“Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” – The Beatles
Like many teenagers, I used to proudly identify as a “socially-conscious” person who wanted to break down the social and political systems that oppressed people. I was a rebel, or so I thought, as I began to care about social issues in my mid to late teenage years.
My priority was to take a stand against the powerful actors in society that I believed were holding ordinary people like myself back from a better life and world.
With the help of some extremely unreliable influences, I trained myself to identify the enemies of human progress. I was convinced that the powerful forces who most limited human progress were those who identified as Christian or religious. Despite extremely limited knowledge and life experience, I was convinced that I was correct.
My intellectual exploration was anything but diligent. Looking back now, I recognize that it was comprised of some of the same patterns of thinking which extremists use. This type of thinking is far too common in modern politics and beyond. Based on my life experience and especially what I have seen on social media, I am certain that my battle with extremist thinking is far from unique.
Extremism comes with costs and it can do severe damage to friendships, family relationships, and the underlying social fabric that makes modern civilization function.
The “Wisdom” of Comedians
In my teenage days, some prominent comedians and fellow cynics reassured me that my opinions were informed and well-founded. Taking wisdom and moral guidance from comedians in this way armed me with a self-righteousness that would carry me through my day-to-day affairs. It also prepared me for the debates that I would have with individuals who watched Bill O’Reilly, were Christian, or thought that people like O’Reilly were respectable human beings.
My convictions told me that people who fail to see things my way must be brainwashed. Whether it was Bill Maher, David Cross, George Carlin, or a host of other voices, my young and impressionable mind enjoyed listening to them as they made me laugh about the alleged ‘evils’ of religion.
“You’d have to be STUPID, do believe that stuff.” David Cross proclaimed in reference to Christianity as I laughed.
“Wow! He has a lot of courage to say such a thing. Good for him!” I thought. “Yeah! Seriously. What is wrong with these people? If we would just change their minds, the world would be so much better off! Why can’t people see that???”
Then George Carlin came on and took my “intellect” to the next level. I started to feel smart as he spoke in a way that I thought was eloquent and well-informed. But what did I know?
“More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.” George claimed in his rants about how awful a force religion was for humanity.
Bill Maher came on next. “We (Americans) are not too cynical, we’re too stupid.” Bill would say.
At the time, I didn’t even know what the word “cynical” meant but that was okay. Since I was so sure of myself, I didn’t even need to look it up. I already had the puzzle figured out in my mind. It was a time of blissful ignorance.
The Rabbit Hole of Extremism
Due to its pervasiveness, extremism is a force we must guard ourselves against because it has the power to distort our reality, relationships, and guide us down dark paths. Impressionable minds like those of teenagers or the mentally unstable are especially vulnerable.
Have you ever noticed how easy it is for people to fall into extremist thinking? Perhaps you have lost friendships on social media after heated discussions on contentious topics like abortion, racism in America, or the virtues of socialism and capitalism. If not, maybe you have witnessed fiery online exchanges between others that turned ugly.
I have experienced both of these countless times.
The Wisdom of Older Generations
As I have grown older and wiser, I have found that the advice many young people receive from parents and older generations was quite useful.
“If you don’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing.”
This is commendable logic and a great principle to practice. Others with wisdom might also suggest:
“In the history of the internet, an online debate has changed someone’s mind, exactly zero times.”
My new personal favorite is ironically from the Bible, a source I had once ridiculed:
“Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.” – Proverbs 9:8
Wisdom also tells us it is okay not to know things. The key skill is recognizing that which we do not know. Extremists tend to prematurely declare opinions on topics they have not carefully examined. Since people have unique life experiences, the willingness to recognize the value of alternate perspectives may just be the best defense against extremism.
But sadly, it is not always easy to contain the extremist monster that lurks within. This monster loves to wait for moments of weakness where it can manipulate the attention and emotions of unsuspecting victims.
The Trap of Extremist Thinking
When information is alarmingly easy to access and media sources like news outlets and social media are designed with the single goal of winning your precious attention against its competitors, life can feel like a barrage of unnecessarily sensationalized information. Talk about an onslaught of negativity. And it is up to us to filter this into important and unimportant categories. What a chore!
From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings were not designed to manage this level of constant distraction. It is clearly having a detrimental impact on the mental health of virtually everyone. We don’t exactly know what the increasing pervasiveness of online interaction is doing to our young people but evidence suggests that the development of important attributes that lead to respectful human coexistence such as social aptitude, empathy, decency, may be in short supply.
If you spend any time online, you may have likely noticed something. When interpersonal interaction occurs in places like online forums or comment threads, the normal rules that govern human decorum and decency are often curiously abandoned.
In this environment, extremism is always waiting for us just around the corner, especially when we are feeling distracted or emotionally fragile.
Extremist Thinking Defined
Vocabulary.com defines extremism in the following way:
“Extremism is a political or religious philosophy that’s very far from the mainstream. Because it’s so different from the average person’s politics.”
This definition is useful for explaining extremism through a political lens but when it comes to living an enriching and fulfilling life, it is important to recognize that extremism goes beyond politics. The same pattern that forms extremist political thinking is present in our daily thinking on non-political topics. Thinking is a skill and like any skill, the way we practice is important.
Since our attitudes about the world shape our future, we must ensure that we are developing reasonable, positive, and realistic attitudes. Extremism tends to be a by-product of lazy or sloppy thinking which leads to delusional, limiting beliefs.
In my experience, the road to extremist thinking consists of a mixture of the following:
- Intellectual shortcuts become the preferred path for forming subjective opinions. Instead of a robust and objective evaluation of evidence, extremists tend to settle for a hasty, one-sided, narrow assessment and cling to their views with steadfast loyalty.
- This emotional attachment to a certain point of view tends to cause an impulsive and compulsory rejection of countervailing evidence or perspectives.
- Feelings of superiority over others may form as we subconsciously reward ourselves for holding the ‘right’ views and socially punish those with the ‘wrong’ views.
- Sometimes this feeling of superiority contains an inflated sense of personal morality, or ‘moral superiority’ which unfortunately causes the extremist to look at others as less moral or sometimes even less human.
- The emergence of communities of followers, especially in online echo chambers like Twitter can reinforce in-group behavior to the point where changing an opinion actually carries a grave risk of social isolation.
If extremism is a demon, dancing with this devil can lead to actual evil. Undesirables may be belittled, labeled (often without evidence), ridiculed, socially ostracized, or physically harmed. When the extremist feels morally justified to engage in behavior like this, violence can become excusable. History is replete with far too many tragic examples.
But for our purposes, the point here is that even a little bit of an extremist thinking can have negative consequences in our lives and careers.
What YOU Think Matters
“Stand up for what you believe in and respect others’ right to do the same.” – (On Twitter) @RmBernier10
Since extremist thinking subverts the process of critical thinking, it tends to alter perceptions of reality itself. When we allow ourselves to become conditioned to subjective snap-judgments instead of an objective examination of evidence, the mind tends to close inward.
If we do this enough times, the mind builds a metaphorical fence that acts as a prison gate. When this happens, the mind can no longer stretch beyond the gate.
We become trapped by our limiting beliefs.
Superiority Complex and Moral Clout
As a teenager, I came to many extremist conclusions on topics that I knew nearly nothing about. I can only imagine the posts that would have came back to haunt me if I had been active on Twitter then. I would undoubtedly be embarrassed and who knows if I would even have a job.
Fortunately, I have come to learn from personal and professional experience that if you want to live a healthy life with a thriving career and enriching relationships, your attitude and mindset will make or break you. My views as a teenager had an undeniably false sense of moral superiority that I used to prop myself up in an effort to look down upon others.
Since I have engaged in this pattern many times, I have learned to spot it in myself and in others. If you look for extremists, they are quite easy to find, especially on Twitter (more on that later).
Beware of the Snap-Judgment
Have you ever read a news headline and felt immediate outrage, only to open the article, read it, and recognize that the initial claim was either grossly exaggerated or deliberately misrepresented? I know I have done this and at this point, I think just about every major media outlet has tricked me more than once.
I also know that I am likely to continue to make this mistake when my passions are inflamed (as they often are). How do I know? Because I have yet to kick the habit after many years of trying.
If you consume news in any form, you probably struggle with this too since the sensationalism that media companies sell as they compete for attention from readers and viewers preys on the most primitive channels in the human brain.
Often the headline was nothing more than a trick designed to bait followers of a particular political tribe into a reaction of intense outrage. And this is increasingly how we consume news. We must ignore these illusions and remain focused on what is important in a world full of distraction. It is a sad reality but an important undertaking.
Why Twitter is the Worst
“The problem with Twitter is that the price of being a prick has fallen to zero.” – Jordan Peterson
Nothing serves human narcissism quite like Twitter, which is effectively an alternate universe filled with perverse incentives that run in direct opposition to normal human dignity. Twitter is not all bad. Many would correctly argue that it contains positive community building, democratizes the spread of information, and provides a level of inter-connectivity.
However, when it comes to extremism in this alternate reality, known as the ‘Twittersphere,’ there is very limited good news to report.
Below are a few somewhat fun examples of Tweets that happen to be sitting in my News Feed right now as I write this. I have done my best to guess what the intended purpose of each Tweet is through my own lens.
How did I do? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Tribe Member Recruitment
→ (Recruitment for a pro-Trump tribe) “Who else would vote for Donald Trump in 2024?”
→ (Recruitment for an anti-Trump tribe) “Who else thinks Donald Trump belongs in jail?”
→ (Rejecting the 2020 election results) “Amber alert: White male, 78 wandering in DC thinks he’s President.”
→ (Let’s hate on people together!) “If you despise Nikki Haley just as much as I do, make sure we are following each other.”
→ (The creepy and possibly promiscuous provocateur) “I wish I was cuddling with you naked.”
→ (Divide and conquer) “Am I the only one who’s seen more adults throwing a tantrum over having to wear a mask than I have little kids?”
→ (False promises) “Someone out there will appreciate you for you.”
→ (Okay, cool… 🙄) “Normalize breaking into a song when being pulled over.”
→ (You can’t possibly know that!!) “I don’t know who needs to hear this but, YOU ARE ENOUGH.”
As you can see, some of these examples are undeniably entertaining and this is what makes Twitter so addictive. But the platform’s dark side can be unbelievably toxic.
To many, Twitter is a vacuum that sucks unsuspecting victims into place where largely uninformed, pseudo-anonymous posters can say whatever they want. If “talk is cheap,” Twitter reduces the costs of controversial and disrespectful speech to a new low. Hate, insults, and extremism have never been so accessible.
Many of the most controversial accounts are not even real. In fact, a software newsletter known as InfoQ estimates that 26% of Twitter accounts are anonymous and notes that this estimate likely understates the real number since fake names may have been used among what they classify as ‘identifiable accounts.’ If you are not identifiable for your online commentary, there are virtually no real-world consequences for what you post.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect in Action
David Dunning, one of the men behind the Dunning-Kruger theory has written about the inverse relationship between ignorance and confidence. This theory postulates that there is a real-world tendency for attitudes of arrogance to develop within those who are the least informed. Conversely humility tends to dominate within those who hold actual expertise on a given subject matter.
Effectively, those who know the least tend to exhibit the most confidence while those who know the most tend to be more humble. Why are human beings this way? It is quite paradoxical. In a 2017 piece in Pacific Standard, David Dunning wrote about what he calls “confident idiots” and observed this peculiar phenomenon using several interesting examples.
Unfortunately, when the Dunning-Kruger effect mixes with an insatiable quest for moral superiority, anonymity, and the attention-seeking behavior that characterizes social media environments, the stage is set for the rapid acceleration of extremism.
Striving for Moral Superiority
I once came across a thread on Twitter which captivated my attention. I began reading the comments with intense fervor. Next thing I knew, I looked down at my watch and saw that a half hour had passed. I was particularly interested in this thread because of a the theme I noticed from the commenters.
It seemed that people were seeking to gain recognition or ‘moral clout’ from members of this ideological tribe. They were almost competing to see who was the most morally astute, or perhaps to a cynical outsider such as myself, who could be the most ‘pretentious.’
It reminded me immediately of a religion, just without a formal structure.
I Believe in ____, Because I AM a GOOD Person
The thread was borne from a Tweet which posed a question. As you will see below, in the answers, people tended to signal their allegiance with the tribe by emphasizing the morality behind their reasoning instead of the logic.
“Why do you wear a mask?”
“I wear my mask because I’m not an asshole.”
“I wear a mask because I care about people.”
“I wear my mask because I am a good person.”
“I wear my mask because it’s the only decent thing to do.”
“I wear a mask because I want to protect others and it’s really not that much of a sacrifice.”
“I wear a mask because it makes me feel good to know that my behavior could be saving someone’s life.”
Of these examples, the last two seem to be answering the question in a distinctly different way than the others. These merely explain the reasoning behind their decision to continue to wearing a mask in public. This is different than the others, which seem to suggest, “if you don’t agree with me, then I’m better than you because I have better opinions.”
Do you see the same distinction I see? Have you seen examples of this yourself? Please let me know in the comments below.
When Things Gets Ugly
Have you noticed that it seems to no longer be enough to disagree with someone? Instead, too often, the element of respect and decency has to be removed entirely. If you take this attitude of unearned moral superiority and mix it with disagreement in a place like Twitter, things can get quite ugly.
‘Wait, You Want Me Dead Bro?’
In the below post, a brief summary of an NPR article was shared. The article reported that Republicans were dying from the Coronavirus at a higher rate than Democrats. I have removed all identities, since I am not interested in exacerbating the problem of cyber bullying.
And Here Come the Comments:
Once captivated by tribal extremism, members of the out group become the enemy. To a tribe like this, they are not just determined to be misinformed, but also less enlightened, and in cases like these, even less deserving of life itself.
The lack of self-reflection and basic human decency here is remarkable. Could this be an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action? In that, those who believe themselves to be morally virtuous actually lack virtue while those who do not post stuff like this, may actually be more conscientious people?
I don’t know about you but where I come from, decency and how you treat others are the hallmarks of morality. And the ultimate judge on whether your behavior is moral cannot be you. That would be ridiculous.
If you are religious, the question of whether you are a moral person is decided by God. If you are not religious, a responsible person recognizes that at best, this question is answered by others, not by yourself!
It Gets Even Worse
Here is one last example of Twitter extremists cheering for the death of out group members. What is notable about this one is how a commenter attempted to call this person out for the immorality of this behavior.
But as you can see by the poster’s reaction to the comment, it did not work. It turns out that extremists are not generally interested in personal improvement.
For context, this post refers to an upcoming ‘Donald Trump rally’ in January of 2022.
Remember, the Bible says ‘do not rebuke mockers, or they will hate you.” Maybe the 11th Commandment should have been, ‘thou shalt not wish death upon others on social media.’
At its root, this pattern of thinking requires the same basic logic that has moved nations into barbaric acts of evil like like war and genocide. And don’t kid yourself, although Americans can live with relatively high confidence that they will be safe in their day to day affairs, human history shows that this is no long-term guarantee.
If Americans continue to talk to each other in this way, maybe our safety and freedom will erode.
Build an Enriching Life Instead
“Analogously, we were born with opposable minds, which allow us to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive, almost dialectic tension. We can use that tension to think our way toward new, superior ideas.” Roger L. Martin, author of the book, ‘Opposable Minds’
As the 18 year old version of myself eventually learned, a delusional perception of moral superiority on the basis of one’s opinions is not noble. Instead, it makes you an ignoramus and difficult for others to befriend. If you really want to step your game up, a concept known as ‘integrative thinking’ may be an even better area of focus than critical thinking.
This term was coined by Roger L. Martin, who has written about the unique ability that many top-tier business leaders have to live within the tension of complex, opposing ideas. These individuals are able to think through complex problems objectively. It turns out to be quite the strength in the competitive world of business.
Extremism Outside of Twitter
If we leave the fake world of Twitter for a minute and return to the real world, let’s recognize that your neighbor likely does not care about what you believe unless you live next to this crazy person who got upset with her Trump-supporting neighbors for plowing her driveway in an unprompted act of “aggressive niceness.”
Those who fall into these traps of extremism will undoubtedly have a more difficult time living happy and fulfilling lives. The internet makes it far too easy to say mean things, so we must adjust to ensure we avoid this toxic behavior.
Be the Change You Want for the World
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Buddha
Imagine if the teenage version of myself who had formed strong opinions on topics despite doing virtually no research, was considered for a job. Hiring a person like that would be a disastrous decision for any company. As a former recruiter, I would certainly choose someone else. Similarly, few employers would want to give the guy who wishes death upon the attendees of a #TrumpRally a job (at least I would hope).
The best path toward career success is to actually possess marketable skills and to grow toward mastery of our craft with humility and curiosity. Even if you have the gift of gab, or you think you can ‘BS’ your way into a new job, a holistic approach toward true personal development is always the best bet.
This includes respect for the careful interpretation of objective reality through patterns of responsible thinking. The Buddha famously said, “all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Therefore constructing reasonable habits of thinking is where this all starts. If we allow garbage to flow into our minds, garbage will likely flow out.
Spending time entertaining extremism in any way is detrimental both individually and collectively. If your goal is to live a better life, improve your career, relationships, or the social fabric of your country, extremism should be recognized for what it is and rejected. It is a cancer that can destroy your life and negatively impact those around you.
Stay grounded my friends.
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7 thoughts on “An Enriching Life Requires Responsible Thinking, Not Extremism”
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