I got the idea to write this essay a while ago. I wrote it down as one of the essay topics to explore. The idea came to me after listening to Gaad Saad interview Daniel Dennet, the evolutionary philosopher, on his podcast. It was in the interview that Daniel Dennet mentioned the difficulty in controlling the extreme elements in a group, especially a popular movement. If I remember correctly, Daniel Dennet had been part of the Occupy Wall Street movement which had sought to demand better treatment from Wall Street during the 2008 Financial Crises. The specific difficulty he emphasized was this- putting the reins on the excesses of members of your group that actually furthers your cause. I would say it furthers the cause in the short term since such extreme tactics have negative long-term effects.
The problem for this essay is now clear. But I want to state it clearer as a question. How do you deal with those in your group whose actions are extreme but furthers your cause in the short term? Let me concretize it with another example. You are quarreling with a neighbor. Your friend comes from nowhere and intervenes by beating the crap out of your neighbor. We would all like friends to defend us against enemies, but its another matter when your friend goes beyond what’s the normal for the interaction. It also signals that you are not safe with such a person. I think we notice this subtly. If some members of your ingroup tend to escalate problems with others, it is likely they will do same with you when the moment presents itself. I am careful of people who treat others like rags even if they respect me. This reminds me of an observation Stephen Covey shared in his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He realized that whenever he was mean to someone his young son would ask him if he loved him. The lad was on to a profound concept. If you think people will act differently towards you than they do with others rethink your premise.
Now to the substantive issue. How do we limit the actions of radicals who support us?
1. Having a long term perspective: have intimated what I think is the answer when I said that the actions of fanatics are counterproductive. They alienate a lot of people. So the thing to do is to have a long term perspective. A person who exemplifies this way of thinking is Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom he talks about calming the anger of his people during the death of one of the youth leaders of his party, the African National Congress. Chris Hani had been shot point blank in front of his home in Johannesburg. This had so angered the blacks in the country that it threatened civil unrest. But Mandela knew that retaliatory violence will derail peace talks with the incumbent white regime. It would also not be in the interest of black South Africans. Mandela also shows sound long term reasoning in establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for settling injustices during apartheid which allowed people to walk free if they regretted and apologized for their, rather than prosecute and punish wrong doers of that time. Sometimes the best strategy is to move on. Reopening old wounds can lead to social instability. The founding father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, congratulated Mandela on this action. I believe radicals in his party would be all for punishing all those who participated in segregation and other forms of racial injustice. Their position isn’t without merit, but sometimes you need to give up the present for the benefit of the future. The musician Labi Sifre wrote an essay about the miscarriage of justice that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought about. But as in all practical matters we need to strike a balance between justice and mercy; that is what the commission did.
2. Bringing to mind our common humanity: The second antidote to bringing extreme friends on the right path is reminding them of our common humanity. Even when we are in conflict with others there are things we agree on. Oftentimes, our enemies are not evil. They have their worldview, as we have ours. This is not to say that all perspectives are right. However, there are some values we all share. All people care about their children and want their future to be better than the present. Most people love what is beautiful and what is true. Love, beauty and truth are channels we can use to get closer to others. A few days ago I saw some young men chase a flock of sheep. They were having problems leading them back home so they came up with the brilliant idea of catching the lambs. That’s all the work they had to do. Their mothers kept bleating as the followed. It’s a truism that parents care about their children . Even a seemingly feeble hen will turn violent if someone trespasses the space where her chicks lay. It’s in reminding the radicals that others have similar motivations as us that we will be able to control radicals who want to crush opponents.
3. Humour: One of the funniest books I have ever read is Blue Print for Revolution by Prdja Popovic. Perhaps the only book funnier is Ham on the Rye by Bukowski. However, Prdja deals with a serious subject in the book. His strategies have helped non-violent activists topple dictatorships. One of the productive tools he advocates is humor. Humor makes what looks grim trivial. Perhaps not trivial but it has a way of making serious issues appear light as it motivates others to continue in the struggle. Making fun of others can be fun and can be useful in recruiting others to a cause. It prevents people from getting radicalized. If you are poking fun at the enemy there’s less need to maim him. In the end humor is a good substitute for violence.
Thank you for reading.