Last week, the writer Sam Harris posted an incredible conversation recorded between himself and Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who now tries to counter extreme political beliefs with what he describes as “listening” and “compassion”. Picciolini has a lot of insight into what drives ideological fanaticism and he knows that much of it fuelled by emotional undercurrents of insecurity, self-loathing and basic ignorance.
He and Harris make the point that rather than shaming or silencing people with extreme opinions that we disapprove of, we should engage with them instead. That is how the battle for hearts and minds are won. This is very similar to what Megan Phelps, a former member of the religious cult the Westboro Baptist Church said in her now famous TED talk, which I have written about before:
“Her decision to leave the WBC was not a Damascene conversion. It was part of a long process of engaging with people who opposed her on social media. Often they did so with anger or bemused disdain, but, occasionally, she would encounter individuals who would argue with her civilly. It was these discussions that began to slowly chip away at her harsh worldview, eventually causing it to collapse.”
Harris also makes the important point that people will never build up “intellectual antibodies” to manipulative and hateful ideas if they are not exposed to them. Sunlight and air is the best disinfectant for odious speech.
Listen to to the full conversation here.