What does it feel like to be radicalised?

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jul 15 2020 Posted: 14:58 IST

Author: Sarah Carthy, a PhD researcher in the School of Psychology

Opinion: we have long been fascinated by how a person can go from a humdrum existence to suddenly living and dying for an idea

After 9/11, "radicalisation" became common currency when talking about terrorism. It was where your thoughts grew legs, your reasoning muddied and you spiralled out of control. You lost the part of your thinking that was tethered to logic and you were suddenly buying 3D-printed guns on the internet.

But the phenomenon is more than that. The word "radical" originates from the Latin meaning "root". Radicals were said to dig deep, challenging that conventional wisdom that often led to unstated assumptions and stuffy, stagnant politics. Radicals represented novelty and firmness in equal measure. So far so good, right?

As a society, we actually place a great deal of importance on this way of thinking, on straight-up, right-or-wrong dichotomies. It’s how we cultivate the principles that define us, strengthening us when the persist and weakening us when they waver.

A person with principles is a person to be respected because they epitomise certainty. In a world of ambiguity, that’s pretty covetable. How many politicians’ careers have taken a nose dive due to a change of mind? There is something fierce and sweet about hoisting an enduring belief above the rafters, and bulldozing it, unflinching, into real, progressive change. But with this comes a certain caveat. No momentous movement, no cosmic shift for societal change, has ever happened in the absence of so-called radicals.

Psychology has been fascinated by this idea for decades. How can a person go from a humdrum existence to suddenly living (and dying) for an idea? Ted Kaczynski was a mathematics professor before he became the Unabomber. Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, was gearing up for a career in urban planning. The perpetrator of the Charlottesville attack worked in a supermarket, whilst the Christchurch shooter was a personal trainer. The concept of radicalisation emerged from such anomalies, producing some interesting insights into what it feels like to undergo this process.

Radicalisation has its roots in uncertainty. At different moments in our lives, we stop, look at our actions and feel a deep, uncomfortable knot that brings us an anxious feeling of imbalance. This isn't me, and this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. In psychological speak, this is referred to as cognitive dissonance. Radicalisation fixes this feeling by restacking your cognitive structures. The uncomfortable feeling is lifted and replaced with a clear vision of your story (as well as the antagonist(s) in it). You feel relief. Radicalisation has you look at a world of grey and see black and white. Once you do this, that knot goes away, but not for long.

Radicalisation is goal-oriented. You soon become fixated on a goal, and co-ordinate your actions towards it. That goal may be salvation, civil rights, independence, or even art. Some have even connected it to body dysmorphia and disordered eating. It doesn’t really matter what the goal is, but what characterises your thinking as problematic is your unwavering perception that there is only one way of achieving that goal. Pretty compelling, right?

From here, the more destructive your actions are, the more instrumental you perceive them to be. In other words, you decide to do something based on its detriment to pretty much every other thing in your life. You quit your job, exclude people from your life, sacrifice basic joys or you may even sacrifice yourself. After all, the end justifies the means, right?

During radicalisation, a person tears their world down, with the intention of rebuilding it in their own image. However, whilst they are unflinching in their actions, they are often ignorant of the nuances of real life. They crave certainty over doubt, until that is all they see.

But there are better ways to fix the world and it just requires us to be a lot flakier with our thinking. For thoughtful change to occur, we must embrace the grey areas, pour over our problems and, once we’ve found a solution, find a million more. To become radicalised is not to become a terrorist, nor is it to become violent. It is to become rigid. So be loose with your thinking and accept that it may change. It should change. These days more than ever, rigid thinking is something the world needs a lot less of.

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