Not all racists can be rehabilitated. But some can and here’s some ways we can do that.
Assets via Wikipedia Commons | Art by Noel Ransome.
Brad Galloway works with the Organization for Prevention of Violence and is a Regional Coordinator with the Against Violent Extremism Network. Evan Balgord is the Executive Director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
It’s been a bad few weeks for Canada’s alt-right neo-Nazis. Four of their most prominent figures, Zeiger, Date, Leagueofthenorth, and Axeinthedeep have been exposed by anti-fascists and journalists. Their main forum closed to the public and they deleted Canada’s largest neo-Nazi podcast, This Hour Has 88 Minutes.
While holding members of hate groups accountable for their actions is necessary and can be effective, it is possible for members of hate groups to rebuild their lives. Deradicalization experts—many of them former extremists themselves—are helping the newest generation of neo-Nazis do exactly that.
As researchers that monitor hate groups and speak to their adherents and former members, we know hate movements ruin the lives of the people they radicalize and threaten the safety of anybody that doesn’t look like them or share their hatred. We also know that the situation on the ground is worse today than it was in the last surge of neo-Nazi activity in the 80s and 90s.
There are over 130 active hate groups in Canada, many primarily targeting the Muslim and Jewish communities, but also explicitly hateful of other non-white groups, LGBTQ+ persons, and especially women. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network works to raise awareness of these groups, expose them, and counter their activities—while groups like Against Violent Extremism extend compassion to members of these groups and helps them make an exit and earn a second chance in society. It’s deradicalization—the opposite of radicalization.
Neo-Nazis use propaganda created by other people to try to recruit people in their lives, gradually exposing them to worse and worse materials. The final redpill is believing that everything they think is wrong with Canada, like non-white immigration, is part of a Jewish conspiracy theory. They target teenagers, vulnerable young adults that are in transitional points in their lives in search of belonging.
Now the Canadian alt-right neo-Nazi recruiters are being exposed. Their propagandists and leaders that could vouch for each other and vet new members have gone quiet, their main forum, previously open to the public, is private. Most radicalization starts online and this means fewer potential recruits are going to see their propaganda. It’s harder for them to connect.
The new generation of alt-right neo-Nazis are desperate to be anonymous—some of them staying off traditional social media altogether. They argue with each other about optics endlessly. Canada’s alt-right loves Hitler and the swastika, but they realize it hurts their radicalization efforts—it’s too harsh an introduction. Instead, they opt for fashy haircuts, preppy clothing and, for a brief period, were wearing plaid flannel. You would have to be an expert or know what to look for to spot them in a crowd, however, they still like to borrow from old traditions where they see fit. They are comfortable using overt neo-Nazi symbology behind a keyboard.
It was different in the 90s. The racist skinhead movement dressed the part, wearing black Doc Martens with white or red laces and sporting recognizable neo-Nazi symbols or tattoos. They came from a collection of societal fringe walkers and had less to lose. Over the last few years, some members became part of Canada’s anti-Muslim movement, but only a small handful made the transition to the new brand, the alt-right. These groups, like Blood and Honour, are less apparent now, but they’re still active across Canada.
Today’s alt-right neo-Nazis tend to be educated and upwardly mobile. They tell us this in their introductory posts and forum comments. Some are on campuses. Others have tech jobs or are professionals. They don’t all have good jobs, but they’re holding one down. They face job loss, expulsion, and other social (and sometimes legal) consequences when their activities come to light.
Neo-Nazi groups may claim honour and, paradoxically, both a group sense of shared victimhood and shared superiority, but it’s shallow. Honour is lacking within the far right in which adherents are quick to turn on each other. In Canada in the 90s, racist skins would hold parties to raise money for their brothers in jail. Everybody would come out, but they’d only raise enough to pay for the event, often times not even enough to cover the beer. Once you’re caught, there’s no real help coming from the other neo-Nazis, as infighting and group status remain of higher importance in these far right groups which are often self serving in nature.
While it’s a public service to expose, and thereby disrupt, neo-Nazi leaders, being exposed can have mixed results on the individual. Exposing a racist skinhead in the 90s, for example, may have opened them up to violence from rival groups. In some cases, it may martyr them or give them notoriety. That’s less the case now, because they have their own propaganda ecosystem and they don’t need traditional media attention. Sometimes they will lose positive people in their lives and go deeper into the movement, while other times it can be a wakeup call that leads to an exit.
Groups like Against Violent Extremism and Life After Hate try to connect with members of hate groups to give them a path out, which is different for every individual. It begins with challenging the person to see other perspectives and build on compassion and empathy, thought processes that don’t exist in extremist groups. Life After Hate has helped over a hundred extremists transition away from hate groups since its founding in 2011.
The processes of deradicalization and radicalization are similar. For example, If white supremacist music was part of the radicalization, finding other music may play a part in turning them away from hate. It doesn’t start with challenging ideology, but building compassion and undoing the dehumanization of other people that’s a part of the radicalization process. One thing we might do is ask the person about the positive experiences that they have had with minority populations and get them talking about those times, as it helps to humanize and lay the groundwork for a human attachment.
Building on this, we’ll help them reattach to positive influences, such as old friends and relatives, or to a new job or educational goals. Often, it’s compassion from people that have every right to hate them that can make all the difference in this process. Ultimately, they have to take responsibility for their actions and make amends if they want a real second chance at life.
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