Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Explaining Extremism

I'm wondering to what extent this is true, or true beyond a superficial level:
“The process and structure of radicalization and extremism,” J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, wrote via email, “are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists).”

Scholars have often observed a radicalization process that goes something like this: After a first contact with the ideology, a person’s curiosity drives them to seek out more information, often through social media. After trying it on for size, they decide that the ideology sufficiently addresses their grievances, usually by framing it as the result of their group—their Muslim brothers and sisters, or their brothers and sisters in the white race—are being victimized by another group, say infidels or non-white immigrants. Then, the new adherent will consider whether he or she is doing enough to advance the cause, and if the answer is no, the person will act. “Extremist groups rely on a crisis-solution construct,” says Berger. “The in-group”—the ideological group, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS members—“is afflicted with a crisis that is blamed on the out-group”—people excluded from that group as enemies and threats, say, non-believers or non-whites—“and the extremist movement is presented as offering a solution to that crisis, which is often violent. The crisis is defined as being intrinsic to the identity groups involved, rather being than situational or temporary.” . . .

Violence isn’t always the result; few people radicalize in the first place, and still fewer commit attacks after doing so. But what can lead to violence is the many ways in which the process of radicalization is constricting: It alienates you from family and friends, and posits an acute problem to which the ideology demands a solution. After a while, it feels like an emergency every day. “The general psychological process of moving to those movements is very much the same,” says Koehler, who is also a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It is a process of de-pluralization and isolation. There is a grievance or perceived threat, and it gets more and more intense until you don’t see any other solution but violence.”
I feel doubts because to some extent all politics works this way; don't Democrats and Republicans identify enemies they claim are making them suffer? Doesn't the language of crisis and solution permeate every political campaign?

I don't see how this account usefully discriminates between people who become socialists or join the Moral Majority from those who become suicide bombers.

I have likewise seen definitions of a "cult" that seem to describe all organized religion.

Movements are extremist because they are extreme, not because they are like all other movements. And what makes them extreme is not at all touched by this definition.


JustPeachy said...

Paging Eric Hoffer...

G. Verloren said...


"I feel doubts because to some extent all politics works this way; don't Democrats and Republicans identify enemies they claim are making them suffer? Doesn't the language of crisis and solution permeate every political campaign?"


Do you honestly think Democrats and Republicans identify each other as true enemies? Perhaps it can feel like that's true moreso in the present, but you yourself have pointed out how politics not even that long ago used to be far less partisan. Only the most radical and extremist individuals on either side of the spectrum thought of, say, the Clinton presidency or the Bush Junior presidency as being some sort of fundemental crisis that would ever necessitate responding with violence and terror.

I think maybe part of where you're struggling is that you're quoting a very dry and clinical description of the radicalization process. It's a psychological assessment, using the sort of sterile terminology and understatement typical of such.

That said, I do think there is absolutely a common psychological thread running between all different kinds of political and ideological conflicts, which you're possibly picking up on.

The difference between people who become socialists and people who become suicide bombers is one of scale. The underlying psychology actually is largely the same, it's just that in one case, it's taken to the extreme. The vast majority of people don't become radicalized because in the vast majority of cases, their psychological pressures simply aren't excessive enough to drive them to such extremes.

When a person has grievances, but they feel that those grievances can be addressed civilly, or that they can be acceptably endured for some measure of time, they don't radicalize. It's only when a person is led to believe that there is no acceptable alternative that they radicalize and turn to violence.

When your local road is full of potholes, you don't respond by making a terrorist strike against the local civilian population to compel and coerce the government into taking action to adress your grievance. Why would you? Your grievance can and will be addressed simply by sending it through the normal channels of government.

When you run into a larger issue and have a bigger grievance, such as with a divisive law or an unpopular presidential candidate, you still don't grab a Kalashnikov and strap on a vest of C-4 to deal with it. You get out and protest, and you work to support and spread your cause through civil discourse, and you ultimately get out and vote in the next election.

Why? Because you have a certain degree of faith in the system, and in society, and even in your political opposition. And even when your cause doesn't emerge victorious, you accept and live with the results, and perhaps try again further down the line.

But what do you do when your grievances are simply too big or too unmanageable to be solveable? When you have demands that no one in power will even begin to consider, and which you are utterly unwilling to compromise on?

G. Verloren said...


When the Irish felt that they had no justice under English law, no means of ever having their grievances against the English addressed, and ultimately no future under English rule, their cynical desperation led directly to the birth of the IRA and modern terrorism. They felt that if the English would not listen, then the only acceptable course of action was to use force to make them listen.

But why target civilians? Why attack innocent people instead of wage war against the government itself, which is where your actual grievances lie? Why terrorism instead of rebellion?

The answer is simply a crippling disparity of strength and resources. If people with severe grievances have enough power to actually wage a war or stage a rebellion or a coup, they will actually do so. But when the odds are stacked hopelessly against them, and they feel there is no realistic chance of defeating the government they wish to rebel against, they turn to other means of coercion to achieve their ends, and hence to attacking civilians.

The Irish tried to wage a guerilla campaign at first, but they soon recognized the utter hopelessness of the effort. Moreover, they didn't actually want to overthrow the entire governmental system and take control for themselves. They just wanted key grievances addressed, and to feel like they had a real say in how things were run.

And thus the terror campaign began. They couldn't hope to defeat the British Army, but they could perhaps break people's faith in the British government. Make people fearful, show them that their masters couldn't protect them, and tell them it would all end if only the government would stop being unreasonable, meet their demands, and recognize and address their legitimate grievances.

The same sort of situation applies to other terrorists.

Muslim terrorists overwhelmingly are poor young men who feel hopelessly oppressed, who feel they have no future, and who feel that no one in power will ever listen to their words in peace, and so they must force them to listen with violence.

Nazis follow the same model as well. They feel that their very identity is under attack, and that no one in power is willing to recognize the existential threat they believe themselves to be facing. In their minds, the "pure white race" is being secretly and systematically exterminated by an insidious hidden evil, and the governments of the world are puppets of a nefarious Jewish conspiracy. With such a twisted and diseased worldview, is it any wonder they believe the only solution is to take up arms and force their demands to be met by violence?

In the case of the Third Reich, the Nazis were able to seize governmental power, and use that power to wage actual war. But modern day Nazis lack such power, and in their impotence the only way to coerce the powers-that-be into meeting their demands would be through inflicting terror on civilians populations.