Grassroots Deradicalization: A Call to White Moderates

Last week we woke to learn 50 worshippers in a New Zealand mosque had been murdered by a white supremacist. We were shocked by the location but not by much else in the story. Angry white men shooting innocents in public venues, schools, and houses of prayer have become our new normal. I’m far from alone in feeling helpless in the face of the rising tide of supremacy-fueled death. We offer thoughts and prayer, lobby Congress for gun control, and scream our rage on Twitter and Facebook, but nothing seems to make a difference.

That’s just not acceptable.

A few years ago I heard a story about a deradicalization program on NPR. The program described how people immersed in a violent, radical ideology can be pulled back out. The concept stuck with me, and after hearing the Christchurch news, I decided to learn more about those kinds of programs to see if there are tactics we can employ with the people in our lives who espouse supremacist views. Turns out there are things we can do.

Process of Radicalization

The process for falling into radical ideologies is outlined below.

  1. Existence of a vulnerability.  Certain conditions create a fertile ground for radicalization. Ideology alone is rarely enough; it needs to address and feed an underlying sense of longing or other unmet need. This vulnerability can be general (such as being socioeconomically disadvantaged), or can be specific (such as a formative experience in childhood).
  2. Triggering event. An interior switch is flipped in those who become extremists when an event occurs which results in their feeling powerless, unaccepted, invisible, and unimportant.
  3. Desire to restore previous sense of importance. The feeling of powerlessness is extremely uncomfortable, and fuels a need to return to a state of control.
  4. Search for certainty. The desire to restore importance turns into the action of finding a way to go back.
  5. Introduction of an explanation. The search results in discovery of a narrative which explains who caused the discomfort and why, and provides a solution for how the situation can be made better. Clear cut explanations and certainty are particularly effective.
  6. Connection to a network. The final stage of radicalization is envelopment into a network where the explanation and certainty are indoctrinated.

Significance Quest Theory offers an explanation for how people become involved in extremist groups, and connects into this process. It starts with the premise that we are all driven by a need to have significance. Humans are hard-wired to want to feel like we matter. This may sound obvious, but it’s a critical piece in the puzzle of how to help fight white supremacy.

What’s Triggering White Men?

White males used to know they ruled the world. They knew they mattered because (they believed) without them, families would not eat, companies would shut down, and governments couldn’t run. Men were the superheroes both on and off screen. In contemporary western societies this power structure has shifted significantly, and a widespread identity crisis is manifesting in all sorts of dangerous ways. Rabid views are not limited to men, of course, but males are invariably the ones who perpetrate the school, church, synagogue, and mosque shootings we’ve endured over the past months. Angry white men are the ones we need to be afraid of.

The unfortunate reality is that triggering events occur daily for these men. The recent US congressional election saw a record number of women of color taking seats formerly enshrined to white men. Women are standing up against sexual abuse and naming abusers, which threatens the status quo and potentially puts many men at risk due to past behaviors. LGBTQI+ people and their allies are standing up against exclusion by churches, which feels like Christianity is being stolen from them. The expectation that men avoid sexist, racist, and other derogatory language feels like a political correctness crackdown and a theft of their right to free speech.

These are just a few examples. Triggering events for these guys happen every day in multiple forms, from multiple sources. The search for an explanation about who stole their power and importance doesn’t take long. Not many of them seek out terrorist training organizations to join, and that’s good. What’s not good is that the poisonous narrative which feeds those who turn to acts of terror like the one in Christchurch is increasingly available; fed and promoted through social media.

MAGA stirs up the sense of something lost, something stolen, something which must be regained at all costs. By embracing the white nationalist ideology which comprises the MAGA mindset, and aligning themselves with Donald Trump’s victim messaging, men who’ve felt like they had no real purpose are emboldened with a false sense of heroism.

“Make America Great Again” is a horrifyingly effective campaign given the reality of hundreds of thousands of triggered men. It stirs up the sense of something lost, something stolen, something which must be regained at all costs. By embracing the white nationalist ideology which comprises the MAGA mindset, and aligning themselves with Donald Trump’s victim messaging, men who’ve felt like they had no real purpose are emboldened with a false sense of heroism. Trump feeds the outrage, and inflames the sense that there are multiple enemies to be battled. In this narrative, Mexicans are the enemy, and Muslims, and female politicians.  Belittling people and employing dehumanizing names for groups and individuals makes it easier to view them as “other.” The indoctrination network is no longer a camp to which inductees must travel for training. It’s available every time one of these men picks up their phone to check Twitter.

It isn’t heading in a good direction, folks, and we have to do something about it. We must keep pushing for common sense gun legislation, but we also need to intervene in the process of radicalization. We can’t shut down the network of poison-message deliverers, so we have to develop a grassroots intervention strategy. Deradicalization programs offer a plan of action, because they’ve developed models for helping reverse the whole cycle.

Process for Deradicalization

  1. Build Trust. Trust comes out of relationship, so if it all possible, develop a friendship. Show you care. Be vulnerable. Share your own stories of what makes you feel powerless.
  2. Ask open questions to encourage dialog. For example: “Why do you feel that way?” “When do you first remember that happening?” “What was going on in your life when that occurred?”
  3. Really listen to the answers. Look for the story behind the story. What got the person to where they are today? What broke? What hurts?
  4. Enter into Empathy. This can be hard when views are objectionable, but remember that engaging empathetically doesn’t mean you agree with the views, it means you’re trying to understand how they came to hold them. One of the reasons people become radicalized is that they don’t feel understood, except by the extremist ideology. Give them an alternate place to feel understood.
  5. Refrain from offering objections. Respond to anger with gentleness. Objecting will close their minds and end the dialog. The key to all of this is to encourage personal reflection.
  6. Ask questions about positive experiences with the perceived enemy. This might be a racial, religious, ethnic, or economic group. Do they know people who break the stereotype they believe exists? The goal is to start to form a crack in the ideological wall that the “other” is dangerous.
  7. Provide an alternative. Over time, the person may begin to question their assumptions. This creates a void which needs to be filled, and your role will be to offer alternatives which provide affirmation of inclusion, personhood, and self-worth.
  8. Provide opportunities for “significance-affording activities.” Given that radicalization is connected with a loss of feeling important and necessary, plugging individuals in to activities which help them feel needed and valued is tremendously useful. So invite the guy whose supremacist views drive you a bit nuts to help out at the food pantry, or to other activities which can increase his sense of worth.
  9. Engage with a support network. A sense of belonging is important, as is exposure to messaging which counters that offered by their previous network. This obviously isn’t as simple as telling someone to switch from Fox News to CNN, so you’ll have to give some thought to what sources of messaging they’ll find acceptable. Look for moderate messaging which connects to their reality.

That’s the process. You can see that it centers around the kind of active, connectional listening we often view as a feminine trait, but in my opinion it’s critical that deradicalization of white men be conducted by white men. The fear and confusion about the erosion of white masculine power can best be allayed by white men who are not afraid. There’s a need for camaraderie and validation, and women or people of color (the perceived threats) are more likely to be triggering. Having other men extend welcome, present an alternative model, encourage mimicry and belongingness into a new sense of self are all crucial pieces of the puzzle.

Females aren’t off the hook. We can employ the same techniques with radicalized women. Walking anyone away from loss-of-identity fueled rage is important. But the situation with men is a crisis. Lives are being lost.

The angry white men in your life are unlikely to load up a gun and start shooting people. But somewhere, right now, the kind of rage is building which does erupt in gunshots and blood. Can we work together to try to stem that rage? When you encounter an angry white man spouting rhetoric which targets Muslim, Latinx, black, LGBTQI+, Jewish, Asian, female, or other people, can you try to engage them in conversation and extend empathy, despite the sense of righteous rage which rises within you?

Isn’t it worth a try, if it means saving lives?

For further reading

Life After Hate

Want to Deradicalize Terrorists? Treat them like Everyone Else

Deradicalizing White People

Becoming, belonging and leaving – Exit processes among young neo-Nazis in Sweden

My Kid’s a neo-Nazi. What Should I Do?

Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Where True Love Is: An Affirming Devotional for LGBTQI+ Individuals and Their Allies. And Transfigured: A 40-day Journey through Scripture for Gender-Queer and Transgender people. She also wrote the Rumplepimple books; hilarious illustrated stories featuring a misunderstood doggy hero, his tutu-wearing sidekick cat named Mr. Noodles, and his two moms.

You can follow Suzanne on Facebook and Twitter, or check out the Where True Love Is website.

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash