‘Extremist’ is quite a strong term to use. It is a term that has historically been associated with ruthlessly fascist leaders such as Hitler, Lenin, etc. A close look at the activities of these leaders can lead us to a common understanding of what the word actually means. All these leaders had uncompromising and rigid views of the world. This meant that they were quick to demonize any school of thought which challenged their ideology. Their intolerance manifested itself in the form of rigid controls over media and merciless punishments to the dissenters. Simply put, they were of the opinion that their perception was the ultimate objective truth and that anyone who thought otherwise was stupid. Another thing that was common between them was providing simple solutions to major problems being faced by the public. In Hitler’s case, the German people were quite furious with the Treaty of Versailles and the performance of the Weimar government. In Lenin’s case, most of the Russian populace was facing the harsh realities of a prolonged world war. In both these cases, these extremist leaders built up a cult of personality and blamed a certain section of the community for each and every problem. In Hitler’s case, the Jews were blamed and in Lenin’s case, the Bourgeoisie. Their demonization was evidently followed by exclusion and violent extermination. This should give a fair idea of what extremism means.
The aforementioned characterization refers to the world in the early 20th century. This was a time period when ideologies like fascism and extremism reigned supreme. Do we live in an extremist world today? Probably not. But it is important to remember that extremism manifests itself gradually. There are various stages to it. And this article argues that today’s world is in the initial stages of what looks set to be a highly polarized and extremist world. Why is this so?
Firstly, the only thing which keeps extremism in check is dialogue, discussion, and compromises. This was the basic idea behind democracy. The basic essence of democracy was to bridge differences between opposing schools of thought by facilitating discussion and dialogue. In an ideal world, this would mean that people who held different views would be tolerant of each other and would respect everyone’s right to express themselves. Social media was supposed to be a facilitator of such discussions. But, it has had quite the opposite effect. People all around the world have grown intolerant and much more rigid in their beliefs. They have used the connectivity ushered in by social media websites to construct echo chambers. For example, if a homophobe has an account on social media, he will look for more homophobes to ally with and form a group which will tend to justify their behavior. Each and every individual will derive legitimacy from this group and if anyone challenges their beliefs, he/she will be vehemently attacked. So, instead of constructive discussions, there are bitter feuds on social media between different schools of thought.
This goes for conservatives, liberals, libertarians, centrists, etc. All these groups believe that their ideology does not have any scope of improvement and espouses the objective truth. In this paradigm, it becomes very convenient for populist leaders to appeal to these blocs. For instance, Trump appealed to the white supremacists while Modi appealed to radical Hindus. Once the blocs accept these leaders as their representative, they do everything to protect these leaders from criticism. For instance, even if Trump commits a mistake, the white supremacists find a way to justify his behavior and present him as an ideal leader. This is also a result of the echo chambers constructed on social media websites. All of this discourages constructive criticism of these leaders. When there is no scope for criticism, the leaders can arbitrarily do whatever they want. This is one of the founding blocks of extremism.
Secondly, many leaders have come into power by vilifying a certain section of society. For example, Bolsonara in Brazil and Trump in America specifically targeted and blamed liberals for everything that was wrong in their country. In a world where facts have lost their importance, their undue rhetoric was enough to convince the populace that they were the better alternatives. The same goes for Narendra Modi. Much of his campaign was based upon labeling the Congress party as dynastical and elitist. While his assessment was not wrong, even today he can get away with reckless decisions by claiming that no other alternative exists. A similar picture is painted in Europe. Far-right leaders have gained support by vilifying immigrants coming from across the Mediterranean. Populist leaders create and exploit divisions in society. So, even if they do something wrong, their core group never criticizes them. This is another indicator of rising extremism.
Lastly, the usage of pop culture and media by leaders across the world are also important indicators of extremism. Populist leaders across the world attempt to capture the media houses within that country. This has led to an ideological divide in media channels. The biggest casualty of this phenomenon is the truth. For instance in India, Republic TV supports the BJP government no matter what it does. On the other hand, NDTV demonizes BJP even if it does something which contributes positively to the nation. Another example is that of the USA where Fox News is Pro-Trump and CNN is anti-Trump. In this context, it becomes quite difficult for an ordinary voter to judge whether the government is desirable or not. This leads to a race between different political parties to buy as many media houses as they can. The party which possesses the maximum control over media wins the election. It is as simple as that. Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, and Modi used social media and TV media to perfection in their election campaigns. Hence, in an age where leaders can use the media to bend and manipulate facts to suit their agenda, they can get away with making mistakes.
All the aforementioned indicators also prevailed in the early nineteenth century. It is still too early to say whether it would lead to a similar situation as in the 30’s and 40’s. One cannot predict whether pogroms and violent exterminations will be normalized in the near future. But as of now, the prevalent trend points towards a polarized and bigoted future. Extremism is well and truly on the rise.
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The one word that defines him is curiosity. Always looking for new things to explore and learn. Apart from this, he is an avid debator which largely stems from his habit of reading voraciously. Currently pursuing Political Science (Hons.) at Ramjas College, Manraj is a movie buff and a huge football fan.