Nicole Arbour, the Canadian comedian who made a name for herself with her controversial YouTube rants against overweight people, has something in common with neo-Nazis. Both are examples of extreme views, and the wrong way to challenge them.
To be clear, Arbour is not a violent extremist. Her views might be unpleasant, but her actions are not violent. However, her motivations and decision to act aggressively to solve her problems are similar to violent extremist groups, making her an instructive lesson in how not to respond to extremists, of any kind.
Neo-Nazis fear an imagined "white genocide", so prepare for war. ISIS recruits are enraged by unchallenged atrocities of the Assad-regime, so go to war. Anti-extremists fear totalitarianism, so march against (and clash with) fascists.
Arbour similarly fears a supposed existential threat of obesity, and likewise has decided to take action into her own hands. In her viral video, "Dear Fat People", she does this by (in her words) using a, "bomb of truth, exploding into your face, [to make] you want to be healthier". She is using aggression to try and resolve her fear. But just like violent extremists her tactic is inherently counterproductive.
Hostile backlash was directed at Arbour. But it had a counterproductive effect due to its hostile and aggressive nature. Instead of making her apologise and rethink her position, the backlash simply made Arbour defensive; her views became further entrenched.
As we have seen from research, responding to hate in the wrong way just adds more fuel to the fire. A pilot project found that intervention targeting those at risk of radicalisation on social media worked best when those reaching out appealed with compassion, understanding, and an invitation for open discussion. Instead of yelling and fighting with extremists, they have to be engaged in a conversation so that they can become introspective and reflect on their views. That can only start with open, non-judgemental dialogue based on mutual trust and respect.
Vital to this is recognising that you are trying to build a relationship with an individual. They may have come to an unsavoury conclusion with their thinking, but this can often be down to a lack of understanding of issues and information, such as misperception of immigration statistics. You're not just speaking to a hate-filled monster, but a person with thoughts and feelings. Attempts to belittle or ostracise people will just alienate them and make it harder to reach them.
Despite good intentions, some anti-fascist groups have shown how to get it wrong in their attempts to engage extremists. The aggressive counter marches by anti-fascists against far-right and neo-Nazi can stoke tensions that have sometimes even resulted in violence. Police and local government implore anti-fascists not to counter-demonstrate, as they know from experience that it is likely to make matters worse. Courts have placed long-term bans on groups like Unite Against Fascism for their aggressive engagement tactics.
Happily though, whilst anti-fascists might be getting it wrong in some of their approaches to fighting extremism, other grass-roots movements are fortunately getting it right. In 2013, one local community offered tea and cake to far-right protestors, helping to diffuse tensions and starting a conversation. Burton residents planned the same tactic for a Britain First march; a move the far-right group actually welcomed. This type of engagement offers a springboard for meaningful dialogue and spurs constructive discussions on topics like Islamophobia or immigration. Interactions similar to these are relatively common among the stories of former members of the far-right and allow far-right sympathisers to start to question their own distasteful beliefs.
This is the key to successfully engaging extremists. A large number of people joining extreme groups or viewing extreme propaganda are marginalised individuals who feel let down by society in some way. They often feel excluded by society and fear a world that is incomprehensibly changing or perpetually unjust. Many, from across the ideological spectrum, have troubled histories.
Not everyone will respond positively to this type of intervention. Some are too far-gone to be helped by such early-stage intervention. But for many, it works. Starting early is key to supporting those at risk to challenge dangerous thoughts before they can take hold. It also leaves the door open for when the extremists want to talk, as they inevitably will. As research shows, most violent extremist groups end because of talks; almost none end through violence.
Arguing with extremists simply provides oxygen to the "us vs them" narrative so central to all extreme ideologies. It makes any form of change nigh on impossible. Instead, we must constructively engage with extremists if we hope to bring them back into society. That isn't done by meeting violent extremists with aggression. It's done by meeting them with cake.... even if that might upset Nicole Arbour.