What is resilience against violent extremism in education?

In the previous article we talked about the primary resilience resources, referring to the basic variables that contribute to resilience. These include internal factors, such as our temperament and cognitive faculties, and external factors, such as our connections to caregivers, family and important institutions. We call these the primary resilience resources, because they are the variables we start with in life and that to a large extent dictate how we feel, reason and react in different situations. But what is our definition of the secondary resilience resources?

Secondary resilience resources are variables that can be explicitly developed and strengthened in educational institutions to enhance the students' resilience against manipulation, conspiracies and extremist ideologies and their general sense of wellbeing and agency. We believe that in the framework of preventing radicalization and extremism in education, it is helpful to distinguish those variables of resilience that can be purposefully strengthened, from those that are beyond the scope of formal schooling (e.g. family relationships and other such individual matters). 

Resilience against extremism

How does resilience relate to the prevention of extremism? In recent years, resilience has become a key concept in discussions related to the prevention of violent extremism. Seeing resilience as a protective or preventive factor is based on studies showing that one of the risk factors that increases people’s likelihood to radicalize into extremism are various life situations that are perceived as difficult and burdensome. Dramatic changes in our personal or the society’s status quo challenge our familiar patterns of action and thoughts, and weaken our sense of certainty and control. Observed grievances related to our own or our groups’ wellbeing or future may have a similar effect. In addition, for several reasons, we may find life meaningless and our future hopeless or otherwise compromised. These are situations where the primary resilience resources play an important part.

The role of the primary resilience resources

When our basic needs for safety, love, belonging or esteem are not met, we feel heightened levels of uncertainty and injustice, and start to search for means to fulfill our unmet needs. If in situation of distress we have people around us we can turn to and receive care and constructive support, and/or if we can find hope and meaning in other important aspects, such as faith or a mission, the likelihood of us overcoming the challenge successfully increases.

Lack or weakness of primary resilience resources has an impact on our satisfaction with life (Koirikivi, Benjamin, Hietajärvi, Kuusisto & Gearon, forthcoming). In moments of distress, having to cope alone without a sense of agency or optimism to help us move forward, life can seem ultimately meaningless. Philosopher Frank Martela says that the meaning in life is about “doing things meaningful to you in a way that makes you meaningful to other people” (Martela 2020). With low primary resilience resources, both of these aspects may be compromised. Consequently, we may feel powerless and have an urgent need to find a scapegoat against which we can project our feelings of blame and fear. Belief that the situation is uncontrollable, threatening and negatively affecting all aspects of our life may be further reinforced by various conspiracy theories or other black-and-white versions of reality.

In this vein, Kruglanski, Bélanger & Gunaratna (2019) talk about the three Ns of radicalisation. These are the unmet Needs (for safety, belonging, esteem, significance etc.) that prompt our search for solutions, the ideological Narratives that offer us purpose, meaning and the solutions to resolve the unwanted situation, and finally the social Networks that offer us belonging and social and psychological support to make the needed change. An extremist organisation typically ticks all these boxes. It answers to our quest for meaning, agency and belonging by offering us (typically violent) solutions to re-address the current situation with like-minded people. It conveys a comprehensible narrative about the current situation, the history and the future, often through the portrayal of a pure and authentic in-group and the impure out-group whose existence poses a threat to the in-group’s wellbeing and future. 

Ideally, our primary resilience resources provide us the three Ns (needs, narratives and networks), but if our resources are weak, we may become more inclined to look for these elsewhere. This is a crossroads point on one’s lifepath, where choosing the next turning is largely dependent on the secondary resilience resources one has, which we’ll talk about next.

The role of the secondary resilience resources

The way we explain the negative situation to ourselves impacts how we cope with it. We all respond differently to the challenges life brings us. This has to do with our temperament, our instinctive thinking styles, and the inherited cognitive faculties we have. Albert Ellis (1991) identifies three phases (ABC) that we go through when facing adversity. A refers to Adversity (the situation or event that happens). B is our Belief (our explanation about why it happened). And C refers to the Consequences (the feelings and behaviours our belief causes in us). Sometimes our beliefs about a situation are not accurate, and our reactions weaken resilient responses. There are different ways our beliefs affect the way we explain ourselves what happened (e.g. Seligman 2011). First, I may think that I am the cause of what happened OR I may blame something or someone outside of myself, like the circumstances, the politics or other persons. Second, I may think that the situation is unchangeable OR I may believe that things can change. Third, I may think that the situation has a global negative affect on all aspects of my life OR I might think that the situation is a specific thing touching only one aspect of my life. The way we explain the situation to ourselves either gives us a feeling of control and optimism or weakens our likelihood to respond to it resiliently. If we think that there are means to influence the situation, that it won’t last forever and doesn’t affect our wellbeing permanently, we will probably find a way to adapt and get back on course eventually. It does help if we are supported by someone, a person or an institution to restore our faith in life and in ourselves. 

Our thinking style or the way we explain life events to ourselves is part of our inherited cognitive faculties. But these are variables that are flexible and that can be developed intentionally. Flexibility means that we’re able to try different strategies to overcome the challenging situation in order to meet the demands it is imposing. Resilience is first and foremost about the flexibility of the mind (Reivich 2002). Extremism researchers (Berger 2018; Cassam 2019; Kruglanski et al 2019) have identified that those individuals or groups that can be identified as extremists share a certain mindset. This mindset composes of certain elements that are similar regardless of the ideology supported. The extremist mindset is based on segregation between an in-group and an out-group and consists of certain pre-occupations (threat, fear of persecution or oppression), attitudes (hostility towards compromise and alternatives, indifference towards the out-group), typical emotions (fear, hate, self-pity) and thinking styles (catastrophizing, dogmatism, conspiracies). All these elements come in the way of thinking and obstruct the ways knowledge is accessed, assessed and applied. In summary, one could say that extremism closes the mind and makes it inflexible.

However, an extremist mind may demonstrate resilience in the sense that it may hold firmly on to the ideology despite all external efforts of persuasion or counter-arguing. But this type of resilience is counterproductive and does not help us grow from our challenges. The type of resilience needed to face challenges and adapt to the changes life brings us requires that our mind remains flexible. The secondary resilience resources refer to the variables that help keep our minds open to new information and our thinking flexible and regenerating. In short, these resources relate to the following abilities:

1) Self-regulation. Refers to the awareness of own thoughts, emotions and physical reactions and the ability to change these when they are not helpful in a given situation (see Ellis' ABC model above).

2) Self-efficacy. Refers to the awareness of one’s (intellectual) strengths and weaknesses and to the beliefs about one’s agency and role within the various environments and contexts one interacts in (see Ellis' ABC model and Seligman's explanatory styles above).    

3) Self-reflexivity. Refers to introspection and self-awareness. Denotes an understanding of the role of the self or one’s in-group in the creation of ”truth” and the recognition of how one’s personal beliefs, experiences and intellectual weaknesses shape one’s worldview and the ways one perceives and interprets the others and the surrounding phenomena.

4) Mental agility. Refers to perspective taking and problem solving, to the ability to look at things from multiple vantage points and the capacity to identify the problem and find solutions to it.

5) Intellectual virtues. Refers to the cultivation of the virtues of doubt, questioning, open-mindedness, curiosity and intellectual humility that strengthen the abilities to gain, evaluate and apply knowledge.

The secondary resilience resources are resources that can be explicitly strengthened in and through education. They refer to objectives that are already part of most educational curricula, and interlinked with the daily teaching and educational activities with children and young people. Within the framework of building resilience against violent extremism, we believe that these resources are essential to help us decipher and face manipulation, group pressure and extremist ideologies. Antithetical to the extremist mindset, the secondary resilience resources strengthen our resilience against extremism and radicalization.

Obviously, it all starts from caring institutions where safe, supportive relationships to our family and peers, our basic needs for safety, love and belonging and our connection to something larger than ourselves are valued and where the growth of these is supported. Yet, we argue that to prevent violent extremism in and through education, the primary resilience resources have to be completed with the secondary resilience resources in order to adopt and sustain a critical stance towards knowledge, external influence, and manipulation in varying forms, to help us make resilient choices in different life situations.


Main references:

Berger, J. M. (2018). Extremism. Cambridge: The MIT Press. Kindle edition

Benjamin, S., Koirikivi, P., Kuusisto, A. & Gearon, L. (forthcoming). The Extremist Mindset: Evaluating Educational Applications of Cassam’s Model.

Cassam, Q. (2019). Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis. Keynote presentation at a symposium on Identities and Resilience in Times of Enhanced Nationalisms: Perspectives from Finland and the UK. University of Oxford. 25.10.2019.

Cassam, Q. (in press). The Vices and Virtues of Extremism. In Mark Alfano, Colin Klein and Jeroen de Ridder (eds.) Social Virtue Epistemology (Routledge). 

Ellis, A. (1991) The revised ABC's of rational-emotive therapy (RET). J Rational-Emot Cognitive-Behav Ther9, 139–172 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01061227

Hogg, M. (2019). Radical change. Uncertainty in the world threatens our sense of self: To cope, people embrace populism. Scientific American, 321(3), 85–87.

Koirikivi, P., Benjamin, S., Hietajärvi, L., Kuusisto, A. & Gearon, L. (forthcoming). Radicalisation and Resilience: Investigating the Resources and Outcomes Related to Resilience among Finnish Youth

Kruglanski, Arie W., Bélanger, Jocelyn J. & Gunaratna Rohan (2019). ”The three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Narratives and Networks”. Oxford University Press.

Martela, F. (2020). A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence. Canada: HarperCollins.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press.