The flames of hate

Ella Rhodes reports in the wake of the clashes in Charlottesville.

August’s Unite the Right protest was, supposedly, a stand against the removal of a confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. However, protestors carried lit torches chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, and did not shy away from voicing their racist views to reporters on the scene. One anti-fascist protestor, Heather Heyer, was tragically killed when a man drove his car into the crowd. US President Donald Trump then drew widespread condemnation for failing to specifically decry neo-Nazis, instead at first denouncing violence ‘on many sides’. If turning to leaders to douse the flames of hate seems increasingly futile, what can psychology contribute? And what can it tell us about the origins of beliefs within these extremist groups, and their potential for change?

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Vox reported an as yet unpublished study by psychologists Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily, whichrevealed the disturbing attitudes some people hold towards others. Almost 450 members of the ‘alt right’ were asked about their attitudes and beliefs: in a novel item on the survey they were shown a stereotypical ‘evolution of man’ picture, showing a chimp progressively evolving into a human. The alt-righters were asked to use a slider beneath the picture to show how evolved they believed certain groups to be from 0 to 100, with 100 being fully human. While white people were scored on average as 91.8 out of 100 human, Muslims were scored 55.4, democrats 60.4, black people 64.7, Mexicans 67.7, journalists 58.6, Jews 73, and feminists scored 57 (it is interesting to note women scored 83.12 and men 88.47.) In statistical terms the alt-right were almost a full standard deviation more extreme in their responses in comparison to the control group. Surveyed members of the alt-right were also not shy about expressing their prejudice towards black people and also admitted to aggressive behaviours such as releasing private information without approval (known as doxxing), physically threatening others online and making offensive statements to get a rise out of people.

Forscher said: ‘We found evidence that there’s a much more extreme group of [alt-right] people who are reporting harassing and being offensive intentionally… But there’s a group of people who doesn’t do that that much, or not that much at all.’ Forscher and Kteily called this less extreme group ‘populists’. Science reporter Brian Resnick wrote: ‘They’re less aggressive and dehumanizing overall, and more concerned with government corruption. But even these milder “populists” are as supportive of collective white action, and as opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement, as the supremacists.’

An article in The Atlantic pointed to a 2000 paper by sociologist Mitch Berbrier, who looked at dozens of white supremacist media appearances and documents and found a strong sense of victimhood. This seems to be how the groups assure themselves they aren’t being racist – ‘hey, we’re suffering too’. White supremacists believe they are victims of discrimination, they have fewer rights, they will be discriminated against for expressing pride; they cite being psychologically affected by a loss of self-esteem, and believe that all of this will lead to the full extermination of whites from the face of the earth.

But can these views be changed? Research by Professor Rhiannon Turner (Queens University Belfast) and Professor Richard Crisp (Durham University) has found that imagining positive contact with members of outgroups can help break down prejudice. I asked Crisp whether this so-called imagined contact approach could be useful in tackling alt-right beliefs. He said imagined contact had been developed to target groups who would be unlikely to come into contact with a group who they had negative beliefs about – due to physical barriers or lack of motivation. ‘In the case of extremism, one can expect very low levels of motivation to engage in contact, so this is precisely where imagined contact could help, and there are numerous studies that show imagined contact can increase intentions to engage in contact for a variety of groups; for example my 2014 meta-analysis with Eleanor Miles. Of course, one might expect extremism ideology to preclude any possibility of positive contact, real or imagined. However, research is now starting to challenge that assumption, showing that even people with highly prejudiced or biased views of other groups can show improvements in attitudes following both real contact and imagined contact.’

Another approach within psychology is to look at case studies of those who have successfully become ‘deradicalised’. Last year, a team led by John Horgan at Georgia State University published ‘Walking away: the disengagement and de-radicalization of a violent right-wing extremist’, which was reported on our Research Digest. The researchers applied their ‘arc framework’ to the story of ‘Sarah’, a former member of various Neo-Nazi right-wing groups who now works to combat violence and racism by speaking to at-risk youths, and says she feels a ‘responsibility to go out and try to undo damage’. The researchers applied their ‘arc framework’ to Sarah’s story – the idea that the path from extremist to de-radicalisation goes from involvement, to engagement, to disengagement, and that this long-term process is likely to be shaped by the reasons behind initial involvement and engagement.

For Sarah, the physical distance from those groups created by imprisonment for armed robbery provided the space and opportunity for Sarah to confront her doubts. She befriended black women in jail, surprised by their acceptance of her (despite her notoriety and racist tattoos). While acknowledging that their account of Sarah’s case was ‘partial, idiosyncratic and limited’,  the researchers noted that ‘most of what is said and written about violent extremist offenders [is] rarely complemented by insights from the offenders themselves.’

Of course, extremism comes in many forms, and we have previously spoken to psychologists involved in tackling it. We would like to continue to do so: if you either research or practice in the area of extremism, get in touch on [email protected]. We are also supporting a call to signpost to BME psychological and anti-racist work.

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