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An age of extremes

Mark Milke: Why does every discussion instantly ratchet up to the best- and worst-possible interpretations, with nuance actively disdained? Because that’s the age we live in.

If you want to understand the age we live in, here’s a suggestion: Think of it as the age of extremes.

I don’t mean that in the Marxist sense, i.e., the interpretation advanced by the late Marxist academic Eric Hobsbawm a few decades back in a book with that exact title. I mean that over the past several years, random events and reactions to the same seem to go viral. And when they do, either the event itself leads to an extreme, or the reaction to it does.

A first useful example is the Coronavirus. The various government responses to that virus around the world over the past sixteen months have ranged from the relatively restrained (Sweden, at the start) to full lockdowns (Italy and Australia) with plenty of countries, regions, and provinces in between.

One could offer up any number of opinions: too harsh one year ago; too lax recently; never properly focused on the most vulnerable, i.e., seniors in care homes but instead battening down every hatch and restricting everyone overmuch.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is a good example here. He recently locked down the entire province, including playgrounds, quickly reversing on the latter after a torrent of justified, withering criticism.

But wherever one lands on what specific responses should have been/should not have been, there’s no question plenty of extreme responses have occurred. I don’t even mean that as a criticism, though that would depend on the location. One could argue Ontario’s response was too extreme, while India’s government might have tragically been too lax.

But here, citizens also have some responsibility in the age of extremes. Let’s take politicians and governments out of the equation. The question for every individual has been: Is there some utility in playing it safe? For example: yes, wear the damn mask; avoid large and multiple social gatherings; and in general, don’t be reckless and stupid.

The answer to this by some—think of those dumb parties at Big White near Kelowna —has been an extreme response: I/others will never catch the Coronavirus and/or we don’t care because we don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s the same with the anti-mask crowd and the “I’ll-gather-in-large-numbers-if-I-want-to” crowd, and also for the conspiratorial anti-vaccine crowd. The reaction is extreme.

Again, forget governments and their diktats in all this to keep the issue clear. Pretend governments had done nothing. The question would then still be: Is wearing a mask, putting a bit of distance between you and 300 of your closest friends, and getting a vaccine once available a good idea or a bad idea? To answer “bad” is the extreme position, as Indians are tragically finding out, though in India, the problem is a lack of vaccines as opposed to anti-vaccination musings.

Or ponder some other examples of extreme reactions: central banks and government budgets.

Post-virus, central banks have dropped interest rates to near-zero and are buying government bonds at a furious rate.

I grasp the need to have quasi-rescued the economy from a depression. But with historically low interest rates—an extreme reaction—central banks have, of course, contributed to another extreme: Soaring real estate markets nearly everywhere, including in cities worldwide and in Canada that were already nosebleed-overvalued. (Yes, Vancouver and Toronto, I’m talking about you.) That hurts the poor most of all as it is and has been locking them out of the market for homes.

As for governments, higher deficit spending was only somewhat defensible in response to a pandemic. However, keep in mind that massive government spending is itself an extreme reaction to the initial extreme government reaction to the pandemic. In the space of a few years, one federal government—ours— will now rack up public debt equivalent to what all federal governments borrowed since 1867 ($662 billion between 2015 and 2023 versus $630 billion), there’s a word for that: Extreme.

Another example: the claim that the American presidential election was stolen. That claim ignored how garden-variety errors and low-level fraud—which occurs in every election—was elevated to a grand conspiracy, proof of which was lacking according to 50 American judges and to Republican political operatives like Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s campaign manager who quite properly noted 2020 was nothing like the actual close contest he was a part of in 2000. But in an age of extremes, reasoned analysis falls flat.

And there are other examples of our age of extremes. Ever since the rise of social media, any comment, argument, claim, mistake, honest difference, or even thought from 30 years previous can be elevated in minutes to a firestorm of accusations and reactions. If we could connect such immediate intense heat to a power plant, we’d heat our homes for centuries. But that’s life in an age of extremes.

Not every action or reaction that is extreme is always wrong. Winston Churchill was famously right about the danger Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler posed to the world. He was considered extreme for nearly a decade for saying so. But he was right.

But most events and response are not that world-consequential. They are neither extreme nor call for an extreme response. When that happens, the ability to parse through what really matters and what really should be done is lost. The permanent crisis mode is unhelpful. There are real crises to work through and Covid is one of them, but the age of extremes is too often anti-reason, and exhausting.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.