The Many Sides of Extremism

I just finished two books that shed new light on service and sacrifice and put them in perspective. The first, Strangers Drowning, discusses multiple examples of moral extremism; the second, When Breath Becomes Air, describes the experience of a 37-year-old Stanford neurosurgeon who died of cancer the year he finished his residency and was about to embark on a stellar career.

"Generative Art - Drawing Machine" by Amber Case
“Generative Art – Drawing Machine” | Author: Amber Case | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC 2.0

In Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar shares the stories of people who broke all norms and expectations about living a life of service—from couples who pledged 50% of their income to charity, to a couple who adopted 23 kids, many of whom had severe disabilities. The book raises questions about the limits of what morality can expect us to give to others, as well as when moralism crosses the line into masochism and/or self righteousness. One particularly poignant story describes the story of Baba, a doctor in India who eschewed all the materialistic comforts he could have enjoyed as a physician in order to establish a medical clinic for lepers in a remote, unserved region, where he lived in poverty and pain while working 18 hours a day for over 20 years. Could there be a better example of extreme moralism?

In When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi shares his life story—tragically cut short by a very rare cancer. He studied English and biology at Stanford and stayed on for a Masters degree in English Literature. He then went on to get another Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Cambridge before he returned to the states to complete his medical training at Yale and 7 years of neurosurgery residency at Stanford. His story reveals the conflict he had between the pontification of lofty principles and the practice of gritty life and death issues. He believed that only by practicing medicine could he pursue a serious biological philosophy. To him, moral speculation was puny compared to moral action. What would be beyond belief in his story, if it weren’t actual fact, is that someone with such a soaring intellect and infinite promise could be struck down at the completion of this arduous and admirable preparation by such a rare disease. How ironic that someone so interested in the intersection between science and philosophy (in particular, the existential nature of death) could actually have to deal directly with that exact experience much earlier than he ever imagined. He left a wife and child behind as well as many tears running down my cheek as I read his story. His is a story of extreme goodness.

We hear a great deal about extremism these days whether it’s the beastly beheadings of ISIS or the positions of politicians campaigning for the presidency. For me, extremism in any form is dangerous. I’m hesitant to say that all extremism is destructive because, as I’ve posited in several previous posts, positive change usually comes from the margins. The questions are: when does the “margin” morph into the extreme and when does any extreme position become destructive? 
I find it easy to discern when religious extremism becomes destructive. We have ancient and recent history to provide plenty of examples.

The Crusades in the 11th through the 15th century were clearly destructive. The Inquisition in the 12th to the 14th century would easily qualify as an example of extremism run amok. And radical Islamic extremism embodied by ISIS today poses an immediate threat by its random acts of terror and wanton destruction. There are many good examples of bad extremism.

The same could be said about political extremism. At what point do progressive policies put an unfair burden on the middle class? At what point do regulations harm the economy? How difficult should it be to enter a country as an immigrant and find a path to citizenship? When does the need for security override our freedom and privacy rights? Should the rights to choose, vote, and bear arms have any limits? How do we protect our environment from extreme materialism and waste? These are all questions without easy answers. I’m pretty clear in my own mind when political extremism becomes destructive, but there are many opposing points of view on all of the issues above.

It’s even harder to determine when extreme acts of kindness, service, and sacrifice turn destructive. For example, how many kids can a family handle? Does adding a 5th child start to have a destructive effect on the parents and other kids? The 9th child? The 23rd child? It’s hard to tell when the line is crossed. And every family has a different blend of commitment and capability to actually raise a large brood of kids constructively. One must also take into consideration the environmental impact of having a dozen biological children. For me, Dr. Kalanithi, is an amazing example of extreme goodness that was untainted by insane ideology, self-righteousness or personal aggrandizement. Sadly, his case is also an extreme example of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

I guess the big questions for me are: 1) When is an action or idea right? and 2) When does it begin to smell of righteousness? It may be right to sacrifice everything in the service of a particular need or idea, but when does that sacrifice become so extreme that it seems more ego-driven and righteous than right? It can be a thin line.

Yes, there are many sides to extremism. And, even though there are differences of opinion as to what’s good and what’s bad, it’s easier to point out what’s extremely good and extremely bad. Republicans think “liberal” and “progressive” are bad while democrats think “conservative” and “regressive” are bad. It seems there is less confusion when someone crosses the line from bad to extremely bad, than when someone crosses the line from good to extremely good. I fret less about the latter than the former, but it is still an intriguing question worthy of reflection. At least I think so. But then I’ve been accused of going to extremes to find issues on which to reflect!!

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