Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Manchester and the Problem of Social Homelessness

I get rather aggravated with all the focus in the news on the question of whether Salman Abedi "acted alone" or in coordination with ISIS. I mean, it's pretty obvious that he acted under their social influence, whether or not there was practical coordination.

Okay, I understand there's a short-term concern that there might be more incidents, and understanding whether there was an actual conspiracy in this case could help prevent them. But I feel this is distracting people from the more important question. Someone's practically coordinating with ISIS isn't a prerequisite to their committing highly destructive acts like this; but their being under its social influence is. So, could we please have some discussion of how and why some people come under the influence of a group like this, and how it might be prevented?

For BBC listeners, there was a story this morning about the Prevent program in the UK, which is aimed at preventing Muslim youth from being fanaticized (a term I prefer to "radicalized," since one can be socially and politically radical without being violent). It was claimed that this has been successful in many cases, but also that some think such a program can make people in the targeted community feel stigmatized.

There could be some truth to both of these statements. But, even allowing that it may have done some good, I think focusing only on one community is a mistake, for two reasons. First, acts of mass violence come from people of all backgrounds, for various (stated) ideological motives or none at all. Think Sandy Hook, or abortion clinic bombers. Although they may seem to have little to do with Manchester, there's evidence that people who commit such acts tend to have similar psychological profiles. In many cases, even when an act is committed in the name of Islam, it's done by a convert who appears to have a sketchy knowledge of the religion. This suggests that, rather than being the actual cause of such actions, religious beliefs are often an ad hoc explanation latched onto by someone driven by demons they don't understand themselves. So, if you have a program aimed exclusively at preventing Muslim youth from becoming fanaticized, you're failing to protect non-Muslims who are equally at risk of recruitment by cults (Islamic or otherwise) and, for that matter, probably failing to help Muslim youth resist recruitment by non-Islamic cults as well.

And, of course, the other problem is that such a program may in fact make someone feel stigmatized based on their cultural and religious background and have a boomerang effect.

Let's instead recognize that cultism fundamentally isn't about doctrine, but social psychology. Especially under certain sorts of life circumstances, people become susceptible to psychological manipulation by whichever abusive group they're unlucky enough to come across. This is mainly a matter of situation rather than innate disposition; saying there must be something wrong with someone because they joined a cult is like saying there must be something wrong with someone because they stepped in quicksand. Cults can reference any religious tradition, be theologically orthodox or heterodox, or may reference a non-religious ideology (my own adolescent experience was with a political cult, for instance).

The life circumstances that are conducive to cult recruitment are typically those in which a person has limited social ties, such as because of a life transition. Much as outreach efforts are sometimes made to people who are visibly homeless, it would behoove us similarly to try and identify and reach out to those who are socially homeless, so to speak.

There's the cliche of rural communities' bringing pies to newcomers, but this kind of thing doesn't seem to usually happen any more, at least where I've lived. I learned about my neighborhood association from signs posted in advance of the annual Memorial Day potluck; at the potluck, which always includes a membership meeting, various activities are mentioned, but welcoming new neighbors with a visit hasn't been one of them.

What if every neighborhood or block association regularly visited every resident and tried to engage them in community activities that are meaningful as well as fun? If people who have difficulty making social connections on their own initiative are approached proactively in this way, it might greatly reduce the dange rof their being drawn into a manipulative group that will at best exploit them and keep them isolated, and at worst may lead them to engage in (self-)destructive violence. This is something that government could actively promote and even subsidize where necessary.

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