A Deep-Roots Strategy to Combat Hateful Ideologies: Offer Them More of What They Truly Want

By Tim Hjersted /
Mar 4, 2018
A Deep-Roots Strategy to Combat Hateful Ideologies: Offer Them More of What They Truly Want

"Influence is NOT about convincing people to want different things than they already want. It's about showing them that the way to get what they already want, is by following you." - Charlie Houpert

Lately, I've been interested in exploring how we can apply this strategy to combatting white supremacy and other harmful, extremist and violent ideologies. Obviously, the goal would not be to show them how following us will help them create a white ethnostate; it would be to show them how they can get more of what they TRULY want: and that's a meaningful life, a life of dignity and self-worth.

White supremacy offers people who believe it something of value. In the same way that people are attracted to religions and other worldviews because they offer an attractive story that gives their life meaning, we need to imagine: what story can we offer about their existence and identity that can give them more meaning and purpose than their current story? Can we imagine an alternative story so compelling that they'll want to abandon the old story in favor of the new one?

Currently, the story we are offering them and reflecting back to them is that they are basically garbage humans for holding their current views and that they are more than likely unredeemable. They can accept total humiliation and shame for being fooled into this toxic worldview forever (and accept that their essence as a person is intrinsically bad), or they can hold onto their current worldview, which offers them at least a small sense of dignity and meaning from their perspective, motivating them to continue fighting for a world that (we know) won't give them what they truly want.

Given the choices on offer, I'm not surprised so many hold on to their existing beliefs. Who wants to admit they're wrong when the price is humiliation?

One persuasion strategy we rarely try but which is useful in all debate situations is offering our opponent a way to "save face."

As researchers have discovered from studying violence in prisons, inmates consistently mention "disrespect" and "dishonor" as the prime motivations for violence. They would rather die than be dishonored.

Because I believe this is so profound and so important for us to understand, I want to quote a passage from James Gilligan at length:

During the past 35 years I have used prisons and prison mental hospitals as "laboratories" in which to investigate the causes and prevention of the various forms of violence and the relationships between these forms and to what I will call (with a nod to William James) "the varieties of moral experience." In the course of that work, I have been struck by the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners, or mental patients, why they assaulted or even killed someone. Time after time, they would reply "because he disrespected me" or "he disrespected my visitor [or wife, mother, sister, girl-friend, daughter, etc.]." In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it into the slang phrase, "He dis'ed me."

Whenever people use a word so often that they abbreviate it, it is clearly central to their moral and emotional vocabulary. But even when they did not abbreviate it, references to the desire for respect as the motive for violence kept recurring. For example, I used to think that people committed armed robberies in order to get money; and indeed, that is the superficial explanation that they would often prefer to give, to themselves and to us. But when I actually sat down and spoke at length with men who had repeatedly committed such crimes, I would start to hear comments like "I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I pointed a gun at some dude's face."

On one occasion, the officers in a prison had become involved in a running battle with a prisoner in which he would assault them and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. They placed him in solitary confinement, deprived him of even the last few privileges and possessions a prison inmate has; there was no further punishment to which they could subject him without becoming subject to punishment themselves, and yet he continued to assault them whenever they opened his door. At that point they gave up and asked me to see if I could help them understand what was going on so they could extricate themselves from a situation that was only harming both parties to the conflict. (Incidentally, one can observe this same mutually self-defeating vicious cycle on a national and international scale and throughout history, both in this country and elsewhere, as in Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq; and historically, as in the punitive peace settlement following the First World War that strengthened the revanchist political movements that culminated in the Second World War to choose just a few among many possible examples).

When I saw this prisoner I asked him, "What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?" It seemed to me that this was exactly what he was doing. In response, this man, who was usually so inarticulate that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, astonished me by standing up tall, looking me in the eye, and replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: "Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem." And then, speaking more in his usual manner, he added "And I'll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it." He went on to describe how the officers were, he felt, attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and Self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, "I still have my pride and I won't let them take that away from me. If you ain't got pride, you got nothin'." He made it clear to me that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands.

Nor was that true just of this man. One of the most common fantasies I have heard from many of the most violent prison inmates is the scenario of going to their deaths in a hail of gunfire while killing as many people as possible before they selves die. In fact, several hundred violent criminals in this country provoke their own deaths at the hands of the police in exactly that way every year. Indeed, this phenomenon is so common that police forces around the country (whose members often hate having to deal with these situations and are themselves traumatized by the outcome) have given it a nickname: "suicide by cop." In World War II, mutatis mutandis, Japan's kamikaze pilots behaved in a way that had much the same result, as do contemporary suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, except that it is the means by which they kill their enemies that kills them too.

In the prisons and on the streets of the United States, such behavior appears to be committed by people who are so tormented by feelings of being shamed and disrespected by their enemies that they are willing to sacrifice their bodies and their physical existence to replace those intolerable feelings with the opposite feelings of pride and self- respect, and of being honored and admired by their allies and at least respected by their enemies. Such people experience the fear that they provoke in their victims as a kind of ersatz form of respect, the only type they are capable of achieving.



I believe we ignore these insights to our own disadvantage and to theirs.

Life After Hate uses this strategy to great effectiveness - they are able to get people out of hate groups by welcoming them back into the "community of us." They celebrate survivors who were able to escape these hateful ideologies and groups the same way we see survivors who escaped dangerous cults that they may have been raised in since childhood.

Most people who suffer from hateful ideology share similar experiences. They were indoctrinated into that ideology due to their environmental circumstances. All white supremacists were once innocent children who were oppressed by exposure to these toxic ideologies, and no one was able to help them before their beliefs became hardened and their minds became fully oppressed by these ideas. This is an example of internalized oppression - the oppressive and toxic ideas they were subjected to eventually become internalized as one's own thoughts and beliefs.

I know that if I had been raised in a similar environment and had lived in their shoes, I would have very likely grown up the same. I didn't because I got lucky and was raised by Unitarian Universalist Sufis, who taught me to see past all of the distinctions which divide humanity and see that the whole of humanity is my family. This was also in Kansas! So statistically, I see myself as extremely lucky. If I had been born into a family just a few miles away, I could have been born into an ultra-orthodox Christian family which taught me to hate gays, love the military, love FOX news, hate immigrants and secretly think the problems that black people face is due to their own violence and depraved values.

To me, that's the power of environment. I don't believe any child benefits from being oppressed by any of the toxic beliefs that get passed down to them by our culture.

What if we completely changed the frame of the "white supremacy" debate? Instead of framing them as oppressive, what if we framed them primarily as oppressed, whose toxic beliefs harm both others and themselves?

What if our concept of social justice, in this situation, was to help these oppressed people escape the ideology of their oppressors? Because liberating them will help liberate us all?

To do this, we have to see the original origin of toxic behavior: every adult human that we witness spewing hateful and violent ideology on the internet or in real life were all once innocent children who have grown up to become wounded human beings, and thus spill their suffering onto others.

The fundamental principle is that "hurt people hurt people."

For a very long time, our activism has been operating under an invisible myth of our culture - that "bad people" do "bad" things because they are bad, and "good people" do "good" things because they are good.

Behavioral psychology shows us that this is a myth. As Gabor Mate says, "Yes, you can talk about human nature, but only in the sense of basic human needs... that lead to certain traits if they are met, and a different set of traits if they are denied."



Violence and the seductive nature of various extreme ideologies can all be linked to a denial of basic human needs throughout childhood and into adulthood.

If we want to stop the production of extremists in our culture and help those who have already been enticed by these ideologies to escape, we need to start applying the science of behavioral psychology to our activist strategies and approach. We can hack at the branches of the tree for an eternity and believe that "bad people" will always be with us, and must be fought and defeated, or we can go to the root of the tree, and see how all aberrant behavior is the product of our built environment, which fails to meet the basic, universal human needs of countless children, who then grow up to spill their suffering onto the world, creating the next generation of wounded children.

On this point, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a powerful story about the creation of "sea-pirates" in our society. If we do not look deeply into how sea-pirates are created and work to change the soil of our society, in 25 years time, we can guarantee that more children will grow up to become sea pirates.


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