On radicalization, the struggle of strongly disagreeing on fundamental matters with family members, and what prompted me to start a blog.
What a grim “hello world!” post to make, right?
I’m a psychologist; a psychology student, to use precise terminology – though at this point, I’m merely one exam and one thesis (which will, incidentally, be on radicalization – but that’s for another time) away from officially being allowed to call myself that. If you are one, too, then chances are that, just like me, you’ve learned a lot about group dynamics, group identity and perception and the mechanisms behind intergroup conflict. You know the theories, you know the research, you’re aware that intergroup conflict is a complex process and manifold factors play into it, and if you’re like me in that you see a solution for every problem rather than a problem for every solution, you try to apply that knowledge whenever you encounter such conflict in the broadest sense. When I witness a conflict between two groups (which happens all the time, since intergroup conflict is pervasive throughout society – be it grave issues like racism or minuscule things like a petty feud between two academic disciplines at university), I try to figure out the reasons behind it and the psychological mechanisms that perpetuate it beyond the purely objective reason. It is only when you have thoroughly deliberated on those factors that you can try to come up with an effective solution, which is what I want to do with my research.
This scientific approach can put a comfortable distance between you and whichever conflict it is you’re observing – a distance which, to some extent, then shields you from the moral disgust that overcomes you when listening to aggressive, racist rants and other horrifying things people say when they’re fully immersed in a conflict. It’s an instrument that you suddenly have in your formerly powerless hands; where you used to have nothing but your reactive emotions that had nowhere to go, you now have a tool that allows you to approach the matter systematically, understand how it comes about (a little), and change how it goes down (again, a little).
Except that whole distance-thing doesn’t work nearly as well when the upsetting behaviour you’re confronted with is coming from a person you’re close to, such as a family member. My dad’s a good person. I wouldn’t say that our relationship is particularly complicated – you grow up looking up to your father until some day, for the first time, he won’t have an answer to your question and utter those disheartening words: “I don’t know; google it.” You realize that he’s by no means omniscient after all, you develop opinions and learn that they will sometimes be the polar opposite of his opinions, you move on with your life and you’re fine. Pretty standard. Except some time later, you figure out that there are some things you can’t just have an “opinion” on – they’re fundamental values, often matters of life and death, and when you disagree on them, you can’t just shrug it off like when you disagree on what constitutes good music or acceptable tidying habits. I’m probably about as liberal as it gets, and I grew up thinking of my father as an open-minded and level-headed person. I often found us to be agreeing on social issues, and when that was not the case, he usually argued fairly, so it was possible to respectfully disagree. Of late, however, the tone has shifted considerably.
Things that he has become convinced of over the course of the last two-ish years and has repeatedly and avidly argued include:
- he thinks Arabic men are inherently incapable of treating women respectfully and are, in fact, so dangerous that they should not only be avoided, but barred from entering Europe
- he also thinks Muslims are coming to Europe to have as many children as possible so that, when the time comes (whatever that means), they’ll be enough to take over Europe and eradicate the current population
- regarding the European external borders, he is convinced they need to be closed completely, because there are no war refugees coming to Europe, just people who are trying to destroy it (see above); if anyone is to be let in, he demands it should only be women and children, no men (also see above)
- related to that, he is firmly convinced that anyone who gets on a shabby boat to take them over the Mediterranean to Europe is not doing so out of utter despair and in the full knowledge that they may not live to see the shore, but rather in the knowledge that nothing will happen to them because if their boat sinks, they’ll be comfortably pulled out of the water and taken to shore to receive their free pass to Europe
- also, he believes the Chinese were really on to something with their one-child policy, except they weren’t taking it far enough – enforced sterilization of entire countries and continents would be a solution more to his taste
Horrifying as these things are to write down (and I greatly struggled to do so; I feel the need to apologize to my laptop for using it to put together such disgusting sentences, and it’s not even sentient), they’re even worse to seriously have to argue over with someone you’re close to and respect – not least because there’s a massive conflict of conscience here between being loyal to your family and not wanting to put family members on the spot like this, and not wanting to let someone get away with statements like these just because they’re family. When nine out of ten times, you’re talking about work, the weather, a movie you saw or general family matters and you’re having a pleasant time, and then the tenth time you’re yelling at each other as you struggle to convey the value of respecting basic human rights and human dignity and to dismantle their irrational fears and generalizations, you’re in for some internal conflict, to put it mildly. When you spend a quite large chunk of your time working for and with people who came to this country as refugees, it’s even more upsetting to hear someone speak so dismissively and unempathetically of their plight; when you study and work with Muslims and there are people from Arab countries amongst your closest friends, it’s that much harder to comprehend how someone you respect can lump them all into one group and suspect that group of wanting to destroy his continent, culture and life.
When we think of radicalization, we usually think of it as a broadly political or religious phenomenon – we think of the damage it does to the public, to society, when people terrorize others in the name of their firmly-held beliefs, be it the belief that they of all people know what some god or other wants, or the belief in their racial superiority. But the damage starts at home; radicalization does not just tear apart society, but also families. Not everyone is as upset about this as me, though: one Muslim friend of mine will even ask me for news from my dad every once in a while, as he gets a good laugh out of hearing his perfectly harmless self getting demonized like that. Other friends strongly empathise with me and some, in some form or other, even have similar problems in their families. But what can we do? For now, the only option I have seems to be to relentlessly argue and counter, to try my hardest to remain patient and to continue attempting to change his mind about things little by little – exhausting as that is.
Finally, why would I write this down and why the hell would this be what motivates me to start blogging?
Well – for one, it was immensely helpful for me to discover that friends shared similar, if not the exact same extreme problems in their families, and I’ve gotten compassion as well as some good advice on how to approach these things; so I figured by chance, someone struggling with similar issues might read this and it might help them as well. As for how this constitutes a (good) starting point for an academic blog: throughout my ten semesters of studying psychology (yes, I’m a little behind the standard schedule, shoot me), I’ve had five research assistant jobs and numerous aha-moments where I developed a research-interest for something in class or during a project and briefly thought I’d found the thing I wanted to do. However, most of these things ended up not being the thing, because they had two shared features: they fascinated me, but didn’t contribute to improving the world as directly, permanently or importantly as I hoped I could one day.
That is, until I became familiar with the topic of intergroup conflict through an intriguing job and my bachelor’s thesis and ultimately, through a number of factors and experiences such as those with my father, decided on the topic of radicalization for my future research. I suppose you could call that academic daddy issues, if you were trying to be funny. And seeing as I will soon be starting to work on my thesis about just that and will certainly have a lot to learn and to think and babble about, what better time to venture an attempt at blogging? I hope to learn so much about this topic that eventually, I’ll be able to contribute to effectively preventing the radicalization of some people and to permanently de-radicalizing others, which entails changing the minds of people like my father. While doing that, I’ll attempt to provide an interesting, occasionally even entertaining read.
So, hello world, I suppose.