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Is Society Becoming More Extreme?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 20 January 2015
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In the face of anti-Islamification rallies in Germany and the gruesome terror attacks in Paris serious question are being raised about social cohesion within European societies.

Even before the events of the past week, questions have emerged about whether, for example, Britain is becoming more anti-semitic.

More specifically, questions are being asked about whether Western societies are becoming more extremist in general, as opposed to militant, terms.

Are we beginning to see unusual numbers of people holding trenchant positions at the poles of public opinion, especially on keystone issues? What does this hold for our collective future?

In sociological terms, of course, some extremes can be important. By their very existence they help to define the middle ground, the mainstream. They mark the boundaries of opinion, providing a gauge for the health of public debate.

However, too much polarisation results in a shrinking middle ground and the growth of alienation, bitterness and recrimination.

On the political front, parties like UKIP and France’s Front National are gradually attracting a wider hearing. But is this a reflection of a growing political extremism within the electorate?

I’m not so sure. In the European elections last year, some newspapers reported that voters had ‘lurched’ to the right, by supporting groups like UKIP.

To lurch is to stagger or lunge suddenly, usually without forethought. When editors apply such adjectives to the voting process, they infer that electors have cast their votes thoughtlessly.

I have no axe to grind for UKIP, but I’d argue that by throwing more support behind UKIP voters weren’t lurching. Many of them were responding to a perceived elitism at the top of British politics.

For some time, more than a few Brits have asked: ‘How can Oxford PPE graduates, coming straight out of university into politics, without any outside work experience, possibly understand my everyday concerns?’

When these young politicos become MPs and, perhaps eventually, Ministers of the Crown, they surround themselves with other professional political junkies who’ve become staffers and lobbyists.

People think it’s little wonder MPs create such problems as the expenses scandal. How can they do otherwise when they have little or no real-world frames of reference for their behaviour?

This anti-elitist political sentiment is very egalitarian: it applies to all of Britain’s major parties – and certainly to their leadership teams. Even Nigel Farage stands to lose ground when the story shifts, as it will, to focus on his background as a City trader.

This anti-elitism is not a peculiarly British feeling, either. It also rears its head in less traditionally class-bound societies.

Although not much is likely to change as a result, American voters are debating again whether Presidential politics is well served by the domination of the uber-connected – the Bushes and Clintons – or the uber-wealthy, like Mitt Romney.

Some of the swing away from traditional parties to smaller, fringe-dwellers also reflects that we’ve moved away from institutional loyalty.

In a more segmented and diversified age, we are inclined to vote according to issues, particularly the two or three that matter most to us, as individuals and as families.

Of course, in this media-saturated age we also vote for personality.

‘Who can best negotiate a bacon sandwich?’ may not be the stuff of Shakespearean political drama, but it does – if only subconsciously – colour the zeitgeist when it comes to ‘Who can I relate to best?’

On a social level, any movement toward extremes is coloured in part by the impacts of globalisation, urbanisation and the high mobility of modern society. Each represents challenges to social cohesion.

We have more and more people living in smaller spaces who feel that they have less and less in common with each other.

It’s harder for us to feel that we actually belong together in our communities, that we’re all part of the same essential narrative, or share a common history.

This is exacerbated by the process of digitisation and the fact that so much of our conversation is mediated through gadgets and screens.

Before being accused of Luddism, I need to point out that as a social futurist I am very keen on new technologies, which I study relatively closely.

But technology is not destiny – the future is shaped more by human choice than by tools. We must decide how best to use technology – and we’re still having that debate when it comes to such things as social media.

A survey just a few years ago suggested that the average Brit has 150 Facebook ‘friends’ and only three real friends.

In response to all of this, there’s a rise in tribalism, which in its most far-fetched guise is linked to xenophobia and ultra-nationalism.

Extreme forms of tribalism are driven by concerns about such things as declining birthrates, relative to those of immigrant populations.

Some people in the West feel that communities are being robbed of their traditional identities, because those who share a particular heritage are becoming a smaller part of the community.

However, studies suggest that while birthrates are usually higher among first generation immigrants they tend to level off within a generation or so. They become much more like those of the wider, host population.

This is not to suggest that immigration is not an important issue when it comes to the emergence of polarised opinions.

However, the debate should not be about whether we need immigration. The fact is that Europe generally does – because of its ageing populations and shrinking productivity. The debate ought to be about how it should be managed.

Extremes exists, but in most cases tribalism takes a much more benign form, as the expression of a search for others who think like us and share our worldview or heritage.

In a crowded and noisy age, many people of normally moderate views will feel that locating their ‘tribe’ requires breaking through the clutter of competing voices and opinions surrounding them.

To break through the hubbub and locate potential friends, some may actively experiment with the fringes of opinion a little more openly. They might also express half-formed views in uncharacteristically strong ways – in the cybersphere, for example. 

This may give the appearance of a shift in society toward extremism.

However, this flirtation with outside-the-mainstream views isn’t always driven by an extremist mindset. It is often motivated by a desire to find where – and to whom – people belong.

The goal is not necessarily to court controversy; it is to find community.

We must also consider the impact of the digital revolution – and especially what psychologists call ‘social disinhibition’. This refers to the fact that people will often take risks and say things online that they’d never say in person.

According to one recent survey, two percent of Brits admit to having insulted someone they don’t know online within the past year. The percentage isn’t high, but extrapolated across the population it represents one million people insulting at least one million other people.

Normally circumspect people often feel that the online world represents an alternate reality; a zone where they will enjoy anonymity. (This is in spite of the fact that their social media accounts can very easily be traced directly to them.)

Studies suggest that, comforted by this false sense of security, many of us are prone to express views much more strongly online, on a whole range of subjects.

Some of us will go further, morphing from robust opinion-sharers into online trolls, who bully others for the sheer enjoyment of it or to prove our anarchy-promoting skills.

Some will begin to trawl the so-called Dark Web, the encrypted part of the internet which caters for all manner of extreme tastes and promotes illegal and anti-social behaviour.

As dangerous as trolls and Dark-Web-crawlers are, however, they do not represent the bulk of the population, on- or off-line.

Finally, any perceived rise in extremism must be measured against socio-economic factors.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, much has been written and said about the marginalisation of some French young people, because of poverty, ghettoisation and denial of opportunities.

France presently has an unemployment rate of over ten percent. Perhaps a sizeable proportion of those who are out of work will be living among the nation’s almost five million Muslims.

Perhaps French society is not egalitarian or integrative as it likes to think – few societies are. A minority of young people in any society might decide to add to their sense of alienation a victim mentality and a fascination with fascio-religious extremism.

Dealing with poverty or lack of opportunity is vital to promoting cohesion and respect. However, this will not magic away the problem of militant extremism, for the latter is a moral and ideological issue.

The elder of the Charlie Hebdo killers had been able to afford to travel abroad for militant training. His younger sibling had tried to make the same journey before being stopped by the authorities.

So, whilst these young men may have faced limited opportunities, they certainly weren’t living on the street.

Besides, the vast majority of young people from the same background decided to get on with life, using whatever opportunities they could find. Or to find other, more constructive means to bring about change.

Is society becoming more extreme? Certainly there are pockets of radical extremism, but in my view there is still a fairly robust mainstream which agrees on more than it disagrees about.

Our social discourse still looks a little too much to political correctness as a guarantee of cohesion. At times it allows those who lecture the most ardently for tolerance to deny it to others – ultra-liberals, for example, can often be the most illiberal to those who disagree with them.

It also, at times, refuses to acknowledge facts that are in front of its face. This, perhaps, is human nature.

We must do more to tackle anti-semitism and religious bias generally, at home as abroad. We must do more to root out the promoters of violent militancy and boost opportunities for those who are legitimately marginalised.

Yet for the most part, in Britain anyway, society is probably still small ‘c’ conservative in its values. We must treasure what harmony we have and, without compromising proven principles and ethics, work all the harder to nurture it.

What’s your view?

Is Your Society Becoming More Extreme?



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