The Human Side of Extremism

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By 2018-07-02T20:03:52+00:00on July 3rd, 2018
Fervor, Propaganda, Political Extremism|1 Comment

It is now exactly one year ago that I was doing research on the Greek island of Corfu into the electorate of the extreme-right, neo-Nazi, and openly racist political party ‘Golden Dawn’. In the shadow of the severe economic crisis that had hit Greece, the Golden Dawn grew to be the third largest political party in the country. During the elections of 2015, around 400,000 people voted for the Golden Dawn, despite its members being explicitly linked to violence, and while most of them were on trial for running a criminal organization. As part of my master’s in social and cultural anthropology, I had set myself the task of finding out how ordinary people on a peaceful island like Corfu could be voting for such an extreme political party, and what impact this had on their lives.

During a period of three months ‘in the field’, I held 21 in-depth interviews with both voters of the Golden Dawn and people with other political affiliations. Aside from these interviews I indulged in ‘participant observation’, a popular research technique among anthropologists, whereby one infiltrates the given group to become familiar with its cultural environment and behavior. As a result, I regularly found myself having a drink in a supermarket-turned bar in one of the mountain villages of the island, where Golden Dawn voters would meet in the evenings. Another spot I frequented was an electronic store whose owners were Golden Dawn voters, and where like-minded people visited them.

In contrast to what I expected before coming to the island, I was welcomed warmly by these people; even though my interviewees found themselves in a severe economic crisis, they always insisted on paying for my coffee or beer. At the time, the friendly relations that started to build up made me slightly uncomfortable. One of my informants would tell me during an interview that violence against immigrants is permissible, as, by his logic, these immigrants are invading his country and violence against them thus counts as “self-defense”. The next day I was happy to greet him on the street. Another informant matter-of-factly told me that Albanians are second-class citizens. A moment later she invited me to dinner.  At the time, I decided to create some distance between myself and my informants.

Now, almost a year has gone by; I have completed my thesis, and have had the time to reflect on my fieldwork in Greece. I have written about the economic, political and humanitarian crises that naturally caused grievance among Greek citizens: between 2009 and the elections of 2015, the unemployment rate passed 25%, and government trust reached an all-time low. Around this time, a new social class was born, dubbed the “newly poor”: hard-working people who ended up jobless with neither health benefits nor faith in the political parties that had governed their country for years.

The rest of my thesis contains personal stories of Golden Dawn voters that illuminate their marginalized position in society, as well as their belief in conspiracy theories that are used to explain the aforementioned crises. The Golden Dawn voters were stigmatized as “dumb” and “narrow-minded” people, with whom any contact should be avoided. In the Golden Dawn, they found a group to which they could belong, readily accepting irrational conspiracy theories that conveniently placed the cause of the different crises far beyond the realm of their own influence.

After giving the problem more thought, I am convinced I should not have tried to create distance between myself and my informants. It is this distance that keeps the feeling of being marginalized alive, while it also reinforces the “echo chamber” these people find themselves in.

Now, of course I’m not saying that we should all befriend a neo-Nazi and simply accept their behavior. However, it’s good to keep in mind that some of these voters are kind and caring people whose situation makes them highly susceptible to the fear-mongering, blaming tactics, easy solutions, and seemingly comprehensible explanations radical groups such as the Golden Dawn – and other extremist groups – have to offer. We need to better understand that in crisis, people will seek any possible life-raft – even a leaky one, like the Golden Dawn.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about political extremism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Author
Kostas Brejaart is a Dutch-Greek anthropologist focused on polarization and extremism, as well as the role of conspiracy theories in society. He is a passionate traveler, writer, and photographer

One Comment

  1. J Perakis December 7, 2018 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    Your article is consistent with my thoughts on how good people are influenced as they join misguided causes. Do you have ideas on ways to bring apparently bright young men out of hate groups like America’s so-called alt right? How can I find help for a friend?

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