“And where two waging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.”
Last week I riffed on an inference from the Archbishop of Canterbury that materialistic consumerism was a form of extremism. Today I read in Prospect magazine that “Extremism, when not violent, is not illegal but a social ill that British society should be intolerant of.” Even leaving aside the poor grammar, this is a little unsettling. Shopping? A social ill? I thought it was the bulwark of modern Britain.
Unless, of course, I’ve misunderstood ‘extremism’. Is it not the noun derived from the adjective ‘extreme’, meaning ‘reaching a high or the highest degree’ or ‘furthest from the centre or a given point’? I decided to check.
Item 1 – The UK Government
What better place to check than “Tackling extremism in the UK: Report from thePrime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism”, December 2013.
“We will not tolerate extremist activity of any sort, which creates an environment for radicalising individuals and could lead them on a pathway towards terrorism.”
Weird comma. Implies that the subject for the verb ‘creates’ is our non-toleration. I don’t suppose that’s what they mean, and I’m just being picky, but given that ‘we’ will not tolerate extremism ‘of any sort’ this sort of thing may turn out to be, important.
“Since the 2011 revised ‘Prevent’ strategy, the government has defined extremism as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”.
Lots of problems here, clearly. If I’m quiet about it, it’s OK? (I might be a stealth extremist…) And ‘fundamental British values’? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Can’t help notice, either, that both ‘democracy’ and ‘the rule of law’ have evolved and improved over long periods of time through recurring bursts of, ahem, ‘extremist’ behaviour – Emily Pankhurst, anyone?
And if ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ are fundamental British values, on what basis do we ‘not tolerate extremist activity of any sort’?
More interestingly, how does ‘materialistic consumerism’ shape up against this, er, definition? Sticking strictly to the items cited by the UK government:
- Consumerism is vocal and active – it’s called ‘marketing’ or advertising
- Consumerism opposes democracy – witness the behaviour of the large businesses that maintain and benefit from consumerism as they resist regulation, fund lobbying, evade tax, and so forth
- Consumerism opposes individual liberty – by sustaining the myth of ‘individual choice’ the beneficiaries of materialistic consumerism ensure mass behaviour consistent with their objectives
- Consumerism opposes ‘mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ unless and until a group within the population represents a ‘segment’ of sufficient ‘value’ to warrant its own ‘marketing campaign’ and a dedicated account manager
- Consumerism has never, to my knowledge, called for the death of members of the UK’s armed forces.
Whilst pleased about this last point, I am forced to the conclusion that, even by the standards of the weak and ambiguous ‘official’ definition, materialistic consumerism is indeed an extremist activity. It should not be tolerated.
Item 2 - Wikipedia
The Wikipedia entry on extremism is fantastic and ought – in my humble opinion – to be read carefully and often by the authors of the document discussed under Item 1. I won’t even begin to rehearse the entry here, you can read it just as easily yourself: for present purposes, however, this quote from Dr. Peter T. Coleman and Dr Andrea Bartoli’s ‘Addressing Extremism’, published in 2009 by the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, is all we need:
“However, the labeling of activities, people, and groups as “extremist”, and the defining of what is “ordinary” in any setting is always a subjective and political matter” (my emphasis)
Which is by way of saying: the UK government’s identification of any group as ‘extremist’ is subjective and wholly political.
So, too, is my labelling of consumerism.
Item 3 – Everybody else
Let’s see what some of them had to say:
The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Martin Luther King Jr
I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.
Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.
Every great action is extreme.
François de la Rochefoucauld
Much of junk culture has a core of crisis — shoot-outs, conflagrations, bodies weltering in blood, naked embracers or rapist-stranglers. The sounds of junk culture are heard over a ground bass of extremism. Our entertainments swarm with specters of world crisis. Nothing moderate can have any claim to our attention.
Consumerism diverts us from thinking about women's rights, it stops us from thinking about Iraq, it stops us from thinking about what's going on in Africa - it stops us from thinking in general.
Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism. Affluence has itself betrayed us.
Consumerism is so weird. It's a sort of conspiracy we collude in. You'd think shoppers spending their hard-earned cash would be highly critical. You know that the manufacturers are trying to have you on.
J. G. Ballard
America is a great disappointment to me. As I said in one of my books, other societies create civilisations; we build shopping malls.
Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.
Item 4 – Enough
One of the rather lovely things about the word ‘enough’ is its dual character. On the one hand, as it lies between too much (one extreme) and too little (the other), it connotes a middle ground, something rather bland. Antonyms for ‘extreme’ include mild, dull, calm or moderate. All a bit wishy washy, a bit grey, somewhat uninspiring.
On the other hand, somewhere between too much and too little is just right, exactly the right amount, perfect. Enough is perfect. Enough is balance, harmony. Not stasis, not a steady state, but a positive, dynamic point between extremes: the extreme middle.
It is the nature of men having escaped one extreme, which by force they were constrained long to endure, to run headlong into the other extreme, forgetting that virtue doth always consist in the mean.
One cannot be too extreme in dealing with social ills; the extreme thing is generally the true thing.
Balance, that's the secret. Moderate extremism.
Best of all, when you’ve had enough, you can say things like this:
Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.
Clearly an extreme remark. Was Gandhi an extremist? Would he, in this day and age, be ‘tolerated’ by the UK government?