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Friday, May 23, 2008

"Extremist" as weasel word

I'd like to invite you all to join my so-far unsuccessful campaign against the use of the term "extremist," when used as a term of opprobrium. The term, so used, is the epitome of a "weasel word" -- a word that allows its users to conceal their need to define their moral terms and thereby (like the lithe little predator that gives its name to the phrase) slip past their opponents' defenses.

The problem with the term is that it subtly substitutes intensity for direction, inviting the audience to believe that the moral failing of the "extremist" is in the intensity with which he or she holds a belief and not the belief itself. Take the all-too common phrase (it got 126,000 results on a Google search), "Muslim extremist." The phrase as used makes it seem as if the problem with someone who commits violent acts in the name of Islam is that their beliefs or actions are simply taken "to extremes" -- as if a moderate amount of violence, religious intolerance, anti-semitism, censorship, or oppression of women would be acceptable. But moderation in vice is still vice: Someone who (for instance) violates others' rights to physical safety does not become acceptable because he or she does so with moderation -- say, by tripping them in dark alleys or tying their shoelaces together rather than setting off car bombs. Likewise, extremism in virtue does not thereby become less virtuous: No one disapproved of Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer because they took altruism to extremes.

Why the prevalence of the term when it manifestly is so inadequate for the purposes with which it is used? Here's a hypothesis: It allows the user to avoid having to take a moral position on the substantive merits of an issue, substituting instead a bland call for moderation. In this respect, "extremist" is the cousin of equally obnoxious adjective, "progressive" -- a term that also uses an empty spatial metaphor to avoid definition of aims. To say that one is "progressive" or pursues "progress" is to say exactly nothing while appearing to take a stand. (Towards what are you trying to progress? A disease can be "progressive": Absent a definition and justification of goals, pursuit of "progress" -- that is, forward motion -- is not pursuit of any definite goal whatsoever).

Likewise, attacking a person or movement because they are "outside the mainstream" or "extremist" is a weaselly evasion of the duty to take a stand. Explain why "the mainstream" is beneficial or the poles on the spectrum are undesirable.

In sum, I exhort you all to join me in ferreting out these insufferable weasel words. When it comes to linguistic precision (or animal metaphors, for that matter), there is nothing wrong with going to extremes.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 23, 2008 at 08:03 AM | Permalink


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I am engaged in the same campaign with the word "militant".

Posted by: Chris Bell | May 26, 2008 12:40:03 AM

the problem is not that the term is unclear: I LIKE unclear terms. the problem is that the term is empty. "Progressive" is parasitic off the notion of "forward" movement, an idea developed in Whig and then Marxist theories of history, in which events move by themselves in some direction independent of the will of the participants. The empirical claim might be true -- I doubt it is, not being enamored of whig theories of history -- but, true or not, there is something odd about thinking that "forward" motion is desirable.

"Liberalism," by contrast, contains within it a normative theory -- that liberty or liberality or some such is good. But what's so good about moving "forwards," as opposed to backwards, sideways, up, or down? the problem with "progressive" is not merely that it is vague but that it is evasive -- like a weasel.

The term is, in this sense, deeply evasive of the duty to take a moral stand. And, I think, deliberately so: At the turn of the century, it was widely used by businessmen in the National Civic Federation, for instance, to symbolize a commitment to modernity or sophistication without engaging the real political strife that divided labor and capital. (For a historical account of the term's usage, I recommend the literature survey in Richard McCormick, The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era 263-288 (Oxford 1986).

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 23, 2008 11:41:16 AM

I would disagree, though. Let's take the two examples mentioned so far: Muslim Extremists, and people wanting to overrule Roe.

In both cases, "extremists" tends to be an epithet. Certainly, Mr. Morrison is comfortable with calling people who want to overrule Roe as Extreme; that appears to show some hostility towards that concept. Yet under his definition, back when Roe was decided, wouldn't the court have been the Extremists, since certainly the right to an abortion as a constitutional right was pretty much invented out of thin air (or moonbeams, due to the penumbra). And it depends on the context, too: where I am, pro abortion people are still the extreme. So I don't think you can say that people wanting to overturn Roe are "extremists"; indeed, that is a very large chunk of the population.

Now, Muslim Extremists. What else should they be called? If you strip the word "extremist" from them, then what are they? Just ordinary Muslims? I suspect you would strongly disagree with such a conclusion. If the answer is to strip the word Muslim from them, leaving "Extremist," that's not really fair either, since indeed, their views ARE a form of Islam. It's Islam, taken to an extreme, is it not?

I say that because until Islam (as a whole) makes movements towards tolerating others rather than demanding tolerance for itself, I think they will continue to have a reputation for being intolerant, anti-Jewish, and oppressive. I.E. when a woman can convert to, say, Mormonism in Saudi Arabia without the consent of her husband and not be punished for it, then I would suggest that Islam gets a bad rap.

Posted by: Vanceone | May 23, 2008 11:30:12 AM

I should think that "to say that one is a progressive" is actually to identify a particular political platform. There might be some variance among progressives here and there, but there is largely agreement. The word progressive surely thus signifies more than promotion of an entirely amorphous "progress."

(If not, is it "libertarian" also an empty weasel word? "Communist"? Where would you draw the line? "Liberal," before people stopped using that word [and which was itself more linguistically unclear, because of the connection to Lockean/classical liberalism].)

Posted by: joe | May 23, 2008 11:18:15 AM

Trevor's post seems exactly correct to me, and, to the extent that it differs from my own, I take it as a friendly amendment.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 23, 2008 10:12:16 AM

Well, I'm not sure about this, Rick. It seems to me that "extreme" (and I guess "extremist," though I generally like the plain adjective better) is a perfectly useful word when deployed properly. E.g., in comments to a recent post by Rick Garnett, I suggested that arguments in favor of overruling Roe v. Wade (not just that Roe was wrongly decided, but that it ought now be overruled) are extreme in relation to the current judicial practice of constitutional law. For all its problems and malleability, the Court's approach to stare decisis in constitutional cases does have some fairly determinate content. And in light of cases like Casey, arguments to overrule Roe seem to me so at odds with that content as to qualify as extreme when compared to common, mainstream (another word you don't like) judicial practice. Seems to me this is a perfectly acceptable use of "extreme" to describe a thing that falls outside the conventional.

Problems arise when people treat the description of something as extreme as though the description is itself a complete argument against the thing. It isn't, just as you say: extremism in virtue remains virtuous. So if your main point is to counsel against the use of "extreme" as though the label itself establishes the wrongness of the thing thus labelled, I am in entire agreement with you.

But that's not to say there's no value at all in the label. Return to my Roe example. If I'm right that arguments for overruling Roe qualify as extreme in the context of the contemporary judicial practice of constitutional law (and that is of course a claim that needs to be defended before it's accepted, but for these purposes let's just assume it arguendo), that of course does not establish definitively that Roe should not be overruled. But it does help situate things. It establishes, for example, that overruling Roe would not involve the ordinary and unexceptional application of the the Court's current principles of stare decisis. So those who would argue for overruling Roe should acknowledge that they are seeking a dramatic departure from the status quo. Maybe such a departure is warranted; maybe it isn't. My point is that, used this way, the label "extreme" is useful insofar as it accurately captures that the thing thus labeled would entail a dramatic departure from the norm.

One last thought. The above paragraph needn't be read as assigning any particular burdens. That is, to find use in the label "extreme" is not necessarily to say that the proponent of the extreme thing always has the burden of showing why it should be accepted. To be sure, in some contexts -- including law -- the proponent of an extreme departure from the status quo does indeed tend to have the burden. That reflects a prior commitment to stability and predictability in the law. But assigning the burden this way is not a matter of logical necessity across all areas. My only point here is that no matter who has the burden, "extreme" can provide a useful descriptive summary of what a particular position entails.

Do you disagree?

Posted by: Trevor Morrison | May 23, 2008 9:31:06 AM

Well, true enough on the problems with the phrase "Muslim extremist." But note that, if one highlights the emptiness of the "extremist" part, one can isolate the implicit attack on Islam.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 23, 2008 9:24:36 AM

I agree that "extremist" is an imprecise word, but so are many, many others that we use in political discourse. I doubt you'll be able to exterminate all the weasel words. The best we can do may be to point out the weasel words when they appear and ask the speaker for clarification.

More importantly, seems to me the problem with the term "Muslim extremist" is the underlying conception of Muslims. In other words, my objection is not to the word "extremist," but to the conception of all Muslims as always at least moderately violent, intolerant, anti-semitic, and oppressive.

Posted by: Alice Ristroph | May 23, 2008 9:13:23 AM

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