The burgeoning radicalization process in the U.S. has been an alarming but not unpredictable series of events. Throngs of blockheads have gone from inactive agents of themselves to intertwined kindling wicks of a coming bomb. Alas, after three days at home during the holiday season, I saw firsthand how a previously apolitical non-entity can turn into a radicalized, grievance-filled, conspiracy trumpet with zero regard for discussion or compassion.
I began writing this Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol breach by people not unlike, and not condemned by, my mom’s husband. This is what I’ve noticed so far:
It begins with environment. My stepfather lives in a household with a behavioral psychologist who has two college-educated children. He grew up in a family with almost a dozen kids by two parents who were vindictive personalities. His childhood was filled with abuse, distrust and constant moving, which landed him in a Mexican trailer park when he was 15 years old. He did not finish high school. He then lived a long and confusing life until he met my mom in his late forties, after she had been widowed.
To take a human being out of a chaotic environment for a calm and academic one is not necessarily to leave their thoughts behind. He satisfied a simple need of my family; to heal my mother’s heartbreak, while representing the opposite form of my dad – an uncomplicated and fun handyman. Along the way, though, this simplicity and role-play became fodder for infotainment. It also became his identity, easily exploited by the populist in charge – alas, the gullible are often moved by complaint-driven authoritarians (with brains or not).
The phenomenon continues with provocation and evasion. In this particular case, as the ideas got more extreme – more bigoted and stupid – the pleas from my mom became panicked. “Can we please not talk about this?” “That’s racist, I don’t want to talk about this.” “I just want to have a nice time, can we not talk about politics tonight?” What these frustrations did were entrench the polarization, to borrow from writer Hannah Allam of NPR, and lend credence to this man’s delusions. As I tried to continue these conversations with kindness I could see the wheels spinning in his head, as if proud and profound, what I’m consuming, thinking, and doing must be valid – it is getting smart people riled up.
These ill-intentioned barbs have a two-folded and never-ending character. Stepfather says things to jab and illicit a reaction, he receives that reaction through the upset and tired cries for peace from a woman who works 60 hours a week, and then silence envelopes the room until the topic is changed and the previous aggression and fundamental values are forgotten. On one side, peace is the goal. On the other, being right, being heard, and because of the fans of social media and misleading entertainment news, being scared is the goal. This leads to nothing more than the buildup of pressure, the results of which we saw Jan. 6.
Of course, it ends – because it must end – with lines in the sand. My mother’s household is just that: her own. I cannot make decisions for her. But the fact of the matter is she understands human behavior very well. She is considered an expert at doing just that. And she is choosing to ignore what is right in front of her. To shape her husband’s behavior by environment and by expressing disgust and hurt at his views has not helped so far. The only logical conclusion I see for this in my family is for her to decisively put her foot down. Insist on consequences that are clear as night and day.
This is the most difficult step to make, as my mom would likely admit.
These processes I’ve observed have not existed without major restraint, perplexity, exasperation and anger from my side. I believe that people are redeemable. That everyone possesses the potential to change and do good. What I am afraid of is what Mary McCord, law professor at Georgetown University, calls the broadening scope of the radicalization process. The embracing of bogus information and the lack of listening, something essential to the equation of my stepfather’s indoctrination, is immensely difficult to penetrate. Only a cursory glance at the foremost social science puts the blame squarely on patriarchy, racism and hyper-partisanship. The solution here is opaque in the meantime. People who have made mistakes and committed horrible actions are salvageable as functioning and compassionate members of our society. But those who do not want to be salvaged are a different breed. And the radical is often on the front lines of extremism. So, the question remains, what is the cause you are fighting for and who are the people you wish to protect? If the answer is hateful and narrow, the radicalization has taken hold.
It is in my household, previously run by a well-educated and empathetic social worker, the story parodies fiction – the one who has the least information, expertise, and curiosity is running the asylum.