Walking the blurred lines between the three Ns of extremism and a pandemic

By Fairuzah Atchulo Munaaya Mahama

On January 6th this year, the whole world got a front row seat to what happens when extremists are left unchecked and unfettered during a pandemic. Like watching a train crash, we watched riveted as a mob of angry white insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol, bringing the modern world’s oldest democracy to its knees. 

The events of January 6th did not stand in isolation, if the rumblings of another March 4th insurrection was to be believed. Extremism is not a new phenomenon in the United States, yet somehow in all of its machinations, extremists had never stormed the Capitol building until the pandemic. So, what conclusions can be drawn here? 

For many, such actions were blindsiding, yet with a deeper delve into the increase in populism and extremism during and since the 2016 elections, it has become clear that while extremism was always lurking in the background, what the pandemic did was provide premium gas to fuelling extremism into an evitable chaotic and violent outcome. 

Indeed, if the writings were already on the wall, what exactly was written and how may it best serve us moving forward? The tea leaves of the three Ns of extremism provides an explanation and a way forwards.  A great start is looking into the underlying ties between the three Ns of extremism and pandemics.

The Ns of extremism is a psychological term towards delving, analyzing and explaining the psychology on how and why people become extremists, and ultimately end up engaging in acts of terrorism. It posits the coming together of 3 tenets: Needs, Narrative and Networks

A Need for significance

The first N, Needs, entails the universal desire for personal significance. Human interactions and actions are largely motivated by needs: bodily, psychologically, spiritually, etc. In the case of the riot and its perpetrators, the pressing need is significance — the fundamental need to matter, to have dignity and respect. 

Thus, the mind boggling question becomes: when have white men in the United States ever hungered for the need to matter? Or for the need to dignity and respect? The white man is the most privileged group in America, yet recent events seem to be slowly chipping away at this privileged status; a situation not all welcomed. 

For one, studies have found the mortality rate of white men has been on the rise in recent times due to drug addiction, alcoholism, liver diseases and suicide. The study further showed this trend exists only in the United States. While an increase  in mortality rates seem tangible, there have been other intangible factors that white men have perceived as a chip away into their fundamental need of significance. 

These have mostly been in the form of movements heralding equality and equity, the most prominent being the #Black Lives Matter and  #MeToo movements, all of which have increasingly  been perceived as an affront to the position of powers predominantly held by white men. Of course, when one is accustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression. 

Predictably, such perceived affronts have been met with the need to re-assert significance and to matter via counter organizations like #All lives Matter, Proud Boys and even the  rise in INCEL membership.  And this was even before the pandemic hit, with its resultant job loss, anxiety about life and widening inequality between the rich and the poor, hence providing more impetus to the ever rising Need of significance among white America  and reaffirmation of the self. 

Narratives for guidance

The second N, Narrative, provides guidance to members in their quest by identifying the actions needed in order to regain one’s significance. These may be engaging in a social career or being violent for a cause and becoming a martyr or hero. In the case of the Capitol insurrection and its perpetrators, the violence exhibited before and during the insurrection was framed in the narrative of heroism and martyrdom. 

Thus the prevailing violence were the actions needed to save their country, save their election results and ultimately  keep in power the ideal president for the country. Hence the disbelief and indignation that their actions might be interpreted as anything less than patriotic or be labelled with terrorism.

Networks and validation loops

Finally, the third N, Network, which works to validate the narrative by providing a medium for dispensing respect, veneration and rewards to those who implement the narrative and indignation to those that don’t. Humans are social beings and seek out people to look up to, whose approval and validation they crave. 

Who better to offer such validation of their Needs and their Narratives than  former President—Donald Trump? Yet, the narratives of validation did not end on the words and actions of the highest office in the land, but by information bubbles churned by news cycles and outlets. 

Conservatives watched their FOX, Newsmax and other conservative networks, and as these networks grew in extreme and embolden in their spread of misinformation and disinformation, so did viewership. The pandemic restrictions provided more time to watch these news cycles. The isolation, loneliness and anxiety that come with surviving a pandemic provided the perfect environment to go down the rabbit hole into forums like QAnon

These conspiracies end up on social media platforms and contribute to building a network of like-minded people who validate one another’s needs and their narratives. In the aftermath of the US election, this validation loops snowballed and led to wanting to hang the vice-president of the nation.

Thus, by January 6th, the United States had amassed a group of privileged white men high on their feelings of inequality and injustice and need for significance, drunk on narratives of violence and heroism, all while insulated by an echo chamber of networks that validated, venerated and rewards their narrative, what could possibly go wrong? 

Moving forward

The journey of pandemics, extremism and their attack on democracies do not just end at the Capitol insurrection. There have been signs of democratic upheaval all over the world, especially strong in areas where there has been ties of extremists’ sentiments. The recent government collapse in the Netherlands and Italy offer startling examples. 

Both countries had their bout of extremism and populism, just like the United States: the Netherlands with personalities like Geert Wilders and Italy with the rise of figures like Matteo Salvini. While the outcomes and magnitude in the Netherlands and Italy differed from the United States, the root cause remained the same: inequality. 

Granted the evidence of inequality in Netherlands and Italy appears more tangible and weighted than in the United States, where inequality is more prevalent among people of colour. That being said, the underlying root cause of inequality sprouts into the 3Ns discussed above — the need for significance, the narrative affirming this needs and the actions to mitigate it and finally the networks to validate the collective narratives. And all of this was before the pandemic hit, which seems to have provided more fuel to these tenets of extremism.  

Surely, it is not all doom and gloom? Well, to be forewarned is to be forearmed, and armament in this regard entails finding and deescalating tenets of extremism before they topple governments. The hardest solution will be mitigating the Need for significance and reducing inequality, and the most feasible will be targeting and dismantling the Networks and Narratives that prompt these extremist acts. Until then, where my mask at? 


Picture Credits: Karolina, Pexels

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