John Cleese on Extremism

Posted on April 15th, 2010 by James

Yes, that John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. Cleese does a great job of describing the concept of “the other,” and how it makes extremism a very attractive option. Definitely funny, and still very poignant and relevant, 20-some years later.

The question, I guess, is, what’s the alternative? How can I hold on to beliefs that by many standards are extreme, while not “othering” people on the opposite side of the spectrum?

I spent 3 months in the Dominican Republic- part of that time was spent with a very left-wing organization called Justicia Global. I spent a lot of time learning about how capitalism is detrimental to a society, especially the poor. This was augmented with a lot of time getting to know people who were experiencing the flip side of capitalism.

I came home as what Cleese would call an extremist, suddenly surrounded by many I now considered my other. I remember hanging out with some friends, and really ripping into one who was a devoted capitalist, and was working in some capitalist capacity – I forget what exactly. In my mind, he (and people like him) were directly responsible for the poverty of my new friends in the D.R.

I forgot that People are People are People. I made my friend out to be my other.

And it was really ineffective, honestly. I wasn’t able to ridicule him into agreement. It just made me look (and feel) like a jerk. And it was hurtful to me as well

I would draw a distinction that Cleese doesn’t make in this clip. Extreme opinions does not automatically “other” people on the other extreme. It has a tendency to, perhaps, but it is avoidable. The fact that an opinion is extreme doesn’t make it wrong (civil rights), but neither does it make it right (the Hutaree).

I’d like to think that I’ve done a better job since then of not making people others. Maybe I have. Maybe I haven’t. How are you being an extremist who doesn’t “other”?

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