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Stamp them out or compromise? How to respond to extremists

Stamp them out or compromise? How to respond to extremists

Ben Ryan argues that minority political groups with extreme ideas can easily shape the views of the mainstream majority. 01/03/2019

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“The truth is, the battle is over and the other side has won. The right–wing, the hard–line anti–EU awkward squad that have destroyed every leader for the last 40 years are now running the Conservative Party from top to toe.” 

So said Anna Soubry, explaining her decision to ditch the Conservative party and join the new quasi–party of disaffected MPs who have left their parties to join “The Independent Group”. The sentiment will be familiar to members of a wide range of political parties across the West; it just seems like wherever you look the fringe has taken control of the destiny of political parties. 

They’d be right too, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Any party, any movement, any religion, any state is always vulnerable to an extremist (in the least pejorative sense possible) takeover; mostly because everyone constantly underestimates how small a fringe you need to completely, and rapidly, change a seemingly unassailable culture into an entirely different image. This mistake happens time and time again. Every movement has its oddballs, zealots and those who sit at the extreme wings of any particular ideological or value grouping, but we tend to assume that such groups will be irrelevant until they are in danger of making up the majority, or at least a significantly substantial portion of the minority that they cannot be ignored (a third perhaps?). Thus, we assume that little fringe movements can either be safely ignored, or negotiated with and used as a minor partner because they can never be large enough to threaten the mainstream. 

In fact, a tiny minority can force an entire culture to bend to its will fairly easily, providing it is prepared to stick together, stay the course and be completely inflexible on an issue on which a majority are prepared to compromise even slightly. This is the compelling argument put forward by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A group of about 3% can force a culture to entirely bend to its will, and they do so all the time, so long as they are prepared to be inflexible, and the rest of the culture is prepared to be flexible. 

This can be true of any cause. Taleb uses the example of a family, where one member becomes a vegetarian. The vegetarian cannot eat meat but everyone else can eat vegetarian. In the normal course of life, it is easier to cook the same food for everyone, and so ultimately the whole family becomes vegetarian. The intransigent minority has shaped the whole culture. 

So, it is too with parties and religious groups, so long as the minority retain their views with total inflexibility and the majority are prepared to compromise, even a little, it takes very little for the views of the minority to shape the whole. When that happens, the previous mainstream can suddenly find itself in a movement they no longer recognise, in which the standard values have transmuted into something entirely different from where they were before. Parties can, and are, taken over by fringe wings all the time, so too are religious groups. (The history of religion is littered with tiny conservative factions that never amounted to more than a small minority of the community somehow taking over the whole. The extraordinary success of Salafi Islam in a historically tiny window is just one example among many). The “extreme” element doesn’t have to get anywhere near a majority, it just needs the issue on which it refuses to compromise to be taken on and the entire institution is reshaped in their own image. 

This can help explain why Nazism occurred. The majority of Germans didn’t ever need to fully subscribe to Nazi ideology, but once the fringe had a foothold it just took the majority to acquiesce a little and the takeover was rapid. The majority of Iranians in the 1970s were not conservative followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini.  The extreme doesn’t need to be a force for evil (as the vegetarian example shows), though that is how the term is most often employed now. We are talking about an extreme in the literal sense of being out on the edge of a given movement, and one which is fundamentally inflexible (will not buckle on its key objective). 

In that light we might also include the transition of the place of Christianity from excluded pariah to state religion in the Roman Empire. Christianity’s distinctive feature was a complete dogged inflexibility on the issue of monotheism and offering prayers to the Emperor. Often that led to their persecution, eventually to compromise, and relatively suddenly to complete takeover.  The nature of development and change over time is also that today’s extremist fringe become tomorrow’s mainstream, and so on and so forth. Corbynites are not wrong in the accusation that Blairism was itself once a fringe intransigent movement within the party that effected a takeover of the values and priorities of the whole movement. 

There is nothing particularly distinctive about our own era, except that the mainstream of many parties and states have been curiously weak at controlling the fringe. Faced with an extreme fringe the mainstream can stamp down on it and prevent it getting any traction (part of the reason the Catholic Church is one of the world’s longest surviving institutions has been a clarity over the acceptable limits of debate and a crackdown on anything that exceeds those limits; this has its dangers in despotism and the excesses of the Inquisition, but makes for a remarkably durable model), or it can compromise and try to draw the sting of extremist factions that way. 

This compromise is inevitably all one way, since the inflexible minority, by definition, cannot compromise as much as the flexible mainstream. Compromise might draw the sting of the extreme wing for a while, but easily turns into a slippery slope. In compromising a little, you end up embodying policies much closer to the extreme than you would ever usually have accepted. The mistake made again and again (as the Conservatives might reflect) is to assume that the inflexible minority will accept a compromise as anything other than a stopgap step towards delivering what for them is ultimately a non–negotiable. You don’t control the inflexible minority with compromise; you just build its momentum. 

The mainstream at the moment in various parties and states has been too keen to compromise on too much. There is an asymmetry in flexibility, where the fringe are highly intransigent, and the mainstream unusually weak, perhaps because too much of the mainstream is no longer certain, across the political spectrum, on what it really stands for, and what it is prepared to be totally inflexible about. When two fundamental inflexibilities finally clash a schism is almost inevitable. The Independent Group are an example of a former mainstream group that has realised the limits of its own flexibility and been forced to buckle. 

By svkv under a Shutterstock licence.

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

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Posted 1 March 2019

Activism, Brexit, Britain, Extremism, Politics


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