I recently found myself reading an article from The Daily Beast about how YouTube’s “recommended videos” algorithm guides viewers into increasingly fringe content bubbles, leading them towards so-called “extreme” political perspectives — white supremacy, Holocaust denial, anti-feminism, etc. The algorithm — which the article calls a “radicalization machine” — can make these groups appear much more widespread than they are. What struck me most was the power of this passive persuasion. YouTube’s system is a symbol of the power of a surrounding culture.
Political views such as the above can still seem unbelievable, but they are difficult to dismiss. Naturally, in response to such views many people feel angry or indignant. We have a tendency to draw a line and say “Enough!” We may even have the sense that time is running short. Environmental apocalypse looms and there is talk of a deteriorating world order. All is urgency. We feel impotent. Yet the more pressure we feel the less careful our responses will be to the political climate, and as The Daily Beast shows, small influences can be remarkably strong.
In part, these “extremist” groups that we are seeing are reacting to other movements. A recent Vox article featuring the political filmmaker Deeyah Khan explores this idea. Khan has fought racism in many ways, but is “not sure what difference it made.” Changing her approach, she attempted to understand her radical “enemies” face-to-face. Drawing on these experiences, she tells Vox that “These movements are deeply rooted in a sense of victimhood, real or imagined. So if we exclude them, if we shout at them, if we condemn them, that completely feeds into that. And then the monster gets bigger, not smaller.” Ironically, the misapplied fervour of one position can bolster the other.
Perhaps we feel retaliation to be our right, like an ancient law of revenge — “an eye for an eye” or the Furies of Greek mythology. But this goes both ways and leads us in circles, centrifugally, pulling us apart. We polarize into camps from which we automatically damn anyone on the other side of the fence, and this leads us into needlessly bitter rhetoric. Yet ad hominem attacks are not the only culprit. Even the relatively innocent sort of ridicule most of us have used against “obviously ignorant” political perspectives can be harmful. Our Facebook friends lists probably include more than a few people whose opinions contrast our own. Do our posts really help them understand our perspective? We should aim at improving the world, not merely satisfying a sense of justice. Our focus should be on effect.
The power of an effects-based approach on behaviour is evident in the world’s penal systems. For instance, the heavy-handed American prison system has a far higher reoffence rate than the relatively comfortable, humane prisons of Norway. The difference is that the United States focuses on punitive justice (or the people’s sense of it), whereas Norway focuses on preparing prisoners to re-enter society — rehabilitation. As Warden Are Høidal from Halden prison in Norway asks in an article from Business Insider: “Do you want people who are angry? Or people who are rehabilitated?” Norway treats prisoners as whole beings from a desire to change thinking, not really to “punish” at all. This psychological focus has obvious parallels to political expression.
Although Deeyah Kahn’s experiences were mixed, she was surprisingly positive overall: “I never believed I would remain friends with any of these white supremacists, that some of them would walk away from their movement after we interacted. But that’s what happened.”
I feel that the best way to begin is with an attitude of grace. This requires us to adopt a view of our enemies akin to the feeling of Scrooge’s nephew towards the human mass — as “fellow travellers to the grave.” Considering our opponents as human individuals, we might discover more aspects of ourselves in them than we expect. Yes, this includes Trump supporters — or whichever category of humanity we happen to hold in contempt because their views are not our own.
Image: Steven Sprott/The Cascade