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Op/ed: The Psychology of White Supremacy

Expert in Radicalization Says Movements Prey on Desire for Respect, Significance

By Arie W. Kruglanski

Proud Boys rally

Photo by John Lamparski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Distinguished University Professor of Sociology Arie Kruglanski argues in a new essay that even the names of white supremacist groups like the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys (shown at a September rally in Portland, Ore., rally) betrays their concern for superior standing.

Upwellings of hate and white nationalism, along with systemic racism itself, are rooted in the basic human need to seek significance and respect—a motive that can inspire great works, but also destroy society when turned to evil ends, says a University of Maryland psychologist who studies what motivates extremist political movements.

In an essay yesterday in The Conversation, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology Arie W. Kruglanski writes that overcoming movements that seek to subjugate others lies in seeking ways to harness this fundamental drive and channel it for the betterment of society.

This quest for significance and respect must first be awakened before it can drive behavior. We don’t strive for significance 24/7.

The quest can be triggered by the experience of significant loss through humiliation and failure. When we suffer such a loss, we desperately seek to regain significance and respect. We are then keen to embrace any narrative that tells us how, and to follow leaders who show us the way.

The quest for significance can also be triggered by an opportunity for substantial gain—becoming a hero, a martyr, a superstar.

Over the past several decades, many Americans have experienced a stinging loss of significance and respect. Social scientists examined the perception of social class in the United States between 1972 and 2010. The results of their research were striking: In the 1970s, most Americans viewed themselves as comfortably middle class, defined at the time by conduct and manners—being a good neighbor and a good member of the community, exhibiting proper behavior.

In contrast, by the 2000s, membership in the middle class was determined primarily by income. And because incomes have stagnated over the past half-century, by 2010 many Americans (particularly the lower-income ones) lost their middle-class identity entirely.

Small wonder, then, that they resonated to the Trump campaign slogan that promised to make America (or Americans) “great again.”

Read the rest in The Conversation.

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