Topic 3 Module as Toolbox

What You Will Learn and How?

So, some of you will have looked at the module and panicked at how much material there is. You’ll wonder what how on earth you can get through it all. We invite you to find whatever it is that draws you in. Some involves reading and learning, some reflecting and dialogue, and some pedagogical strategies. Engage with units or topics that help you. Dip your toes in. For those who prefer to have a sequence, there is a logical sequence through this. But it many ways this is a companion to a reflective journal.

  1. We begin with giving an overview of ‘extremism’ and the question of education. This involves a bit of reading but should give you a good context for the rest.
  2. We then offer some ideas for how to become more aware of yourself, and also ideas around how to listen and open up dialogue, including around difficult issues.
  3. Next we go in more deeply to the question of ‘extremism’ and think about what it would mean to ‘unpack’ it and open it up.
  4. Finally, we offer some creative pedagogical ideas for you and for young people to ‘read the world’ differently and to imagine.

Are there any learning outcomes?

This will depend on you and what you would like to get out of this, and it will take time.

  • You will learn more about the question of ‘extremism’ and also about ‘online extremism’, but also about ‘inclusion’, ‘belonging’ and ‘othering’
  • You’ll reflect more deeply on your own position and your own ‘baggage’. We can be ‘well-meaning’ at the same time as being thoughtless and harmful.
  • You’ll learn how to listen and ask questions in ways that open things up, and you’ll also think about when you might need to (temporarily) shut things down.
  • You’ll be able to imagine different positions with the different voices woven through the text, and this will develop your ethical sensitivity.
  • You will hopefully gain more confidence in knowing that you are part of a community of people trying to develop your capacities, and that young people want you to do this.

We hope that you’ll take up this invitation to explore your own position, beliefs and values, and think about where your blind-spots lie, particularly if you come from the dominant culture in a society. Notice your embodied reactions. Are you afraid of ‘cancel culture’? Of saying the ‘wrong thing’?  Listen to what young people say and then work with them to experiment and imagine new ways of approaching these questions. With this module we invite you to take ‘time to think’ by yourself, with others, and with young people.

We know there is quite a lot of text, so think about reading this as listening to the different voices of the participants, as well as others who have been thinking about these questions for a long time. It’s not just information. It’s for reflection.

Every so often, we have dotted throughout moments of reflections, questions, alongside lots of activities for both you and for you to do with peers.

Because most of you will first read this on your own, we haven’t provided worked out case studies or scenarios. Those are really useful when you have the chance to talk them through with others. What we have found is that if you can come up with moments of ‘stuckness and perplexity’ to discuss with others, this is more meaningful. Our participants discussed racist comments, sexist comments, alt-right provocation and anti-migration stances (of young people, educators and others). They tried to navigate the ways sometimes people have a very reductive idea of who counts as Irish, insisting on ‘othering’ young people, their families and colleagues who don’t fit the stereotype.

This way of working seemed most helpful, by providing a theoretical frame and some practices to help critical thinking and openness to unpack real issues that real people are tackling. The exercises here aim to help to engage with these.

Module Overview

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

It involves quite a lot of reading but it distills some of the key ideas from the literature and helps to contextualise the more practical units that follow.

Key earning from this literature 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. Extremist positions are not necessarily those at the margins but can become part of the mainstream in a society.

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’.

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.

As mentioned earlier, what also emerged from our conversations was, on the one hand, the 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. the Even a single incident marks individuals, families and communities.

So, a good deal of what follows in terms of thinking about extremism is directed towards members of majority communities, who too often explicitly or implicitly, privilege sameness and inclusion into dominant identities, rather than making space for identities with complex heritages and ways of being, as would be expected in pluralistic societies. Or they don’t let some people claim their identity, for example, as Irish.

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 says in its own citizenship ceremonies that all that people bring in terms of their heritages and differences is enriching and must not be lost.

Dealing with Difficult Topics

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’. And it means seeing, for example, racism and sexism as forms of extremism.

We all know that certain issues are challenging to engage with and are sometimes avoided or not addressed in educational spaces.

Our Youth Advisory Group and our wider group of practitioners have asked that educators stop pretending those comments haven’t happened when they have, and have explained the harm they cause.

Of course, 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.

Often the question of extremism is addressed through a ‘security’ framework or lens rather than educational lens. We unpack this concept of ‘extremism’ throughout the module.

The Many Kinds of 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: the simple fact of difference. Denying difference is not the right approach. It bolsters the status quo.

So only focusing on commonality and saying our differences don’t matter isn’t helpful for young people and they don’t want us to do that.

Both young people and practitioners have told us how practices of ‘othering’ and ‘exclusion are painful, and often traumatic, such as when one is told by others when in one’s home, one’s own country, to ‘go home’. Even if those practices are not often seen as being at the ‘extremes of extremism’, they operate like a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ with constant messages that one does not belong.

Those comments alienate 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. But these issues also arise for young trans and queer people too.

‘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 suggesting they are not being fully of that society, this is painful. Cultures are constantly evolving and never fixed, so we need to open to this, and re-imagine, for instance, Irishness.

A further (and sometimes related) issue raised is ‘toxic masculinity’. This is evident in diverse commitments to patriarchal and misogynistic practices. Look at some of the ways that the alt-right (incels – or involuntary celibates) talk about women, but also reflect on how sexist attitudes are held amongst young people and older people.

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; for example, there is only way of being Irish, of thinking about gender or sexuality, etc.

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.

How Ideas Feel

Let’s look at one of the key learning points from the project.

Critical thinking is important but it’s not enough. 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 or value, explore how ideas or values ‘have’ you, how they sweep you along.

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.

So how do 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, as being actively committed to injustice.

What energy does 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? Or different times of your life? Or other issues that might be occupying you?

Educational Responses to Extremism

In our dialogues, we discussed how 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.

For this reason, 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’ve outlined some of its characteristics already and will describe them in more detail in Topic 4.

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.

Young people also felt that these issues need to be unpacked, but insisted that these be done in public ways as well. Otherwise, the rest of the group of young people may think that educators agree with, for example, hateful comments, or are not concerned about the harm it does. If something is said in public, it must also be addressed in public. This provides an educational moment for everyone.

See also:  The Enquiring Classroom