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Hijacked: How our Brains (and Beliefs) Can Be Radicalized

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Protestors Crop

On January 6, 2021, pro-Trump protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol. Americans—and yes, Canadians—watched in shock as an “ordinary,” albeit angry, protest turned violent and invasive. Government officials were sent into lockdown as protestors, some carrying signs indicating a desire to lynch the vice president—or, even more alarmingly, zip-ties, indicating an intention to take prisoners—entered the federal government’s upper and lower chambers.

While their occupation of the Capitol was short and ultimately ineffective except generating chaos and getting the protestors in significant amounts of trouble, it lodged itself in our memories as an example of what extremism looks like right here in North America. Some of us may have thought it was as close to home as we’d ever see such an event.

Last month, we had to adjust our expectations.

At the end of January, as has been widely reported, a convoy protest arrived in Ottawa. But referring to it as the “trucker protest” isn’t accurate, as the vast majority of truckers in Canada didn’t participate or necessarily approve.

According to every poll taken, an overwhelming majority of Canadians also disagreed with the protest. During the three-week occupation, these protestors defaced public property and were reported to harass and intimidate local residents, store employees, and healthcare workers. Despite pleas from residents and public officials, many of the protestors had to be removed by police—in some cases, by being arrested.

The protests haven’t been confined to Ottawa. Other protests have popped up in cities across the country, including in Winnipeg. And protestors have shown up at border crossings, shutting down points of entry to the U.S. in stark contrast to their stated objective of protecting trade.

For many, these protests have been as jarring to Canadians as the January 6 insurrection was to Americans.

In the last few weeks, our social media platforms have become more divided than ever—which is saying something. A small but increasingly vocal contingent of Canadians are calling their prime minister a dictator, decrying outlets such as CBC and CTV as fake news, and adopting militant language to describe their intentions to impose their will on the majority.

This has many of the rest of us asking how all these people, some of whom are people we know and love, became so willing to engage in such extreme behaviour. As many Americans were asking this time last year, what causes an otherwise “normal” individual—someone with a family, friends, a job, and community involvement—to invade the U.S. Capitol, committing what is now described as domestic terrorism?

Whether Canadian or American, were these people always extremists under the surface, waiting for a chance to act out?

You may be surprised to know that despite decades of psychological research, we have not uncovered a “terrorist personality type.” Those who engage in extremist behaviour are, generally speaking, just like the rest of us.

Instead most experts in the field talk about radicalization, the process by which an individual becomes increasingly extreme in their views and behaviour compared to the rest of society. The process is fascinating and worth learning about as we try to understand what’s happening in the world around us.

Before we continue, it’s important to understand that radicalization is a spectrum. There are many degrees of extremism and while someone may be radicalized enough to go encamp in our nation’s capital, this is a far cry from committing acts of violence. As disruptive as the convoy protests were, there were no deaths, and many people believed they were supporting it with good intentions.

However, this is how the process starts. We don’t begin by setting off bombs. We begin with socially accepted ideas that contain the seeds of extremism before moving on to take direct actions, and eventually violence.

This is all the more reason to take it seriously at the early stages.

There are many theories in the social sciences, specifically psychology and sociology, which attempt to explain the process of radicalization.

Psychologists Dr. David Webber and Dr. Arie W. Kruglanski, experts in terrorism and criminal psychology, suggest that people become radicalized through a gradual process influenced by three interrelated factors. This is sometimes called the “3N” model.

1. Need. Sometimes this first factor is called the “quest for significance.” Everyone has an intrinsic need to make sense of and have control over their life, to have a strong sense of identity and purpose. When this sense of significance is threatened or lost, people become highly motivated to regain it.

The pandemic and the measures we’ve all had to take to protect our healthcare system have been stressful for all of us and led many to experience a loss of significance in their lives.

2. Narrative. When seeking to regain significance, we may gravitate towards stories or narratives that attempt to make sense of our significance loss. Narratives help identify the actions we need to take to regain significance in our lives, and sometimes they help identify who is to blame for that loss. This provides us with an enemy to focus our attention on.

In its most extreme form, the narrative makes it morally acceptable to commit acts of violence against that target. The narrative is most compelling when the target is a person or groups of people, as opposed to an intangible virus—this is why it’s easier for some to blame the government, the media, or “science” in general for the plight instead of an invisible, intangible virus responsible for nearly six million deaths. Psychologically, we find it more comforting to blame beings with agency.

3. Network. Once we’ve identified a loss of significance and settled on a narrative/story as to why this occurred, we have a strong desire to seek out networks of individuals who agree with us.

We do this for two reasons. First, to have a sense of community on the journey to significance. Second, to validate our radical beliefs.

Extreme beliefs will seem more sensible when you’re surrounded by people who agree with you. A significant body of research demonstrates that people with extremist views become more willing to engage in violent behaviour when surrounded by those who share their views.

None of these factors—the need to feel significant in the world, the desire to understand the story in which you are participating, and the presence of a network or community that surrounds and supports you—are in and of themselves bad.

But when the quest for significance points us to identify targets for our current distress, when the narrative gives us a reason to engage in increasingly extreme behaviour towards those targets, and when we’re surrounded by a network that encourages us to be increasingly extreme in our actions, we are more likely to be radicalized for violence.

With these factors in mind, we can turn the conversation to the opposite process: how do people return to more moderate views after they’ve been radicalized?

Deradicalization is also a process long studied by forensic psychologists, terrorism experts, and other social scientists. Thankfully, deradicalization is very possible and has even been successful in cases when individuals were engaging in violent acts of terrorism.

On an individual level, deradicalization occurs when a person’s commitment to their extreme narratives and networks are reduced and they become open to revisit their previously held moderate viewpoints.

This can be done by identifying ways for people to experience personal significance through more positive means, such as helping others and contributing directly to one’s community.

Community leaders who preach moderate views can have a huge impact in creating a more positive narrative for people to connect with. One example of this would be the local pastors who spoke out in favour of following public health restrictions—and yes, vaccines—while also offering support, care, and community meaning. These leaders created opportunities for hope, purpose, and support, a fact that many people were deeply grateful for.

Conversations about extremism may seem like an overreaction, especially here in Canada. However, violent radicals are not unheard of in North America. In fact, most of the extremists known to law enforcement officials were born right here and look like the average person in southeast Manitoba.

Also, a 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security explains that the greatest terrorist threat to our society currently comes from homegrown white supremacist groups.1

This is one reason why the convoy protest organizers’ ties to white supremacy should be taken seriously, and why we should, whenever possible, seek to deradicalize the people in our lives—by acknowledging their need to be significant, by providing them with alternative and more accurate narratives, and by presenting them with healthy way to contribute to their communities.

If we can do this, we may find a way to repair the fractures in our relationships, not to mention the fractures in our society.

For more information

1 “Homeland Threat Assessment,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security. October 2020 (https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf).

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