Are People Being Radicalized?

(Blog) YouTube is accused of causing radicalization, but is “radicalization” even a useful category?

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The Making of a YouTube Radical was put out by The New York Times in 2019, and it has sparked a vigorous debate ever sense, a debate that has come back into prominence with the recent invasion of the Capitol. The piece basically argues that YouTube contributes to young men especially being indoctrinated into right-wing radicals. Mark Ledwich recently debated the premise at this tremendous podcast.

Personally, I think we need a conversation about what it means to be “radicalized.” If all our views are Liberal, are we radical? Or if 90% of our views are Liberal and 10% Conservative? Perhaps we need 62.4% Liberal views to be “balanced?” Or is it 50/50? By what standard? According to who? A fitting counter would be that “we are radical when we start rationalizing violence,” but would supporting the 2nd Amendment fall under that category? What about supporting uprisings to overturn white supremacy? Perhaps violence is necessary to stop white supremacy? If so, then what is required for racial equality could be forbidden from conversation. Perhaps some Trump supporters are correct that “a militia” is the only way to save America from corporate-takeover? Is this radical? Is even considering this possibility radical?

I wonder if the category of “radical” is even helpful — it seems too relative. I would be surprised if anyone thinks they are radical in a bad way, and perhaps the people who stormed the Capitol consider themselves “radical” in a positive light? Weren’t the Founding Fathers radical? Wasn’t Jesus radical? And so on. Is “radicalization” just something “we know when we see it?” Perhaps, but that might give someone a lot of power.

Is YouTube uniquely able to cause radicalization? I’m sure every media source in history has caused radicalization, but conversely, the lack of media can contribute to radicalization too, I’m sure, for then people are less intellectually developed and able to be taken advantage of (say in line with the thinking of Hannah Arendt). Is radicalization today worse than radicalization in the past? If Steven Pinker is correct that violence is decreasing, then even if “radicalization” is increasing (however it is defined), then is it “practically” a problem? What is the line that if a person crosses, they become a radical? Is it based on what they believe, an unwillingness to compromise, and/or a willingness to use violence? Is anyone who isn’t a moderate a radical? Are moderates innately right?

Perhaps YouTube does cause radicalization in some people, but perhaps it also radically increases empathy and opens people up to personal stories they otherwise would have never experienced? Can we imagine sentiments changing so radically in favor of LGBT marriage before YouTube? What about the legalization of different drugs? The concern with racism? For every radical YouTube creates, I’m not sure it doesn’t create someone more Pluralistic.

Many Trump supporters believe The New York Times radicalizes readers; many Liberals believe Fox News is monstrous. Is the category of “radical” even useful beyond application to someone who directly encourages violence? Perhaps the category of “radical” needs to be reserved for “the encouragement of violence,” and that the thinkers who should be de-platformed are those who “encourage violence” regardless of ideological leaning (assuming anyone should ever be de-platformed at all, which is debatable). Of course, this hardly solves the problem, for then we have to determine what constitutes “encouraging violence.” Should Eric Metaxas be de-platformed because he so passionately and strongly believes the election was a fraud? Should Cornell West be taken down for referring to Trump and his supporters as “Neo-Fascists,” for if Liberals believe Conservatives are Fascists, that might encourage desperate, violent, and “necessary” action to save America from the Fascists. What about Plastic Pills, who suggested that “being polite” can be a way that Capitalism controls people? He implied that “not burning buildings” was “being polite” — sounds problematic, but what if Plastic Pills is spot on?

I think we need to make distinctions between “encouraging violence indirectly” and “encouraging violence directly” (and ask some other questions). I’m not saying these are easy categories to use, but something like this seems necessary. I doubt anyone thinks they are radical “in a bad way,” for there is no such thing as an evil motivation — if we are doing it, we must by definition believe it is good for us — so I doubt thing there is such a thing as an “evil motivation for radicalization.” “Being radical” can easily be framed as a badge of honor and accusing people of being radical might just agitate them into becoming more extreme. Furthermore, I’m not sure anyone plans to “be radical”; rather, they follow their beliefs to where their beliefs lead, and end up somewhere where someone else one day says to them “you are radical.” I doubt the realization “I am radical” is embedded in a set of beliefs themselves — it seems to be something that usually comes from “the outside,” from others.

This of course suggests the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who think differently from us, but though critically important, I question if this alone will be enough to “balance” us unless we also finally separate the categories of “rational” and “right” (something I’m passionate about). We must by definition think that we are right (to some degree), for otherwise we would not think the way we do, but then if we conflate “rational” and “right,” that means anyone who doesn’t think like us must be “irrational,” and what would we benefit from being around people who are “irrational?” We probably can’t learn anything from them, and there’s no possibility of a constructive conversation, so what’s the point? Better to be around people who are rational, people who only “happen” to think like us…(Kathryn Schulz is invaluable on this topic).

Furthermore, until we understand that “what is rational” is relative to “what we believe is true,” and that it is possible for different people to ascribe to different axioms and consequently follow different rationalities without being irrational, then we will be stuck following the logic of our axioms to their “logical end,” making “radicalization” a logical and perhaps inevitable outcome. The nature of all worldviews is to be internally consistent and correspondingly “radical” (though that’s not to say they all equally succeeded), but it wasn’t perhaps until the internet that we could easily discover arguments that helped us justify becoming “more Conservative,” “more Liberal,” etc. by easily tapping into the best and most creative minds on our side.

I’ve heard it suggested that we are extreme today because we are less intelligent, and though that might be true in many situations, I think we fail to realize that we can be more extreme because we are more rational. It is a hangover of the Enlightenment to believe that where there is more rationality, there is more “goodness” — this only perhaps follows if “true” and “rational” are necessarily similes. This doesn’t mean that answer is for us to be “anti-rationalists,” but it does mean we need to abandon the dream of “autonomous rationality” and make space for knowledge acquired “pre-” or “a-rationally) (as discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life”).

Personally, I think there are multiple worldviews (though perhaps not many and certainly not infinite) which are “internally consistent,” meaning they entail no “essential contradictions” and so very well might be true. Only God can verify, so we cannot say which system is “absolutely true,” only note which systems “might be absolutely true” based on the fact they lack internal contradiction (and are not falsified). Well, if there are systems without internal contradiction, then it is rational to believe everything those systems entail, which could make us “radical,” so increasing rationality will not necessarily help us with our problem.

To put it another way, I don’t think YouTube is “radicalizing” people so much as it is unveiling the always present “problem of internally consistent system” by providing sources of information by which people can internally complete their systems. YouTube only causes radicalization insomuch as it enables worldviews to complete themselves internally, which can generate “radicalness.” That said, the prime culprit is not YoutTube, but the structures of worldviews themselves (which has implications for our problem with conspiracies today).

YouTube has unveiled the problem of “multiple rationalities,” but since we have generally been brought up our whole lives believing rationality could make the world a better place (because there are not “rationalities but “a rationality,” and because “rational,” “right,” and “good” are all used as similes), we find ourselves unable to manage the problem. This is because our only tool is rationality, and all that does is add to the noise and help worldviews “complete themselves.” We need something else, as expanded on in other works.

If we don’t just understand that there are different axioms that entail different rationalities, and that thus we are “rationally justified” to moderate and compromise because of the nature of thinking itself, then we will feel that we are only justified to follow our axioms “to their logical end,” which likely entails radicalization (all the warnings against “radicalization” in the world will prove too weak to stop it). And from this there will be no “rational” escape (this is elaborated on in “The Conflict of Mind”).

“Radicalization” can be a logical end of an “internally consistent system of thought,” but in this schema, “radicalization” and “violent” are not necessarily similes (perhaps I should instead say “extreme” instead of “radical”). I am not familiar with an ideology that tells us to “only believe in it halfway” — if there is a system, it wants us “all in.” After all, it’s a system, not a premise, and, who knows, it might be true…

If we believe abortion is murder, being “radical” about it seems logical; if we believe the Drug War was established by whites to maintain white supremacy, “radically” opposing the police seems necessary. For me, then, it all comes down to the question of “what is true,” for truth organizes values.” But very problematically, determining what is true is incredibly hard. And at the end of the day, there is no guarantee we even can — thus, “the conflict of mind.”

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