Understanding White Supremacists

Understanding White Supremacists

 Jim Windell

             As psychologists we try to understand people. What motivates them? What causes them to act as they do? What makes them tick?

            But how can we understand terrorists? Or insurrectionists? Or people who are willing to resort to violence for their political beliefs? How do we make sense of white supremacists and those who are convinced there is a deep state conspiracy?

            Arie Kruglanski, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, studies the human quest for significance and request. That quest, he asserts, is a basic motivator and is a major force in human affairs. Writing recently in The Conversation, he says that this quest “…shapes the course of world history and determines the destiny of nations.” And he contends that it underlies some of the chief challenges society is facing.

           Among the challenges our society faces are white supremacist movements, systemic racism, Islamist terrorism and the proliferation of conspiracy theories. These, Kruglanski says, can all be explained by the loss of significance and dignity. In each of these challenges, Kruglanski argues that people’s “actions, opinions and attitudes aim, often unconsciously, to satisfy their fundamental need to count, to be recognized and respected.”

           The very term “supremacism” shows an obvious concern for superior standing. So do names like “Proud Boys” or “Oath Keepers.” Systemic racism, Kruglanski maintains, is rooted in the motivation to put down one race to elevate another; Islamist terrorism targets those people who have supposedly belittled their religion; conspiracy theorists identify reasons why people think they are subjected to indignities.

           In order for this quest for significance and respect to motivate behavior, according to Kruglanski, it must first be awakened. That awakening can come about through humiliation and failure. After suffering a loss or humiliation, we desperately seek to regain significance and respect. People then embrace any narrative that tells them how to achieve what they lost – or they eagerly follow leaders who show them the way.

           Kruglanski points out that over the past several decades, many Americans have experienced a stinging loss of significance and respect. Up to the 1970s, social scientists suggest that most Americans viewed themselves as comfortably middle class. However, by the 2000s, membership in the middle class was determined mostly by income. But the income of many Americans had stagnated. So much so, that by 2010 a great many people in the U.S. could no longer identify as middle class. They just needed a leader who could tell them how to be great again. That leader was Trump and his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”

           Kruglanski writes that “When the quest for significance and respect is intensified, other considerations such as comfort, relationships or compassion are sidelined. Any actions that promote significance are then seen as legitimate. That includes actions that would otherwise seem reprehensible: violence, aggression, torture or terrorism.

           If the quest for significance and respect is a universal and immutable aspect of human nature, as Kruglanski contends, it has the potential to inspire great works but also – in his words – “to tear society asunder.” That is the tremendous challenge America faces today: How do we harness the energies sparked by this quest for significance and channel it into something that improves our society?

           To read the original article, click here.



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