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How Political Extremism Becomes a Norm

We are highly influenced by the people closest to us.

Key points

  • Political extremism is becoming increasingly normative.
  • Several emotional, cognitive and social elements interact to promote extremism.
  • Although those elements and media are influential, close relationships have great impact on norms.

The closer we get to an election the louder and more extreme the political discourse becomes. “Save our democracy!” “Fight, or you won’t have a country anymore!” Violent words and images, hate and demonization, and the politics of fear and fury swirl through our media, mass and social alike.

We’ve learned a fair amount about political violence and terrorism in the decades since 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing. We know how multiple ingredients mix to create a violent stew. Emotional ingredients, such as resentment and its accompaniments, entitlement, and frustration, blend with grievances. Add to it a sense of hopelessness, and some will be convinced that there is no alternative but violence.

Those emotional elements find cognitive shape in conspiracy narratives (some new, some ancient) that simplify and justify – indeed demand – a violent response. The narratives often combine the turbo power of belonging, an essential human need, with identity in a cognitive-emotional-social package that is deeply satisfying. The bones of the extremist’s narrative read like this: “People like me, like us, have been mistreated (by them), and are suffering unfairly. People like me, like us, are decent, believe the right things, and must stand up against them for the sake of (fill in the blank)”

A great deal has been written blaming social media for promoting extremism. Nor are old media blameless. With repetition, any lie, however absurd, will be believed. As long as 10 years after 9/11, when the press was still the major source of news for most of the world, Pew research found that a majority of Muslims in the Middle East were still saying that Arabs were not responsible for the attack.

All these factors promote political extremism in the large, general sense. They infect the atmosphere. But it is important to remember that we absorb the norms of our world from our close relationships, from highly influential teachers and friends and family. When violent actors are honored, or even just casually accepted, the norm of violence is strengthened.

It was chilling to see this headline reported by a Middle East media monitoring NGO, “In physics test, Palestinian students asked to calculate the distance a terrorist traveled to commit his next terror attack.”

Without uttering a political word, this teacher affirmed a norm of violence.

As the U.S. political season approaches election day, Americans should take note of the norms we are encouraging. Regardless of who wins or loses, we will have no choice but to live together in the society we are creating today.

References “In physics test, Palestinian students asked to calculate the distance a terrorist traveled to commit his next terror attack”