When extremist language is normalised, it threatens the basis of our common life
The internet is a great place to find like-minded people, until it isn’t.
Lovers of orchids, cocker spaniels, wave-surfing, Massey-Ferguson tractors, hot air ballooning, cream cakes and crocheting will find new friends online, attracted by the same loves.
If your thing is extreme running, extreme couponing or extreme ironing (look them up), you’ll locate people who feel likewise.
And then there are the lovers of extreme political views.
You do not need to feel alone, isolated and an oddity in your extremism; the internet will search for people who think the same way and introduce you to them, offering online space for mutual encouragement. And Sunstein’s law of group polarisation - whereby collections of like-minded people obsessed with purity get everyone vying for more extreme positions to prove themselves - ensures extremists get more extreme as the less fanatical bail out.
Julia Ebner spends her working hours studying extremist movements for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue ( www.isdglobal.org ) and has published ‘Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists (Bloomsbury 2020). The figures are especially telling around far right activism:
‘in 2018, roughly as many far right extremists as Islamist extremists received support from the UK government’s prevention programme ‘Channel’. Germany now counts as many as 12,700 potentially violent far-right extremists, according to the latest report of the Interior Ministry. And in the US, every single extremism-related murder of 2018 was linked to at least one right-wing extremist movement’.
The far right not only finds fellow travellers online, it looks to win them, using psychological manipulation and the skilful use of digital tools. They identify a specific crisis narrative, driven by four ideas: conspiracy, dystopia, impurity and existential threat. It’s an old Nazi playlist round ethnic purity, where Jewish people are usually implicated in some grand, global banking scheme to subjugate all others.
But like the resurgence of vinyl, which everyone thought would be consigned to museums of the twentieth century, it’s back and it’s fashionable.
Tackling the far right has become a lot harder now it is no longer restricted to Seventies marches of the BNP through multi-ethnic communities. If its virulence were only online it might be contained - if we naively believe that the online and offline worlds are essentially separate entities. However, a succession of atrocities have been carried out by far-right individuals, inspired by the online groups they belonged to, and there is evidence of a contagion effect.
But there is a problem that comes closer to home: we are normalising extremism. The rhetoric of the far right has been adopted by the leaders of many of the world’s populist parties. As their electoral appeal widens, mainstream parties have to find ways of neutralising the populists’ attraction and usually do so by adopting some of their ideas and slogans. In this way, echoes of the far right are being heard, not just in illiberal democracies, but in liberal ones too.
Conspiracy theories have also mainstreamed, as people look for patterns in the behaviour of others, not to understand their motivations, but to condemn them. Sadly, coronavirus is being manipulated by a far right that suggests immigrants are responsible for its spread. Those, like Julia Ebner, who seek to call this out, face online campaigns that go way beyond the already unacceptable bounds of bullying into something much darker and iniquitous.
There are no simple routes into addressing the new far right, not least because in real world encounters, they eschew the language of the old far-right and project chic and hipster images designed to confuse anti-fascists. But there are places to start, which include the way we each think and express ourselves.
Angry, impressionable, vulnerable, lonely and embittered minds are being hacked online. And we are each more prone to these sensations than we like to admit. Every day we are called to the transformation of our minds, that we might discern the purpose of God for our lives and our world (Romans 12: 1-2). It is an entirely different process to the mind hack, because it is an invitation from the heart of God’s love in Christ that spills over in compassion for others - especially those who don’t look like we do.
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