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18 July 2017

What makes someone extreme?

What makes someone extreme?

Was Jesus an extremist? How about Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jnr? Surely we can all agree that Pol Pot was an extremist? But what about Napoleon or Che Guevara?

A nationwide representative poll on extremism conducted by ComRes on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance and other Christian groups sheds light on what and who the public think is extreme. And when I say it sheds light, it sheds light on the confusion in knowing how to apply the label.

Over half over the public (54 per cent) said 'extreme' is not a helpful term to use in social and political discussions, throwing into doubt the viability of the government's plans to create a Commission on Extremism.

The poll also showed significant division over whether various statements are 'extreme', which the Alliance views as a demonstration of how difficult it will be to use the term to determine whether ideas and beliefs are acceptable in society.

More than a quarter (28 per cent) of the public said Jesus was an extremist. More applied that label to Pol Pot, Napoleon, Che Guevara, but fewer did for Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jnr, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

Pol Pot Napoleon Che Guevara Jesus Nelson Mandela Martin Luther King Gandhi Dalai Lama
Yes 58 51 49 28 25 25 20 13
No 8 33 19 61 68 67 70 72
Don't Know 35 16 32 11 7 8 10 15

Personally I would be inclined to label all of these figures as extreme - some of them were extreme in good ways, others categorically negatively, and in others, such as Nelson Mandela, their history is complex.

In Letter from a Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jnr addressed this very dilemma:

'But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."'

Extreme has become a way of labelling ideas and people that we don't agree with and don't think should be able to articulate their opinions with the same freedom as others. In conflating violent action, and speech which incites that, with opinions we disagree with, we risk ending up with an overly sanitised and ultimately unhealthy society.

Extremism is also contextual, it is affected by geography and time, only a small proportion of the British public viewed the Dalai Lama as an extremist, and yet in China he is viewed in just that light. Likewise, several decades ago Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King would be viewed as extremists, yet with hindsight are viewed as heroes fighting for freedom.

One other aspect of the polling of well-known figures that struck me was that some of them are not that well known. When the numbers are broken down by age group the proportion that felt unable to give a view as to whether some of the historical figures were extreme was very high for young adults. Fifty-four per cent of 18-34 year olds did not know whether Pol Pot was extreme - I am privileged to have visited Cambodia and seen the horrors of the prisons and killing fields, it is shameful more than half my contemporaries do not know what went on under his rule. Although no other figure showed such marked ignorance, for each figure younger adults registered more 'don't knows' than any other age group.

As a society we need to be able to assess the impact of key figures - both good and bad - without relying on simplistic and unhelpful designations. We need historical literacy, religious literacy and skills of empathy and argument that enable us to contribute to public debate rather trying to stifle it.