Let's start by saying I used to be a neo-Nazi. I know a little about far-right extremist groups. We would drink, compare arrests like Pokémon Go CPs and decry non-whites. Eventually I got out with the help of professionals and the support of my family. And like a former smoker who goes on a turmeric cleanse, my brief time spent in a far-right extremist group has had me spending my years since shutting down perceived bigotry by whatever means necessary.
Here's a hot tip by someone who knows: arguing with a neo-Nazi just entrenches their beliefs further. I've been on this hellish merry-go-round a few too many times and have gotten used to feeling queasy.
By ignoring the possibility, by looking down on their beliefs, I, like so many on my side of the political fence, was only serving to further alienate those who may have remained moderate.
The recent resurgence of far-right extremism, although it feels rather ongoing, has taken the left and the ever-dwindling middle by surprise. With One Nation at the recent election and now Trump (or should I say Bannon?), I was hopeful that like me, the world had moved past its obsession with extremism. When it comes down to it, extremism is appealing in its simplicity. Like Clint Eastwood has said: "You've got your position, and that's it. It doesn't take much thought. And when you go far enough to the right you meet the same idiots coming around from the left."
Perhaps my skepticism of the bold aspirations of the arguably like-minded One Nation and Trump reflects a certain level of willful ignorance, or perhaps, a delightfully misplaced belief in the inherent 'goodness' of the world we live in. Blame social media for insulating me against pre-election reality but when their blatantly racist policies were welcomed by so many in their respective electorates, it was a blow. The recent announcement of the Western Australian Liberal's decision to give preferences to One Nation, was an added uppercut.
But it was also a wake-up call. By ignoring the possibility, by looking down on their beliefs, I, like so many on my side of the political fence, was only serving to further alienate those who may have remained moderate. Our shouts of "ignorant" and "idiotic" caused them to fall right under the sway of would-be political leaders who they felt finally gave a voice to their concerns.
Maybe I was wrong to be so surprised. After all, at least from Australia's immigration policies, we have been becoming more and more openly right-leaning, both major parties included. When the Labor party and One Nation agree on offshore processing, there isn't much of a spectrum left. Trying to fix our system by crawling back to the middle might prove to be more than a little tricky. Our politicians are as bland as a gastro recovery meal plan; without their cracked-out ideas, what will the Australian people have to hold on to?
Like it or not, the left hasn't done much to engage with potential far-right extremists. Or really anyone who holds views outside of the left. We've been far too outraged, far too cynical, even too upright and condescending.
When elderly Doris or Jack ponders aloud if they should be worried about these strange Muslim terrorists they see on their television screens, because, after all, this is the only place they have ever seen a Muslim, instead of engaging them we've shouted them down in a rain of self-righteous name calling.
And to make things worse, while all of this has been happening, Bill Shorten has been asking shoppers their favourite type of lettuce. Or that terrible time where he pretended to understand millennials in question time, yelling: "I think Alicia Silverstone will play Greg Hunt in the movie Clueless." #Neverforget.
By engaging and educating, rather than labelling and insulting, we grow and strengthen the bulk of what makes Australia so great. The moderate middle.
Dismissing people who have questions on immigration issues, as indeed ignorant as their starting point may be, is not the solution. Unless we engage rather than put them down, we actually drive them into the arms of those who are extreme. Everyone wants to be listened to, even if that someone has a shaved head and swastika imprinted on their bicep.
As Alana Conner of Stanford University has said: "Telling people they're racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere. It's such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can't change, they can't listen."
If we are serious about reducing extremism, then it follows that we need to reduce those pushed out to the extremes. By engaging and educating, rather than labelling and insulting, we grow and strengthen the bulk of what makes Australia so great. The moderate middle. A place where reasonable left and right ideas can grow and where extremism has no place.
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