The Path To Extremism

How does one become an extremist? There are probably many paths to the point where you reject all manner of logic and civil obedience. This post is about one of those paths, perhaps.

We just finished watching three seasons of a Netflix show titled Manifest. It's quite a good show, and looking online, they are working on season four which may be shown in two or more parts as they are planning on 20 episodes; that seems to be a lot, but... the title Manifest took on a new meaning for me as we moved through the third season and led to my wanting to talk about extremism; I'll get to that in a bit after I give you a synopsis of what I took away from this series, which is rather well done and manages to push more than a few emotional buttons for the viewer.

When we first started watching, it was a little on the weird side. I'm not a big fan of the typical paranormal, aliens from space storyline. While I did enjoy the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey years ago, and perhaps the first Star Wars, I'm not a huge Sci-Fi fan or a Trekkie.The basic storyline is about an airplane (thus the title Manifest?) with almost 200 people onboard that goes through a horrendous and unexpected electrical storm that pitches the plane around violently. Still, in the end, the pilot lands the plane safely, or does he? We see the passengers disembark in a rather unusual way; they are shuffled off to a segregated runway and hanger, etc., and a lot of government types all around the place; something is amiss.

As the episodes unfold, we find out that this has been a routine flight for the passengers and crew, notwithstanding the unusually violent storm; they arrived at their destination just a little bit late. But, for the folks on the ground, the plane had disappeared over five years earlier, and everyone was presumed lost and dead. The families and loved ones of the passengers had "buried" their loved ones and their past and moved on with their lives.

As the story unfolds, we see a large cast of people on the flight and from all walks of life dealing with having been gone for over five years, even though it didn't feel like that to them, and the people close to them trying to accept that their friends and loved ones have "returned" from the grave. As one might imagine, all the emotions imaginable are coming to the surface: anger, denial, love, confusion, disbelief, and suspicion.

My first impression was that this was some paranormal experience. Most, if not all of the passengers were experiencing what they termed "callings,"; visions and voices that typically predicted some horrific event for one or more passengers.

Early on, the lead character, Ben, his sister, Michaela, and his son, Cal, all of whom were on the plane, share these visions/callings. Over time, they discover that other passengers have visions, often the same ones. Without exception, as I recall, the visions are all threatening, disturbing, and ill-defined, forcing everyone to become investigators into what the meaning of the visions might be. This results in the various characters, both lead and supporting actors, reacting in different and often bizarre ways as they search for the meaning of any particular calling.

The stress and fear about the callings eventually divide the people into basically three primary groups. One group, which includes most of the main characters, generally accepts these visions and believes they are tasked with solving the riddle of the vision and saving others from harm; let's call them the saviors. Another group, the scientifically inclined, is fascinated by the strange events and is hellbent on discovering a scientific explanation and perhaps a degree of celebrity in the scientific community for doing so. And a third group, toward the end of the second season, migrates to believing in some divine or spiritual power behind the events and decides God is behind events.

I have to admit that early on, I almost gave up on the weirdness of the plot, but the characters and some good writing kept me in. As the characters evolved, based on their experiences - something writers call the story arc - I saw the people begin to gravitate to one of the three primary groups; the saviors, the scientists, and the zealots who start to make a connection between the events and their God.

By the third season, most of the characters had become hardcore believers in whatever their group espouses about events. The saviors saw their role as interpreting the vision and saving the passengers; the scientific folks were in technical overdrive as they tried to unravel events with logic and science. The religious group concluded this was the work of God and perhaps the end of times. Each group becomes more passionate in their convictions and willing to violate any ethics or code of conduct they normally subscribe to. Some even entertain violence as a means to stop the efforts of the other two groups; all three groups begin to label the other groups' beliefs in dismissive ways.

I must admit that, as a card-carrying Atheist, I was a little bumped when the story veered toward some sort of religious explanation for what was happening. I have nothing against religion or movies about folks enjoying their religious beliefs; it's simply not my cup of tea. But as I watched, I concluded that the writers and directors, and there are many talented people involved in this production, and the entire creative crew, in my opinion, was showing us how dogmatic beliefs in anything can drive people to obsession and even to extremism.

It happens rather quickly and, generally, I think, without most of the people involved realizing what is happening to them. We sometimes find ourselves in a situation we can't explain, and we humans don't like being in that place. In our rather self-centered opinion of ourselves as humans on this planet, according to a majority of religious texts, and possessing this marvelous brain that has given us a myriad of abilities to rise above all the other animals, we detest situations that we don't understand and can't explain. We find our answer through either critical thinking, science, religion, or a belief in otherworldly forces and beliefs.

Having picked philosophical sides in life, as it were, we now belong to a particular tribe of similar believers. We seek out other people who think like us to reinforce that our decision is the right one and build our tribe around our convictions.

Depending on how those around us, the non-believers of our particular myth about life, react to our explanation of the world, we might begin to harden our view toward the "non-believers," especially if they are dismissive of our point of view.

When we are pressured, dismissed, or perhaps labeled as crazy, we become obsessed with the rightness of our beliefs and acutely aware of the obvious errors of the other tribe's beliefs. As the debates grow louder and derogatory comments are hurled at each other, we sometimes move to the next level, extremism, where there is no room for dissension, discussion, or consideration of an opposing point of view. Once we are at that point, it can be a small step to the use of violence against non-believers.

One of the best examples of this journey to extremism in settling issues is when we all came to the United States of America. The Europeans who came here to settle the new continent, which was not new and had been inhabited by others for thousands of years, were seeking a new and better life for themselves. Many came from poverty in Europe, where the landed gentry held all the wealth and power. To them, having and owning land was the ultimate goal. They began to move into the wilderness, encouraged by any number of government programs offering them free land to homestead and other inducements.

But, those dratted Indians, living here long before us, stood in our way. They were odd people with odd beliefs and stubbornly refused to peacefully walk away and cede the land to us. Over time, as we discussed the problem facing us, we decided that God had ordained that we occupy this land and that the Indians were heathens and godless people since they didn't practice our form of religion. Most of us were or professed to be ardent Christians. We convinced ourselves that we were on God's mission to settle this land and that the Indians, who were non-Christian and, for the most part, refused to accept our way of life, were standing in the way of us carrying out God's will and plan.

The solution? Manifest Destiny, a term that was casually coined by one John L. O'Sullivan, the editor of a magazine that served as an organ for the Democratic Party and of a partisan newspaper in 1845.

So, the stepping stones along the path to extremism seem to me to be;

a) Confusion and lack of knowledge
b) fear of the unknown
c) adoption of a rationale that alleviates or offers protection from our fears
d) a growing passion for one particular explanation or dogma
e) resistance to any alternate explanation of events
f) a growing obsession with the rightness of a given belief
g) a locking down of the mind to any other explanation than the one currently embraced, anger at those who would argue another point of view, and a willingness to break both the law of the land, the laws of humanity, and even the laws of one's religion to defend one's belief.

This radicalization of an idea until it is "gospel" may be part of our success story and our way of life, or it may lead to our ultimate destruction.