Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Why we shouldn’t psychologise extremism (as often as we do, anyway)

Too frequently we refer to members of extremist, terrorist, radical, violent (etc) groups or movements in the language of psychopathology; we call them ‘sociopathic’ or ‘psychopathic’, we label their conspiracy theories ‘paranoid’, and we describe their outlook as ‘deranged’. Or at least, many commentators use this language, as I noticed while reading a prominent and well-regarded magazine on global affairs, this morning.

This is usually not very rigorous or wise.

There are certainly members of these extremist outfits that are genuinely psychopathic. Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi certainly seems to qualify, hesitant as I am to offer psychiatric diagnoses without medical credentials. And a fear and mistrust so acute and pressing that it might reasonably be called ‘paranoid’ is common amongst members of terrorist or insurgent groups which are organised into clandestine cells and which owe their survival to great secrecy and caution. If we restricted our use of psychopatholigcal or psychoanalytic language to these empirically supported and carefully delimited areas, we’d be entirely reasonable.

The problem is in referring to people as psychopathic simply because they’re willing to use extreme violence against people who seem to us to be totally innocent – against children, for example – or in referring to people as paranoid simply because they believe in conspiracies which to us seem completely implausible – such as believing that the Mossad is behind everything from shark attacks to 9/11. There is a great deal of excellent literature in social psychology which explains why individuals, without needing to have any particular disorders, psychiatric illnesses, or instabilities, can reach the belief that indiscriminately  killing cafe patrons or schoolchildren is justified, and will sleep just fine after doing so. I’ve discussed some of this literature elsewhere (in papers, blog posts, and talks), so I won’t do so at any length here except to quote one finding upon which almost all psychologists studying terrorism and extremism have converged:

Terrorists are psychologically normal.

Consider the belief, apparently held by the vast majority of the Pakistani population (according to one source who is eminently credible, but whom I cannot name under Chatham house rules) and many others besides, that 9/11 was a CIA-Mossad plot. On the surface of it, this belief seems absolutely barmy. It seems a real stretch to say that anyone who holds it isn’t paranoid, in that they have demonstrated a failure of reasonable evidence assessment and see unlikely conspiracies behind major world events. But place yourself in the mindset of many of the people who do believe this. Everyone around you believes it too, and the people who tell you that you’re out of your tree are part of ‘the enemy’. You already believe the enemy to be deceitful and devious. You may even believe that the alleged culprits – jihadis – follow codes of conduct that make their involvement hard to imagine. Given all these things, what seems more plausible: that everyone around you is totally mistaken and the foreign powers who assault your community actually have just cause, or a conspiracy of powerful enemies?

I’m not saying that these aren’t examples of poor critical thinking skills, but if we’re going to call anyone who falls victim to cognitive biases or the forces of ‘groupthink’ psychologically abnormal, we’re going to deprive the very notion of normalcy of much of its usefulness.

So I think we should avoid diagnosing our crazy enemies. We can make do with calling them radicals, with describing their morality as simplistic, cruel, and horrible, and with labeling their beliefs as unjustified or unwarranted. These are powerful words and they do not rely upon problematic assumptions about psychiatric conditions or personality disorders. Frankly, it’s sort of a shame that we can’t dismiss savagery as simply the result of deficient minds, and instead must look to social forces and conditions that even us enlightened folk could be swayed by in other circumstances. But I’m of the opinion that accepting depressing truths is still better and wiser than holding to comforting falsehoods.

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2 responses to “Why we shouldn’t psychologise extremism (as often as we do, anyway)

  1. Idealist Thought Blog January 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    At one time, many of the political doctrines we accept now would have been viewed as radical and the people proposing them would have been described as ‘psychopathic’. I’ve been searching for something about views on radicalism for a while!

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