Topic 1 Why Unpacking Extremism and Belonging?

So far we have mentioned this idea of ‘unpacking extremism’ a number of times. In this unit, we are going to explore this in more detail and building on Unit 2, discuss some ways of unpacking extremism with colleagues and with young people.

In much of the literature and policy in this space, we hear the language of ‘challenging’ and ‘countering’, but what does this suggest? It suggests that the person countering or challenging already has the answers, already is in the right, and is aiming to bring the other person around to their point of a view. This is a very tempting position but generally is counter-productive because it closes down dialogue, it alienates the other person, and means that listening doesn’t happen.

Still it is delicate and complex. How can I as a practitioner deal with hateful positions or indeed positions that promote violence? There is no one size fits all answer here, but there are some principles that can guide how we respond.

This will mean using professional judgement in terms of whether we engage in discussion as a whole group, when we talk through the issue individually with someone, or how we might decide together as a group how to respond. When practitioners are fearful of ‘cancel culture’ or ‘getting it wrong’, this can shut down opportunities for learning and also leave young people or colleagues feeling alone. As Freire said, education is never neutral. By choosing to ignore what has been said, or by simply enforcing a rule, we already take a stance.

So part of this module is about acknowledging these challenges but underlining the importance of responding as well as pre-emptively engaging with not only difficult topics but topics relating to purpose and identity.

This is why we suggest that the language of ‘unpacking’ is helpful here. Unpacking also suggests approaching a young person (or a colleague) in a spirit of compassion and understanding that tries to pre-empt the defensiveness that difficult conversations can provoke. Let’s think some more about unpacking..

Before Starting Conversations

  1. If we want to think about prevention and security with an educational lens rather than a security lens, this means perhaps a re-framing from ‘prevention’ to ‘unpacking’, ‘opening out’, and from ‘security’ to understanding the need for safety, stability, agency and indeed safe spaces.
  2. Learning from Unit 2, long in advance, begin to make regular space and time for reflection to unpack your own position. What are your own triggers, filters, biography and what ready made stories do you tell about yourself? What are you worried about when it comes to difficult conversations or engaging with hateful or extremist positions? Imagine laying these different elements before you. What is the worst case scenario? You might spend a minute mapping or diagramming your own journey and position. Thinking of the worst case scenario can help face fear.
  3. Think about the kinds of issues you might like to pre-emptively address with colleagues or with the group but also invite them to share their own concerns and the things they feel need discussing. (You can have a question/suggestion box).
  4. 🤔 Engage in Self-Reflection. It’s important to understand our own assumptions as practitioners. To take the example of ‘belonging’ which practitioners often see as important, we might ask whether we have assumed that this is a key concept. Do we need young people to belong? Is it us who value it rather than them? But in assuming a position, have we taken away their voice? Do we think of it as a need we push for rather than exploring it with them. Listening to young people, parents and other colleagues will support us in opening to self reflection.

When I use a word, it just means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less!” (said Humpty Dumpty  to Alice…)

Something you need to be alert to is ‘humpty-dumptying’ or meaning-hijacking.

Sometimes people like to troll or refuse to use words in their conventional sense as a provocation.

To unpack, don’t react. Sometimes you may make a judgement that sometimes it is not the right time to engage.

At times, it can be helpful to use philosophical enquiry to begin to unpack meanings, as it requires that people look at an issue from a range of different perspectives.

  1. Attend to your own response: hold steady, breathe deeply, don’t personalize.
  2. Understand the situation: be sensitive to multiple perspectives, mirror back
  3. Short term response: If it’s causing someone direct pain to someone (not just offence) then intervene. If option is there to hold to space educationally, do so. Don’t pretend it hasn’t happened.

Avoiding Extreme Responses to Extremism

One of the challenges of engaging with extremism is to avoid an extremist response and an anti-pluralist response that fails to understand that people will have different positions and instead tries to put everyone on the same side on the same playing field – making the same and trying to eliminate risk.

This might mean looking at how you respond to those different positions.

Do you respond like a heavy weight that ‘clamps’ down on a young person when they say something offensive or hateful?

Are there certain policies that ‘kick in’ as soon as certain events happen?

Is there so much worry about the consequence of missing signs of radicalisation (catastrophic risk)  that practitioners ‘refer’ to the relevant authorities, just in case..? Let’s think about what non-extreme responses to extremism look like.

Existential Needs and Epistemic Needs

Educationally, not to mention for society, there are of course problems when people are closed minded (about most things), when they intolerant of different or other perspectives, or certain about their own position.

As educators, we tend to strive to cultivate virtues of open-mindedness, intellectual humility, tolerance of ambiguity, ability to cope with complexity, and fallibility (I might be wrong..).

But it might be worth thinking about why someone might lack cognitive flexibility or curiosity, in particular when their stability, safety or security is threatened and if levels of trust and control are low and powerlessness and anomie high.

Psychological factors are sometimes bound up with epistemic needs (needs of knowledge).

Epistemic needs include clear understanding, no ambiguity, desire for certainty, cognitive closure, and sense making.

Perhaps turning to positions like conspiracist thinking or extremism can give that sense of security, purpose and agency that people are looking for, in particular in times of crisis. That’s where we may have to start.

Source: Rottweiler, B & Gill, P (2020) ‘Conspiracy Beliefs and Violent Extremist Intentions: The Contingent Effects of Self-efficacy, Self-control and Law-related Morality’, Terrorism and Political Violence, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2020.1803288 

Unpacking the Invisible Backpack

In a famous article on white privilege, Peggy Mcintosh, wrote about unpacking the invisible knapsack.

Unpacking is a more thorough, careful and gentle process than challenging or countering.

It involves looking carefully and honestly at each item and trying to understand it – in her case it was a careful examination of her white privilege.

This does not mean trying to excuse, ignore, justify or explain away. It involves trying to understand context, motivation, intent, and also other factors like how words and ideas circulate or other issues that might be at play.

If we think of ‘unpacking extremism’, this means not assuming we know from the outset what is going on when someone makes an ‘extremist statement’ or has an ‘extremist position’.

In using the word ‘extremism’ by this we mean a particular definition and constellation of ideas where the (young) person is committed to a ‘totalising description’, one of purity, identity, sameness and hierarchy. It’s not the same as a ‘radical’ position.

Think about some of the language around far right movements in Europe or ISIS.

Sometimes this is couched in other ways, like white supremacists or the Aryan nation, saying we love difference: We want to have ‘our culture’ and they can have theirs. This may look like embracing diversity but it’s still really about racism, hierarchy, and exclusion.

It’s also important to remember that young people often are attracted to movements or identities because they tap into what Scott Atran calls ‘sacred values’ and meet existential needs. They offer meaning, purpose and agency, no matter how hateful they may appear from the outside.

This image of ‘unpacking’ might seem too soft to some, but the danger with the language of extremism is that it can provoke extremist responses that further entrench and polarise and block opportunities for transformation and dialogue. ‘

Unpacking is particularly important when one comes from a different perspective.

It is important to create spaces as educators and people in positions of authority who realises there is a power differential but also an opportunity to influence these spaces. When a backpack is on our back, we will feel the weight of it but we then need to take it off us and have a look inside in order to understand what makes it ‘heavy’.

It might be the weight of tradition or the burden of assumptions. It might contain what is most precious and important in our lives. But backpacks allow us to move and travel; they give us the things we need.

Unpacking in this context means having conversations and being open. It means to debunk oneself of stereotypes, to do this work with others, and engage with love and hope as well as hopes and fears. One powerful coupling of polarised ideas is the one of love and fear.

To unpack one another’s backpacks together starts with humanising one another. From, for instance, an inter-faith perspective it would mean working with adversity as an opportunity for learning and building solidarity and coalition building. Such dialogues provide an opportunity to engage in conversation and dialogue and not shut down debate. Sometimes it’s only after you go through a crisis that there comes a cathartic moment where people try to understand one another.

At the heart of this, it’s about getting to know the person, whoever they are, in particular those who others don’t want to have the conversation, whatever the topic. Taking up the idea of unpacking the backpack, we can approach a range of difficult conversations with this as our main image.

Circle Time

One strategy we can use is circle time, in particular when engaging in ‘unpacking’ is challenging.

  1. Explain that the space is confidential but that they should only speak about the things they are comfortable in speaking about.
  2. Ask young people (and/or colleagues and/or parents) to bring a backpack with all the things that are important to them in it.
  3. Invite them to open up the rucksack and share a story with one another.
  4. As each person tells their story, the others listen until everyone has finished.
  5. It can then open to ‘cross-talk’ or reflective discussion. After this, invite the group to participate in another round.

As a general rule, young people will tell a story. Sometimes we do not try these methodologies with young people because we think they are adult methodologies, but they provide important opportunities to learn how to treat one another by listening and respecting one another – it’s work that needs to be established.

Sometimes we are not willing to have awkward conversations and there is fear about risk of bringing up these topics, but often the ‘awkward conversations’ are not awkward at all but precisely what young people want to talk about. This means not leading the conversation but letting the students unpack the issues and conversations that they are having.

Bringing the World In

Schools and youth clubs can’t do and know everything, and educators can’t do and know everything. If these spaces are microcosms of community and the world, this means not sealing them off completely. Bringing in society, though in a way transformed by being in an educational space, can create a different space and atmosphere. If we want culturally sustaining pedagogies, there are lots of resources that communities have that are helpful, and there are issues that educators need to be prepared to address, in particular when some people do not think that others have the right to exist as they are when they are doing no harm to others.

To create inclusive educational spaces, it is important to ‘bring the world in’. These spaces need alliances, lived experiences, diverse materials and stories. Lived experiences are very important because people engage empathetically with people’s stories.

This means that seeing people have a right to presence in a community. It’s not enough to say that it is ok for one person to address another as someone they don’t want in a conversation. At times, it is important to not be polite, to take a stance (with compassion and solidarity) and say, ‘that is not right’.

If we are re-imagining education, it is not just that communities come to be allies in a dynamic educational system. We have a lot to learn from looking around and being more self-reflective. For example, as a former colony, Ireland knows a lot about being the migrant, about oppression, being subjugated, loss of language and culture, so when racism strikes, a person of migrant heritage might ask, ‘Why is a nation that I thought would understand me, not for me, not my space, a space in which I thought I’d belong?’

🤔  Moment for Reflection

  1. Thinking back to Unit 2, how, when and where in your site of practice do you ‘bring the world in’?
  2. How do you navigate the situation when some people want to silence others or denigrate their identities?

What do Extremist Ideas and Positions Give to Someone?

So if we are to unpack together what is going on when someone is taking up an extremist position, this means listening both to the person making these statements and also to others who this affects.

The first question is what do these statements give the (young) person? Is it status, power (over), quest for justice, sense of empowerment, meaning or purpose, a sense of identity or belonging, security and way of coping with fear? Is it about trolling or provocation?  Are they engaging in any other active ways with extremist groups? Are they involved in or committed to violence? And is that a motivator itself? Is it for fun, risk and adventure?

  1. Are there opportunities to talk about these issues in your site of practice and if so how do they work?
  2. Is it dealt with through providing information, debunking, challenging, dialogue, debate?
  3. What are the structures for feedback?

Reflect on these in terms of their wider opportunities for voice, engagement, participation and so on.

  1. Are there spaces where young people’s experiences are listened to on their own terms?
  2. Are these supported in your organisation, school or community?
  3. Are they tokenistic or are there opportunities for real change?

See here for more information about why young people might engage in violent extremism. Source: SALTO (2016) Young people and extremism: a resource for youth workers. SALTO Cultural Diversity Resource Centre.

What do Extremist Ideas and Positions Give to Someone?

The Practice of Questioning: From the outset of this module, we have suggesting that ‘countering’ and ‘challenging’ extremism is not sufficient, and that the language of preventing might be better replaced with the language of ‘unpacking’. We also introduced the idea of restorative practices in educational spaces. This means not just ‘reacting’ to the words or statement, but ‘unpacking’ and ‘exploring’ the motivation with the young person.

Learning to listen more deeply also involves asking different kinds of questions in a spirit of appreciative enquiry and compassion. Julie Tilsen (2018) offers some different ways of approaching questioning and describes practices of listening to help a young person to reframe their identity. Questions can bring curiosity, but they have to be part of in a question driven practice that is ethically sensitive and politically critical. The following are quotes from her book Narrative Approaches to Youth Work.

  1. “Language is productive—it does things, it doesn’t simply describe things. As we move from a visual to a textual metaphor, where our interest moves from things to stories, our talk also shifts from monologue to dialogue. Questions help facilitate dialogue because questions help move conversations” (2011: 92)”. What is the difference between what questions do and what statements do?
  2. Asking questions gives young people space to speak their identities into the world in meaningful and productive ways. Question-asking also serves to expose and challenge essentialist limitations and specifications often imposed on young people’s identities. This helps youth bring forward and further their understandings of how their identities are in relationship with cultural discourses” (2018: 93).

A World of Questions

Tilsen describes lots of different kinds of questioning.

Questioning as Act of Resistance

When I was in Amsterdam, I visited the Dutch Resistance Museum. This museum houses a rich collection of artifacts that documents the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. As a Jew, I had a powerful and provocative experience. The collection includes radio clips, doctor’s notes, photos of hiding places, resistance newspapers, and much, much more. As you enter the exhibit, you see a quote on the wall from Remco Campert (a Dutch author and poet whose father died in a Nazi concentration camp): “Asking yourself a question, that’s how resistance begins. And then ask that very question to someone else.” [..]

And, it demonstrates the relational and productive qualities of questions: questions do things, and they do them when we’re in relationship with others. Asking certain questions of particular discourses, structures, or institutions, is itself an act of resistance.

  • Do we de-center power when we question? Do we question with curiosity, care and interest or do we take power and control the questioning and disguise statements as questions?
  • What are some discourses you have questioned in your life as an act of resistance?
  • How did you question them?
  • Who would you like to join you in your questioning?

(Tilsen, 2018: 93)

🧐 What kinds of questions do you ask? (From Tilsen, 2018: 96-104)

Questions that question the ‘taken for granteds’. These help connect a young person’s experience with wider cultural discourses..

  • “What are the unspoken rules..?”

These questions invite reflection on ideas, actions, preferences, and values in order to assign significance (meaning) to them. Giving meaning helps connect young people to new possibilities for identity conclusions and ways of doing and being in the world.

  • “What is it you love about..?”

These questions are most directly connected to identity as they invite youth to ascribe meaning to and claim ideas, actions, preferences, and values that uphold a preferred identity. They bring forward unique outcomes and lead to the development of alternative stories.

  • “When would you say you started to show up as this “new and improved” version of yourself?

It’s not that closed questions are bad and open questions are better. The important issue is context and whether a question is meaningful. Sometimes a ‘yes/no’ response to a closed question is very significant.

Ask questions that can help a young person make a story. Who, what, where, why, when, and how…

These questions access and validate youth expertise, enlisting young people as experts on their own lives. Consultative questions promote collaboration between youth worker and young person, and thicken youths’ stories of preferred identity.

  • “What suggestions do you have for other young people who want to get their school to have discussions about racism?”
  • “What are some of the challenges or barriers you’d tell others to look out for?”

These questions reinforce any changes that a youth has made and mobilize their determination to meet future challenges. Inoculation questions also help take inventory of skills, knowledges, and resources the young person has developed.

  • “What do you know now, that you didn’t before…?”

These questions help youth claim what they are doing on their own behalf during difficult situations or when hopelessness is present. Coping questions open doors to alternative stories and encourage meaning making.

  • “How do you keep the frustration from being even worse than it is?”
  • “What would it take for you to keep doing what you’ve been doing?”
  • “Where did you learn to keep at it like this? Who inspired you?”

These questions help youth articulate more specific and concrete descriptions of their experiences if they are having a hard time doing so. Scaling questions also encourage recognition that things aren’t “all or nothing” and can make visible small but significant changes.

These questions invite youth to notice and claim times when they’ve done (or thought or imagined) something that contradicts a dominating problem narrative about them. Exceptions and unique outcomes questions help young people resist totalizing accounts of their identities and open paths to alternative stories.

  • “What would you like to come from this new experience of feeling okay and proud about what you do?”

These questions invite young people to reflect on changes or future possible changes by using the temporal dimension as a frame of reference. Time traveling questions make visible small but significant changes that have happened, and make possible changes that are yet to happen.

  • “What do you think you might be doing six months from now that today seems unbelievable?”

These questions ask youth to reflect on something in their life through the eyes of an important figure. Inviting perspectives from those with whom young people are in meaningful relationships makes visible skills, knowledges, and exceptions that the young person may not see on their own.

  • “If you could see yourself through your best friend’s eyes, what would you notice about how you are a friend that you don’t see when you look through your own eyes?”

A World of Questions: Curiosity and Ethics

Tilsen says “[young people’s] responses are expressions of what matters to them, reflecting their values, intentions, hopes, and preferred ways of being in the world. Asking about youth’s response to oppressive effects of power brings forward their stories of resistance. This involves a shift in language from:

  •  victim to agent;
  •  effects to response;
  •  single story to multiple stories’
  •  professional knowledge to local/cultural knowledge (storytelling rights);
  •  individual to relational/contextual (2018: 101)

Key Terms

A desire to wonder beyond what we know by suspending assumptions, questioning taken-for-granted understandings, and staying open to multiple perspectives and meanings.

This stance allows us to stay curious by avoiding quick conclusions or being “too quick to know.” It does not mean that you don’t know anything; it means you suspend your assumptions and strive to learn more through active curiosity.

A response-based approach is based on the idea that people always respond and exercise agency, even in the face of oppression, violence, or other traumatic events. By asking response-based questions, we bring forward the responses youth make as meaningful acts of resistance and expressions of what matters to them. This is in contrast to conventional practices that feature effects-based questions. These questions focus on the effects on youth of oppressive events.

Source: Tilsen, J. (2018) Narrative Approaches to Youth Work: Conversational Skills for a Critical Practice. London: Routledge.

This image of a ‘table’ can help to imagine what we might want to put on the table, to make visible. This might include problematic issues, difficult questions, genuine confusion, but it might also be about sharing rich cultural heritages, diverse political positions, and so on. It helps to put things on the table as we might do when unpacking, but when we do this we need to agree how we will do this as a group and also take care in closing the dialogue.

🧐 Questions:

  • What things are never on the table in your site of practice?
  • What things should never be taken off the table? (Discuss with colleagues and with young people – one suggestion from our youth advisory group was universal human rights should never be taken off the table.)

Exercise: Together with the group of young people, parents, community members, and/or colleagues, map the spaces of youth work/education and community. Work quite intuitively here.

  • Which issues are given most attention and foregrounded?
  • Which issues are ignored or silenced?
  • Which are buried?
  • Which need or want to be placed on the table?

Variation: Create a “question box” with the questions they want to ask but are not sure how to. This is useful for debunking myths and also allows for some moderation, if needed..