The danger of brushing extremism under the carpet

Last month the Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik was found guilty of killing 77 people and wounding 242 in a murderous rampage last year. Breivik’s actions were undeniably wicked and grotesque. However, Breivik was found to be sane – in other words, this was the work of a rational, intelligent human being. No sinister voices in his head; no obscure songs played backwards issuing subliminal murderous missives. And what is so important about this judgement is that it recognises that this form of extremism can no longer be ignored; that it cannot be simply shoved away into asylums and prison hospitals.

The extremist’s greatest fear is irrelevance. This irrelevance propels them towards narcissism, a complete enthrallment with the self. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, they self-glorify to counteract the realisation that they are a nobody; they imagine themselves as warriors, saviours fighting a just cause against some known enemy. Åsne Seierstad, in a recent article for the New Statesman, describes these types as “the one who was always there, but whom most people never remembered.” This rebellion against irrelevance usually manifests as hatred and is often linked with a zealous patriotism. Like Bickle, most are loners, but in certain instances, chiefly by means of a charismatic firebrand, extremists can form a critical mass.

A pertinent example is that of the fascist British Nationalist Party headed by Nick Griffin, which, with each UK general election, is pushing its foot further and further in the door. Yet the BNP are repeatedly shunned by both conservative and liberal elements of society alike. In January of this year University College Cork withdrew an invitation to Griffin to participate in a Government and Politics Society debate. The issue of free speech again reared its head. Is it right that free speech should only be dispensed if the expressed views are contained within the parameters of what society deems acceptable?

Nick Griffin and his racist acolytes claim to represent the fears of hundreds of thousands of white English men and women who feel they have no say over the multicultural road that Britain has taken. Do we incorporate the likes of the BNP and English Defence League in the sphere of civil debate, or do we eschew their fascist rhetoric even further? Seierstad asserts that the internet has become a powerful tool in spreading a web of extremist ideology. As we saw with the Arab Spring revolutions, the internet has the capacity to rally troops to the cause like no other medium in the history of the world.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher incensed the Provisional IRA by consistently and systematically denying them a voice. Some may agree that theirs was a voice that did not deserve to be heard. However, it is no coincidence that Thatcher presided over an era of unprecedented terror in these islands. The woman was not for turning, but in the end the whole world not only turned but spiralled around her. In the 1990s the Provos were brought to the table, attenuated and eventually eradicated. However distasteful it may be to engage fascists and the ultra right (or left) in civil debate, it has proved in many cases to be a very powerful means of disarmament. Thatcher’s great fear was that giving extremists a platform allows them a free reign to recruit. Another way of looking at it is if, back in February, Nick Griffin were allowed his three minutes at the soapbox in UCC, the likelihood is that an intelligent and rational argument would have shown him up and exposed him for what he is: a racist, a fear-mongerer and an inciter of hatred.

It is worth considering the argument put forward by the utilitarian philosopher, John Stuart Mill. He believed that even if an opinion is false, a greater understanding of the truth can be arrived at through refuting the falsehood. When truth and falsehood collide, the truth will emerge as even more powerful and influential. Within falsehood real fears can often be enmeshed. Through open discourse these fears can be allayed, and civil society and its spectrum of opinion can prosper. The alternative is further banishment of extreme thought to the underground, where it is allowed to fester into hate and prejudice. In the underground of the internet this could be a dangerous and sizeable minority.

Image top (flowers laid on the streets of Oslo following the Utoya attacks): Dmitry Valberg.