How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The ChangingMinds Blog!
How do extremist political groups persuade? The answer would seem to be quite cleverly, if they are to get their message accepted, although some groups do seem to erroneously think that turning up the loudness is.a good alternative.
Researchers Finlay and Wood analysed communications from the right-wing British Nationalist Party after the '7/7' bombings in London in July 2005. Extreme events tend to provoke and polarise extreme views, and groups such as the BNP will milk them for all the converts they can get.
Finlay and Wood identify two principles used: the "accentuation effect", and "essentialism".
'Accentuation' amplifies us-and-them differences, making the out-group far more different from the in-group than they really are. When you exaggerate, you polarize people, creating a false contrast and forcing an alternative choice between the us and 'them'.
'Essentialism' enhances this process and perception by taking a single undesirable character and putting it at the core of the target group. This generalises people so you can say 'they're all like that'.
Another trick is to reframe a negative as a positive, such as 'Yes, we may be politically incorrect, but at least we tell the truth.' Note here how racist bias is weakened to an untruthful 'political correctness' then reframed as the higher-integrity value of honesty.
In a neat reversal, they also redirect labels applied to them to their opponents, accusing liberals and Muslims as being fascists. They also re-use emotive labels, calling others Nazis (using accentuation and essentialism to justify this).
Obscure scholarly references are used to add apparent credibility. Arcane and even biblical references are used to hook religious readers and extend significance.
The problem of extremist groups leveraging troubles does not go away. Even as I write this I just heard a government minister expressing concern that right wing groups may stir up racism as jobs disappear.
As with all political messages, the important thing is to see through the rhetoric and persuasive devices to the actual intent beneath. When this seeks to create social division and consequent unrest, it makes sense that while the message may be of academic interest, its substance should be carefully avoided.
Many of these devices will not work with educated, intelligent or well read
persons. However such groups need such members for credibility.
Yet also I am perplexed to discover that cults often recruit from universities and value people who can persuasively promote the cause. It seems there is a style of intelligence that seeks certainty without question. In academia it can be about becoming an authority on other authorities (like being a Shakespeare expert). In religion it is about knowing the religious texts. In politics, extremists quote Marx and Mao. If such people jump, they do so hook, line and sinker.
People coming out of cults describe the affair as a 'temporary insanity'. After the 2nd World War many ex-Nazi's felt a deep and perplexed shame for what they had supported. In war, soldiers commit atrocities that come back to haunt them. It is scary how easily we can be persuaded to do things we would never have thought we would do.
Question was why intelligent people fall for extremist groups.
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