How Extremism Takes Root

How Extremism Spreads

The particular traits of anti-social hatred and racial tribalism spread most effectively and easily among groups that are lacking in stability and quintessentially fearful, in other words, people who are on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Combined with the structure and hierarchy that exists within white supremacist groups, individuals are offered a quick path back up the hierarchy of needs by these extremist institutions. This structure also provides the long-term stability to ensure those susceptible populations are eventually exposed to these ideologies.  

As people feel like they are sinking on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs their conception of who is “us” and who is “them” begins to narrow. This narrowing of the circle of belonging creates an opening for ideologies to introduce a new “circle of us” for someone to latch onto. This can happen especially when people are fearful for their safety and belonging in society, meaning the messages that will hit hardest are ones that stoke fear of danger and create an emboldened sense of a narrow identity. Ideologies such as that of the klan or nazism utilize both of these tools to make people feel safety in numbers and reinforce a strong sense of militant brotherhood.

While there is no direct research on this (that I am personally aware of), I would suspect that the rigid hierarchy within the KKK is one of the reasons it has had a more stable presence in the U.S. than that of other white supremacist groups. The structure and hierarchy in the klan offers a pathway for accomplishment and self-development that brings people higher on the hierarchy of needs and thus creates less opportunity for other cultural norms to be adopted by members. The fact that similar institutions do not exist for young black men (with the notable exception of Islamic terror organizations) is one reason why I believe that extremist terror in the United States is a predominantly white male phenomenon.

What we can do about this.

There are two primary factors that can work to inoculate individuals from being infected by extreme right-wing & identity-based terror.

  • Meaningful employment: Work that is intellectually stimulating, facilitates personal growth, and provides economic stability gives people a sense of meaning and accomplishment that fulfills their need for security and develops self-esteem. In short, people have a need to be proud of something (men in particular) and meaningful labor offers a healthy pathway to attaining that.

  • Social cohesion: The notion of a band of brothers is certainly one that has resonated with men throughout history, and this is something that can’t be ignored. People as a whole need bonds within the community through family and friends. Men in particular though, tend to have a strong desire to be a member of a team with a unified purpose. This can be found in a workplace, volunteering with an organization, or even in a community of gamers. A feeling of belonging is critical in order to maintain attachment to civil society and fostering positive personal growth and social cohesion is central to developing that sense of belonging.

Together these two core facets of life need to be addressed in order to maintain a high degree of stability within any society and they play a critical role in preventing the spread of ideologies that fuel extremism globally. This is one reason why the growth of economically displaced males in any society can put an incredible strain on societal institutions. In order to curb the growth of extremism within the United States it is critical that we work to build a strong cohesive universalist national identity alongside significant programs to keep people engaged in intellectually stimulating labor. We also must make conscious efforts to facilitate community engagement and ensure a high degree of economic stability. The potential solutions to this problem are countless, and the most important thing we can do is to implement as many solutions as we can think of.