Wednesday, July 27, 2011
The case of Anders Breivik shows how the internet pushes political views in extreme directions
There are five stages of dealing with terrorism – horror, shock, denial, acceptance, and blaming the Jews. It’s easy to see why so many Muslims find comfort in conspiracy theories about 9/11 and 7/7; it’s very unnerving to find out that someone so extreme, hate-filled and inhumane comes from your own religious or political circles. No wonder the far Right already have their conspiracy theory lined up about Friday’s events
More troubling is any possible moral support given by the centre Right. Anders Breivik is a Right-wing conservative opposed to Islamic immigration, cultural Marxism and the EU. He was a fan of Melanie Phillips and Mark Steyn, as well as many other centre-Right columnists and thinkers. He read many British newspapers, including this one. As Boris Johnson has said, some of his language could perfectly fit in with the British blogosphere.
Many people are making much of his long manifesto (over 1,500 pages – but if you’re egotistical enough to believe you have power of life and death over your fellow human beings, you’re not going to care too much about editing) and his praise for Phillips. Strange that people who say that Islamists misinterpret the Koran are happy to blame mainstream conservatives for this fanatic’s actions. Yet the Koran is quite ambiguous about violence; neither Phillips nor Mark Steyn have ever remotely sanctioned terrorist violence. Neither is it fair to blame some of the fruitier websites Breivik looked at, such as JihadWatch and Gates of Vienna – as far as I know, neither blog has ever said that violence was acceptable.
Blaming Melanie Phillips for this is like blaming JD Salinger for the murder of John Lennon, or Paul McCartney for the Manson family killings. But it is true that Breivik the monster was a manifestation of the internet, the blogosphere, and its tendency to drive some individuals to ever more extreme views.
Breivik looks like an extreme manifestation of the conservative mindset. Conservatives are often, by nature, pessimistic, fearful and often unhappy people (one of the strange things about Right-wing writers is that they like to portray conservatism as macho, when conservatives are in fact often quite timid). What makes them unhappy? Our personal failings as human beings, usually, and little to do with immigrants, feminists, Marxists or the “liberal elite”. Breivik’s anger and unhappiness stemmed from feelings of inadequacy, which presumably drove him towards his obsessions with militarism and medieval knights; he blamed the feminisation of society, and said his initial rage stemmed from being forced to do knitting at school. A slight overreaction, perhaps?
But the question now being asked is whether he was able to draw moral support from a wider hinterland of anti-immigration rhetoric. Certainly his appalling crimes make debating these issues harder, and the subject more toxic than it already was. For decades discussion about immigration and multiculturalism has been off-limits due to a fear of the violence it would provoke. Yet all sorts of violence is committed for various causes, and Right-wing, racist violence is just one small part; the 7/7 bombers killed in opposition to the Iraq War, but that does not mean that the Iraq War was right. The IRA’s violence does not negate the work or cause of the SDLP. We should not hold off criticising the excesses of capitalism because of the Red Army Faction and other Leftist terrorists. The centre Right isn’t responsible for the extreme Right any more than the Liberal Democrats are responsible for Pol Pot.
But what is true is that the internet has a dangerous ability to encourage extremism on an issue. Websites which focus exclusively on one issue – Islamic immigration into Europe, for instance – allow people to radicalise themselves to a dangerous extent.
In his book Going to Extremes, Cass Sunstein noted that people’s peer groups could shift their political views in extreme directions, so that “social networks can operate as polarisation machines because they help to confirm and thus amplify people’s antecedent views”. In the age of the internet, where people can seek out like-minded souls across the world, this effect is amplified, the echo chamber impact of self-selecting peer groups driving some people to ever more extreme views.
There is nothing inherently dangerous in conservatism or opposition to multiculturalism; the danger is in not speaking to or communicating with people who think differently to you.