Photo by Daniel Lonn on Unsplash