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Preventing Radicalization into Violent White Nationalist Movements: A Conversation with Cynthia Miller-Idriss

In June 2020, SPLC and the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Laboratory (PERIL) at American University partnered to release “Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization.” The guide illustrates tangible steps to counter the threat of online radicalization, how to recognize warning signs, and how to get help and engage a child or young adult who you suspect has had contact with or is immersed in extremism. In December, we interviewed Cynthia Miller-Idriss, PERIL’s director and a professor at American University, about her new book, Hate in the Homeland, and how parents, caregivers and educators are the frontline of reducing harm and inoculating young people to extremism.

You can download the Parents & Caregivers Guide here and here.

Can you tell us a bit about your background in researching extremism and youth radicalization and how that work has changed over the past four years?

I consider myself an accidental expert on the far right and on far-right youth culture. I started ethnographic dissertation fieldwork in three vocational schools [in Germany] in 1999, at a moment when right-wing extremism was surging, which meant that the civics teachers I was shadowing all year were focused heavily on how to combat it in the classroom and in schools. This work became my book Blood and Culture: Youth, Right-Wing Extremism and Belonging in Contemporary Germany.

I began a second fieldwork project in Germany about a decade later. The extreme right in Europe had discarded the racist skinhead look of shaved heads and bomber jackets in favor of mainstream-style, well-made t-shirts and clothing laced with far-right symbols and codes. After eight years of research, I turned in the resulting book—The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany—two months before Charlottesville happened. Suddenly, Americans became aware of the kinds of aesthetic mainstreaming—and the associated normalization and legitimation of far-right ideas—that had happened.

This suddenly catapulted my expertise from the fringe to the mainstream too, as I responded to dozens upon dozens of requests to explain what was happening in far-right youth scenes—and within the global white supremacist extremist movement more broadly—to audiences in the U.S. and overseas. I could never have predicted that what I had considered to be specialized expertise on a youth subculture in a foreign country would have such relevance in my own country.

You distinguish PERIL’s mission as rooted in a “pre-prevention” approach. How does this approach make the lab’s work different? Why was it so important for our organizations to collaborate on this guide and through this approach?

Once we acknowledge that the problem of radicalization and extremism is not only something on the subcultural fringe, but also is plainly in the mainstream, it becomes clear that what we need are mainstream-targeted approaches. The field of intervention work related to extremism has long been focused on countering violent extremism (CVE) through deradicalization and disengagement programs. Of course, when people are ready to disengage from violent extremist movements, they need access to counseling and a wide range of reintegration support. But there is thin evidence that disengagement processes can be effectively initiated, especially at scale. PERIL believes it is essential to instead work to prevent people from entering radicalization pathways to begin with, and to create early off-ramps for those who are initially exposed to extremist propaganda, disinformation, manipulative rhetorical strategies and techniques like scapegoating. We are empirically field-testing interventions based on lessons from public health research, aiming for inoculation of the whole population so that we reduce vulnerability to extremist propaganda when people encounter it—much like a vaccine.

Part of pre-preventative work includes equipping the entire public with better information about how extremist propaganda, conspiracy theories and persuasive rhetoric works. And this is where PERIL’s foundational partnership with SPLC comes in. With SPLC’s support and substantive partnership, we are developing a series of tools, including this guide, that will help parents, caregivers, educators, school counselors, mental health professionals, and other adults who work with youth—like coaches and youth group counselors—better recognize warning signs, understand how exposure to extremist propaganda can work, know where to go for further resources, and ensure responses to hate are victim-centered.

In academia, we refer to this kind of work as “translational”—work that translates academic expertise and empirical evidence into actionable knowledge for practitioners and communities. It’s hard to think of anything more important for academic experts to be doing. But equally incredible is that this partnership with SPLC does not only translate existing research, but produces new research through focus groups with practitioners to create and refine content; impact studies to trace the effectiveness of the guides; and evaluations that study whether and how our efforts to reach out to practitioners in these ways are working and what we could do better.

This means the entire approach is empirically guided, aimed at developing nationally scalable, empirically tested interventions that link rigorous and ethically-supervised research with local communities. And through partnerships with international funders and organizations, we are connecting this work with efforts in Germany and elsewhere to ensure that we can share lessons learned and stay focused on the global dimensions of white supremacist extremism.

You dedicate your new book, Hate in the Homeland, “to all the victims of hate and their families, along with the broader communities who suffer with and support them.” Why is it important for prevention and intervention work take a victim-centered approach?

A lot of work on extremism and terrorism focuses primarily or exclusively on the actors who perpetrate violence and spread hate without sufficiently rooting that work in the experience of victims. A victim-centered lens is critical to ensuring that an approach focused on understanding perpetrators’ histories of trauma through a lens of empathy, for example, stays at least equally focused on those who have suffered (or would suffer) at their hands.

Such an approach requires that antiracist practice be a foundational part of work to combat white supremacist extremism. By understanding the experiences of women, the LGBTQ+ community, and nonbinary victims specifically, it calls on us to recognize the role that misogynist views and gender-based violence play in all extremist movements. Those are just two examples, but overall, a victim-based approach is essential to developing interventions that don’t just direct resources to communities that already hold more privilege and power, but work instead to ensure healing and support for the most marginalized among us. 

In the book, you illustrate the complicated, contested concept of a “homeland.” Can you explain the concept, and discuss how it has been manipulated by political actors and members of hate groups in ways that prime young people for radicalization online and offline?

Homeland—a concept that links race or ethnicity with a sense of entitlement to territory—is central to almost all forms of extremism. In the case of white supremacist and other far right extremisms, the idea of white homelands or ethnostates is a key mobilizing force, rooted in a sense of existential threat about demographic change and the “replacement” of white civilizations with multiethnic ones. The “Great Replacement” is a global conspiracy theory that unites conspiracies about Europe turning into “EurAbia” at the orchestrated hands of Muslims or “white genocide” in the U.S., which suggests that whites are dying out. These conspiracy theories motivated the murder of dozens of people over the past decade, in terrorist attacks in Norway, New Zealand, and in El Paso and Pittsburgh in the U.S., among others.

We have heard you discuss readers’ reactions to the exclusion of a chapter dedicated solely to gender and, more specifically, the role of women in organized white power. Can you expand upon your decision-making process?

I decided not to include a dedicated chapter on gender, misogyny and the role of women because I wanted to make the point that practically everything I analyze in the book is gendered. I didn’t want to bound the idea of gendered aspects to a single chapter and have readers think “ok, here’s where we learn about gender” but then approach the other chapters without a gendered lens. Rather, I hope that readers will see—as I point out in the introduction—that each chapter is foundationally gendered.

In discussions about food, I talk about how women are called on to produce white babies and nurture white households, and in analyses of combat sports and fashion intersections with the far right, I examine how men are sold ideas about being a soldier and a warrior to defend white territory, white women, or white civilizations.

I discuss misogynistic sexual harassment, antifeminism, and anti-gender studies in the chapter on higher education, and in the chapter about online spaces, I look at the roots of online trolling in attacks on women in Gamergate. In fact, making those arguments about the foundational nature of gender and misogyny has convinced me that this should be the topic of my next book. So, I thank the readers and reviewers who helped me articulate why a single chapter is insufficient!

Why must parents and caregivers, particularly those who are white, educate themselves and speak about racism and our country’s history of systemic white supremacy with young people, in their homes, in schools, and elsewhere? Additionally, acknowledging that this work must continue no matter what administration is in the White House, how might this work be different under the Biden presidency?

Parents whose children have perpetrated racist or extremist acts often respond to those acts by asserting that their child didn’t learn that at home, or that those aren’t their family’s values. But white families’ approach to instilling “good values” about race often rely on a colorblind approach, using statements like “everybody is equal” but failing to have explicit conversations with children about race. This leaves white children to draw their own conclusions about what they observe in the world, or worse—let what they encounter online explain it for them.

Given the amount of misinformation, extremist propaganda, and hateful content circulating online, this approach is simply inadequate. Parents often have no idea that nearly a quarter of online gamers will encounter white supremacist extremist propaganda while gaming, for example. Teenagers are likely to encounter racist memes, jokes that minimize or deny the Holocaust, and other dehumanizing and misogynistic content on a regular basis. The extreme right has weaponized youth culture by using irony, wit, and satire to present extremist and hateful ideas as edgy humor, allowing youth [who] get the joke to feel like powerful insiders,  [and] frame anyone who “can’t take the joke” as a “triggered” snowflake. Parents need to be alert to warning signs that their kids have been exposed to this kind of content online and need to be aware of the range of toxic sites, encrypted apps and radicalizing chat rooms where youth encounter it.

A Biden administration can and likely will help change the course of the kinds of normalization and mainstreaming of racist and incendiary rhetoric we’ve seen through President Trump’s campaign and rally speeches. But it’s critical to remember that the biggest spike in hate groups we’ve seen in recent years happened after President Obama was elected, and that the past five years have seen a 320% increase in right-wing terrorism globally. It would be a mistake to think the problem of extremism and hate came about because of the current administration or that it will go away [now that] President Biden is in place. The problems are deeper, more systemic, and decidedly global.

Learn more about PERIL’s work and/or purchase Cynthia’s book, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.

Return to The Year in Hate and Extremism 2020 landing page.

Photo by Dan Chung