Topic 1 Story of the Module and Overview

This module has emerged from our conversations with, and guidance from, a range of practitioners and policy makers. We’ve developed it as a set of resources to help you to reflect, to develop some different ways of approaching the complex issues we face as practitioners, and to share together ideas about pedagogical strategies to unpack extremism. It is written in a way that, we hope, is faithful to the conversations that we had.

We know that certain issues are challenging to engage with and are therefore sometimes avoided or not addressed in educational spaces. Indeed, some topics like extremism because of their association with hatred and exclusion, with violence, terrorism and radicalisation, as well as political polarisation make them particularly challenging. Moreover, sometimes the question of extremism is addressed through a ‘security’ framework or lens rather than educational lens. In this project we are interested in understanding how to address extremism and explore educational responses to extremism, not just using education as a tool to address wider political or security concerns, and not just focusing on violent extremism or radicalisation to violence. This meant thinking about some of the familiar words like ‘prevention’, ‘security’ and ‘resilience’ in the context of education, and reflecting, paradoxically perhaps, on ‘everyday extremism’.

Our dialogues brought out the importance of commitment to fostering a society that is anti-racist, that does not deny the existence of racism, misogyny, etc and that values pluralism. It also led to significant reflections on the ways in which ‘extremism’ is not just about those seen as outliers in society. When society, including spaces for education and youth work, involves ‘othering’ some members of the society as not being fully of that society, this is painful. It’s even more painful and indeed traumatic, when one is told when in one’s home, one’s country, to ‘go home’. Even if those practices are not seen as being at the ‘extremes of extremism’, they operate like a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ of constant messages that one does not belong. This, unsurprisingly, alienates people, young and old, who may come to feel that if this place, a place where they have lived their whole lives, is a place to which they are told they don’t belong, then where can they belong? This is further intensified when subjected to overt racism. A further (and sometimes related) issue raised is ‘toxic masculinity’, evident in diverse commitments to patriarchal practices.

Therefore, whilst it’s important to look at more familiar kinds of (violent) extremism, we also need to reflect on more honestly is what our participants called an ‘extremism of the centre or the middle’. This is a de facto assimilationist approach that privileges sameness and dominant forms of identity in a society, viewing inclusion as inclusion into those norms and values. This may not, at first glance look the same as some of the other kinds of extremism with which we are more familiar, but it is particularly important in spaces like schools, youth clubs and community centres, which need to be spaces of ‘belonging in difference’, reciprocal exchange, and solidarity. Persistent ‘othering’ and, in particular subjection to racism, brings with it its own traumas, violence and alienation.

Bearing in mind, how and why we have come to hold the ideas, beliefs, values and feelings that we have is at the heart of the module. These don’t fall from the sky, even if they shape most ‘viscerally’ who feel we we are. We are shaped by structures of patriarchy, racism, nationalism, masculinity and so on. Our desires and expectations are mediated by these norms and values. These are generally most invisible to those most comfortable with them, and felt most acutely by those excluded, silenced and marginalized by them. Although sharing knowledge and information about how we have come to be ‘who we are’ is important, in this module we will also see how to unpack ‘feelings’ and ideas, exploring the ways that statements can be driven by all sorts of affects or emotions, and find creative pathways for transformation, whilst taking a principled stance against injustice and in solidarity with those affected by injustice as professionals. This involves being able to engage in difficult conversations as well as dreaming together. It means seeing that identities are fluid, and one can belong in multiple ways, and hold together different heritages.

The themes in the modules center on the art of listening, belonging, dialogue, and staying with the difficult conversations. But it also means dreaming, imagining and creating with young people the supportive conditions for their voices, dreams and ideas. It’s been created for practitioners to reflect on their practice and to engage with other practitioners and stakeholders, as well as young people. The voices of participants in our workshops have shaped the content and the critical responses  of our youth advisory group will be an ongoing part of this project.

This first unit introduces some of the key research literature about extremism and educational responses to extremism and well as the ideas of practitioners. We developed this by sharing the learning from our workshops with practitioners and outlining key elements the theoretical framework for this project which you can find here

Key learning from this and from our workshops with policy makers and practitioners was that an educational response needs to engage with affect and feelings, with meaning, with purpose, and with complex identities. As practitioners to do this work, we need to be open to reflecting, entering dialogue, and listening without defensiveness. The power of listening and the art of listening were seen as key, alongside honest reflection. Unit 2 shares some practices and ideas to support listening, reflection, and dialogue. This includes engaging in what might, at times, be seen as ‘impossible conversations’.

As mentioned earlier, what also emerged from our conversations was, on the one hand, a need for far greater sensitivity to the impact of a range of practices, often not acknowledged by majority communities, of the effects of persistent ‘othering’ and importantly of the impact of racism and the marks of even a single incident for individuals, families and communities. So, a good deal of what follows in terms of thinking about extremism is directed towards members of majority communities, which too often explicitly or implicitly privilege sameness of identity, rather than making space for identities with complex heritages and ways of being, as would be expected in pluralistic societies, alongside our common humanity.

In our conversations, some wondered how much they needed to do and how long, indeed how many generations, one needs to be in a place in order to belong, and underlined the damage that persistent exclusion causes, including in quite subtle ways. An idea that emerged from this was the need for ‘two-way inclusion/exchange’ or ‘reciprocal inclusion/exchange’ – the gesture of welcoming others into the mainstream and of welcoming the invitation to be invited into another’s world. The problem with belonging as ‘one way inclusion’ is that people are asked to lose too much of themselves or are asked to commit to one identity rather than being able to hold onto many heritages. Indeed, the Irish government is clear in its own citizenship ceremonies that all that people bring in terms of their heritages and differences is enriching. 

Sometimes when we talk about ‘extremism’ we think of ‘challenging ideas’ but here we’d like to explore first ‘how ideas feel’. Part of this involves exploring how we listen, how we talk to one another, what happens with our bodies and breath? Rather than ‘you’ having an idea, explore how ideas ‘have’ you.

Throughout the modules we aim to approach ideas and values through different lenses, sometimes encouraging deep reflection and sometimes ‘personifying’ values and ideas and using creative exercises to help to look at them differently. For example, we may ask, what values, beliefs and ideas do we hold, and indeed how do they ‘hold us’? Part of the work of this project about educational responses to extremism is coming to reflect on where (our) values come from, how values, ideas, and beliefs are expressed (or not) in our practice, and supporting young people to explore their own values, ideas and beliefs.

We are also interested in exploring how our ideas, beliefs and values feel. When we are committed to a cause, whatever that cause is, we tend to believe that we are committed to justice. Few people would see themselves, no matter how unjust or hateful their causes are to an outsider, that they are actively committed to injustice. What energy does, for example, this feeling of justice involve? What does the body do, what gestures do we make when talking about justice? What happens if we drill down a little further.. What constellation of concepts accompany justice? Is it purity, hierarchy, kindness, or diversity? Here we want to also explore the idea of ‘sacred values’.

We encourage you throughout this module to ‘check in’ every so often. Indeed, do this in your everyday life too – what happens when you see certain social media posts or newspaper headlines. When do you get a rush of energy, feeling of connection, feeling of frustration? What is going on in your body, your emotions, and your mind? Where do your thoughts go? What words or language do you connect with? What differences do different contexts make? What about the spaces you are in, the time of day or month of the year..?

We will suggest that there are potentially reactionary dynamics between ‘extremism of the middle’ that insists on sameness and is blind to and denies its own practices of othering, its microaggressions, and indeed its racism, and the ‘extremism of the margins’ whereby some young people feel alienated by being told that they do not fully belong to the society that is their home. 

It is important to make distinctions between radicalism and extremism. It is helpful to avoid the language of radicalism or radical when talking about (violent) radicalisation and (violent) extremism. Radical, for many, involves fighting injustice and can involve all kinds of positions that can be either good or bad, but (violent) extremism is something different from this. We’ll describe its characteristics in Topic 3.

However, this does not mean that those who have extremist positions or who are extremists can no longer be part of our conversations. In our discussions with practitioners, it was underlined how important it is to speak with perpetrators of extremist positions and not just with those who are being victimised. It means humanising the person who is the perpetrator and seeing that they are being harmed by their actions and words as well as harming others. Transformation can’t come without transformation of the dominant group or the dominant culture. This means creating spaces for existential questioning, for disagreement, and to open up other ways of relating to themselves and others.

See also:  The Enquiring Classroom 

All images sourced from Unsplash