The Menu for an Extremist Ideology

In this feature, reprinted from Psychology Today, Reid Meloy identifies the commonalities that all extremist ideologies share. As threat assessors, his formulation informs our understanding of the link between beliefs and violence.

Reid Meloy, Ph.D.
Fall, 2021

We are awash in reports of extremist beliefs, extremist groups, acts of terrorism, and threats from the left and the right.  Concerns about extremism are not limited to the United States, but are also voiced by the international community. The hope is that democratic ideals will not suffer at the hands of those who believe that violence is justified against those who do not hold their extreme beliefs.

But definitions of extremism vary, and arguments ensue.  Is there a menu of ingredients that all extremist ideologies share?  I have given this much thought, and here is my recipe for the toxic stew of extremist beliefs, whether secular or religious, emanating from the extreme left or the extreme right.  As Blaise Pascal, the great 17th century French philosopher said, “the extremes meet.”

First, extremist belief is now composed of many different declarative statements, devoid of facts, and often contradictory and confusing.  The extremist cherry-picks the ideas that often justify his desire to aggress against those who threaten him.  We call these salad bar, cafeteria, or copy paste ideologies.

Second, extremist beliefs are anti-democratic with a small d.  This has nothing to do with party affiliation, and everything to do with such democratic principles as representative government, free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech.  The extremist sees no need for such political and legal structures to safeguard the civil rights of all members of society.

Third, extremist beliefs endorse a male dominance hierarchy, sometimes covertly and sometimes overtly.  Such endorsement puts the male in charge, whether in the private world of family and marriage or the public domain of political life.  Male dominance may be baked into the structure of society and not easily discerned; on the other hand, it may manifest as clear misogyny, apparent in such groups as the Proud Boys and the Incels.

Fourth, imminent and existential threats abound.  The extremist believes that his existence—perhaps his way of life or his actual physical survival—is under threat, often from a foreign or at least alien group; and the threat is imminent—not tomorrow, or next week, or next year.  Without this particular ingredient, there is no extremist ideology.  We sometimes see within such threats conspiracy theories, and clinically, we sometimes diagnose a paranoid state of mind.

Fifth, the extremist and his fellow true believers, despite the vulnerability of their position in the face of such perceived threats, are the chosen ones.  They have been selected as a special group, and nurture a sense of entitlement that purports to partially explain the reason for their persecution, whether secular or religious, historical or contemporary.   Jihadism, or more specifically bin Ladenism, comes to mind.

Sixth, the extremist ideology holds a secret, and the group shares this secret knowledge.  Such knowledge is only known to the true believers, and is often only fully comprehended by an autocratic or authoritarian leader who interprets it to his followers.  QAnon is the most recent and obvious example of this ingredient.

Seventh, inequality is an immutable fact.  It is a law of nature.  There is no such thing as equal rights or justice for all.  Often the inequality is evident in pronouncements concerning the supremacy of one’s race, religion, or gender.  Neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups heed this calling.

Eighth, extremist ideology does not tolerate critiques, questioning, or nuanced argument.  It is simple, binary, and absolute, populated by extreme overvalued beliefs.  Those who doubt the veracity of the extremist ideology are considered heretics or apostates, and must be punished.  Extremism is antithetical to education, but the bedfellow of indoctrination.

And ninth, the militant mindset dominates: the use of violence is necessary to prevail, and oftentimes to purify, the world in which the extremist lives.  The extremist violence observed by us is offensive, instrumental, and predatory.  But in the mind of the extremist, it is always defensive, a response to the imminent threat, and therefore justified.

Within the noise of extremism, the signal of terrorism may arise; when extremism walks into the building, targeted violence is waiting in the foyer.  This is the actual and continuous threat when extremist thought flourishes.