The Perils of Extremism: terrorism professor warns isolation of ideas leads to radicalism

Written by: 
Emmalee Smith

Extremism is something everybody can experience, which is why it’s important to look for it in themselves and speak out against it when they see it, said Political Science Professor Brian Houghton at the BYU-Hawaii 2017 Convocation on Sept. 28.


Houghton, who is an expert on terrorism, began by talking about a terrorist attack that happened while he was living in Germany. A woman terrorist had killed a soldier and then taken his military ID to plant a car bomb. The bomb exploded and killed two people, injured others, and caused destruction of the surrounding vehicles and buildings.


He said he asked himself, “Why would someone do this?” He analyzed terrorist situations and concluded that extremism was the explanation.


Houghton said extremism was like a situation when a mother, after hearing the negative and positive views on vaccination, focuses on the negative and eventually becomes so against vaccinations she starts to show intolerance for others who do not share her view. She no longer does it for her children, but for herself, he said, and she is no longer open to the other side’s information or reasoning.


Kali Fermantez, associate professor of Hawaiian Studies, was on the discussion panel for the convocation held later in the day. He questioned the definition of the term extremism and if an individual who does not conform to “my normal” makes them an extremist. He gave the example of Mormons and how they could be seen as extremists because they don’t conform to society and have different views than modern cultures.


Houghton replied, “[Extremism] is not just about turning away from the mainstream. The key point is not tolerating other viewpoints.” He added showing violence and hatred while not being open to other sides is how extremists act.


Houghton answered one question about if Martin Luther King, Jr. was an extremist, “He did seem like an extremist at the time, but the difference is that he had extreme views – he was not an extreme person.”


One peril of extremism, he explained, is isolation. Isolation is something that can happen when people start focusing on one side and eventually get so deep into that side they no longer associate or communicate with others of a differing side or opinion. This can isolate people from friends, family, he said, and even God. Houghton said, “We are stronger together with diversity.”


Another peril of extremism is the inability to be given constructive criticism and be part of rational conversations. It is important to be able to have a conversation with others and listen to what they have to say instead of just who they are or who they represent.


Elvin Laceda, a sophomore studying biology from the Philippines, said, “This is a very timely discussion because of converging opinions of what is wrong and what is right.” He said he likes to look at different views and is outspoken about them on social media.


Laceda said one time the Philippine government saw one of his posts and canceled his flight and speech he was to present about his business RiceUp. He said the president and government are so one sided that discussion of other views is not permissible.


Houghton explained situations like Laceda’s as an example of a “black and white” view - where a person puts people into a stereotype and nothing people say or do can change that person’s view. This also causes dehumanization.


Houghton told a story from post-World War I when Germany was struggling from not only the taxation of war but also the humiliation of losing it. During this period, some Germans made illustrations of Jews coveting money and giving children candy with bad intentions. In the illustrations, the children figure out the plot and report it to the police who then arrest the Jews.


He explained the Germans created the illustrations to deflect some of their difficulties and put the blame of the situation on others. This was just one step towards dehumanization, which led to millions of deaths.


Houghton said extremism is a big problem when it becomes mainstream. “When people start to listen to the lies during times of uncertainty, extensive violence is just a step away.”


He said one way of staying clear of these perils is staying humble. He said people must exit their echo chambers and seek honest counsel. An echo chamber, he explained, is only listening to your views and those who have your save views. Instead, he advised looking at all the views and various options on subjects.


Another way is to speak up. He quoted Martin Niemöller, who was outspoken against the Nazi Germany reign and was imprisoned for it: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”


Houghton said, “Truth does not suffer. You must have courage to act.”  This doesn’t always mean protest, he said, but some things must not go unchecked. “Do not tolerate the intolerant.”


Xayesi Pastores, a junior TESOL major from the Philippines, said Houghton’s words were thought-provoking. She said she found herself looking back on what she’s done and what she thinks she needs to be doing now to stand up for truth.


It’s also important to help those who suffer from extremism, Houghton said. He talked about the LDS program called “I Was Once a Stranger,” which was made to help refugees. “Even though there are no refugees here in Laie, there are still ways in which to help them,” Houghton said.

Date Published: 
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Last Edited: 
Saturday, November 11, 2017

NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Nov. 2017 print issue.