After a terrorist attack in the West, it’s not uncommon to hear the parents of the attacker reveal how shocked they were to discover their son or daughter had become radicalized via the Internet. Muslim families are regularly counselled to put in place safeguards to ensure that the process of radicalization doesn’t take root with their children.
But radicalization isn’t only a Muslim issue. You and I need to be aware of what radicalization is and how to avoid it, not because it will necessarily lead us to commit acts of terror, but because it monkeys with our capacity for empathy and morality.
Earlier this year I heard a stimulating paper on the Internet as a 4th Space presented by Jessie Cruickshank. She has a Harvard degree in neuroscience and is particularly interested in how brain development is affected by our screens.
She began by pointing to a number of studies that have shown that there is an inverse relationship between screen time and empathy. In other words, the more time you spend looking at a screen (texting and on social media) the less importance you place on moral, ethical and spiritual goals. Higher texting frequency was also consistently associated with higher levels of ethnic prejudice.
Jessie Cruickshank writes,
“Part of the struggle with the high engagement of social media use is the lack of reflection it allows. In the mind, one can be externally focused, or internally reflective, but not both at the same time. The internally reflective state is interrelated with a person’s long-term memory, social-emotions such as empathy and compassion, as well as their ability to think about the future and consequences of their actions.”
Social media forces you to be more externally focussed for longer. This lack of internal reflection seriously limits your capacity for morality and empathy.
Combine that with the stats that tell us that teenagers are spending over one-third of their daily life consuming social media and you’re left with a pretty troubling situation.
What’s this got to do with radicalization?
Put simply, extremists don’t want you to be a reflective person. They’re promoting a homogeneous society in which everyone thinks the same way, based on the tenets of their rigid, dogmatic ideology. They’re aiming at conformity among their followers by suppressing all opposition and subjugating alternative opinions.
But when you think about it, isn’t this what your consumption of social media is doing to you every day?
Think about all those decontextualized statements/tweets/posts/videos/blogs/memes you scroll through every day. How many of them are overtly simplistic? How many of them dehumanize or vilify the “other”? How many of them offer final answers to complex problems?
If you’re spending a third of your day online and your capacity for morality and empathy is impeded, how easy is it to start to believe the crude rants or simplistic memes of radicalized people and internet trolls!
And how easy is it to share those videos or memes and maintain the cycle of a homogenous group of careless internet consumers radicalizing each other beyond their interest to obey.
And it’s no different when Christians do it.
Radicalized Christians regular share simplistic memes that dehumanize their enemies and make their world seem safer and better.
You know those memes in which an atheist professor attempts to disprove the existence of God and is subsequently embarrassed by an oh-so-clever Christian student in front of the whole class? If you dig that stuff you probably have a radicalized faith.
Radicalized Christians have no empathy for the atheist (or Muslim or homosexual or evolution-believer) they’re mocking. As they scroll unreflectively through their newsfeeds they are comforted by final, simple answers to complex issues.
But radical faith is different.
Those with radical faith should be journeying towards greater solidarity with all humanity. Radical faith is loving, serving, hospitable faith. The radical believer can hold strong convictions while also making room at their table for the “other”. Indeed, the more radical our faith the more like Christ (the object of that faith) we should become.
Strong convictions are great if they make us more loving. But as Jessie Cruickshank observes, “Strong convictions that lead one to violence, whether of a physical, emotional, or psychological nature, is a manifestation of the issue we are facing. The prevalence of social shamming, verbal burning-at-the-stake of perceived heretics, and violence via blog and social media posts by Christians should be alarming to all of us.”
Rather, we must stop, think, consider, pray, and always seek to be Jesus in the 4th space. Jesus calls us to radical, loving faith, and not the simplicity of merely inspiring people to action with limited, distorted reflection (which is the intent of radicalization.)
So before you share that video or that meme about the liberal Muslim homosexual ACLU law professor and abortionist who was teaching a class on evolution when he lost tenure, got fired, died of AIDS and was thrown into the lake of fire for all eternity, ask yourself this question: do I have a radical faith or just a radicalized one?