By Andrea Bartoli and Peter T. Coleman 

The Consequences of Extremism

Roy Lewicki  What's an "extremist?" Roy Lewicki discusses how language can make a conflict better or worse.

Depending on one's perspective, extremism can have both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, it can draw the attention of one's opponent, the general public, or the international community to one side's hidden concerns. It can also send a message of desperation or of a deep and abiding commitment to a cause. As such, it may motivate a more powerful foe to consider negotiating, or third parties to intervene. And as the prevalence of such activities increase in a given conflict, they may become normative or glorified within one's group, thereby attracting others to the cause.

The negative consequences of extremism are varied. Violent atrocities committed by extremists (such as civilian bombings, kidnappings, and the spread of bio-toxins) enrage, traumatize, and alienate their targets, their opponents, and many potential allies to their cause (such as moderates on the other side and other regional and international members who morally oppose such acts). Extreme acts, even if committed by a small minority within a group, are often attributed to the entire group, and elicit an escalated response from the other side. At times, such responses are desired, as in the case of "spoilers" whose aim it is to stop peace processes which they believe to be exclusive or a betrayal of their cause. Ultimately, extremist ideologies, actions, and hostile inter-group interactions lead to a hardening of oppositional identities and deep ingroup commitments which contribute to the perpetuation of hostilities.

By Andrea Bartoli

By Peter Coleman

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Andrea Bartoli is the Founder and Director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University where he is a Senior Research Scholar. His research interests are mainly in the area of religion and conflict resolution, theory of multi-party negotiations and inter-cultural training. An anthropologist from Rome, he completed his Italian laurea (BA-MA equivalent) at the University of Rome, Italy, and his dottorato di ricerca (Ph.D. equivalent) at the University of Milan, Italy. He has been actively involved in conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy since the early 1980s as a member of the Community of St. Egidio (which he joined in 1970), focusing on Mozambique, Algeria, Burundi, Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). More recently he coordinated CICR conflict resolution initiatives in Colombia, East Timor, Myanmar (Burma) and Iraq.