‘No one has a strategy...’

Eddy Canfor-Dumas


March 2021

‘No one has a strategy. There's a lot of tactics, there's a lot of plans, there's a lot of ideas… but the professional fields are underfunded. The activist fields are completely in disarray, underfunded and understaffed, and volunteers online are not mobilised.’

So says Caleb Cain, a recent defector from the ranks of believers in the QAnon conspiracy. Like Ashley Vanderbilt – whose story I told in my last blog – and apparently like millions of others in the USA, Cain came to accept the bizarre idea that Donald Trump is/was leading the fight against a hidden elite of cannibalistic, Satanist paedophiles who secretly control the country.

Cain has set up a group for young recovering QAnon supporters – Future Freedom – but he doesn’t think it’s enough, given the scale of the task facing him and like-minded others.

But why should anyone outside of the USA worry? No QAnon here, surely?

A growing problem – globally

Au contraire, says The Economist – we should all be concerned. ’Once a fringe theory attractive primarily to Americans, during the pandemic [QAnon] spread as far away as Japan, incorporating local concerns wherever it reached. Each country’s version tends to follow similar contours: a group of shadowy agents pulling the strings behind the scenes must be defeated.’

In short, QAnon is just one manifestation of a movement that’s proliferating globally, mainly via the dark corners of the internet. And at the heart of this movement is a strategy to encourage a profound mistrust of ‘liberal elites’ – the media types, artists, jurists, scientists, business people and politicians who (they say) are ultimately responsible for the mess we’re in.

This is where the spreading of deliberate misinformation has been so effective, as the faults and errors of these liberal elites have been used to hook the unsuspecting, even those who would seem the least likely recruits for what is ultimately the cause of white supremacy.

So, what is to be done?

A people’s strategy

Well, as Caleb Cain notes, what’s missing is a strategy – so how about we make one? How about we formulate a people’s strategy that anyone willing can support in their own way, wherever they are, so that even though we’re acting individually we can also know that we’re acting together, with a common purpose?

There are many factors driving the rise of this movement – personal, political, social, economic – but fundamental to them all, I suggest, is the issue of who and what to trust. And it seems to me that it is precisely here that the struggle must be engaged – and won. To alter the power of any political movement — including those that readily use violence to attain their goals — one must seek to identify, then strengthen or weaken, key human relationships, based on trust and empathy.

Consider the story of Maajid Nawaz, now a presenter on LBC radio but at one time a recruiter for the Islamist group Hizbut-Tahrir (HT). He was totally committed to the cause but became disenchanted during the five years he spent imprisoned in Egypt for Islamist activity.

The process started with the realisation that once he was in prison the leaders of HT just didn't care about him; he was expendable. His view of them changed — they were insincere and inconsistent — and as his trust in them declined, so did their authority over him. And once the authority of the leaders is diminished so, by extension, is the authority of the organisation, along with the validity of the ideas that it promotes.

Where the heart leads, the mind can follow

Crucially, with his sense of mission undermined, a positive alternative was presented to Nawaz in the form of Amnesty International, which adopted him as a Prisoner of Conscience. In doing so, it embodied precisely the caring, empathy and consistency that he’d found lacking in HT. In short, he says, ‘where the heart leads, the mind can follow.’ He now campaigns against the very ideology he once advocated.

As does Caleb Cain, who has reached pretty much the same conclusion as Nawaz.

Cain argues that – along with broader policies such as greater regulation of the internet – believers in QAnon and its associated ideologies need a more empathetic approach. Condemnation simply drives them further into their alternative realities. Which reminds me of the wise words of the psychologist Professor Gerard Egan: ‘Challenge without empathy is caustic.’ But he also said that ‘Empathy without challenge is anaemic.’ We need both – challenge based on empathy.

The problem is – empathy is difficult.

Our natural reaction when faced with people and opinions we find offensive is to confront them (fight), turn away (flight) or just shut down (freeze). But if we’re going to win the struggle of who and what is to be trusted, more and more of us will need to challenge ourselves to develop the habit of responding with empathy. And at the heart of that, I suggest, will be creative conversation.

But could that really be a viable basis for a broad people’s strategy to defeat misinformation and the divisions it’s driving? It's a crucial question.

Why not test it?

So how about testing it yourself? Have a conversation – ideally a creative conversation – with that friend or family member or colleague whose opinion you really cannot stomach. Except this time, instead of rebutting, rebuking or refuting, simply try to understand why and how he or she has come to that position. But without challenge – this time. Just work towards offering an accurate summary of what you're hearing. See where it leads. See what you learn.

You could be surprised – at your own powers of listening, if nothing else. And next time you talk, you could challenge something the other person has said – but now based on a deeper understanding and the opportunity you've had in the meantime to reflect on what you heard.

It might not sound much, but I believe that in this way, bit by bit, we might start to bridge the gaps that are currently widening between us.

So – want to try?

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