Reclaiming a ‘crumbling’ world

 

“Their world is crumbling, ours is being built.”

– Florian Philpott, Front Nationale chief strategist

It’s the second day after the night before and at first everything felt like a bad dream. But it’s really true; the unthinkable has happened. Donald Trump, the man whose face launched a thousand memes, has become president of the United States. We thought it was impossible. Safe in our ivory towers of so-called common sense, insulated in our echo chambers, we were convinced that logic would prevail. We should have learned from Brexit that it would not.

Instead the educated liberal global elites just repeated the same mistake again. Ironically it’s the most popular cliche in the US Congress; that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This time, we played directly into its hands.

We can argue that those who voted for Trump, as with Brexit, did so based on hatred, misinformation and lies. This is true to an extent, as all politics is subject to a fair amount of propaganda, made even easier in our always-on media age. And there’s plenty of hatred to be found among the average group of Trump supporters. It’s frightening that things have sunk to this point. But the fact remains that large swathes of American (and British) society have legitimate concerns, which the election results have thrust to the forefront. Many of them are racist, bigoted and hateful, but it’s not constructive to ignore or belittle them; and it’s a natural reaction that the more we insult people’s views, the more vehemently they cling to them.

This is where part of the problem lies, in this self-selection into camps of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Labelling Trump supporters as ‘stupid’ and ‘deplorables’ may trip easily off the tongue; after all so many of them express the unpalatable. But if the educated liberal sections of society truly seek social cohesion, what about putting aside the insults and getting to know the driving forces behind these ‘repugnant’ views?

A note now on psychology and human nature. Why do people react so viscerally when their views are challenged? When humans develop an opinion on an issue it tends to become more than just academic. It becomes part of our worldview, which defines our identity. That influences who we are, what we believe and which group we belong to, making any challenge to our identity feel deeply personal. At a sub-conscious level the brain readies itself for an attack on our self-esteem.

That’s why it often feels so difficult to change people’s minds on an issue. Most attempts to persuade simply backfire, no matter how many facts are supplied to support the point. This makes the gulf between opposing views even wider and less possible to bridge. According to behavioural science, the more facts and evidence that are brought to the table, the more adversarial most people become, and the less likely reconciliation becomes. On both sides of the Atlantic this proved to be true. People rejected the experts and went the other way.

So how do we get people to listen to our viewpoints? Clue: it’s not by bombarding them with facts and then insulting them. According to behavioural scientists, the technique of affirmation may hold some hope. If you tell people something positive about themselves, they become more amenable to changing their views on an issue. In contrast, when challenged by evidence, the brain shows more activity in areas linked to emotion, conflict, moral judgments, and reward and pleasure, but far less activity in the area most closely associated with rational thought.

The Democrat campaign in the US and Remain in the UK might have fared better if their strategists had considered the fundamentals of human behaviour. It’s too late for now; Brexit and Trump have taught us a resounding lesson. But going forward the most useful approach would be to try and understand the driving factors that produced this outcome. We need to discover people’s concerns when they voted for Trump. What aspects of the establishment were they rebelling against? What do they truly fear? And what do they hope to achieve in the future? By setting aside our liberal disgust at the racism and bigotry and delving deeper into the issue we can try to salvage this situation and learn something from it.

So get out of your echo chamber and talk to someone who voted for Trump. Ask them why they did it. Don’t insult or belittle them, just listen to their explanation. Even better, get away from social media altogether and go outside. Find real-life people who voted for Trump (or Brexit if you’re in the UK). Talk to them, engage with them, and see if your liberal tolerant views can extend to understanding the other side, no matter how repugnant you find it. In this way we can try to tackle the root causes of fear, and perhaps improve Western social and political systems in the process. Yes, we could also keep on protesting, insulting, and talking about how badly we’re doomed. But that approach will never lessen the divisions.

 

All’s not right with the alt-right

 

“Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s cause”

– Mahatma Gandhi

The rise of radicalisation has been closely mirrored by the rise of extreme right-wing groups, or “alt-right” (alternative right) as they have come to be known.  The media focuses heavily on the former, but tends to neglect the latter. But they are both part of the same cycle of fear, therefore deserve equal attention and analysis.

What is the alt-right?

The alt-right movement started in the US as a mainly online phenomenon. Its proponents believe that existing Western governments are fatally flawed. They criticise democracy and rule of the people by the people. But this in itself is not the biggest issue. The main facet of alt-right ideology is its obsessive focus on race, specifically on white supremacy and the belief that different races ‘should be kept apart’. This manifests itself clearly in Donald Trump’s claim that the US should build a wall between itself and Mexico. His arguments to ban Muslims from entering the country also fit the alt-right ideology.

Alt-right proponents like Trump because they believe he represents the ultimate in free speech and tearing down the political correctness that they despise so much. The views of the alt-right are seen as anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and white supremacist. According to NPR, the alt-right movement mostly consists of young white men “who see themselves first and foremost as champions of their own demographic. However, apart from their allegiance to their “tribe,” as they call it, their greatest points of unity lie in what they are against: multiculturalism, immigration, feminism and, above all, political correctness.”

Donald Trump is the most prominent figurehead of the alt-right, with his rhetoric of hatred and division. The growth of this movement, which is especially rampant on social media, represents a worrying trend towards fascist viewpoints becoming mainstream. Those heady, hopeful days when Obama got elected feel like a distant memory. It almost feels like the rise of the alt-right is a backlash, driven by their simmering outrage built up over eight years of having a black, Muslim-named president in the White House.

Where did it come from?

Although extreme right-wing ideas of various stripes have been around in America (and to a lesser extent the UK and Europe) for many years, they have largely stayed outside the mainstream. But the Trump campaign has given extreme right ideas greater legitimacy, presenting their proponents with the opportunity to emerge from the woodwork and air their views. Indeed, the leader of Trump’s campaign, Stephen Bannon, until recently also led a conservative website called Breitbart News, which he referred to as “the platform for the alt-right”.

How is alt-right different to mainstream conservatism?

Alt-right followers tend to see conservatives as weak, believing that their support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas is not strong enough. The alt-right coined the term “cuckservative” (‘conservative’ + ‘cuckold’) to disparage mainstream right-wingers. The term refers to white Christian conservatives who supports Jews, minorities and non-whites, supposedly ‘prioritising’ their interests over those of whites. Identity is a key feature of the alt-right, specifically in how white identity is seen in relation (and opposition) to that of the so-called ‘other’.

What are its key messages, and how does it spread them?

The alt-right is still a loose movement made up of various strands, but its ideology and key messages are very clear. They are fixated on promoting white identity and this forms the core of the alt-right ideology. Alt-right supporters want to ‘preserve European-American (i.e. white) culture’ and reject any form of multiculturalism, pluralism or globalist outlooks. They also claim to promote traditional white Christian values (of which hate seems to be one…) Many in the alt-right support the use of propaganda on subjects such as black and immigrant crime, in their mission to ‘protect’ whites from potential ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Like their counterparts in Isis, many alt-right members are young and internet-savvy. They know how to use the power of the digital world to amplify their messages. Alt-right proponents have a noisy online presence and frequently use trolling as a way to get their message across. In fact, some justify their trolling as a necessary response to perceived ‘bullying’ by liberals, or SJWs (‘social justice warriors’) as they are dubbed.

What threat does alt-right pose?

The rising popularity of the alt-right represents a wider trend towards right-wing social attitudes that has been spreading over the Western world in recent years, driving the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. The risks stem from deepening of social divisions, increasing hate (especially that directed against Muslims), and making racist ideas become mainstream. This promotes a rise in hate crime and increased victimisation of vulnerable members of society. At the same time, the increase in aggressive right-wing attitudes promotes the exact same kind of social division that groups like Isis seek to ignite. Fearful and divided societies turn against one another, producing disillusioned individuals seeking a cause greater than themselves. This is where extremists come from. And we must not forget, extremists are not only Isis, but also alt-right.

How can it be counteracted?

Liberals often feel themselves to be superior to the ‘barbaric’ alt-right. Arguably, both groups could benefit from understanding what drives the other side. Liberals tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by people with similar worldviews. The social media echo chamber effect only amplifies this effect, excluding all dissenting viewpoints from the user’s immediate social media feed. But we need to understand what drives people to certain views. They believe that white identity is at stake; but what has caused them to think so? Are their views rooted in fear of losing their identity?

Mixed-up emotions

 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

– H.P. Lovecraft

Why do people, both as individuals and as groups, constantly act against their best interests, seemingly without logic?

A recent article by Alex Van Gestel caught my eye as it encapsulates many of my thoughts about the nature of emotion and its effect on political decisions. The emotion most frequently at play is of course fear. Van Gestel talks about emotion – specifically fear – as the driving force that swung the Brexit outcome in an unexpected direction.

In a high-stakes political campaign like Brexit, the winning side will be the one that harnesses the emotions of its target audience most effectively. Simply presenting an array of rational arguments, no matter how sensible they are, is not the way to do this. Rationality and emotion don’t mingle well – in fact they’re polar opposites.

In the case of Brexit, the Remain campaign, full of liberals, globalists and intelligentsia – the so-called elite – failed in its mission. It was outsmarted by the blatant emotional pandering of the Leave campaign. We might find it vile when Murdoch’s papers run headlines likening refugees to cockroaches, or when Nigel Farage uses a campaign poster depicting ‘hordes’ of brown men on their way to the UK border. These techniques are distasteful and unfair, but they’re also highly effective. The Leave side won because they sensed the spirit of the times and knew how it related to their target audience. All they had to do was channel emotions through carefully crafted messaging.

People often act against their best interests when emotion overrides reason. Think about all the irrational fears people have, such as fear of flying. All the flight safety statistics in the world won’t make an aviophobe feel comfortable on a plane. The fear emotion is too strong and well-primed.

Never forget that audiences “buy on feelings, not features,” as Van Gestel points out. When creating strategic campaigns for anything, from selling a product to instigating social change, the role of emotion should be kept at the core. To do this, we need to connect with our audience at a deep level to really get to know them and understand what they want. We need to know their fears, their dreams and their darkest desires.

This is where the Remain campaigners, among them some of the world’s best marketers, went wrong. They didn’t understand the concerns of the target audience. If the marketers had understood better, perhaps the Remain campaign could have responded more effectively to allay fears, instead of simply blinding the audience with logical arguments that fell on deaf ears.

The Leave campaign triggered people to vote against their economic interests. Places such as Cornwall, which receives a lot of support from the EU, voted overwhelmingly to leave it. An irrational fear of immigrants, stoked by the mainstream media, trumped people’s rational interests in their economic needs. Emotion cheated them from what was most beneficial.

To heighten the climate of fear still further, the brutal terrorist acts of Isis fed into an irrational reaction towards immigrants that drove the UK towards Brexit. Isis committed much-publicised atrocities in various cities around the world, from Istanbul and Baghdad (which people care about less), to those closer to home, Brussels and Paris, which deeply affected us in the UK.

At the root of this inconsistency is basic human emotion. Istanbul and Baghdad are far away and what happens there does not generally affect us. But bring the terror to our very doorstep and we start to get frightened. This is the perfect time for opportunistic political groups to seize the moment. Once fear is running high they can launch their campaigns for maximum effect. The message will resonate and people will respond, even if it is against all logic, rationality and common sense.

Fear creates a vicious cycle. As society becomes afraid of the ‘other’, it soon becomes more divided and suspicious. Those who don’t fit the mould become objects of fear. In the time of Isis it has meant that Muslims have borne most of the brunt of these fears. From innocent refugees to long-standing British Muslim citizens – the effect of rising Islamophobia has been felt deeply. The resulting hostility only serves to create further divisions. When people are afraid they are less likely to use logic.

Knowledge can quieten the madness of fear. Finding ways to cut through the fog of emotion and allow people to understand the true nature of a situation is key. One way to do this is by appealing to them on a grassroots, human, everyday level.

To explore this further, Fear Interrupted will soon begin publishing a series of interviews with people who are leading independent initiatives to dismantle fear and promote understanding.