Are you missing out? Fans in the moshpit at a Trivium gig in Finland. Photo: AIJA LEHTONEN/REX SHUTTERSTOCK

All you need is hate: the dangerous pleasures of extremism

Whether you’re a jihadi or a heavy metal fan, a fringe subculture offers dark temptations
April 2, 2020

For some time, I’ve been dogged by a worrying suspicion: what if the bad guys are having a better time than I am? The world seems to be favouring those who embrace the worst human instincts—racism, sexism, venality, lying and hatred. And for all the resentments that lie behind this kind of politics, there’s also a gleeful joyousness in its expression. The party atmosphere at Donald Trump’s rallies (now on hiatus) is frightening but perhaps envy-inducing. In contrast, the pleasures available to me—a doubt-stricken left-liberal—seem negligible. In a recent column, Anne McElvoy skewered liberals for how “unattractively miserable” they seem when compared to Boris Johnson’s reckless ambition. She had a point.

If this apparent joie de vivre is an attribute of today’s mainstream right (and its equivalents in shriller sections of the left), how much more is it the case for the extremist fringe? In Julia Ebner’s Going Dark, a kind of travelogue of multiple extremist worlds, what comes across time and again is the richness of the experiential rewards available to those tempted into fringe subcultures. Ebner, a researcher at the counter-extremism think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), used fake identities to infiltrate a number of radical groups and networks. Although her infiltrations never went much beyond entry level, they are enough to gather a sense of what it might be like to be tempted into extremism.

Such temptations often appear to conflict with the stated purpose of such politics. The austere ideology and strict gender hierarchy of Islamic State are propagated through light-hearted online forums and hacking courses. Alt-right worldviews are developed within friendly, decentralised networks in which jokiness and conviviality dominate. Political activity is “gamified” within “troll armies” and hacked computer games. Even terrorist attacks like the one on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch in 2019 are streamed live and watched by supporters. Everywhere there is connection, community, support and friendship.

When you enter a milieu that distrusts everything you were ever told there are limitless possibilities for reconstructing the world as you want it to be. The most disturbing example of this mutability that Ebner discusses is the large QAnon conspiracy theory community. The conspiracy (which may have begun as an online joke) claims that a secret source within the US “deep state”—the eponymous “Q”—is bravely feeding coded clues to his followers that reveal the machinations of the secret rulers of the world. These rulers are guilty of Satanic paedophilia and pretty much anything else one might accuse them of.

Ebner indicts technology companies for giving online extremists a platform, while also recognising the ways in which such groups will swap websites or create their own when driven off existing ones. However, Going Dark also raises difficult questions that Ebner doesn’t really address—most notably, what exactly is extremism?

A lot depends on whether one sees extremism as a relative or absolute concept. If extremism is relative then it is simply the space inhabited by those who take the furthest positions at the ends of the spectrum of opinions. It is therefore by definition a minority phenomenon, even if such opinions can eventually become mainstream. The problem with this relativist approach is that it makes it difficult to draw moral and political distinctions between ideas that deserve to stay marginal, and those that do not. The increasing popularity of veganism doesn’t mean that we should treat it with the same concern as we should treat, for example, the encroachment of racist ideas into the mainstream.

An absolute concept of extremism, by contrast, would suggest that there are certain ideas and practices that push at the enduring limits of human experience through history. So something can be extremist even when a majority believe in it, for example anti-semitism in the Third Reich. This would seem to ground a moral and political approach to extremism much more securely, but it raises another problem: where do we draw such trans-historical lines?

Yet another issue is whether extremism should be seen as the dysfunctional provider of necessary human needs unmet elsewhere. You could argue that extremist groups fill the yearning for community and joyous experience in an alienating world. (Ebner hints at this.) Alternatively, you could emphasise the way extremism involves an active form of conditioning that draws people away from their normal selves. Some of the groups Ebner looks at, particularly the jihadi ones, appear to use subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to distance novices from their families and friends in ways familiar from other cults. Yet these techniques seem to work only with certain people at certain times and places, rather than fulfilling universal needs.

All these conceptions of extremism have their place. Yet some tweaked version of an absolutist definition seems to be more useful in capturing the thrilling nature of life beyond the mainstream. Put crudely, what strikes me is how enjoyable extremism seems today and this, surely, must be part of its growing success.

“The austere ideology of Islamic State is propagated in light-hearted online forums”

Certainly, such milieux are much more pleasurable than they once were. As recently as the 1990s, to be a jihadi demanded a dangerous excursion into Afghanistan or another hot spot. While similar trips, most recently to Syria, might attract the highest levels of prestige, one of the most common themes in online Islamism is encouraging fainter hearts to do their work at home, in a degree of comfort and with the support of fellow jihadis from around the world. This can mean violent attacks carried out in one’s home town, or simply spreading propaganda and recruiting others.

The same is true of far-right activism. In the UK in the early 1990s to be an open racist in the public sphere meant being harried for one’s beliefs, and at constant risk of exposure from anti-fascist groups, with only the occasional possibility of a drunken gig by a skinhead band—with a poor sound system in a half-empty backroom of a pub—to sustain you. Today, to become immersed in far-right activity is to enter a Dionysian world of playful abuse, whites-only dating sites and better-quality music. To cause serious mayhem, especially with violence, still takes self-sacrifice—but only to an extent.

One of the dilemmas posed by the sheer attractiveness of modern extremism is whether the rest of us should attempt to make a “better offer.” I have an online friend who speaks constantly of the need to build an anti-populist liberal movement that is as outspoken, proud and confident as those it opposes. And while part of me is intrigued by the idea, it raises the obvious objection: wouldn’t such a movement risk turning into what it professes to oppose? For example, some sections of the pro-Remain movement have veered dangerously close to embracing the alienating dogmatism they claim to be fighting. Loud certainty can be off-putting and counter-productive, regardless of whether the cause is righteous.

Ebner raises the possibility of “trolling the trolls” and “hacking the hackers,” before immediately worrying about the consequences of meeting your enemies on their own battlefield. She is more confident in her other proposals. She advocates “education against extremism,” “mobilising the middle,” “help against hate” (supporting those who are abused online) and “counter conversations”—a practice pioneered at her think tank, the ISD, that engages extremists in long-term dialogue, which seems to have had some positive results. Even here, though, the terror attacks in Streatham and London Bridge last year demonstrate the costs of failure in the criminal justice system and the limits of de-radicalisation programmes. Scaling up de-radicalisation seems to be a Herculean task and there is no reason to think it could work with everyone anyway.

“The far-right draws you into a Dionysian world of playful abuse and whites-only dating”

One of Ebner’s suggestions that I would question is what she calls “arts against anger,” in which the creative industries “stimulate empathy and decrease anger towards out-groups by blurring black and white narratives.” It’s not that I object to art used in this way, but I also think that art can explore what it is to hate in ways that are just as productive.

I have spent much of my own life researching and participating in an “extreme” environment—the heavy metal music scene. Extreme forms of metal in particular are all about hate, anger and transgression. Death metal lyrics often explore the body mutilated, killed and defiled.

Black metal lyrics invoke the demonic, and fight a misanthropic war against the Christian idea of the good. The sounds themselves push established notions of music to their limits. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun! More than that: there is community, love and mutual support.

Does such extreme music require extreme people and extreme politics? For most of its existence the answer has been a qualified “no.” True, in the early 1990s, a handful of Norwegian black metal fans perpetrated murders and church burnings; some also embraced far-right politics. For most of the scene’s existence, there has been a tolerant attitude to symbols that played with fascist and racist themes. In recent years, though, in a context in which such ideas have become more mainstream, some scene members have begun to question such tolerance for the intolerable. Anti-fascist black metal has a growing presence; queer, feminist and non-white participants are an increasingly vocal faction. In their turn, other metal fans have pushed back, claiming that political correctness is neutering the culture’s transgressiveness.

What is at stake in these debates is the possibility for an extremity that is alluring while non-oppressive; whose hate is an aesthetic rather than an ethic. If extreme metal can find a path through this minefield, it might have something to teach those of us who are worried about extremism more generally. Because, from the evidence presented by Ebner and from a cursory glance at social media, to ask people to give up extremism is to ask them to forgo deeply alluring experiences.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether such pleasures fulfil essential human needs or not. What matters is acknowledging that, for now, they do fulfil the needs of some. That means exploring alternative forms of hate rather than alternatives to hate. Too often, the liberal, enlightened, compassionate individual is treated not just as an ideal but the normal human state from which our passions make us unaccountably deviate. We should not make such an assumption.

In his classic work States of Denial, the sociologist Stanley Cohen turns on its head the problem of why people deny or refuse to acknowledge the suffering of others, by posing a provocative question: “The theoretical problem is not ‘why do we shut out?’ but ‘why do we ever not shut out?’” There is a lesson here. Perhaps we should ask not why people embrace extremism but why more people don’t. After all, to not embrace extremism is to refuse some powerful pleasures. Do non-extremists find those pleasures in some other form? Or are they just missing out on all the fun?

Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner (Bloomsbury, £16.99)