Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, by Cass Sunstein. Oxford University Press: New York 2009. Pp. 171. $21.95
Cass Sunstein argues in his new book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide that extremism is a phenomenon that is enhanced when people of like minds get together to talk. When we think of people that lie at the extremes of society, our minds are often drawn to reclusive characters. People like John the Baptist living in the wilderness “wearing clothes made of camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey;” (Matt. 3:3-4) or people like Raskolnikov from Fydor Doystoyveski’s Crime and Punishment – a reclusive character who develops a radical and warped sense of morality in response to his perception of society’s values. In reality, people that live on the extremes are rarely alone. They are surrounded by a network of like thinkers who confirm the attitudes, beliefs and interpretations of sensory data that those persons embrace as normal. Extremes are about information. That is, where you get your information from; whether you believe that information to be reliable, and how willing you are to accept information outside of your preferred source.
Going to Extremes is about how, when and why extremes develop in communities. The theme of the book is that “[w]hen people find themselves in groups of like-minded types they are especially likely to move to extremes” (p. 2). Sunstein’s work fits into the genre of human behavioral psychology proposed by James Sidanius and others that views extremists’ cognitive complexity as more complex than moderates. See James Sidanius, Functioning Sociopolitical Ideology Revisted, 6 POLITICAL PSYCHOLOGY 637, 639 (1985). This is in contrast to extremism theory, which largely assumes that political extremists display less-sophisticated cognitive behavior than moderates. About the form of extremism we call terrorism, Sunstein writes at one point,
it is tempting to think that terrorism is a product of extreme poverty, lack of education, or a kind of mental illness. It turns out that all of these thoughts are quite wrong. Most of the time, [terrorists] come from middle-income families. Nor have terrorists lacked education. There is no evidence that they suffer from mental illness…. Alan Krueger argues that terrorism is a form of political protest, and those who lack civil rights and civil liberties not having other means of engaging in protest resort to terrorism. To Krueger’s point, we might add that when civil liberties do not exist citizens have only one prominent source of information – the state – and that source cannot be trusted. (p. 115)
Terrorism then becomes a reaction against information that the extreme positions assume can’t be right. Thus, in Sunstein’s work, the why and how of extremisms (like terrorism) can be associated with how individuals interact in communities – the trust they place in the information received, the confidence they derive from like-minded members, and the authority or submission they respond to as a member of the community.