Philanthropists Across the Political Divide Must Work Together to Cure Extremism

The U.S. Capitol insurrection and the deeply politicized impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump put into sharp focus that America’s body politic is seriously ill. We are, in fact, contending with parallel pandemics. While our political malady may be less immediately deadly than the coronavirus, it could prove just as dangerous to our institutions, our civic life, and our nation’s long-term well-being.

The extremism threatening our democracy’s health calls for a broad-based nonpartisan philanthropic response aimed at slowing the spread of the disease and eventually reversing it.

Regardless of our political ideology, there is much we can agree on. Let’s start with the definition of “extremism” — a word that has itself become politically charged. Communities Overcoming Extremism, an effort formed after the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., tragedy by a diverse group including the Anti-Defamation League, Center for American Progress, Fetzer Institute, Democracy Fund, and Charles Koch Institute, of which I am a director, defines extremism as “political thought and action that intentionally employs intimidation or violence to pursue political ends.”

One group employs machine learning and artificial intelligence to root out hateful content on social media and among other online groups.

No matter where else our views may diverge, we can agree that violence and extremism are never acceptable. As grant makers, our work will be more effective if we can cross political and cultural divides and focus our giving where it is likely to have the greatest impact. Based on what we know works to treat infectious disease, here are three places where grant makers can strategically direct their dollars:

Tracking and research. To treat the infection, we first need to identify where it is and how it spreads. By mapping the spread and researching its causes and cures, we can establish the extent of the challenge and discover effective cures. Organizations such as Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit that tracks disinformation trends, are expanding our understanding of how propaganda, bigotry, and hate fester and grow. The group employs machine learning and artificial intelligence to root out hateful content on social media and among other online groups, equipping community leaders and government officials, including law-enforcement agencies, with a fuller picture of what’s driving emerging threats and how to prevent them in the future.

Scholars at Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative also pinpoint the source of potential problems within a community and provide resources for solutions. Over the past few months, it tracked the details of more than 19,000 demonstrations in the United States by groups from across the ideological spectrum, without taking into consideration the righteousness of anyone’s cause. And it provided tools for government and nonprofit leaders in those communities to connect with local peacekeeping groups.

Prevention. Developing intellectual and social antibodies builds up our immunity to disinformation and hate. We need to expose people directly to those with different ideas and political identities and empower them with both the space and tools to discredit ugly ideas and engage in constructive debate. For instance, Braver Angels hosts workshops to bring together people with differing viewpoints — not to develop compromise or consensus but simply to discover each other as citizens of the same republic.

The narrative set by political leaders plays a role in prevention, too. Scholars, including those at American University’s Peace and Violence Research Lab, are studying approaches that disrupt the use of inflammatory “us vs. them” rhetoric. Such research will help us better understand how political rhetoric foments violence and destruction and what counter narratives are needed to bring people back to a place of trust and connection even with those who don’t share their political or cultural mind-set. Funding such programs will result in more positive research-backed messages from leaders and influencers about revamping our political institutions.

At the same time, we must do more than “restrain the heartless,” in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. We must move them away from the fear and hostility that infect their hearts and minds toward an embrace of difference. Such change occurs where we spend most of our time — with our families and in schools, jobs, and communities.

Treatment. Once we have mapped the spread of the disease, we can develop sound interventions to address the current crisis and inoculate ourselves against future outbreaks. That involves working with patients when an outbreak occurs and providing a path back to wellness even for the sickest. The methods used to bring people back from cults, for example, could be a model for de-radicalization. Organizations such as Life After Hate, founded by former extremists, help people leave violent far-right groups.

In our understandable rush to find a treatment, we should make sure that the cure isn’t potentially worse than the disease. Efforts to shut off bad ideas through government censorship fall into this category. At a moment like this, in which the tragic effects of political extremism are freshly and painfully apparent, enacting government policies that chill speech can feel tempting. This can take the form of eroding protest rights, tracking and harassing journalists covering politically contentious issues, or other harsh measures. While the power to shut down discourse isn’t limited to governments, it cheapens the meaning when people use censorship as a catch-all term to dismiss challenges from private companies or actors they don’t like.

Rather than striking a blow against unsavory elements, silencing the perpetrators of bad ideas can have the opposite effect. Consider that rates of identity-based violence increased nearly 20 percent in the year following Germany’s 2017 heightened penalties for bigoted speech on online platforms. And after several other European countries banned similar speech online, the extremists promoting those ideas moved to darker corners of the web, making them harder to monitor and discredit.

Even when the blunt instrument of censorship is aimed at those who hold extremist views, it pushes them out of the public eye to further radicalize in the shadows. Instead, we need to use reason, debate, and even social condemnation — rather than government coercion — to respond to bad ideas.

Ultimately, we can’t cure intolerance by shouting at each other across a political and cultural divide. That can only happen in an environment in which people are capable of peacefully holding even the deepest differences. To win the battle against viral hate, leading thinkers and philanthropists must join with those across the culture — in politics, education, and business — to build a societywide effort to match the efforts of those who are spreading hate and misinformation. Our institutions are ill, but not beyond saving.

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