On the impulse to condemn and close conversation, and why we need – now more than ever – to remain open to those with whom we disagree.
Of the various worldviews a person can subscribe to and thereby fall out of the mainstream, and especially those that attract outright derision from purveyors of the status quo, a few come readily to mind: intelligent design, flat-Earth theories, religious extremism. Of this last, Islamism is no slouch, and to spend time amongst its adherents in an effort to understand them requires courage: the courage to face such extremists, and the courage to put aside one’s own innate sense of revulsion in order to see the person within the ideology.
A man who has such courage is Nafees Hamid, a cognitive scientist who deconstructs violent extremism at the level of the brain and who has directed this work towards those indoctrinated into the ideology of ISIS. In 2014, he began interviewing large groups of men radicalised by ISIS into its cult of death, and convinced a number of them to have their brains scanned.
Inside the scanner, these would-be soldiers were shown a series of values derived from their Islamic beliefs. Some of these fell into the category of what researchers call “sacred values”, while others were “non-sacred”. Asked to assess on a numeric scale how willing they’d be to fight and die for these values, the “sacred” ones consistently got high scores and the “non-sacred” scored lower. The participants then played a digital game of ball-toss with three other players who eventually kept the ball between themselves, relegating the test-subject to an excluded “piggy in the middle”.
After this frustrating experience of being shunned by the group, participants in the test drastically increased their willingness to fight and die for the non-sacred values, leading the study’s authors to conclude that “social exclusion may be a relevant factor motivating violent extremism”. The study’s vital recommendation speaks pointedly to the failures of current cultural attitudes towards those deemed “outsiders” by the vocal majority:
“Counteracting social exclusion ... should figure into policies to prevent radicalisation.”
How opposed, then, to the much vaunted science our politicians claim to be following (except when cheese and wine are on offer to those who lead by word and not example) when governments put social pressure on those who don’t abide by majority values. Vaccine passports, to take one salient example from the pandemic period, seem designed to reject common sense derived from what science we have. After all, such COVID passes are self-evidently designed to exclude from society those who resist vaccines.
Vaccine passports do not endorse the equal worth of all people; they deny it by validating the fears of the vaccinated while vilifying the fears that keep others unvaccinated. Vaccine passports tell these people, “If you do not comply, you have no place in society.” This message relies increasingly on dehumanising rhetoric from the privileged, vaccinated side of society towards the “untouchables”. This ostracised group now includes people like me, who are fully vaccinated and keen for others to be vaccinated too, and yet are maligned as anti-vaxxers for not handing over all autonomy to the state with the kind of blind faith usually found in the fundamentalist churches of religious extremists.
What if we dared to follow the science – not in the cheap, sloganized version our politicians have sold us, but in the spirit of true scientific enquiry – and heed what we already know about how we push others into extremism by rejecting them from our communities?
Other studies have shown that when sacred values are in play, a person’s mind reliably behaves in certain ways: The region of the brain that is active when we make decisions and exercise self-control goes offline, while the portion of brain that folds emotion and social judgment into our choices remains active. This shows that a certain resistance to logic and evidence is an all too human feature of our evolution, a trend that encourages in-group loyalty that benefited early humans, and which discouraged suasion by outsiders to defect from our own community. Conversely, when we feel shut out from our group, we become more amenable to persuasion from outsiders, including Islamists and conspiracy theorists.
This is why free speech is so invaluable. Not because it was laid down in some legal paperwork at the birth of a particular nation, or because zealous adherence to it defines ones political tribe, but because freedom of expression practiced by those with whom I disagree grants me the freedom to discover I am wrong. I need the brains of those who do not hold my sacred values, and so are operating more lucidly when considering them, to point out my blind spots and correct my human errors. They, in turn, need me to perform the same favour.
We also need venues for these “dangerous conversations” to happen, places where opposing viewpoints can meet as respected foes, can fight without worry about hurt feelings, and can experiment with ideas too radical or too complex for individuals to play with in their ordinary lives. This is, in fact, the responsibility we place on our great thinkers, scientists, and artists. We want them to explore the outer edges and report back to us on what they find. Too far, and they risk falling over the edge or dealing in such abstractions that we can’t make sense of what they are telling us; not far enough, and we grow bored of their clichés.
Historically, it has been the artists who ask the dangerous questions and give voice to the downtrodden, and who stand up for freedom of thought and expression, even when it means jeopardising their livelihoods and, sometimes, their lives. I grew up within an extreme religious ideology that dug deep trenches between what was permissible and what was forbidden. Novels, movies, and music by black, gay, feminist, or secular artists played a vital role in freeing my mind.
Most crucial, though, were all the people who were willing to engage me in conversation, who didn’t write me off as a lost cause. Thanks to them, I was able to drastically change my mind and my life. This can happen to anyone – as long as there are people willing to meet them where they are, to understand them even as they disagree, and to validate their humanity even as they dismantle their bad ideas. We need not avoid promoting vaccination, but we can do it in ways that reach out to others rather than pushing them away.
A hundred and twenty years ago, Emile Zola wrote a letter to the youth of France. His country had allowed itself to become enthralled in antisemitism, that particular hatred which never leaves us but experiences cultural tides in and out. Appeals to the good of the collective outweighed demands for individual justice, and the implication of lacking nationalist loyalty kept many from decrying the injustice in their society. Zola wrote:
“A shameful terror reigns, the bravest turn cowards, and no one dares say what he thinks for fear of being denounced as a traitor and a bribe-taker. The few newspapers which at first stood out for justice are now crawling in the dust before their readers, who panic with silly stories.”
It worries me how apt those words are for today, when few dare to speak out against the more intrusive, unduly discriminative, and frequently irrational practices of governments in the pushback against COVID. Too many fear being denounced as “traitors”, as if to oppose lockdowns is to wish for the demise of the elderly and vulnerable; too many wish to avoid accusations of being in the employment of biased parties invested in things antithetical to the health of their neighbours.
Most of our newspapers, even those that once spoke truth to power, now value truth insofar as it doesn’t impede the sales of their papers, which they have discovered are improved by crises. People turn away from the news when they feel safe, and they turn to it obsessively when the next massive disruption to life can come at any minute. “It’s a glib thing to say,” admitted the head of CNN in the early days of Trump’s presidency, “but our performance has been enhanced during this news period and how we’ve chosen to cover it.” The lesson was learned across news agencies over the world – go big, go bombastic, or go bust.
What we so urgently need is the space for honest conversation and participants willing to discuss with nuance the situation we find ourselves in. Truth fears nothing from exposure: Science is on the side of vaccines, and we ought show those who are hesitant that we are confident enough in this fact to expose it to their scrutiny. There are trade-offs for any path we take regarding protecting our vulnerable, and they are far more complex than simply “economics versus health”, as either can be damaged to different degrees by lockdowns or opening up society, by furlough or financial ruin, by mandates or total libertarianism – and we need to find our way through these ethical dilemmas via honest conversation.
In his timeless and therefore always timely Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens writes that “in life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation”. He goes on:
“If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the ‘center’ will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and where it is.”
How have we allowed the “centre”, the so-called moderate position held by the passive majority, to become one of repeated and increasingly arbitrary periods of house arrest for the entire nation, in which anything and everything is permissible so long as it can be justified in terms of reducing COVID, its other consequences be damned? We have let this happen because we forgot, possibly long ago, how to have conversations with people we disagree with. We forgot the insight of the Socratic method and the value of syllogistic thinking. Dialectics die with the death of dialogue.
So I feel compelled to take a stand against a certain style of sophistry polluting our ability to find common cause and hold open discussion with those who disagree with us. Someone has to move first in the effort to meet in the middle, where we can then do the work of defining what the middle ought to be. I will not treat others as “unclean” for not being vaccinated or for not holding “correct views”. If there was no one there to reach out to me when I was in the midst of religious fundamentalism, I would probably still be there.
My hope is that we can all find a way of shaking off our blinders. When it comes to bringing others out of their tribalist boxes, it seems to me that there are two methods for doing this: coercion and convincing. There are exceedingly few instances where I would resort to coercion (and maybe none at all, depending on a few definitions of terms), which means I only have convincing others as an option. Conversation is the vehicle for this. It is irreplaceable, and its loss is a net negative to me as well as to the other person I might have otherwise spoken with.
Perhaps you disagree. Well, I’m open to hearing it.
• Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Sacred Values and Vulnerability to Violent Extremism, Clare Pretus, Nafees Hamid, Hammad Sheikh, Jeremy Ginges, Adolf Tobeña, Richard Davis, Oscar Vilarroya, and Scott Atran (2018)
• Lettre à la jeunesse, Emile Zola (1897)
• Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens (2001)