What drives people to commit politically motivated crimes, in extreme cases to violence? To date, this is only insufficiently understood. In the discussion, we can very roughly distinguish two approaches. According to the manipulation thesis, people hear propaganda and conspiracy theories and thereby change their political opinion. Because they see the state as an aggressor, they become violent in extreme cases to defend themselves or their interests.

manipulation of opinions

This explanatory model is based on two fundamental assumptions about human cognition: the idea that people can be seduced at will and the power of language. Both theses are debatable, as empirical research suggests.

On the one hand, our moral attitudes are not so easily changed by words, which can be seen from the fact that most people remain absolutely indifferent to slogans such as “revolutionary population” or “vaccination dictatorship”, although they hear about it almost every day. daytime.

Narrative – a term without explanatory power

On the other hand, the discourse on formative “narratives” popular among academics, journalists and politicians is conceptually completely hazy: sometimes they only mean beliefs, sometimes normative assessments, causal explanations or real stories. If something can be a narrative, however, the term loses its explanatory power.

Whether the supposed narratives have an effect depends on people’s receptivity anyway, as numerous studies show: propaganda works on those who have long felt socially excluded, tend to extremes and have little critical thinking. This is also suggested by an extensive investigation commissioned by the Federal Criminal Police Office to combat extremism with so-called “counter-narratives”.

Confirmation of existing settings

As an alternative to the manipulation thesis, psychologists have therefore in recent years collected evidence for another theory, one might call it the confirmation thesis: people have quite robust political or ideological attitudes and therefore jump on these messages and conspiracy theories that confirm their worldview.

The philosopher Philipp Hübl© Philipp Hübl

An ongoing study shows that people don’t primarily share hate messages because they believe in them themselves, but because they want to express their displeasure and activate their own side. In other words: it is not the ‘vaccination dictatorship’ talk that turns people into lateral thinkers, but vice versa: those who are already dissatisfied with the system will see the mask and vaccination requirement. as state aggression and will bundle their anger about it with that buzzword, even if they don’t literally believe it. The same goes for talking about “false press”.

The human sciences and the power of language

Incidentally, humanities researchers and social scientists also tend to have confirmation bias. They overestimate the power of language because they themselves are constantly engaged in language. The idea of ​​”toxic narratives” is tempting because it suggests that you can easily tell people’s feelings by their words, without the need for elaborate tools like empirical research. This in turn facilitates the moral judgment of others and suggests quick and clear countermeasures, such as punishing online hate messages or banning news channels like Telegram, as the Minister of Interior Nancy Faeser. While this approach may be effective against crime in the short term, it does not represent a long-term strategy against radicalization because it remains on the linguistic surface.

To better understand ideological violence, one must examine many factors: upbringing, personality profiles, thinking styles, and the so-called authoritarian reflex, a typical response to feelings of loss, threat, and devaluation. The one-sided focus on the manipulation thesis prevents us from examining this complexity of the problem.

Philipp Hübl is a philosopher and visiting professor of cultural studies at the Berlin University of the Arts. More recently, he published the book “The Excited Society. How Emotions Shape Our Values ​​and Amplify Polarization” by Verlag C. Bertelsmann.