Topic 2 Learning to “Unpack”

Extremism is a powerful word, often with negative connotations or associated with violence, radicalisation, hatred, and even terrorism. This is why we need to take care when using the term and think about how it can be used and misused. For example, governments who want to stop dissent may claim critics and those in opposition are ‘extremist’. On the other hand, we also witness different extremist movements that are intolerant of difference. Sometimes extremism is seen to mean a position outside the dominant norms of a society which are presumed to be moderate. In political terms, this can be expressed as a distance ‘far right’ or ‘far left’. Sometimes it’s seen as an excessive responses or use of methods of tactics to achieve a goal. Sometimes it’s seen as a particular way of thinking that looks for purity, hierarchy, is intolerant of difference, often driven by resentment or grievance, and refuses to compromise.

Quassim Cassam has described some of these traits as ‘mindset’ or ‘psychological extremism’ in his book Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis (2021). Often extremism is not couched in the language of hate, but the language of love. But it is a particular kinds of exclusionary group love – the love of the nation, love of white people.. Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt who once said that one cannot love a people, only people, we need to reflect on what else is at play when the language of love is generalised to a particular monocultural group, or a particular group is seen as ‘losing’ like The Great Replacement conspiracy. Certain kinds of extremism are problematic for education, and for pluralistic societies.

Source: Cassam, Q. (2021 Forthcoming) Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis. London: Routledge.

These tend to be closed off, dogmatic, refuse to listen to other perspectives, are intolerant of difference, see identity as fixed and immutable, harbour ressentiment, have a perception of being wronged, refuse to compromise on any issue, espouse hatred of other groups, and/or claim superiority of the in-group. Training young people in skills of analysis, argumentation or discussion of controversial issues is important educationally, but not sufficient and may not shift feelings of connection to extremist identity positions which run deeper and connect more with what matters to them..

When we think about extremism, we might initially think about different ideological positions – positions that seem ‘extreme’ on a spectrum, or we might think about the different methods that people use. We might also associate extremism with violence. But one can engage in political violence as an act of resistance, or have a political position, like the Suffragettes or Extinction Rebellion at the margins of the mainstream. These don’t necessarily involve the ‘extremist mindset’ with which we are concerned here. Thus, it should be noted that not all ‘extreme’ positions are extremist; many are better called radical positions. An extreme position involves monologue, monoculture, and monologic. This is why it’s more difficult than saying we ought to explore all sides of an issue if one side’s argument is that you should not exist in the place that is your home, or even that you have no place on this earth. The pain is not because of disagreement or difference of view. It is because someone is telling you that you are not welcome and that you should not exist, at least not here. This is a profound injustice and hurt, and it breaks down trust. This is why in this module, we’ll explore how features of extremist mindsets can also exist at the centre and share some features of those mindsets more readily identified as ‘extremist’. 
What we’ll be exploring in this module partly involves reflecting together to unpack what is meant by ‘extremism’, in particular the desire for sameness, purity, and intolerance of difference. It involves exploring how extremist positions feel whilst at the same time understanding how extremist feelings can emerge for different reasons, at different times, and in different contexts. It’s important not to assume that because a young person makes an extremist statement that this means that they are committed to an extremist identity. A young person might make extremist statements might stem from fear, desire to belong, from a desire for provocation or trolling, for resistance, to feel safe and secure, and so on. This is why it’s helpful to explore the feelings and desires of extremism and the feelings and desires motivating extreme statements or belonging to extremist groups, and the societal structures that support these.

Experiences of racism, trans- and homophobia, and xenophobia, in particular the traumatic and painful experience of being ‘othered’ and made to feel that one does not belong in a space in which one was born and/or one thinks of as home, alongside the (post)-traumatic experience of witnessing this happening to others about whom one cares involves a particular kind of pain. For example, children and parents/grandparents, experience pain as each witnesses how one another are treated in their home. This can lead to not only trauma and but a lack of trust in one’s fellow human beings. Statements like ‘you are not really Irish/English/French/Dutch’ to a child or parent born in, who have lived many years in a country is painful. To assume that an accent means that someone has not been here long or do not not understand or know the country in which they live is frustrating when it keeps happening. These small gestures and words can cut deep and alienate people. They are called ‘micro-aggressions’.


Overt instances of racism, hate speech and discrimination, especially when ignored in educational spaces, can compound this. Part of the work of this module involves developing awareness and sensitivity to the impact of both careless and thoughtless language, and to the impact of racist language and hate speech in terms of the enduring harm across generations. Our participants described how each time it happens it is a post-traumatic moment that shakes a person to the core, bringing them back to the accumulation of these lived experience. A further issue raised in terms of ‘othering’ was the impact of what we are calling ‘the extremism of the centre’, a centre that insists on sameness. Whilst the ‘centre’ might not see itself as such, there are lots of ways in which people called ‘different’ by the centre feel ‘othered’, alienated and outside. Indeed, they can be made to feel apart from wider society, diminished, alienated, and then angry and powerlessness.

Key to exploring these issues with young people requires a willingness to ‘unpack’ them with them rather than ‘challenge’ them which can alienate the young person. This means creating spaces that are safe for them.



It is not surprising that (young) people might feel disaffected when society does not welcome them or see them as belonging? How can one relate to such a society that polarising ‘us’ and ‘them’? Young people may to ask “What is there for me?” “Show me there is something for me?” “Or will it be the case that no matter what, I am still never good enough?”. Tools and policies have a role in supporting inclusion, as do provision of different resources, but these questions “What is there for me?”, “Will I ever be ‘good enough’ for this society”, if compounded by daily micro-aggressions, negative behaviours or lack of investment in these young people can make life difficult, and indeed unsafe. As a society we then need to ask who invests, who spends time on these young people? In the context of some neighbourhoods and online spaces, it is those that groom the young into criminality; in others it might be into (violent) extremism.

A further difficulty is when there is unwillingness to listen to lived experiences of these issues. Our participants spoke of how some people, including colleagues, do not want to hear the reality of one’s experience; they want to dismiss, deny, or minimise them. They spoke how the need to commit to developing awareness of reactions (and perhaps defensiveness) when certain topics like someone’s experience of racism are raised, or their thoughtlessness in making assumptions about who belongs and who does not belong.

They also spoke of the visceral impact of racism or being othered. This impact is not just a physical reaction, but it is emotional and mental. The impact on young people is significant – they carry it right through their education and their lives, this sense of not-belonging. It is important to work with young people with compassion and understanding, including perpetrators, in order to open spaces for transformation.

Reflective Moment:

1.What in your view and experience motivates or drives negative attitudes to difference ?

2.Reflecting on your life, when do you see yourself at the ‘centre’ and when at the ‘margins’ of society? Would others agree with you?

3.When you have witnessed ‘microaggressions’ and when might you have been responsible for a ‘microaggression’?

One of the additional challenges in schools where there are always relations of power between students and teachers is to undertake to unpack and explore racialised micro-aggressions from teachers.  

Philosophies of Loss

The challenge is that the sense of lack of belonging can also be felt by those who are, in many respects, from the majority community but who feel excluded. Issues can become particularly acute when there is a ‘gospel’ or ‘philosophy of loss’, whereby certain groups feel aggrieved by the existence of others and feel that the presence of others in their society has led to their suffering or their loss as an individual or community. The alt-right and certain kinds of white nationalism are examples of this. This often also involves toxic masculinity and hostility directed toward girls or women and anyone perceived as ‘migrants’. If (young) people are motivated by ‘philosophies of (perceived) loss’ it’s important to engage with them to unpack their positions and explore them with them. So this is a challenge and delicate balance.

Part of this may also involve understanding what drives and motivates violence, including understanding the susceptibility of young people to influential adults, and why there is spread of ‘’philosophies of loss” – that suggest that somehow they are losing out. Where young people feel they have no future, purpose or agency, these identities might be attractive as they offer a simple explanation for their life situation. It may also be the case that there is simply a loss of power with greater pluralism and the rights of others being upheld, in the case of the alt-right.

Paul Gilroy (2006)  writes, ‘That role of victim gets monopolised in order to deny immigrants, denizens, foreigners, – infrahuman beings – any access to the moral authority associated with their victimisation. Keeping victimhood exclusively for oneself has another benefit. It takes away any legitimacy from the wounded less-than-people who strive to draw attention to their victimisation at the hands of Europe and to its colonial crimes. White Europe stands as the only victim worthy of acknowledgement. This pattern has become common in the contemporary situation. It is something that it will be very important for us to try and discuss. The same melancholic way of not dealing with the problems represented by colonial history is also, I think, revealed in the idea that the European, social-democratic countries can’t really respond to the presence of racism in a political way. What happens is that where racism and xenophobia and white supremacy and neo-fascism and ultra-nationalism are manifested, denial gets compounded. People can’t really face those developments or address them politically as part of what it means to manage a habitable democracy. Instead, though they may not like the foreigners, denizens and strangers and they certainly don’t like dilution of national purity, they don’t like the intrusion of people from the outside, they are also deeply and acutely uncomfortable at what they discover about themselves in the process of seeing how deep their own feelings of hostility run’. He continues, ‘In my work, I have tried to develop some different concepts and ideas. The central theme, the alternative to melancholia, has been a concept of conviviality. Conviviality, convivencia, living together in real time. What is it to live together? I had begun to feel that, although racism was clearly and destructively at work in England where I lived, racism was not always the main problem. Very often, it was the denial of the racism that was a bigger problem. In some cases this was a bigger problem that the actual racism in itself. The structural character of that racism was something, which only changed slowly over a long period of time, but the denial of that racism was a bigger issue.



Alongside racism, resources for the undoing of racism had evolved spontaneously, unseen, unlooked for, unwanted. It seemed to me that very often, at the interpersonal level rather than structural level, the consequences of racism were banal and ordinary. There were conflicts, but people resolved them. They didn’t always get along with their neighbours, but they overcame those difficulties. I wanted to give the fact of that kind of creative and intuitive capacity among ordinary people, who manage those tensions, some sort of significance. I wanted to give it overdue recognition. I didn’t want to do that because I though the problems of racism were over or because I believed that somehow just seeing that these things could be worked over, worked around, worked through, meant that there was nothing more to do. It was more that in our conversations about these matters we had to start taking note of the fact that there were spontaneous ways in which many of these problems, the problems that we’re now told are inevitable features of a clash of civilisations, cultures and outlooks, that those same problems melted away in the face of a kind of clankingly obvious sense of human sameness. This could not be grasped in the context of debates, which think culture in crude terms and say “either you integrate immigrants or they stay separate”. I wanted to name that alternative possibility “conviviality”. I didn’t want to call it multiculturalism; I want to call it conviviality – just living together.’

Moment for Reflection:

  • What are your thoughts about what Gilroy says? Do you recognise this in your own context?
  • How might ordinary forms of conviviality be fostered in your context?
  • Does your site of practice have a clear anti-racist position? How is this embodied in practice, in language, and in the space?

Reflecting on Gilroy, what kinds of sameness might be positive, and which negative? What kinds of denial persist in your society? The ‘centre’ or ‘dominant society’ can sometimes operate with an idea of equality as sameness rather than equity, denying its racism, sexism etc. But so too, despite it all, are many kinds of relationships that express a ’shared humanity’ beyond an idea of sameness as sharing fixed identity.

Dealing with Denial, Refusal and Defensiveness: Gilroy describes as a serious problem the denial of racism (not just racism itself). This can be expressed as unwillingness to listen and explore these issues with those who are experiencing them, be it colleagues or staff. Sometimes people do not want to hear the reality of a person’s experience, and want to dismiss or minimise it. One example of this is ‘white privilege’ or even ‘anti-racism’ and the challenges of raising this as a topic, including with colleagues. It can be particularly difficult in contexts where young people are facing a range of challenges in their lives and the lives of their communities. As educators, it is important to commit to developing awareness of one’s reactions (and perhaps defensiveness/denial) when certain topics like someone’s experience of racism are raised, and to avoid making assumptions about who belongs and who does not belong in a society. It is particularly important that young people are not put in a position where they feel they have to ‘justify’ their existence, but neither can we allow extremist or hateful views to fester in young people.

Question: Do you think your society/school/youth work space denies racism/sexism?

Tip: It might help to discuss this in the context of a range of different kinds of privilege or lack of privilege. It is hard for many young people to imagine they have any kind of privilege given their situation, and they may be unwilling to discuss patriarchy and racialised institutions.

Unpacking Together: When a young person (or a fellow practitioner) says something offensive, it can help to avoid the language of challenging and use the language of ‘unpacking’, inviting the person to unpack the statement with them. Rather than saying ‘that’s offensive’ or ‘that’s not how we talk here’, or ‘that is not acceptable’ it involves listening to the young person, coming from a place of understanding and compassion so that they are not defensive, don’t feel judged and are open to having a conversation.

Sometimes this is not about first revealing one’s own identity, including when the slur or comment is against one’s own community or religion, but rather involves opening up the conversation and help them unpack their views and where the contradictions lie. So the role of educator means unpacking all this ‘stuff’ with young people, ensuring they don’t feel attacked or judged for having those opinions, supporting their critical thinking, in particular around social media which is where a lot of the non-factual information they are getting comes from.

Aesthetic Expression and Pedagogical Strategies: Strategies to broach these issues with young people should connect with their interests and should seek to put them at the centre. For example, drama and music connected with their lives can be ways to open up the conversation, but scenarios in drama can also serve to close these down if not driven by the interests and concerns of young people. Sometimes it helps to use something as a medium that is safe enough to allow everyone to connect back into and bring different lenses.

Experiential Learning: Approaches that enable young people to explore their own experiences are important, so that they can participate in meaningful ways without feeling judged or shamed. Understanding that change takes time should be part of the process. Encountering and listening to the lived experiences can also move young people (and fellow professionals) to imagine the lives of others from a place of understanding and compassion.

How to do Dialogue: Teachers sometimes set up debates but don’t know how to come out of them, which is very damaging to young people. Perhaps debate should be abolished in favour of dialogue. Deeper dialogue and listening and being open to diverse opinions is very important because it allows for diversity of opinion to be elicited and to go deeper into those opinions. From a Freirean perspective, this also means solidarity so that young people, no matter what their opinions are, know that you are on their side. It means you understand the challenges and injustices of the system and you understand their experiences. 

Engaging with hurtful words: There is further complexity in terms of putting a young person in the spotlight who does not want to be highlighted as different, and who wants to fit in and belong. For example, this might involve the challenge of young people putting up with pejorative nicknames just to belong. It’s important not to ignore these and to ‘call in’ (rather than ‘call out’ those colleagues and other adults who use these terms as well as the peers of the young person.

Drawing on Freire’s work, Nourredine Erradi has described how when someone is in an extremist mindset, they are ‘full’, like a bottle full of air, and for a time, nothing else can get in so this can’t be forced. Creative attention and the art of listening can slowly create a little space for new ideas.

Restoration and Healing: The aim is not to impose change on young people, but to create safe spaces where they have the freedom to transform and can talk through the issues that are of concern to them, and know that there are people there to support them. The hope underpinning this is to create the conditions where they begin to question themselves, but the role of the educator is not to challenge them, but rather to ‘unpack’ these issues with them.

This might be understood as well as a nourishing space, if it nourishes young people, broadening their minds, and enabling them to see beyond themselves. In this way, the focus of conversation and discussion can be rooted in something that is restorative, rooted in principles of kindness and respect, as well as encouraging a level of responsibility around the viewpoints of young people. This begins with where ‘people are at’.

To begin this work together it is important to have a conversation about what safety means and where young people feel safe or unsafe.  Being in a safe space is a condition for learning and for engagement. Alongside this the discourse of belonging and inclusion need to be visible in schools and other educational spaces, or young people and their families can’t feel safe.

Moment of Reflection: Are the educational spaces in which you work nourishing for young people and for practitioners? How can you tell? Are they safe? (Or too safe because you are trying to eliminate risk of any difficult issues arising?)

Embodying Inclusion: The language of inclusion is not sufficient. We will explore this further in Unit 3. To see whether inclusion is ‘lip service’ or ‘embodied’ and supports difference, becoming and exchange, it can help to do an ‘audit’ of spaces.

Ask yourself: How does the space work? Who sits beside whom? What images are on the walls? What languages are represented? How is Irishness/your nationality presented? Who is included? Are there outreach activities to those who may not be entering youth work spaces? Do you engage with young people who might feel those spaces are ‘their spaces’ alone and thus exclude those of migrant heritage? Are relationships built with parents and the wider community inviting them into the space and helping them to feel like they belong? Are diverse cultures valued and welcomed into school spaces? When you enter your site of practice, what is the intentionality that you bring? If it is inclusion, then how is that embodied and realised?

Ideas: You might include artworks made by young people. This can be a way of creating spaces for expression and also opening up conversations about questions that can be otherwise be divisive. Since these artworks will be connected in different ways to lived experience, this can open up conversations indifferent ways.

Question: Do schools and youth work spaces privilege sameness (intentionally or not?)

Seeing through the Eyes of a Stranger: In every context, it can be easier to see the issues and problems with other societies or communities than one’s own. To take the example of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, it is often easier for young people from the Republic of Ireland to see how the structures that separate people operate; it is more difficult to see how structures of separation, segregation and exclusion work in one’s own context.

Embodying inclusion involves listening to people and asking them what would be involved to make them feel welcomed and included. It means asking what we need to let go of in order to embody inclusion without insisting on sameness or assimilation, whilst ensuring pluralism. It involves being proactive in reaching out – in the case of both youth work and schools to wider communities to ‘invite the world in’. This might mean parents reading stories in their mother tongues to the wider class, it might mean outreach to invite young people of migrant heritages to join youth clubs, or interfaith world cafes to share different beliefs and faiths.

Sometimes young people can claim spaces as their own, and exclude other young people, questioning why they should be in ‘their space’. The work involves opening their eyes and helping them to talk about experiences of, for instance, living in direct provision, from a place of empathy and understanding.