The Personalist Project

“The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.” – George Orwell, review of Mein Kampf 

 By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Since the horrific mosque shooting in Quebec City a few weeks ago, I’ve been wondering how it is that ordinary young men (and women) get swept up into violent ideologies. Sociologists call the process “radicalization,” and as I was reading about a study of thirteen different militant extremist groups—from across different regions, religions, and cultures—I encountered this list of beliefs that typify the violent extremist.

The researchers…extracted 16 key themes that occurred over and over in the texts. Taken together, the themes cohere into what Saucier and colleagues describe as a “seductive narrative”: The modern world has fallen into a catastrophic state. The ordinary mechanisms of change are no longer valid. Only extreme, violent measures can save things. This is a war of us against them, a war of good versus evil, a war of necessity. Any and all means are not only justified, they are glorified. God is on our side. In the end utopia will be restored.

Sounds pretty extreme at first glance, doesn’t it? How could anyone swallow this vision of the world? But if you soften the language a little, you get a set of propositions many people might find themselves agreeing with: 

·         The modern world is heading toward disaster. 

·         All our ordinary methods of bringing about change have been fruitless.

·         There is an "us," and there is a "them" antithetical to us.

·         We have to do whatever it takes to reach our goals. Means are unimportant; only ends are important.

·         God/history/progress is on our side.

·         We can fix what is wrong with the world. 

These are not propositions we find only in ISIS propaganda or identitarian nationalism. These are propositions we see accepted widely among activists on the right and the left, "Culture warriors" and "SJWs," among people whose goals we share and people whose goals we abhor. 

In an interview with the Washington Post on violent extremism, anthropologist Scott Atran referenced George Orwell on the attractions of Nazism and fascism:

“George Orwell once wrote a review of “Mein Kampf” in 1940, and I think it has some of the most profound insights of any commentator of the modern political world. He asks, how come [modern societies] offer their citizens ease, avoidance of risk and pain, hygiene, birth control — in short the good life — and no one is willing to fight for their ideals? And how is it that Hitler offers his people revolution, danger, death and glory, and a whole nation of 80 million people fall down at his feet? It’s because Hitler understood something profound about human nature: that human beings need at least intermittently a sense of self-sacrifice and transcendence. Under threat of death and extinction, they’ll find it. But if that can’t be given to people, their way of life just can’t compete.”

Looking at the “soft” version of the propositions I gave above, and reflecting on the discussions and debates I’ve participated in online over the last decade, I think there are two pieces to this puzzle. Our people are vulnerable to extremism not only because we have failed to offer them ideals and propositions worth sacrificing and transcending everyday comfort and security. We could offer alternative causes, but what would prevent those causes from themselves being overtaken from within by advocates for violence? We know that people are capable of being oppressive in the cause of tolerance, violent in the cause of peace, hateful in the name of Love.

We have failed, not only and perhaps not primarily in offering evocative and attractive alternatives to the fascist’s tin soldiers. We have failed, I believe, in countering the utilitarian ethics that makes the end the only measure of the moral and the good. The poison of extremist violence is not one we can bar with borders or security measures, because it reflects the battle within the human heart. The seeds of violence can be found in every community, every cause, every activism, every movement, anywhere that disordered love for an ideal is used to justify turning other persons into objects—enemies, others, weapons, and “necessary sacrifices.”  

Whether or not you or I are in a position to root out and counter the societal and structural causes of violence, we can begin by rooting out the violence within our own hearts. We can affirm the need for self-sacrifice and transcendence—transcendence of our own hatred, our own anger, our own desire to plow down moral laws in search of simple means to much-desired ends. We can sacrifice ourselves in service to the other.

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? – Matthew 16:26

What is our answer to tin soldiers? Not tin pacifists, but the living colour and narrative power of the Passion play.

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