Do you ever get extremely annoyed by the extremes to which extremists overuse the word “extreme”? In our current cultural rhetoric, it seems like any time something happens that the other side doesn’t like, it’s blamed on “the extreme right” or “the extreme left.”
Do the extreme right and extreme left exist? Yes, unfortunately they do. But the more people use the word “extreme” to describe events, policies, or beliefs that they don’t like, the more difficult it is to discern what actually counts as extreme.
Furthermore, when we categorize people as “extreme” because of a certain belief they hold to, we are “other-izeing” them in a way that won’t even let us try to understand them. If I hear people call me “extreme,” I feel like they’re lumping me into a category with terrorists. But, oh wait—the term “domestic terrorist” has also been lobbed at people deemed to be a “threat to democracy.” And such accusations aren’t exactly leading people toward the unity that was once promised to this country.
How do we find our way out of this rhetorical mess which is pushing society further and further to polar opposites? Political leaders have promised all sorts of things, but ultimately they can’t deliver because they are finite humans who make poor saviors. As followers of Christ, we know that sitting around and complaining about it also won’t make a difference. However, we can take a few small steps to change the atmosphere around us as the Holy Spirit does his work through us.
First, we need to start by refining our language choices. Refuse to give into the emotional sway of charged words like “extreme” when describing events, votes, or ideas. The word “extreme” means “existing in a very high degree” or “going to great or exaggerated lengths.” Its connotation is that of being dangerous, radical, or life-threatening. And yet it seems we’ve entered a state of hysteria in our culture where people think certain ideas are dangerous, radical, and life-threatening even when they’re not.
But the more the hyperbole is pushed, the more we strip actually dangerous and radical ideas of their full meaning. This is where people are confusing logic with emotion. If it feels dangerous and threatening to someone, then it must be—never mind if the objective facts are saying that person is not in physical danger at all.
Thus, there is a need to be more particular with our words and avoid the “triggering” words (like “triggering”) unless necessary to communicate the truth about a situation. I might not feel “safe” if someone is following me on a dark, shadowy street because that person could physically attack me. This is very different from saying, “I don’t feel safe” in a college classroom where someone is expressing a viewpoint different from mine and poses no real threat to my safety.
God designed language to help us express ourselves, and when we use it to cause more confusion and chaos, we’re not stewarding the gift of language well. May we learn to use it with clarity so that we can love others better with the truth.
Next, we need to remind ourselves of the dignity and worth of the people around us. Even if words don’t pose a physical threat to others, they are powerful. Accusing others of holding to “extreme” views ostracizes them and makes them defensive. This tears down opportunities for relationships, especially with those we disagree with.
Sadly, I’ve been pulled into this trap where I see someone’s views on social media, and I start categorizing them as “the other side.” It’s easy to side with those you agree with and want to distance yourself from those you disagree with.
But Christ came to bride the gap and “break down the dividing wall of hostility” as Ephesians 2:14 says. We who once were enemies of Christ were brought near to him through his sacrifice, and now we need to look at others in the same way. We cannot forget the dignity of being human—we all share this in common regardless of what various viewpoints we have. And how could we trample on this dignity by labeling others in a way that makes them feel less valued?
Even with those we strongly disagree with, we can look at them and know they have inherent worth because they’re created in the image of God. This will help us to value them even when we struggle to understand their viewpoints.
Finally, we need to reach for common ground. You might think this is impossible when two viewpoints seem diabolically opposed to each other. I’m not saying we have to find common ground on certain issues because on many of them, it will be impossible.
But we need to look for common ground somewhere with people we disagree with. Find something that isn’t strongly charged that you both care about and focus on building your relationship through that. Maybe it’s a sports team, maybe it’s the theater, maybe it’s a book club or fine dining or traveling. You might think those seem like “superficial” things, but in reality, these are common graces that God has given us to enjoy with others that don’t have to divide us.
As we build relationships with others through these hobbies or activities, we will be reminding one another of our value beyond just a political standpoint. We will stop seeing our neighbor as “extreme” because of the sign on her lawn and simply see her as a human and a friend whom we enjoy spending time with.
We may not get the journalists and news anchors to stop using the word “extreme” to describe various ideologies. But we can choose not to get swept up in their emotional diatribes and instead break down issues logically and rationally. And we can also choose to not categorize whole groups of people based on their political party and focus rather on building relationships with individuals God has placed in our lives.
We don’t need to relinquish our beliefs because some find them “extreme.” I’m fully aware that people think I’m extreme simply for being a Christian and believing the Bible is true. If that’s the case, so be it. Jesus was also considered extreme in his day. But he didn’t let that stop him from loving people right where they were at, giving them the truth, and laying down his life for them.
And if we can be more like Jesus, it doesn’t matter what they call us.