Elevate Difference

Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide

If eras, like essays, had main topics, the main topic of our era would be extremism. For the past nine years, there has been no escape from various extremisms. Both foreign and domestic, left and right, alien and all-too-familiar, these extremisms have been the topic of the week virtually every week since... Well, I guess I don’t need to tell you since when, do I? It would be difficult to offer any fresh perspective on the topic. After all, haven’t we heard it all by now? Apparently not.

In Going to Extremes, Cass R. Sunstein offers an perspective on extremism that has been missing far too often—the rational one. Bringing together research from a wide variety of fields in language that is accessible to the average reader, Sunstein tells us a little of what we already know about extremism and a lot of what we should know. Each of the five chapters handles one aspect of the topic: the dynamics of group polarization, why and when extremism occurs, how extremism affects movements, how extremism can be prevented, and finally, good extremism. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is this last part, the good extremism.

The term “extremism” is so negative in its connotations that it is a bit jarring to see it paired with the word “good.” However, Sunstein’s work makes clear how extreme can be good within the right constraints and under the right circumstances. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, while definitely good, was a bit extreme after all. From the research covered in the book, it seems that the basic dynamics of extremes don’t seem to change much when we shift from good extremism to bad. The constraints and the circumstances are, ultimately, what make all the difference between a nonviolent social justice movement and a violent terrorist faction. How those constraints and circumstances are created, for good or ill, should concern us all.

If you’re not in extremism overload by now, you should give the book a chance. Hopefully, it will pleasantly surprise you as it did me.

Written by: Melinda Barton, January 27th 2011