Gathering one last time before Thanksgiving, the Philodemic congregated for the purpose of discussing an old, well-worn quote of Barry Goldwater’s: “Resolved: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” On the affirmation was Ms. Katherine Landau (SFS ’17) of New York, and, making her induction, Ms. Rachel Greene (SFS ’17) of New Jersey. On the negation was Mr. Jonathan Marrow (COL ’18) of New Jersey, and, making her induction, Ms. Sarah Baron (SFS ’20) of Nevada.
Ms. Greene began the night by defining extremism as the subversion of societal norms, a refusal to compromise, and the taking of a maximal stance based upon an underlying ideology; liberty for its part is defined as the extension of rights both positive and negative to all groups. From this definition, it becomes clear that non-violent extremism is a legitimate means to advocate for the extension of liberty: civil rights was entirely advanced through civil disobedience. In essence, the goal of extremism is to ensure that extreme views are not marginalized. From this perspective, extremism is not only tolerable but in fact essential in a well-functioning democracy.
Ms. Baron responded from negation by arguing first that extending freedom to one group inherently removes freedom from another and that extremism makes a societal defense into chaos possible. Ms. Baron held that “liberty is a balancing act, and the tipping of the scales by extremism is a vice.” Uncompromising stances lead to the erosion of the social contract and exacerbate the possibility of social implosion. Finally, quoting her opponent Ms. Landau, Ms. Baron argued that “if you just take a few steps back and listen to people, you will realize we all want the same thing: liberty.”
Rising to respond to herself, Ms. Landau argued that the “point” of extremism is to present a statement, not necessarily to create a dialogue. Yet presented a statement keeps an issue alive: the extremists in Greenpeace, for instance, are necessary for keeping environmentalism a central issue. Finally, Ms. Landau pointed out that violent extremism is precluded from the definition of extremism in defense of liberty because killing another person generally removes them of some basic liberties.
Mr. Marrow first pointed out that extremism is not equivalent to radicalism: one can hold radical beliefs and still be willing to compromise, while extremism rules out any potential for negotiating. Extremism is always a vice because extremism hoists one ideal above all others and obliterates all else to preserve this ideal. Rather than being extremists, we should “seek compromise zealously,” holding radical beliefs if necessary but always being willing to negotiate. Finally, Mr. Marrow argued that understanding the rise of Trump requires seeing the dangers of extremist ideology, which only seeks to tear down institutions.
As floor speeches began, Mr. Eisen stated that “if you’re not an extremist, you’re probably a hedonist.” Ms. Hu criticized extremism for removing the possibility of finding common ground. Ms. Wilson retorted that racial equality was gained through extremism and that extremism will be necessary in Trump’s America. Mr. Musser responded to Ms. Landau’s Greenpeace example by arguing that environmental extremism has done far more to anger rural communities than it has to galvanize environmental consciousness among already-liberal circles. Ms. Fisher argued that some issues simply cannot be compromised on—“you can’t compromise on abortion because you can’t half-have an abortion.” Ms. Cooke made the comment that “liberty is my vice.” Ms. Haag, citing the influence of Malcolm X, argued that if any case of extremism in defense of liberty can be tolerated, then we must stand on the affirmation. Yet Mr. Ma retorted that Malcolm X was a radical—not an extremist—because he did not ignore other perspectives and was not absolutist.
As floor speeches began, Mr. Marshall Webb (SFS ’20) attacked compromise as a virtue because compromise excludes liberty from some people, therefore undermining the whole principle of compromise. Mr. Austin Parenteau (SFS ’19) argued that extremism fails morally—because fighting injustice with injustice perpetuates injustice—as well as tactically—because using violence turns the public against your position. Mr. Andrew Schneider (COL ’19) responded that using moderation accepts the inherent legitimacy of a system. On the negation, Ms. Tehya Corona (COL ’20) argued that some things which are viewed as immoral may in fact be right—but extremism does not fall into that category.
Returning to member speaking time, Mr. Kim stated that “as a radical, I am terrified by extremism.” Mr. Kleinman discussed his time working on a campaign and argued that his candidates lost due to an over-zealous extremist messaging. Mr. Shuman referenced the Attica prison riot as a clash of two extremist groups in which only one group—the prisoners—were extremists in the defense of liberty. Mr. Perez-Reyes lamented the sorry state of a Philodemic which upholds the extremism. Our Society has had many radicals but few extremists—when did we stop listening to one another? Ms. Aleman, speaking in a typical Aleman condition, made a few comments about how Trump represents extremism before sitting down. Vice President Fletcher stated that extremism need not be violent, but that extremism legitimates violence and is therefore a vice. Responding to Mr. Perez-Reyes, Chancellor Whelan argued that eloquence and extremism are not mutually exclusive, and that extremist actions done with charity and understanding of the other are not vices. Ms. Oster retorted that history remembers methods, not ideals. To close the floor speeches, Sergeant Ludtke posited that the time to refuse compromise is precisely when one’s liberty is at stake because compromise gives another the authority to demean you.
As closing keynotes began, Mr. Marrow criticized those liberals who would condemn Republicans for refusing to compromise with President Obama yet now insist that extremism can be a virtue. He once again articulated a difference between radicals and extremists, arguing that even the Founding Fathers—radical as they may have been—acknowledged that altering the status quo requires a high burden of proof. Ending his speech, Mr. Marrow exhorted us all to be “passionate centrists.” Also on the negation, Ms. Baron argued that, for the purposes of this debate, extremism must succeed in promoting liberty to be considered legitimate. Extremism seeks to separate off dissenters; therefore, discussion, and not extremism, brings awareness to situations of injustice.
On the affirmation, Ms. Landau argued that extremism becomes legitimate when one’s voice has been denied. Citing the Civil Rights Movement, Ms. Landau argued that extremism is not delegitimized by unpleasant backlash—in fact, extremism is most necessary in these situations, as it can create a “new normal.” In short, the preservation of liberties demands extremism. Ms. Greene continued the argument by stating that extremism need not involve violence. Responding to Mr. Ma, Ms. Greene pointing out that Malcolm X did in fact consider himself and extremist. Finally, when people refuse to see the humanity in others, extremism becomes a legitimate response to injustice.
With a vote of 16 affirming and 12 negating, this resolution was affirmed! I, for one, am quite sure that Barry Goldwater would have been proud to know that the Philodemic Society stands in agreement with him.