Quite a few people have signed up for these updates recently. Welcome! And welcome back to all the long-term readers. These newsletters’ original intent was to replace the public lectures that I had stopped giving because of Covid. Locked up at home, I missed the forced reflection of a stage, a mic, and a smart audience. In practice, the updates have become a random collection of the things that matter to me at any given moment. This week, that topic is ‘radicalization.’
One decade ago, one of the speakers that stood out to me at TED Global was Maajid Nawaz. Immaculately dressed, impressively astute, and frighteningly convincing, his talk about fighting extremism was a highlight of the conference. I read his book, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, of which the title tells you a lot about the sort of man Nawaz is. Then, he became one of my favorite Twitter personalities. Following Nawaz is not easy. He consistently challenges pet narratives, relentlessly exposes hypocrisy, and fearlessly fights for tolerance and democracy. He is a mirror to my narrow-minded ignorance.
In Rabbit Hole, the NYT podcast I wrote about in #20, the YouTube addict Caleb journeys from Frozen videos to far-right propaganda. A glitch in the algorithm shows him an alternative reality. He makes the return journey to normality and then into the alt-left.
Finally, this Tuesday, in a meeting, someone told the group the story of Falco in Leiden. After dropping out of school, Falco got hooked by conspiracy theories. Then, he found his way back to ‘real’ knowledge and learned all there is to know about geology and paleontology. Now, he will play a role in Leiden’s 2022 year of science. Nathalie of Studio Moio, who played a role in this transformation, shared a short video interview with me. It gave me the kind of goosebumps that only a profoundly good story can provide.
These three journeys are all unique, although they share specific characteristics. What I like to see in them is how finding their way back from radical ideas helps (some) people to develop a profoundly inquisitive attitude. There is a lesson here for both cultural organizations and sustainable development.
In the community development and behavioral change model, which I typically use, 50% of the energy goes to convincing people to care in the first place — to get them moving at all. The other 50% is invested in “deepening the relationship,” i.e., radicalization. In simpler words, encouraging people to take the first step is as hard as encouraging them to make the rest of the journey.
For example, eating meat. We all know that modern human’s relationship to meat production and consumption is problematic. It causes climate change, biodiversity loss, and the occasional all-destroying pandemic. Going vegan or vegetarian is a solution. However, I like to see this as the end of an extended change process of which the first step (the first half, in fact) is consciously deciding not to eat meat just once. Not everyone who takes this first step will one day go vegan. But no-one who does not take the first step will ever be vegan.
On Tuesday, we did a session about the SDGs with 26 students. As part of the process, we encouraged all of them to pick one specific and practical thing they could do to positively impact their own lives and community. All of them picked something. Limit their meat consumption, be more gender-aware, spend some time with people outside of their bubble… Small action, but once taken, the beginning of a life-long journey to living in harmony with people and the planet.
I’ve clumsily summarised this idea in the graph below. The yellow line is doubt. Clearly, this is some sort of f = x2 formula with no doubt whatsoever for people with no idea. There will be some correlation between how much effort you need to spend to convince someone and their level of doubt. The first step on this journey is to introduce doubt. “Maybe not eating meat for one day is not such a bad idea.”
Most community projects I’ve worked on only look at half of this graph, going from “no idea” to “one idea”. The journeys back from extremism move from “one idea” to “another idea”. Along the way, there will be a lot of doubt. I believe that if this journey is taken, it sort of distorts the doubt function, as shown with the red line in the graph below. Note that there is now also doubt in the neutral position in the middle.
Most cultural organizations and most sustainable development projects only cater to the people already safely on one side of the idea axis, and preferably those on their side. Virtually all of their energy and resources are spent on deepening the relationship, where there is not much doubt to overcome. Very little energy and resources are spent structurally on inviting entirely new audiences to move from “no idea” to a state of serious doubt. Only the bravest organizations support people with going from one idea to another.
I.e., working with people who’ve turned their back on books to rediscover the virtues of reading. Or supporting people who seriously dislike climate action to take responsibility for future generations nonetheless.
Art has long been a means to increase doubt and, therefore, facilitate people’s journey from one idea to another. Merlijn Twaalfhoven and his friends at the Turn Club turned this into an academy: “The Academy of Uncertainty Ability”.
I listened to the bonus episodes of Wind of Change this week. I was especially intrigued by the episode Rocking Venezuela. While the conclusion of Wind of Change — research into the validity of often-repeated claims that the CIA wrote this smash hit of The Scorpions to encourage regime change in the USSR — is inconclusive, Rocking Venezuela shows that the CIA did believe in the power of art enough to support art programs elsewhere. Having seen documents from other governments about the role art programs play in their foreign policy, I know that many of the powers that be fervently believe that art helps people move from one idea to the next.
Given that we need a shitload of people to move from one idea about the economy, inequality, etc., to other ideas, it amazes me art is given so little room in this process. Just try to fund a project that uses art to make the world a better place…
Back at home, my eldest, J, 7, started his own journey to extremism. When I wanted to pick up his brother in the car in the pouring rain, I was told off for being inconsiderate of the climate. Instead, we cycled the short ride to the daycare. He was right.
Also, this week, at 10:24 pm on Monday, I finally started learning Russian. After postponing this for the better part of two decades, the trigger was a podcast about Middle Eastern languages by the Taalmuseum (Museum of Languages). The experience is profoundly destabilizing, as learning a new language always is, at least to me. I love it.
Finally, the weather turned for real this week, going from ice skating last week to a run in shorts this week. I missed a turn in my attempt to get a good time in
Diemen’s distributed hybrid cross event this weekend, which means I have to give it another go this week. I look forward to it.
Have a great week, stay safe, and see you next!