Some Thoughts on Extremism

Talking with a friend about the events of September 11th, he mentioned that many devout Muslims, and even Hindus, are offended by some things they see on Western television. My first reaction to this was: “If it bothers them, they don’t have to watch it.” In some countries, governments try to “protect” their people from material that may transgress “local standards,” though censorship is more often in the interest of protecting the governments themselves than their citizens’ social values. We in the West react with horror at the thought of such censorship, and many people go to a great deal of trouble to obtain materials that their governments don’t approve of (hence the popularity of shortwave radios to pick up the Voice of America and the BBC World Service).

However, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Compared with standards in Europe, Americans are downright prudish. In Europe, billboards featuring naked women are common; in Italy, even supposedly serious news magazines boost sales by putting a picture of a naked, full-breasted woman on almost every cover. In the US, such goings-on would be dimly viewed by the peculiar anti-pornography partnership of Christian Conservatives and feminists. (The feminists fear that such uses of women’s bodies are exploitative. Many American religious conservatives, as far as I can tell, are simply horrified by the thought of sex for anything other than procreation.)

Does this mean that everybody in America is so politically correct, or so conservative? Of course not. But there seem to be an awful lot of people in America who put an awful lot of energy into trying to tell other people how to live their lives. Even when I agree with their basic beliefs, this frightens me.

I hate, loathe, and despise the Taliban for similar reasons: they have managed to impose their way of thinking – an extremely conservative way of thinking – on most of their country, to the grave detriment of all its citizens, but especially the women. Since I (unlike them) believe in democracy and freedom of choice, I fully grant every member of the Taliban the right to determine for himself what his religious beliefs are and how he will live his life in accordance with them. But I don’t agree that the Taliban have the right to impose those beliefs on anybody else.

Afghanistan in recent years is a chilling example of what can happen when “righteousness” is taken to its logical extreme. Could it happen in America? Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two prominent American religious conservatives, spoke on television:

[Falwell] “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”” quoted in the Washington Post

In other words, if America as a whole practiced Falwell’s brand of Christianity, God would protect us from terrorists.

Take this kind of thinking to its logical extreme, and you have the America imagined by Margaret Atwood in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t read this book already, I strongly recommend that you do. The society it depicts is not that different (for women) from Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Similar thoughts, more elegantly expressed: Fighting the Forces of Invisibility, By Salman Rushdie

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