Meet the extremist! The Wilcox Criteria

Meet the extremist! The Wilcox Criteria

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently called the al-Nusra Front, which emerged during the Syrian civil war, an “extremist” organization in answer to a question by a Turkish opposition party deputy, Umut Oran of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Al-Nusra declared in May that it is the Syria branch of al-Qaeda, and it is one of the main reasons why the “West” is reluctant to give full support to the Syrian rebels; the fear being that al-Nusra will push aside all the others and turn Syria into a second Afghanistan next to Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.

Extremism, like terrorism, is a sensitive word to define an ideology, or a group, or a political personality. It is time-sensitive. An extremist of today could be a centrist of tomorrow depending on the changing political, social and cultural circumstances. The Taliban for example is the new normal of Afghanistan. Nazi ideology used to be normal when it became a part of the German government through elections, now it is condemned as extremism. Irgun was considered an extremist, terrorist organization until the establishment of Israel. It is similar to Fatah in Palestine, the African National Congress in South Africa and many other examples.

Extremism, therefore, could be defined at its time of presence and should be taken seriously due to the cost to human lives and the devastation of societies, countries and the like.

“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists,” says Robert Kennedy, “Is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”

Laird Wilcox is an American researcher and a human rights defender who has been working on the concept of extremism for decades. He analyzed the rhetoric and propaganda of several hundred militant “fringe” political and social groups across the political spectrum and identified a number of specific traits or behaviors that tend to represent the extremist “style.”


Here are the Wilcox Criteria for extremism:

1. Character assassination: They object strenuously when this is done to them.

2. Name-calling and labeling: In order to divert attention from their arguments and to discourage others from hearing them out. 

3. Irresponsible sweeping generalizations: On little or no evidence, and confuse similarity with sameness.

4. Inadequate proof for assertions: They tend to be motivated by feelings more than facts.

5. Advocacy of double standards: They judge themselves in terms of intentions and others by their acts. 

6. Tendency to view their opponents and critics as essentially evil: Opponents hold opposing positions because they are bad people, immoral, dishonest, not because they simply disagree, or are perhaps mistaken.

7. Manichean worldview: “Those who are not with me are against me.”

8. Advocacy of some degree of censorship of their opponents and/or critics: This may include a campaign to keep opponents from media access. Extremists would prefer that you listen only to them.

9. Tend to identify themselves in terms of who their enemies are: Tendency to view their enemies as evil and powerful. 

10. Tendency toward argument by intimidation: To disagree with them is to give aid and comfort to the enemy. 

11. Use of slogans, buzzwords, and thought-stopping clichés: In order to avoid awareness of troublesome facts and compelling counter-arguments.

12. Assumption of moral or superiority over others: After all, who can bear to deal with common people when one is trying to save the world!

13. Doomsday thinking: (The catastrophe) is just around the corner unless we follow their program. Any setback or defeat is the “beginning of the end!”

14. Belief that it’s okay to do bad things in the service of a “good” cause: With extremists, the end justifies the means.

15. Emphasis on emotional responses and less importance is attached to reasoning: Effective extremists tend to be effective propagandists. 

16. Hypersensitivity and vigilance: Extremists see “latent” subversion, perversion, disloyalty, and so on in innocent gestures and ambiguous behaviors.

17. Use of supernatural rationale for beliefs and actions: It’s surprising how many people are reluctant to challenge religiously motivated extremism because it represents “religious belief.”

18. Problems tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty: The more laws or “rules” there are that regulate the behavior of others, the more secure extremists feel.

19. Inclination toward “Group think”: The result is a deterioration of reality-testing, rationality and moral judgment.

20. Tendency to personalize hostility: Extremists often wish for the personal bad fortune of their “enemies,” and celebrate when it occurs. 

21. The system is no good unless they win: If they lose an election, then it was “rigged.” If public opinion turns against them, it was because of “brainwashing.” The test of the rightness or wrongness of the system is how it impacts upon them.

Now it is up to you to test the politicians, groups, parties and others that you are familiar with against the 21 Wilcox Criteria. If there are one or two checks, that might be a consequence of the cruelty of politics. Things might go worse as the checks on the list grow; then you can meet an extremist there.