Topic 3 Understanding Extremism

In this module, we offer one way of understanding some of the key features of extremism and approach this question as educators. This means you won’t find the language of ‘countering’ or ‘challenging’ extremism, but rather ‘unpacking’ extremism. We distinguish this from radicalism (which is not the same as radicalisation, a term often used in counter-terrorism policies). Whilst critical thinking is valuable, it doesn’t necessarily get to the root of why someone holds, or is held by, particular ideas. It doesn’t deal sufficiently with affect (feelings), the unsaid, and the ways in which the norms and values are lived out. What might seem to be a personal point of view, for example about the role of women, is often better understood if one understands structures like patriarchy. Brilliantly destroying an argument may serve not to persuade but to further entrench someone into a fixed position. This is why in this module our main focus is on affect and feeling, creating spaces for dialogue, reflection, and listening, and relationships.

The idea of ‘extremism of the middle or the centre’ which persists in practices of ‘othering’ by relying on an ‘us’ or ‘we’ who are the same, and others who are ‘different’ is important in developing a more careful understanding of how some of the characteristics of extremism can be present in the mainstream. It means asking who is expected to assimilate (and perhaps lose other dimensions of their identities in order to belong) and who is positioned consistently as ‘different’. This is not about blame. It’s about looking with fresh eyes as a society together, at ourselves, our practices, our institutions, and imagining the world we want together. It means asking ourselves whether difference is tolerated, whether we value pluralism or whether we want sameness. It can be too easy to view ‘extremists’ as those engaged in hateful and violent activities, but not see the ‘extremes’ in mainstream society.


Valuing belonging-in-difference that see belonging as taking many and diverse forms can also help to build resilience against the kinds of ideas, movements and groups that seek segregation, have a preoccupation with purity, or promote hatred of different ways of being other than their own. This might mean looking at different forms of belonging and the degrees of intensity associated with them, in particular those stories about belonging that can act as triggers for moving into more ‘extremist’ positions. One powerful story is that a certain group is losing something due to another group. This might be losing out economically, symbolically, in terms of power or status or culture. This involves a sense of disenfranchisement or dispossession. In virtual communities that younger generations are immersed in, these identities more transient, with risks of being dropped or ‘unliked’, and the desire to be ‘liked’.


Part of the world in schools and youth clubs is to foster belonging-in-difference and acceptance. It’s easy to seek belonging in groups that are extremist or radicalizing, when you are constantly being given a message that you are not good enough, or you will never be as good as.. or you don’t belong or fit in, no matter what part of society you come from. This is what is preyed on when someone else says ‘You are important to this group or this section of society’, a young person wants to believe that and believe they belong somewhere and are valued.

Reflective Moment: In your site of practice, how do you support young people feeling valued and foster belonging? 

When choosing whether or not to join any group, it matters who one can talk to. Youth work and school settings can provide spaces to talk about anger without engaging in violence. Sometimes, however, schools do not want to touch these issues.  


This felt sense of injustice is correct when a society tells a story about itself in which young people do not find themselves recognized or it does not reflect their experience. For instance, the selection processes of society claim that society is meritocratic, but young people may primarily experience competition and hierarchy in education systems.  


Some groups target certain young people by making them feel like victims and giving them an easy answer. Giving a message of simplicity and certainty is attractive.  Learning about the pathways to extremism in different countries, can help to understand different motivations for engagement. One such story is how opportunities are being reduced and this can attract young boys and men to the far right.

Common in many of these stories is a narrative that is zero sum and hierarchical – someone is dominating and someone losing. Are there other stories not based on winning/losing? Or ways of imagining narratives differently? What are the images and assumptions underpinning these stories? 

 Sometimes what is needed is to give young people something to fight for: this is not easy but not impossible. This has to involve the ability to live with complexity. You might find there are different groupings – those with no power who are disenfranchised but do not seek change. But there are also those who are powerless and want change. The quest for justice is also one of driving young people in wanting to make a difference and seek positive change. Later we will look at the question of ‘sacred values’. Even if from the outside, extremist positions and movements seem hateful, from the inside they can often tap into what matters to (young) people.


1.In your cultural context, what are the reasons for (young) people becoming involved in (political) violence?

2.Are there any circumstances in which you see political violence as justified?

3.What are the key (potential) drivers of political violence in your community and society?

4.Draw a map of key concepts that motivate political violence (equality, purity, justice..) and align different movements with these (eg what is the key concept for the far right?).

5.What is the relation of each group to pluralism and difference?

6.What are the characteristic that make some groups committed to political violence extremist and why are some seen as seeking justice?

7.What opportunities exist for young people tap into the desire to make a positive difference and transform situations of injustice, even in the smallest of ways?


Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis:

Quassim Cassam offers some ways of thinking about this question of extremism in his book Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis (2021). These offer a useful tool to begin make some distinctions between radicalism and extremism. His concern is with the ‘extremist mindset’. Whilst this does not necessarily help us to understand the complex reasons young people may have for adopting extremist positions, it does help us to reflecting on how to notice and address some of the features of these pedagogically. The following sections outline some of the key characteristics of ‘psychological extremism’ or ‘extremist mindset’ that Cassam presents.

What are Extremist Preoccupations?

Characteristic of the extremist mindset is a ‘purity’ preoccupation, or perhaps more precisely a concern with impurity. This can be a preoccupation with racial purity, with ideological purity, or with religious purity. In all cases, the concern is with eliminating ‘impurity’. This is often bound up with a concern with virtue which views its own position as the only position that is right or can be right, and often is tied to a sense of perceived victimhood, perceived humiliation and perceived persecution. This does not mean that those who are victims, humiliated or persecuted are extremists, rather in the case of the extremist mindset this involves imaginary persecution or a disproportionate or inappropriate response. A further preoccupation, for some, involves a sense of nostalgia and mythologising the past.

Emotions and Extremism

Cassam draws on British empiricist philosopher David Hume’s argument that people are motivated to act by their emotions or passions. He invokes Bernard Williams to suggest that emotions involve a way of seeing, noting that often when an object is viewed in a different light this can displace the emotion, however certain emotions can be particularly recalcitrant, and indeed, ‘violent passions’. The emotions associated with the extremist mindset include humiliation and self-pity alongside resentment and anger, but these are often inappropriate, disproportionate and recalcitrant responses. Cassam offers as an example the difference between the ANC under Apartheid and the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM). The latter, as Kimmel argues, involves white men’s anger characterised by ‘the potent fusion of two sentiments: entitlement and a sense of victimization’ (2017: cited in Cassam). A further violent passion is that of ressentiment, for Nietzsche the mixture of hatred and envy. These emotions express extremist preoccupations, and also express the attitudes of the extremist mindset.


Violence and Extremism

Cassam separates the issue of violence from that of extremism because whether violence is to be used will depend on context and on the alternatives on offer. One may be militant and pro-violent without being an extremist. An extremist is, on this definition, totally uncompromising, in that their attitude to compromise is often both implicitly and explicitly hostile. He notes that a principled person may also be uncompromising and draws on Avishai’s Margalit writings on compromise to argue that the principled person is hostile to rotten compromises such as upholding an inhuman or cruel regime. Margalit also links hostility to all compromise with an obsession with purity. The ‘non-extremist person of principle’ is one willing to compromise, but the extremist ‘regards all compromises as rotten’.

Characteristics of the Extremist Mindset

This extends the argument that the extremist mindset is simply about ‘how one believes’ by showing that it may also be about ‘what one believes’. This ‘negative attitude to compromise is closely related to three other attitudinal elements of the extremist mindset: indifference, intolerance and anti-pluralism’. The extremist is concerned about putting principles into practice but is indifferent to the repercussions of these principles. The form that intolerance takes is Manicheistic, premised on logics of ‘us and them’, vilifying out-groups and preoccupied with the purity of the in-group. Similarly, the extremist mindset is often hostile to pluralism and tied to ‘impositionism’ – the idea that ‘those with different ends must be re-educated or crushed’. One may not be anti-pluralist if one is a methods extremist, but an extremist mindset will tend to involve a number of these characteristic attitudes.

There are core and peripheral elements to the extremist mindset, and perhaps surprisingly, says Cassim, a more compelling argument can be made for attitudes to be viewed as core elements of the extremist mindset with thinking styles appearing more peripheral. This concept of the ‘extremist mindset’ is an analytic tool, informed by empirical research, that has limitations, in particular in its application to the lives and worlds of young people who may be exploring identities, beliefs, values, and even mindsets. Yet elements of his analysis are particularly insightful, including for educational spaces, in particular when he writes, When it comes to psychological extremism, intolerance, indifference as understood here and hostility to compromise are hard to view as optional extras. They are, in some sense, constitutive of an extremist mindset. Emotions like anger and resentment have a less strong, but still respectable claim to core status. Preoccupations are more of a mixed bag. Virtue and purity are common enough extremist preoccupations, but not clearly essential. On the other hand, a preoccupation with victimization is closer to the core, though there is room for debate about this.’

By separating the extremist mindset from ideological positioning, methods, or a sole focus on the content of beliefs, it becomes easier to reflect on ways of developing educational responses to extremism that can work with young people as they are. The concept of the ‘extremist mindset’ offers, in some respects, a promising diagnostic tool to see how and where dialogue may break down because it provides a nuanced typology of characteristics of the Extremist Mindset that is sensitive to context and to “clusters” of characteristics.

The concept of the extremist mindset is limited, however. It offers a philosophical analysis of a concept that focuses on key characteristics involved in psychological extremism but is not sufficient for the purpose of developing educational responses to extremism. Young people may be involved in extremist movements, without having an extremist mindset, and may attracted by certain dimensions of extremism and extremist cultures. These can involve a sense of belonging, of excitement, of rebellion, of risk, and of adventure. There is much to learn from social and youth work, in particular those practitioners who are directly engaging with young people in these areas. In education and youth work, it is more likely that tendencies toward an extremist mindset will be present rather than a fixed position, and it’s important that listening to young people’s motivations, their perspectives and their experiences are taken into account when responding.

In short, questions of age matter in respect of both extremism and violent extremism. Adolescence is a time that involves quite specific vulnerabilities and needs, but it is also as a phase that is characterised by openness and fluidity of orientation, in comparison to the concept of “mind-set”. This also includes the attractiveness and dynamic nature of extremist (youth) scenes as youth cultures. These motivations of attraction, adventure, status and excitement, extending beyond Scott Atran’s idea of sacred values and are not sufficiently addressed by Cassam’s philosophical concept of ‘psychological extremism’ which is concerned with offering an analysis of the concept of extremism, rather than outlining diverse motivations for engagement in extremist and even violent extremist movements. Whilst Cassam’s analysis of characteristics of the extremist mindset may be of educational and pedagogical value, in the case of young people, understanding extremist cultures as sub-cultures can also help to understand the attraction to these scenes to young people.

Young people’s identities and positions are evolving, and part of that process of evolution and change involves resistance. The aim of education should not be one of simply conforming to dominant norms and values but involves creating spaces where young people can engage with, critique, and re-imagine the traditions that they have inherited, and imagine a world of the future. Education requires different kinds of responses, including different responses to what may be seen as tendencies toward an extremist mindset, for example, unwillingness to compromise or a desire for purity or identity. These should take into account adolescent identity formation, and the ways in which young people seek purpose, agency, belonging, and meaning. This means exploring these issues with young people in an open way that seeks to build relations, allows for vulnerability, and that rests on a respect for their lives and their singular being beyond whatever positions they may adopt, matters. It should also explore the positive motivations and the functionality of engagement, as well as the non-functionality of other spheres of their lives.

Even if education involves a beautiful risk, there is also a need to create spaces of safety, stability, and security in particular in these times of global anxiety and uncertainty. Creating further turbulence or underlining the importance of living with existential uncertainty may not be what is most helpful in young people’s lives, in particular at times of wider social anxiery and instability. It is important to also develop opportunities for safety, security, trust and stability.

From an educational perspective, understanding why people may become attached to dogmatic positions, including Conspiracy Theories, is important, in particular in better understanding positions that may serve, albeit unwittingly, another agenda, such as far-right extremism, or that operate as self-sealing, monological belief systems. These theories offer explanations, simplicity, “us and them” binary logics, and clear causality. They are particularly resistant to fact-checking, and the hermeneutics of suspicion mobilised against beliefs with which they disagree is unfortunately not necessarily applied to their own beliefs.

The convergence between Conspiracy Theories, such as QAnon, anti-vaxx and anti-5g propaganda, and extremist agendas, in particular far-right positions, is one gaining increasing attention. However, it is important to not over-state these issues so as not to not fuel discourses of (reciprocal) polarisation, but rather to provide educational opportunities for exploration of different claims to knowledge. Engaging with these issues involves supporting critical thinking and analysis but also developing greater awareness of ‘how ideas feel’ and encounters with practices of compassionate listening.


Conspiracy Theory: Cassam’s book Conspiracy Theories (2019) offers additional distinctions that are helpful in understanding those elements of the relationship between Conspiracy Theories and extremism that gained momentum during this global pandemic. Cassam is clear that Conspiracy Theories (capitalised) are not the same as conspiracy theories – Watergate was a conspiracy theory – and whilst some kind of Conspiracy Theories may be relatively harmless, such as doubting the moon landing, others, like denying the Sandy Hook massacre, are harmful and hurtful. Conspiracy Theories are speculative, based on conjecture rather than knowledge, generally amateurish, often convoluted, and implausible by design (Cassam, 2019). He argues that Conspiracy Theories should be understood in terms of their ideological functions – what political or ideological objectives are served by the Conspiracy Theories, regardless of intent? Conspiracy Theory Produces is big business, and is supported by the circulation of content by Conspiracy Theory Consumers. Cassam then asks why, given so many of these Conspiracy Theories have been comprehensively refuted, do people continue to believe them. He writes, ‘When psychologists talk about our brain’s ‘quirks and foibles’, they’re usually talking about a range of so-called cognitive biases. Here are three of them:

1)intentionality bias – the tendency to assume that things happen because they were intended rather than accidental;

2)confirmation bias – the tendency to look only for evidence that supports what one already believes while ignoring contrary evidence;

3)proportionality bias – the tendency to assume that the scale of an event’s cause must match the scale of the event itself (2019a: 40-41).

However, he argues that these biases cannot explain Conspiracy Theories because we are all affected by bias. Another explanation that has been offered is that these beliefs are caused by personality traits or by an attraction to conspiracist ideologies. However, Cassam maintains that the different explanations don’t manage to explain why some people believe Conspiracy Theories. Rather, ‘[t]he Conspiracy Theories they devise and promote are those that match their particular political or ideological commitments. To this extent ideology is both the cause and the effect of many Conspiracy Theories’ (2019: 49): in short, people are drawn to Conspiracy Theories that fit with their political outlook, or ideology. Bartlett and Miller’s study (2010) showed that Conspiracy Theories are prevalent across the extremist spectrum. However, it is important to note that there are other good reasons for being conspiracy minded, such as those marginalised populations who have been subjected to conspiracies and have good reason to be suspicious.

Thinking Styles and Extremism

Drawing on Jonathan Baron’s work, Cassam says that thinking is a ‘method of choosing between possibilities’. The ways of thinking associated with the extremist mindset include ‘conspiracy thinking, utopian thinking, apocalyptic thinking, and catastrophic thinking’ however one may have an extremist mindset, without any of these thinking styles.

Cassam describes how belief bubbles are formed that reinforce shared opinions and exclude (unfriend) those who question or disagree. In this way, Conspiracy Theories are ‘self-sealing’ (Sunstein and Vermeule cited in Cassam, 2019), rejecting ‘establishment’ sources or experts and viewing ‘fake news’ as part of the conspiracy. Cassam says that correcting such views or using ‘cognitive infiltration’ can result in a backfire effect whereby people become even more committed at a deep level to their worldviews. Conspiracy Theory Producers benefit ideologically and financially from their circulation but there may be some hope of engagement with those who are less committed, for example, young people. ‘A political response to Conspiracy Theories will need to do at least three things: make the case that many Conspiracy Theories are forms of political propaganda rather than serious attempts to tell the truth; show that one can criticise Conspiracy Theories without being an apologist for government misconduct; and be careful to respect the distinction between Conspiracy Theories and conspiracy theories’ (Cassam, 2019a: 73). They are part of a wider theory about how the world works.

Yet, perhaps this does not tell the full story. It’s important to explore with people what the conspiracy gives them or how it helps them to live. For example, the rise of conspiracy theories during the pandemic has also given people a simple explanation for complex events, a sense of stability and security, a way of managing fear, a sense of agency, purpose and resistance, a sense of community and belonging. An extreme response can lead to further marginalisation.

Cassam describes critical thinking and discernment as important, though insufficient, in seeking to respond to Conspiracy Theories. ‘This educational response to the spread of Conspiracy Theories clearly has a lot going for it. It connects with philosophical ideas about so-called intellectual virtues like open-mindedness, critical thinking, respect for evidence and curiosity. Intellectual virtues are personal qualities that help us in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The hope is that by developing such virtues at an early age ‘people can be immunised against Conspiracy Theories by learning to see for themselves what is wrong with them’ (2019: 81). Nonetheless, he argues that responding to Conspiracy Theories and the extremist worldviews that can accompany them needs to involve more than a cognitive response.

Educational responses should also engage the affects, values, and emotions. Indeed, as Cassam notes, some of the most compelling elements of Conspiracy Theories is that they are good stories, they involve a ‘who dunnit’, and they are morality tales. In the context of this global pandemic, movements like QAnon that flexibly respond to, and create, people’s fears, can offer a feeling of belonging and connection, and a sense of purpose and meaning. In the case of Qanon, it enables people to deny and face the realities of a global pandemic by claiming that COVID 19 is not real but a cover for global child sex trafficking run by a secret cabal.

Question: What do conspiracy theories and/or extremist positions give (young) people? Certainty, stability clarity, simplicity..?

Source: Cassam, Q. (2019) Conspiracy Theories. London: Wiley.

Another important issue is social media and the impact of different technological platforms. It is helpful to explore the ways in which different methods, techniques and communication tools operate in terms of different kinds of community building, creating visual and sound cultures, and online sociality.

Learning how to analyse social media, looking at how algorithms operate or practices of trolling, as well as algorithmic bias, (Zuboff, 2019; Rouvroy, 2016) are important educational tasks. This also involves learning about confirmation bias, and understanding how propaganda works (Stanley, 2018; 2015). It might even involve an exploration of epistemology or ideas about knowledge, including scepticism.

Understanding how these methods and tools operate in a wider ‘assemblage’, including the ways in which Conspiracy Theories are generally monetised in online spaces, can enable young people to discuss the implications of and motivations for these approaches. It can also explore different ways of building community and connection, and methods of communication that are centred on exchange and pluralism that support both agency and a sense of belonging, and invite young people to unpack these complex questions together.

Sources: Rouvroy, A. (2016) ‘ “Of Data and Men”: Fundamental rights and freedoms in a world of Big Data’, T-PD-BUR(2015)09REV, Council of Europe; Stanley, J. (2018) How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random; Zuboff, S. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. London: Profile Books.

Remember, sometimes, the positions espoused by a young person are a symptom of other issues that they may be struggling with, and sometimes they involve ‘testing’ boundaries and exploring and trying on different positions and ideas. Educators need to be able to make judgement in situ in terms of the response appropriate to the situation. It even may be necessary to temporarily suspend the conversation in order to come back to it later (O’Donnell et al, 2019).

At times, indirect pedagogies that refuse oppositional logics and allow for ‘surprise’, can disrupt antagonistic dynamics. Sometimes approaching these issues at a meta-level (talking about the characteristics of conspiracy theories generally, for example, rather than a specific conspiracy) that draws on resources from epistemology (how confirmation bias works) can allow some distance from controversial content in order to explore ideas and belief formation more dispassionately, however not all topics can or should be approached in this way. The educator will have to make judgements as to whether a pastoral response is called for or a pedagogical response can be pursued (O’Donnell, 2020).

At the heart of this is listening.

Source: O’Donnell, A. (2020) ‘What is an educational response to extreme and radical ideas and why does it matter?’ in Encountering Extremism, eds, Martini, A., Ford, K. and Jackson, R. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 

There are nonetheless additional challenges in terms of the rise of violent far-right extremist movements that are led by young people, and supported with active recruitment and grooming by older adults. It’s also important to note that these are small groups and are not replicated across all jurisdictions. Hope not Hate’s recent report “Hitler Youths: The Rise of Teen-Age Far Right Terrorists” describes the emergence of some of these movements in the UK and notes the virulent racism, glorification of terrorism and direct calls for violence that motivate them. The report cites Cynthia Miller-Idriss ‘who has studied far-right youth culture, argues that expressing far-right ideas and taking on its imagery and language “may provide agency for youth who feel constrained or let down by the adult world” and that “far-right engagement may thus be thought of as a mode of resistance and cultural subversion” for young people’ (2020: 6). Social media platforms like Telegram support and drive racist and violent content through the use of ‘jokes’, and gaming enables younger users who are interested in extremism to connect with older users who can guide them in this sphere. Eco-fascism, ‘a loose and intensely antisemitic far-right scene that emphasises a mystical connection to the land, the violent enforcement of animal rights, and often genocidal solutions to the issue of overpopulation’ (2020: 15) is another movement enabled by the platform Telegram.

Question: What are the primary ways that hateful speech circulates in your site of practice?

Source: Hermansson, P. with Lawrence, D. (2020) Hitler Youths: The Rise of Teenage Far-Right Terrorists. London: Hope not Hate.