Perspectives; Thoughts; Comments; Opinions; Discussions

Commentary By Elliot Friedland Sunday, August 13, 2017

URL of the original posting site: https://clarionproject.org/smash-extremism/ 

A man with a Nazi flag at the Charlottesville rally. (Photo: Twitter)

A man with a Nazi flag at the Charlottesville rally. (Photo: Twitter)

In the aftermath of yesterday’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, we must address problems of rising extremism on all sides of the political spectrum.

In case you missed what happened, one person was killed and 19 others injured after a man rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia. The march was notable for its open use of Nazi insignia and salutes, confederate flags, chants like “White Lives Matter” and “you will not replace us.” Of course there was also violence.

These were displays of naked and unacceptable bigotry that must be staunchly opposed. Although Clarion focuses on Islamic extremism, different forms of extremism feed into each other.

Let’s unpack it.

Resentful Identity Politics Fuels Hatred

“Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders,” Nazi leader Hermann Goering, who knew a thing or two about whipping the masses into a blind fury, said during the Nuremberg trials. “That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

The Virginia rally featured white nationalist protesters chanting “White Lives Matter” who clearly saw their group (white people) as being under attack. This narrative has been revved up by white supremacist leaders who are capitalizing on an increasingly militant subsection of the left which views all white people as inherently oppressive. The modern narrative of “white victimhood” thus builds on the legacy of historical white supremacy for the modern age.

Similarly, there are also Islamic hate preachers who use this same narrative — that Muslims are under threat — to peddle hateful rhetoric and recruit vulnerable people to extremist causes.

Both of these extremist ideas are fueled by framing the group identity as being hugely important and something that is under attack. Hateful ideas fuel violence.

Traumatic Events Can Increase Polarization

What is called confirmation bias by psychologists can result in violent events driving people further apart, as people interpret a situation through the lens of their pre-existing beliefs.

It’s why anti-fascist activist Daryl Lamont Jenkins told The Atlantic following yesterday’s protests, “This is the beginning of the end of the alt-right, that’s for sure,” while alt-right protester Andrew Dodson told the same reporter, “This is a phenomenal victory.”

Events like this can deepen distrust between the left and the right. They can lead to more left-aligned people suspecting all right wingers of being neo-Nazis, while right wing people accuse the left of focusing on a handful of extremists rather than other issues.

American Ideals Transcend Identities

America has one of the best national narratives around. America was intended to be “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Abraham Lincoln said, in contrast to ethno-nationalist ideas of “blood and soil.”

The American proposition that anyone can be free to flourish, speak their minds and succeed regardless of their background as equal citizens in a free republic is one of the most powerful and revolutionary ideas in the history of the world.

Affirming a commitment to that shared vision, without whitewashing the admittedly rocky history of the United States, can create the bonds of empathy necessary to move from a place of “my group vs. your group” to a space of “our group.”

Then perhaps we can talk about white supremacists (as opposed to white people in general) and Islamic extremists (rather than Muslims in general) as both being opposed to shared American values. Only then can extremists on both sides be marginalized and addressed.

If America is unable to look to a shared story that can help bring people together, there may be dark times ahead.

ABOUT THE COMMENTATOR: Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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