Extremists are useful to accommodationists, but not vice versa.
In a political struggle, i.e. to get a law passed or struck down, extremists need moderates, because even if there are some extremists in the body of lawmakers, there usually won’t be enough to pass the legislation on their own.
But in a purely social struggle, or even (especially) a more personal struggle (e.g. one person trying to figure out how to deal with the rest of the world), extremists don’t need moderates at all, and indeed the moderates aren’t generally very useful to them.
On the other hand, extremists can be very useful to moderates, by highlighting how moderate the moderates are. As long as there are extremists, moderates can say “hey, I’m not one of those extremists,” and distance themselves from others who basically share the same outlook.
The key concept here is the Overton window , based on the observation that newcomers to a debate will gravitate toward what’s seen as the “center,” with fewer and fewer of them agreeing with positions that are further and further from what’s perceived as the center.
Therefore, if you’re trying to “move the window,” it helps to have extremists on your side, since if the “window” ranges from an extreme position on one side (call it “X”) to a moderate position on the other (“Y”), the “center” appears to be roughly in the “moderate X” range.
Likewise, if you can paint moderates on the other side as extremists, and extremists on your own side as moderates, you can “move the window” much further toward your own side of the spectrum. And it’s a lot easier to do that when the other side’s moderates can’t point to prominent and visible examples of people on their side who are more extreme.
So when we look at the ongoing intra-atheist struggle between the “New Atheists” (some of them, anyway) and the “accommodationists,” we can see that the latter group benefits from the existence of the former, and their struggle against the former, than the “New Atheists” benefit from the existence of the latter, or from any squabbling with them.
What does that mean, in the grand scheme of things? I’m not sure. But for some reason I think it’s interesting.
(cartoon via Atheist Cartoons)