"They desperately want people to pick a side."
March 15, 2019 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Deeyah Khan, a Muslim woman, spent months interviewing neo-Nazis and jihadists — and came away more hopeful than ever.

Khan's refusal to let fear rule her life or her work led her to trying something new: talking directly with white supremacists and jihadists about their lives and their beliefs.
They admit that their biggest enemy is actually not white supremacists or anything like that. Their enemy is people like me, and people who want to get along, who want our societies and our various communities to coexist.
She never expected any positive outcomes, and is still shocked when she thinks about people who have left hate groups after coming to think of her as a friend.

(thanks to growabrain's comment in the latest catch-all thread)
posted by kristi (13 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
To head off a possible derail, please don't miss this part of the interview:
And I want to be clear: I don’t think it’s the responsibility of persecuted people, or abused people, or oppressed people, to have to “reform” extremists. I don’t think it’s their burden. I don’t think it’s people of color’s job to have to do that. What I’m saying is this is something that I wanted to try. I was personally curious, and I am really surprised and heartened by how it went.
I am so moved by the possibility of reducing hate, and so hopeful when I hear about it from people like Khan, and Rev. William Barber, and Congressman John Lewis. But like Khan, I would never tell anyone that this is the best or only way to respond to haters.

This post is not meant to ask anyone to do anything. I just wanted to share it because it gives me hope that this woman has such an amazing story to tell.
posted by kristi at 11:45 AM on March 15 [39 favorites]

iThey admit that their biggest enemy is actually not white supremacists or anything like that. Their enemy is people like me, and people who want to get along, who want our societies and our various communities to coexist.

Wasn't this basically spelled out in ISIS propaganda? That Muslims cannot live in Western societies without either being corrupted or destroyed by decadent Western values etc?
posted by BungaDunga at 11:51 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]

here is the trailer, and Here is the netflix film. I almost always hate these "understand the nazis" thing, but this one is really compelling and I look forward to watching.
posted by rebent at 11:53 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]

“I’m optimistic but also afraid because I’ve seen it up close and personal now. I see that they — the white supremacists and the jihadists — are becoming very organized, and I see that they are using the internet and social media very well. So these movements are spreading faster than they did in the past.” posted in the NZ thread but also relevant here on the radicalizing vortex of online It Happened Again
posted by The Whelk at 12:04 PM on March 15 [6 favorites]

The interview was very moving. The trailer, though. I had to nope out.
posted by greermahoney at 12:12 PM on March 15

Moving a comment-in-process over from the main thread, there's an interesting tension among the left about how these things work. On the one hand, the optimists (which include the filmmaker, though Illing himself is basically just a highbrow slatepitch troll) believe things like that expressed earlier:

There’s been this common thread in discourse lately, that humans can’t change their minds, that we only double down on irrational beliefs rather than discard them, and it’s treated like received wisdom. In point of fact it is utter fucking bullshit—just another bit of craptastic biological determinism worming its way into pop culture. I swear, it’s this century’s phrenology and we’ll eventually cringe at our collective stupidity for buying into it. Humans do change their minds. We can learn. We can learn tolerance. We can learn compassion.

But this view is consistent with the belief that this mainly only works face-to-face, and:

The online efforts to Reach Someone are doomed to fail because you're almost always dealing with them when they've made a deliberate effort to push their viewpoint out into the world.

On the other hand, lots people also agree with the following:

The "obscure internet posters" are not the numerical majority of Trump's support, but what they're doing is the strategic work of promoting white supremacy and injecting it with a firehose into the mainstream discourse.... And this stuff is taken verbatim from the chans onto Tucker, and Brietbart, and Steve King, then up the line to the Republican de jour on the Sunday Shows, where it spreads till your Old Uncle Bill is mouthing racist chan memes without even knowing where he heard that.


I think the Internet Research Agency has falsified this hypothesis. Being vocal online can and does change minds. I suspect it mostly changes the minds of "bystanders" who witness the debate and not the people you're actually debating with (unless it contributes to a change of heart that comes years later). And I suspect it only changes the minds of 3% of the bystanders, and then probably mainly by influencing perceived norms rather than changing core beliefs. More research is needed.

I myself have tended to lean towards the first view, that the manifest changes of opinion in the world are largely due to face-to-face experiences, and that is how we will have to confront them, to the degree that each of us can or should. I have also leaned this way because the social-science evidence for the actual persuasive (as opposed to mobilizing) effects of things like the IRA or 4chan are relatively weak, particularly when you look at large-scale surveys where anything that affects fewer than a million people is basically just lost in the noise. But it's also clearly the case that for a subset of people, the fox/youtube/4chan/IRA garbage is immensely effective at extremizing.

In my depressed moments, I worry then that media like TV and the internet are in fact quite effective, but only in one direction: effective at making dumb, angry, isolated, misguided people even more angry, dumb and misguided -- but not very effective at the reverse, even when wielded by the smartest of people with the best of intentions. Which would leave us (those who can and should) the job of counteracting inherently right-ratcheting internet persuasion with extremely costly and difficult face-to-face interactions.

But then I think of all the LGBTQIA+ folks in my circle who were in a sense "radicalized" by the internet, truly made better (in their own views) by these initially low-bandwidth, isolated interactions (though that often shifts towards IRL over time). So then it's not that the internet is bad or good at changing people, just that it seems to work differently in different domains, just as face-to-face does. And the optimistic view is that, however terrible the recent slides towards extremism of a small minority of haters may be, all of this shows just how fluid opinion is, even if we still don't understand how and why. The great fear with Trump is that, though we may fix him in 2020, we won't fix the underlying disease any time soon. But if we can just figure out how this stuff works a bit better, we (those who can and should) may be able to improve that underlying disease much more quickly than we now currently believe. At least, that's what I sometimes feel in these momentary bouts of optimism.
posted by chortly at 12:52 PM on March 15 [11 favorites]

In my depressed moments, I worry then that media like TV and the internet are in fact quite effective, but only in one direction: effective at making dumb, angry, isolated, misguided people even more angry, dumb and misguided -- but not very effective at the reverse, even when wielded by the smartest of people with the best of intentions.

I submit, for your consideration, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

I think the lopsidedness that we see has a lot to do with the funding models for both traditional (eg. TV) and online (social) media.
posted by eviemath at 1:27 PM on March 15 [9 favorites]

This is also a repost from the main politics thread: Özlem Cekic: Why I have coffee with people who send me hate mail. Özlem's work goes far beyond having coffee with her enemies, she works with schools and mosques and as a former politician she has a huge network.
But what I'd like to add that I didn't mention in the other comment is that in the TED talk, she is the most Danish of Danish people ever. Her language, mannerisms and attitude are as Danish as can be. She looks as Danish as my aunt. I know you American and Canadian and even British people are used to people with diverse backgrounds being totally part of your national culture. But this is still rare in Denmark, where immigration was very limited before the 1960's.
(And just to avoid weird stuff: this means something to me because I am a descendant of immigrants to Denmark from before the 1960's, and I know what a struggle it is to be what Özlem is. Mostly when I hear a person of immigrant background defend the mainstream racists, I see them as traitors).
And still she has to deal with threats to her life, and to her family. But she deals with it.
Obviously, the burden of dealing with racism shouldn't be on the victims of racism. Goodness no. But if anyone feels up to it, Özlem and thousands and others are doing god's work.
posted by mumimor at 2:16 PM on March 15 [7 favorites]

There really aren't words strong enough to express how much I admire what this woman and people like her do.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:28 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]

I have been catching up on the You Are Not So Smart podcast*. The most recent one I listened to on persuasion talked about how there's actually two different modes of persuasion, depending on how personally people take the arguments. If people feel the arguments are very relevant to them personally, they tend to be persuaded by the best arguments. If people don't feel like it's personally relevant, they're persuaded by the number of arguments. This is likely why there's such confusion about what kind of persuasion works - apparently, it had been a mess for decades until a couple of students trying to memorise the results of the studies ended up discovering a common thread.

This is complicated by radicalisation, which is a separate process: it's exploiting human social structures by finding dark corners of the internet where they won't be disturbed and gradually developing a fascist milieu. Once they've soaked people in that enough, they can then start to convince them that the facts that matter come from the Nazis, and then that people who aren't straight white people don't really count as human (I pricked up my ears when I heard they were starting to try to use 'NPC' as an epithet). The key to deradicalisation is one-on-one contact, over time, where their understanding of the world is challenged and they come to realise they're being misled. Not always possible, not always safe, but it does apparently work.

* It seemed to be building towards a conclusion that we're all equally deluded and we just gotta reach across the aisle and see things from someone else's point of view and it turns out that while that's true, there's research that suggests that progressives on average tend to be good enough at this already while conservatives, on average, tend to be relatively bad at it.
posted by Merus at 7:12 AM on March 16 [4 favorites]

Just watched this and Deeyah Kahn is remarkable. This is not typical "PoC tries to debate/educate white supremacists" or "let Nazis air their views on Netflix unencumbered and nod with concern as they own themselves" - Kahn asks extremely pointed and simple and personal questions that force these people to really reflect on themselves and you can literally see the pain in their eyes.

For instance, "I've been described online as [slur] - how does it make you feel to see me called that?" They all acknowledge that they like her so it's really sad to hear that, and then she'll ask why it makes them sad to hear that, and they're forced to reach down into their soul - or what's left of it - in ways that they haven't had to before. They might not fully open up, but we finally get to see these assholes made visbily uncomfortable - their eyes dart around, they start to fidget and are at a loss for words. These people enjoy being yelled at, enjoy being challenged on their abhorrent views, enjoy having an enemy and the prospect of violence, but they are in no way prepared to emotionally confront the true nature of their beliefs when they are laid out plainly in front of them.

It's like some mix of journalism and therapy and intervention...and It's not for everyone, and not every conversation she has results in any kind of revelation, and it doesn't indicate that we will solve racism by singing kumbaya or playing therapist with Nazis (though I do think that if every single one of these scumbags had to sit through a couple of therapy sessions the world would be an immensely better place). But I found it to be worth watching, it is way more refreshing and cathartic compared to other typical "So, What's the Deal With Nazis?" documentary content that I tend to avoid entirely.
posted by windbox at 7:30 AM on March 16 [8 favorites]

I watched this and I was overwhelmed. I agree with what everyone (including Khan) is saying about how it's not the responsibility of PoC etc. to educate. However, I am struck by the fact that only someone like her would have been able to achieve what she achieved in some of her encounters. She aggressively confronted these people with her humanity while treating them with dignity.

It was amazing to see how several of them literally squirmed in discomfort at the intellectual dissonance that wracked their brains. In the end, for several of them, the human inside had no choice but to respond to the humanity in Khan. As a white man, it would be quite impossible for me to reach these people like this. I can do other things, but nothing like this.
posted by Edgewise at 11:56 AM on March 16 [4 favorites]

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