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Engaging with Extremism

OTHER WORDS-In my research, I repeatedly hear the same refrain: “If people knew what I knew, they would believe what I believe.” Followed by: “We need more education.” 

Nearly all of the people — 99.5 percent — who are still dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.  

At this point, they probably are not unvaccinated because they haven’t encountered a public education campaign. Either they want the vaccine, and they have some barrier preventing them from getting it, or they don’t want it. 

If someone still believes COVID-19 is a hoax or that the Illuminati put microchips in the vaccine while they faked the moon landing, or whatever the conspiracy theory du jour might be, you aren’t going to change their minds by just telling them they are wrong.  

Sharing a clever meme calling them stupid on your Facebook page probably won’t work either. Once someone holds a strong belief that ties them to a group they identify with, good luck getting them to believe something else.  

I’ve spent the last month comparing radical social movements of all kinds of different political stripes.

Despite their differing views, many members of these radical groups share some temperamental qualities: They’re angry, and they often reject information that contradicts their pre-existing worldviews.  

They see the world in all-or-nothing terms — you are with us, or you are against us. They take a few traits they find most displeasing about their opposition and attribute those traits to the entire group: “They are all corrupt” or “All of them are dishonest.”  

They often have incomplete information about their opposing group. They don’t know about diversity among the outgroup, or they don’t understand the context in which members of the outgroup make their decisions. 

Sometimes they are unaware about common ground they share with their opponents, and they fight with people they could be allies with. Nonetheless, they ascribe malicious motives to their opponents for their actions.  

They sometimes have shaky relationships with truth and facts. Their anger is like a filter that distorts new information as they take it in. They often interpret by stripping the nuance out of it: If a few people out of millions got sick from the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, then all vaccines (regardless of manufacturer) are unsafe.  

They frame their positions in moral terms, believing anyone who disagrees with them is immoral. They are angry. They respond to anyone who challenges their beliefs angrily, often calling them immoral.  

Social scientists find that when a group feels under threat, they reinforce symbolic boundaries — for example, by policing ideological purity among the group, or increasing angry or negative rhetoric against the outgroup. They often ignore more nuanced points of view and focus on combating the rhetoric of the most extreme groups on the opposing side.  

Seeing the world in oppositional terms, with a limited and distorted understanding of the issues they care about, they become more marginalized, and more frustrated. Then, when one side gets power, they impose their agenda unilaterally, making the other side even angrier.  

What will help people change? 

Spending time face to face with others they differ from and getting to know them as people. Having polite exchanges in groups with people representing multiple different points of view. Learning more about the issue together as a group and having a chance to ask questions to experts directly.  

Feeling respected by people in power and feeling like people in power are listening to them. Feeling like they are not being controlled by other people.  

It’s tragic that people in the richest country in the world die because they believe conspiracy theories about vaccines. Directly confronting them about it won’t change their minds but listening to them might. 

 

(OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.