Empathy and experience are the enemies of extremism

24th November 2017 at 00:00
Schools can help to break down barriers in society by promoting critical dialogue

The question of how educators should try to prevent future extremists has generated no shortage of noise. From the diktats of governments and policymakers, to the opinions of NGOs and educators, it can be difficult to know which of the many strategies have any real purchase.

On 3 November, Unesco launched a youth-led guide to preventing extremism entitled #youthwagingpeace, which drew on the voices of young people. One of the refrains was the need to build relationships across barriers of race, culture, class and belief. If we can elicit empathy for “the other”, then extremist narratives can be disturbed and will lose their edge.

The various prophylactics against radicalisation have evolved to say a number of things: teach peace, preach tolerance, embed human rights education, establish a sense of citizenship, and – perhaps most often – teach students to think critically. These all appear good things at first, although they do not necessarily deserve equal praise.

“Peace education”, as it’s known, gives little cause for hope, because research reveals it to be a particularly ineffective method of what is known by Unesco as “preventing violent extremism” (PVE).

“Promoting tolerance” falls into the same category – and “tolerance” is itself a fairly weak virtue to promote as an ideal. It literally means “to endure”. Human-rights education and citizenship are good and necessary things, though ultimately they are predicated on presuppositions that are often not shared by those who become radicalised.

All of the above also bring to mind philosopher John Stuart Mill’s warning that if we push values on people they will “infallibly rebel against the yoke” and “do with ostentation the exact opposite”.

The approach that seems to have legs is to teach more critical thinking in school, though even that requires qualification. Critical thinking is often vaunted as the panacea for the plague of dangerous ideologies surfacing throughout the world. It works like this: teach a student to think critically for themselves and they will thereafter be inoculated against ill-conceived and dangerous ideologies. This method is effective to a point, but it falls short. Otherwise, one would not find well-educated, critically thinking and rhetorically gifted extremists. Such people exist in extremist organisations, so what is lacking?

Typically, the educational approaches mentioned above focus on affecting behaviour through programming the mind with ideas, facts and ways of thinking. While this is where energy ought be spent, it would be myopic to think that behaviour can be so easily brought to heel through the imparting of knowledge.

Engaging people

In French, there are two distinct words for knowledge: “savoir” and “connaître”. The former describes procedural or factual knowledge, whereas the latter describes knowing something through experience. Both senses of “knowing” are important when preventing violent extremism. On one hand, we have the knowledge described above – ideas of citizenship, coexistence, tolerance and critical thinking. What is often neglected, however, is the need for personal engagement or dialogue with people of difference, so that understanding and empathy develops.

In recent times, the word “dialogue” seems to have passed into overuse – and in doing so it has lost any specificity beyond meaning some general form of conversation. Dialogue, however, is different from both debate and conversation, and is a more pointed word than one might imagine. A serious attempt at it requires humility, careful questioning and active listening – none of which are native to young people.

Dialogue invites people into one another’s experiences, which often leads to empathy. Extremist thinking is often typified by a black-and-white view of the world, where right and wrong – or pure and impure – fall into sharp relief. It is through human interactions and empathy for different perspectives that extremist ideas can be challenged.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that conversation across traditional boundaries is the starting point for a more global community.

He writes that “conversation doesn’t have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values. It is enough that it helps people get used to one another”. It is this “getting used to one another” that empathy enables.

So how do you do it in the classroom and where does it fit into school life? There are various resources designed for preventing extremism through dialogue. Two, in particular, are worth mentioning.

Extreme Dialogue is a website containing lesson plans and resources built around interviews with former extremists. The raison d’être of Generation Global, an arm of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, is to prevent extremism by facilitating dialogues between schools. It facilitates video conferences between schools across the globe. Both resources highlight the need not only for critical thinking, but also for critical dialogue.

The issue of combating extremism is highly complex. For such problems there are no simple solutions. What does seem obvious, however, is that unless the fragmented groups that make up society begin to empathise with one another, we must expect violent extremism to continue undeterred.


Kenneth Primrose is head of religion and philosophy at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen and was a lead author for Unesco’s recent preventing violent extremism (PVE) guide, #youthwagingpeace

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