Extreme and Normal: A Panel Discussion with Bernhard Schlink

Extreme and Normal: A Panel Discussion with Bernhard Schlink

Discussants: Kai Evers, Lilith Mahmud, David Pan, Bernhard Schlink

When we speak of extremism, we are setting the extremes against some idea of what is normal. The extremes challenge this normality by offering an alternative vision. But what is normal? In the eighteenth century, in pre-revolutionary colonial North America and pre-revolutionary France, monarchy was normal, and liberal republicanism was an extremist position. Today, however, liberal democracy is now considered normal in the U.S. and France. This example of a shift of frame indicates that the danger of extremism is that it might undermine liberal democracy itself. Extremism threatens to shatter the basic structures of our existing order, replacing it with an alternative conception. Confronting extremism consequently involves the defense of our existing mode of order against alternatives, and this defense brings up fundamental questions. Violence against minorities is perhaps the most egregious form of extremism that we find in our liberal democracies. Such violence, if itself established as something normal, would create the kind of white ethnic supremacy that would undermine the very structure of our liberal democracy, which depends upon the protection of minority rights. So the opposition to such extremism must involve in the first place an affirmation of the liberal ideas that ground our order. But is it enough to simply insist on the principles of equal rights and protection of minorities? With broad sections of the population in support of populism, it would also be necessary to make distinctions between different positions. In the first place, we would have to distinguish between the white supremacist fringe – the truly extremist right – from a broader right-wing movement that is not necessarily racist, but does question the current hierarchies that structure our political and economic order. If extremism questions the existing order, then extremism today might also include a legitimate opposition to the way power is distributed in our society. If, in challenging extremism, we were to shut down such a discussion, we would run the risk of affirming and cementing hierarchical structures that may indeed need to be reformed. Such a strategy could possibly strengthen populist movements and lead them to more extreme positions. Confronting extremism then requires both careful self-examination and an ability to differentiate between related positions. In our panel discussion, the discussants will address the question: When confronting extremism today, what should we be defending and what should we be attacking?

Event Details

  • When: Wednesday, February 14, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
  • Where: Humanities Gateway 1010
  • Organizer: Julia Lupton (email)
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