A look at why the narrative of extremism, conspiracies, and terrorism is so appealing, and how and why it’s taken over our politics.
Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, philosopher, author, and professor Quassim Cassam, argues that only by ackowledging the seductive appeal of extremism, conspiracy theories, and terrorism can we get a handle on the underlying forces at play in our polticis today.
Be it on the left or right, Cassam explains how practitioners of extremism take advantage of human nature, particularly our tendencies toward anger, resentment, and a sense of grievance.
Cassam’s analysis makes clear why narratives of extremism always seem to crowd more moderate beliefs out of the political conversation — even when moderation is bolstered by its convergence with the truth.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Every era, every generation thinks that its time is special and unique, that the problems it confronts, the turmoil of its politics and social upheaval is sui generis and must be examined apart from historical context.
Today, as we confront misinformation spread at the speed of light, conspiracy theories that threaten democracy, a powerful narrative of tribalism driven by the breakneck speed of change and the worst of human nature that has been given permission to act out in the public’s sphere, we think we are unique.
But those that study history and philosophy just might be able to give us better context to understand all of this. And while it may not stop it in the short run, at least in the long run, we might have a fighting chance to save the future. We’re going to talk about that today with my guest, Professor Quassim Cassam. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick. He’s the author of seven books, including Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political and Conspiracy Theories.
His primary research areas have been the philosophy of extremism and terrorism, conspiracy theories, self-knowledge, and philosophy. Before joining the faculty at Warwick, he was the Knightsbridge professor of philosophy at Cambridge, a professor of philosophy at University College, London, and a reader in philosophy at Oxford. It is my pleasure to welcome Quassim Cassam here to the program. Quassim, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Quassim: It’s a pleasure to be talking to you, Jeff.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. I want to talk first about your career and how you came to the study of extremism and terrorism and vice, some of the things that you’ve written about over the years, and really how that became your specialty.
Quassim: Well, it’s rather odd. I was trained as a hardcore analytic philosopher, writing about the very abstract theoretical topics that analytical philosophers like to write about. And then about five or six years ago, I suddenly had the thought that actually, I needed to be turning my philosophical training to look at some more practical questions.
Obviously, this was the time of the Brexit vote in the UK, the Trump election of 2016 and it seemed to me that it was time for me as a trained philosopher to actually start thinking about some of the most pressing practical issues of our day. And as far as I could tell, those issues included conspiracy theories, extremism, and terrorism, which are now my three main research interests.
Jeff: As you see it, as this evolved for you, talk about the threads that tie those things together. That extremism, terrorism, conspiracy theories have a common DNA.
Quassim: Yes, they certainly do. So the link between extremism and terrorism is I guess the most obvious one. Not all extremists are terrorists, but there’s no doubt that political or ideological extremism is a risk factor for terrorism. So there’s certainly a causal connection that runs from extremism to terrorism.
Then you think about conspiracy theories and where they fit in. So I want to say that one of the characteristics of extremism that’s very significant is the connection between extremism and a tendency to believe conspiracy theories.
So if you look at extremist ideologies of the left or the right or of the Islamist variety, they’re all committed to one or other conspiracy theories. So you have Islamist conspiracy theories, fascist conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories of the far left. And many of these theories are, of course, anti-Semitic as well. So certainly at the ideological level, there’s a link with conspiracy theories. Even at the psychological level, I think there’s a link.
People who have what I call an extremist mindset are prone to engage in conspiracy thinking, and this conspiracy thinking then leads towards integral to their extremist ideologies, and these extremist ideologies in at least some cases, lead to terrorism. So you have a package deal here.
Jeff: When one talks about extremism in terms of politics, talk a little about that. I’m reminded of Barry Goldwater back in 1964, when he accepted the Republican nomination, talking about in words that actually Phyllis Schlafly wrote for him, that, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” It gave permission for extremism in the body politic today here in the US.
Quassim: Well, there is that famous quotation. There’s also a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr in his letter from Birmingham Jail, said something along the lines of, the question is not whether we should be extremists, but whether we shall be extremists for the preservation of injustice or extremists for the extension of justice. So I think that both the Goldwater quote and the Martin Luther King Jr quote, both have this idea built into them that there’s good and bad forms of extremism. And that’s an issue that that needs to be addressed.
I think my own view is that we shouldn’t accept that and that the good stuff which Dr. King was talking about was not extremism at all, but something that’s different from it. Which I think of as radicalism, which is rather different from extremism.
Jeff: How best then should we understand extremism today?
Quassim: I think that there are three different ways of understanding extremism. So first of all there is, of course, ideological extremism, the most familiar variety. So to put it at its simplest, to be an ideological extremist is to support or endorse an extremist ideology. And then you get into the whole discussion of what makes an ideology an extremist ideology. But that’s one form of extremism, ideological.
Then there’s what I call methods extremism. So methods extremists are people who use or endorse the use of extreme methods in pursuit of their political objectives. So terrorism is an example of an extreme method that’s used in support of political objectives. So extremists in the method sense are people who use extreme methods. Whether extreme methods have to be violent or not is a question that I go into in some detail.
And the last type of extremism which I talk about is what I call psychological extremism. So to be an extremist in the psychological sense is to have what I call an extremist mindset. That is to say extremist attitudes, extremist preoccupations and extremist thinking styles, including, for example, conspiracy thinking.
So you can think of extremism at these three different levels. The ideological, the methodological, and the psychological. They’re, of course, in practice closely connected but at least theoretically or conceptually, these are distinct forms of extremism.
Jeff: Is there a difference in the way these things have played out in contemporary society in that there seems to be a greater permissiveness about the way in which this kind of extremism can be carried out in the public sphere?
Quassim: Yes. Well, I think that’s certainly true in the US today. It seems to me that what you’ve seen in American politics in the last few years is what I think offers the radicalization of the Republican Party or at least elements of the Republican Party, such that extremist discourse has become seemingly acceptable on that side of politics as a way of expressing one’s political views and promoting one’s political agenda. Ways of speaking that I think 10, 20, 30 years ago, would’ve been really very problematic in the US context have suddenly become if not legitimate, at least fairly commonplace.
Whether this is unprecedented or not is a whole other question, which would require one to go into American history. In Europe, of course, you see the rise of far-right extremist parties all across Europe. No one can say that the rise of the right in Europe is unprecedented because of course, you had Mussolini and Hitler but I think it is true that after a period of relative calm and moderation in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps 1980s, 1990s, you now have a period of immoderation I think on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jeff: Talk about the role that– and it’s the psychological aspect, I suppose, the role that anger plays in this.
Quassim: Well, I think that extremism at the psychological level is an angry mindset. It’s difficult to say whether people are extremists because they’re angry or they’re angry because they’re extremists. I think in practice the two go together. Certainly, if you look at a lot of extremist discourse, it is striking how intemperate it is. And of course, the reason that it’s intemperate is that extremism tends to be very much a matter of seeing the world in terms of black and white. Seeing the world in terms of us and them.
Another element of extremism is the idea that we are under threat in some way, and we are being victimized or humiliated or attacked or oppressed by them. And of course, this then feeds into this feeling of anger and resentment, which is very much part of the extremist mindset. And certainly, when you see pictures of rallies of the far-right, it is striking how angry these rallies are and how hate-filled they are. That is part and parcel of political extremism. It’s not the only feature of extremist psychology apart from anger.
I think the other thing that plays a really major role in extremist psychology is resentment, which is tied up with these feelings of oppression and persecution. And in many cases, the oppression that extremists complain about is not real at all, and that makes the phenomenon even more difficult to tackle than if they were responding to real oppression.
Jeff: What does seem to be different today, and what seems to put it all on steroids is the contagion effect, the speed at which information and this anger travels, whether it’s on the internet, whether it’s on talk radio, or whatever the mechanism may be, it is speeded up in a way that we haven’t seen before.
Quassim: Well, that’s right. That’s social media for you. That’s clearly an effect of social media and the media more generally. Stuff goes viral, including extremist messages and memes. And that is just part and parcel of the world that we live in. And so if one is interested in countering extremism, then one needs to develop a social media strategy that would be effective, and that’s a very difficult thing to do.
Jeff: Talk about the countering of it, because one of the things that you talk about is these things that are in human nature, the vices, if you will, that are part of human nature, the closed-mindedness, the arrogance, et cetera.
Quassim: Yes. So there are general psychological traits that I think all human beings have to a greater or lesser extent, closed-mindedness, dogmatism, wishful thinking. And of course, you can say that these are very much part and parcel of the extremist mindset. But then you might also say that, well, they’re part and parcel of the human mindset. I think we all suffer from these things to some extent or another.
I think the thing that is really crucial to radicalization– by radicalization I just mean the process of becoming an extremist, I think there are two things that are really crucial. One is the perception of grievance. Extremists have grievances or a feeling of the perception of grievance that is very elevated compared to the rest of us. Extremists think that they and their people, however they are defined, are being hard done by. And that is one important element in the radicalization process.
I think the other important element, and really a key element, is narratives. It’s often been pointed out by philosophers that human beings are storytelling animals. We try to make sense of our lives and try to make sense of our circumstances by telling ourselves and telling each other stories about who we are, and why we do the things that we do, and why we’re in the situations that we’re in. So narratives are effectively storylines, compelling storylines, which try to explain our lives and the events in our lives.
And what happens with radicalization, I think, is that people who are radicalized are radicalized, at least in part, because they come to accept extremist narratives. So conspiracy theories are an example of an extremist narrative, and there are many other extremist narratives. And the thing about these narratives is that, in the end, they all supply a justification for extreme measures in defense of one’s own position.
And I think that one respect in which social media is relevant is that it enables the rapid circulation of extremist narratives, including narratives that are completely false. So if you think about the narratives that were circulating after the last presidential election in the States about the stolen election, and so on, that’s that was an example of an extremist narrative that circulated at great speed on social media, a completely baseless narrative, but a narrative that culminated in the storming of the Capitol the 6th of January.
And if you think that narratives are as important as I think they are, then part of the job that we have when we are trying to counter extremism is to develop compelling and effective counter-narratives, counter-narratives that will undermine and deflect the extremists’ own narratives. And I think one reason that governments are so bad at dealing with extremism is that they’re so bad at producing convincing counter-narratives. The counter-narratives, such as they are, just strike the extremists is just utterly nonsensical and bizarre, and they have no impact at all.
So the extremists have a story to tell, and at least in some cases, the stories they tell are ones that other people find very compelling. And that is how people become radicalized, fundamentally.
Jeff: Those stories, though, justify– You talked about grievance before, but the narratives justify a kind of victimhood, and the way in which they plug into that is what seemingly makes them so powerful.
Quassim: Yes, they’re all narratives of victimhood. So, again, going back to the stolen election narrative, of course, the people who believe that narrative thought that they had been victims of election fraud on a large scale. They thought that they had been deprived of their democratic rights by having the election stolen from them. Now, that’s a narrative of victimhood. And of course, if you really believe that narrative, if you think that that’s what really happened, then you might also think that you were justified in taking drastic steps to deal with this terrible injustice, and you end up storming the Capitol.
So victimhood, the sense that one has been wronged, I think is a major part of these narratives, of course. [unintelligible 00:16:55] narratives are like that as well. The sense of male victimhood, completely spurious in my view, but in any case, it is a narrative. And it’s a narrative which some people find convincing. And I think that the tricky thing in here is that there are extremist narratives that are completely baseless, like the narrative of the stolen election and [unintelligible 00:17:19] narratives, but there are extremist narratives that are not completely baseless, extremist narratives that have some basis in political reality. Those are the extremist narratives that are for obvious reasons the hardest to counter.
Jeff: Isn’t that why the counter-narratives are so difficult because they don’t necessarily start out with a deeply felt agenda, a psychological agenda to plug into?
Quassim: Yes. So I’ll give you an example. So if you think about the narrative that Al-Qaeda has about the US, Al-Qaeda has a narrative about America constantly intervening in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries, invading Middle Eastern countries, all for the sake of exerting dominance and control over oil and control over politics in the Middle East. So that’s a narrative for you.
And, of course, people who subscribe to this narrative, and I guess there are large numbers of people who do, this narrative isn’t just a kind of piece of philosophical theorizing. It’s a narrative that has a deep, what you might even call spiritual significance for these people. It’s a narrative that feeds into their sense of injustice. And when the British government tried to respond to this, they developed a counterterrorism counter-extremism strategy in which they simply dismissed this by saying, “Well, of course, the West is not at war with Islam.”
Well, that may well be true. But of course, from the perspective of people who subscribe to the extremist narrative, from their perspective, looking at, for example, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, simply being told by some government official, “We’re not at war with you,” just isn’t going to cut it.
If you’re going to have a convincing narrative that speaks to the radicalized, you’re going to have to have a narrative that actually has some basis in reality that acknowledges the facts that the extremists point to, but at the same time, somehow draws them away from taking the drastic steps that they that the extremists then go on to take. And not surprisingly, governments are just not very good at this
Jeff: One of the other problems that narratives essentially have a shelf life, that if we look at the West or the US, the
narrative of the beacon of democracy, the narrative of the proverbial shining city on the hill, those narratives have just become old and tired, that there’s a shelf life to these stories and other stories supplant them.
Quassim: I think that’s true in many cases and that’s a good example, what you just gave. But there are other narratives, I think, that are just remarkably resilient and just incredibly difficult to get get rid of. The example that I would give of this is certain conspiracist narratives, particularly anti-Semitic narratives. These have been around for hundreds of years, and continue to be very powerful and very influential. And that’s an example of a narrative which one would wish had a limited shelf life, it needs a shelf life of zero, but it doesn’t, it’s still doing the rounds.
Even today, these anti-Semitic narratives continue to be extremely influential in politics all over the world, so there are narratives and there are narratives. And in some cases, I think you can hope that they’ll just blow themselves out but in other cases, you need to do something further to deal with them.
Jeff: There’s an interesting irony that seems to be at play here in that, that as the world becomes smaller in so many respects, and should be more interconnected because of technology, and travel, et cetera that there’s a contagion effect that exists within small communities, where people use these narratives and use this sense of anger and fear, to protect themselves from the world around them.
Quassim: Yes, I think that’s a real phenomenon. There is this phenomenon of closing racks, so people who accept the narrative that they and their community and their people have been persecuted and oppressed in some way or another, they will tend to close ranks and no longer be prepared to listen to outside voices. People sometimes talk in this connection about the formation of echo chambers and bubbles, whereby external sources of information are regarded as having no credibility whatever.
The whole fake news thing in the States, where there are political constituencies in the US who regard the mainstream media as basically the source of fake news and only believe other sources from within their own community or their own group.
So it is very striking that for all the talk about the prevalence of the influence of the internet and social media, it hasn’t resulted in people not operating in their own epistemic silos or bunkers. People still only listen to the voices who tell them what they want to hear. And the fact that there are all these multiple sources of information out there, in a way, it doesn’t really make a difference because the only sources that people look to are the sources that they trust. And the sources they trust are essentially the ones that tell them what they want to hear.
Jeff: Which leads us to believe I suppose that the fear of change, the fear of the world getting smaller, the fear of homogenization is what’s driving some of these people to seek tribalism within their communities.
Quassim: I think that’s absolutely right. And certainly, if you think about the history of fundamentalism, so-called, whether you’re thinking about Christian or Jewish or Muslim fundamentalism, fundamentalism, I think is a kind of reaction against modernity. A reaction against what they see as the forced secularization of their countries. And it’s a reaction against that, and an expression of a feeling that they are not being allowed to get on and live their lives in the way that they want to live their lives. And this then can often result in various forms of political extremism. I think that’s a very interesting and important phenomenon.
Jeff: And what does history tell us about countering these kind of tribal narratives? Can we look anywhere to find examples where this has existed in the past and has in turn shifted away?
Quassim: I think that you can have a situation where long-term demographic change results in certain forms of tribalism, essentially, just disappearing. But I think recent history is not very encouraging on that front. I think that by and large, where tribalism has been an issue, it hasn’t gone away. It hasn’t been very easy to stop it from festering and having serious consequences. I can’t point to any place in the world today where politics is less tribal than it was two or three decades ago. Politics seems to be much more tribal, wherever you go, and it is very worrying. It’s hugely concerning, because it seems to me that you can’t have a functional democracy, actually, unless there is an element of mutual trust and mutual respect.
Political opponents can be opponents, they can disagree, they can argue, they can debate, they can vote different ways but there has to be some basis for mutual trust and respect. And what is happening in the Western democracies, I think, is that as these democracies become more and more polarized and more politically tribal, there is no longer any trust. There is no longer any mutual respect and this is putting huge pressure on the institutions of democracy. And I must say, I’m somewhat pessimistic about the future on that basis. I certainly don’t see the situation improving any time soon.
Jeff: Expand on that a little bit, because I share your pessimism. Talk about the way in which you see it playing out in a worst-case scenario.
Quassim: Just think about what could have happened and what nearly happened after the last American presidential election. Things were pretty bad on the 6th of January, but they could have been even worse than they were. And as long as you have one side thinking, large numbers of people thinking that they had been hard done by, they’ve been robbed somehow, not accepting the legitimacy of a democratic process and not accepting the legitimacy of an elected president. This could be politically disastrous.
Democracies, they depend upon the orderly transition from one government to another government, even of different parties, they depend upon that happening. They depend upon co-operation and they depend upon legitimacy.
Now, as things are going in the US, it seems to me that that sense that the other side has legitimacy is disappearing. And so, thinking ahead to the next presidential election, for example, I can easily imagine a situation where whatever the outcome, the losing side is simply not going to accept it, is going to see it as illegitimate. If that were to happen and if that were to result in large-scale disorder, it would be a huge problem for American democracy.
And I think the question I would want to ask people who are fomenting this sort of thing is, do you believe in the United States or not? Do you believe in democracy or not? So, people who are funding extremist websites and promoting these extremist narratives, I think many of them regard themselves as proud Americans who are doing it for American values. But I think what I want to say to them is the path which you are going down, the path which you are taking the country down, that at the end of this path, you will not be in a good place, the country will not be in a good place, it won’t be a viable proposition anymore.
And I think this is a point that’s worth making, that you can throw all the cards up in the air and see where they fall but it’s possible that they’ll fall in a way that makes it very difficult to continue with the democratic institutions as they are. And that I think, is a major worry. And I don’t really know when this is going to end because I don’t know when the people who are promoting these extremist narratives, I don’t know when they’re going to stop. I don’t know when they’re going to think enough is enough, a line has to be drawn and we have to try and put this thing that we’ve broken, we need to put it back together again. Will they ever think that we’ll ever get to that point? I don’t know.
Jeff: And finally, is it possible that the only countervailing force might be economic forces that those that have powerful economic interests in protecting democracy and protecting things as they are, may be the only forces powerful enough to push a counter-narrative?
Quassim: I think that’s right. What I think is very worrying is that among the major supporters of these extremist narratives and extremist websites are wealthy individuals in the States who seem content to continue to push these narratives. Not just narratives about the election but false narratives about climate change, for example.
Until these people come to realize that it actually in the final analysis is not in their interests to have a non-viable political system in the US. Until they realize that and stop promoting these extremist narratives and providing funding for extremist websites, until we get to that point, I think we are going to continue to be in a dangerous place but I think the point that you’re making is a very good one.
That ultimately, enlightened self-interest is the thing that is likely to be most effective. I do wonder really, how much disruption and disorder people like Steve Bannon, for example, are really prepared to promote and support. Where does it end on their view? That would be my question. I don’t know that they have an answer for that themselves. I think I would want to press them hard on that.
Jeff: Professor Quassim Cassam, thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast today?
Quassim: Thanks a lot. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes.
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