April 24, 2007

The solution to extremism: Ignore it

On every level imaginable, the last week was a horrible and disturbing one. When you consider the tragic deaths of 33 people at Virginia Tech, a Supreme Court decision that seems primed to tear us asunder over abortion once again, the denial of history in the Nigerian elections, and ever-worsening violence in Iraq, it is hard to conceive of anything that could have possibly been redeeming about the last eight days. We saw humanity at its worst. And our response was not much better—that may be even more disheartening.

No matter what we do, we will never stop everyone from resorting to violence, we will never solve every divisive political question, and we will never eliminate the human will to power. Noted psychotherapist Viktor Frankl commented in Man’s Search for Meaning that suffering is unavoidable and beyond our power to stop; what is within our control is how we react to it. It is our reactions to these events that have been truly disappointing. We have in each instance lost ourselves in looking for someone in particular to blame.

This tendency to search for a scapegoat is not limited to disasters on the scale of those from the last eight days. It plays a tremendous role in the way our public figures portray our world to us. Ann Coulter is the most recognizable adherent to this school of “problem solving,” but the trend is not limited to one particular ideological viewpoint, to one particular nation, or to this particular moment in time. The demonization of one’s opponents has been a fact of political life as long as there has been politics. And as long as there has been politics, those who aim to identify the sinners have been distracting us from combating the sin.

In attempting to paint the world in black and white, we paint over the details—the subtleties and complexities inherent in anything human. As a result, it is that much more difficult to hammer out a solution that works. Moreover, we abdicate our own responsibility, ignoring our own role in creating the challenge at hand. What is within our control is how we react, and our reactions in this particular case are what make the difference between giving the screamers center stage and having them play their pathetic scenes before an empty house.

We can darkly accuse Coulter of self-consciously manipulating the discourse to make a name for herself, but she would not be doing what she does if she didn’t think it would work. Furthermore, we must account for the possibility that the demonizers honestly believe that they are doing what is right. We have allowed their ilk to affect the world by listening to them. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. We have to take responsibility. We have to turn them off.

The natural response to such a challenge is “Well, what can I do then? Because I already ignore those people.” The problem is that practically none of us do. We give the benefit of the doubt to those of that school who agree with us because after all, they’re not just attacking individuals to avoid having to make more reasoned analyses—they’re telling the truth. We cheer them on, even as we deride their equivalents on the other side of the spectrum as deranged. We laugh at their jokes and make excuses for the harm they do. This system is so pervasive it blinds us to the faults of our allies. There’s a reason that Ann Coulter is the only name mentioned here—I can’t think of anyone who represents my party who’s so outlandish. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that they are somehow “better” than those whose opinions I do not share.

By the same token, just because you haven’t bought Coulter’s new book doesn’t mean you’re not listening to her. Every time you write an angry letter to the editor or provide another hit to a website covering her latest bigoted remarks, you give her a reason to keep talking. If we act like these people should be taken seriously, we make them serious.

The idea of ignoring the extremists contradicts a very human impulse. Our pride is offended by those extremists of the opposite ideological stripe and is bolstered by the demonizers from our own side. But until we conquer our tribal instincts and put ideas back at the center of our discourse, we’re only encouraging them to keep hurting us.

Until we make the choice to let the demonizers rant to an empty room, they will continue to dominate the airwaves. The politics of blame will dominate the debate, and we will all suffer as a result. And we won’t deserve any better.