April 8, 2009

Another Form of Extremism

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 13: Radio talk show host ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Atheists and Christians alike agree that Islamic extremism is a repressive force that violates human rights and spawns an unacceptably dangerous sort of conflict in our modern world. Many atheists, especially those living in highly religious areas, recognize that Christian extremism (must-see video here) is also problematic. We find the image of rapture-ready Christians in positions of political power more than a little disconcerting. But there is another form of extremism, one often intertwined with but separable from Christian extremism, to which we have payed insufficient attention.

We can disagree about whether right-wing talk radio and certain Fox pundits are engaged in hate speech, but we must not lose sight of the fact that they represent a form of extremism. Millions of Americans tune in each day to the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, O'Reilly, Boortz, and their associates. In doing so, they are treated to Republican talking points and misinformation. But the problem is not merely one of well-orchestrated political propaganda; it is one of extremism.

I am not necessarily claiming that the assorted pundits are themselves extremists. I suspect that some are while others are simply opportunists. My concern is with their audience. We have seen too many disturbing examples of the effects of this sort of extremism at political rallies and in acts of domestic terrorism. We have witnessed the ease with which anyone who disagrees with them is accused of hating America. In short, we have seen the impact of hate media.

This sort of extremism presents a thorny problem because many of us would defend, at least up to a point, the right of these individuals to say what they say. One important question involves the precise location of the point at which free speech turns into the sort of hate speech that no longer warrants protection. Another question, and one which I see as even more important, involves what can be done about this sort of extremism other than censorship.

Remember, censorship involves governmental action to restrict free speech. That would be a mistake, even in this case. An alternative, which many people confuse with censorship, would be to make sure that the businesses buying ads on extremist TV and radio know what they are sponsoring and that their customers know too. I am not sure that this would be the best course of action either, but I am coming to believe that some sort of action will soon be necessary.

In the unlikely event that any avid consumers of right-wing extremism read this far, I would like to say a few words about your likely reaction: what about left-wing extremism. This label is probably used in reference to Olbermann and Maddow more than anyone else, and I will concede that both are more about liberal punditry, Democratic talking points, and biased opinion than news. The thing is, even at their most biased, Olbermann and Maddow rarely sound hateful. They are upset, frustrated, and even angry at times, but I can think of few examples where they crossed the line into hate, demonizing the opponent, or advocating violence. There is bias on the left, but there is also an important qualitative difference.

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