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The Out-Group in the In-Group

The Out-Group in the In-Group
12th May 2021 J.M. Berger
In Insights

Extremists hate people who do not share their group identity.

If scholars of terrorism and extremism can agree on little else, they can agree on that.

Extremist movements target people who are not part of their group for harm and violence. This activity is so common and central to extremism that we have devised specialised terms to talk about it: The in-group, the group to which someone belongs, and the out-group, a group whose members are excluded from an in-group.

Extremist in-groups are predicated on countering an imagined threat from one or more out-groups. It’s their raison d’être. Given all this, one might expect that extremist ideological writings to be comprised primarily of screeds against their out-groups.

Yet extremist ideological texts often spend more time and energy criticising their own in-groups, often in greater detail and at greater length than the out-group.

Consider Siege, the notorious book by neo-Nazi ideologue James Mason that has inspired a motley collection of violent actors in recent years. The text has been widely distributed online by neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division and The Base which are considered part of “Siege Culture.” These groups and other online adherents push the text with memes that encourage people to “Read Siege.” I recently analysed the 160,000-word jeremiad in detail for the RESOLVE Network.

While Siege certainly condemns and encourages violence against racial out-groups such as Black people and Jewish people, the tract expends an enormous amount of time and venom analysing the shortcomings of those it purportedly loves—White people in general and neo-Nazis in particular.

Mason is unsparing (and unabridged) in his critique of the in-group. White people, he says, accept their social standing complacently, perpetuating the very system that oppresses them through traitorous collaboration with non-White people. The neo-Nazi movement formed to counter these non-White interests is little better, filled with turncoats, informers, grifters and egotists who prefer passivity to violent action. His critique of the in-group is far more details and extensive than his description of the out-group.

Mason may simply presume that his readers do not need to be educated about the evils of racial out-groups. They have, after all, sought out an obscure and difficult-to-read neo-Nazi text. But his critique of White people and neo-Nazis is consequential in ways that go far beyond simply tailoring the book to an audience.

For Mason, White people are so corrupt, and the white nationalist movement is so ineffective, that certain strategic avenues are closed off to neo-Nazis. There is no point in trying to win over the White masses to racial extremism, nor is there a viable path to seizing control of the state apparatus.

In Mason’s view, the weakness and moral turpitude of the in-group lead to only one outcome. The entire social structure must collapse so that it can be replaced by something new. Movement members can either accelerate to that collapse through wanton violence or they can drop out and focus on surviving the collapse. This strategy, known as accelerationism, has become a leading concern for the violence it inspires, including most notably the 2019 Christchurch massacre.

Siege is not the only example of a dominant in-group critique. The pattern can be found in a variety of extremist contexts, and when it is found, the critique is almost always very consequential.

For instance, the so-called Islamic State (IS) enhanced its in-group critique in response to devastating attacks from Sunni Muslim factions in Iraq, leaning into an argument that Muslims who oppose their caliphate ambitions should not even be considered Muslim. This expansive approach to the concept of excommunication led to significant infighting within the group.

Takfir is not just a religious practice however. White nationalists also engage in a form of racial excommunication, designating White people who have sexual relations or otherwise collaborate with non-White people as “race traitors” and advocating for the most gruesome forms of violence as punishment—language found in Siege and in many other White nationalist tracts. Racial excommunication is also notable for how it undermines the central argument of white nationalism, the idea that race is an incontrovertible biological truth.

While many extremist ideologies center critiques of their in-groups, these are not always as severe as that found in Siege or in IS propaganda, but they still profoundly shape movement strategy.

Consider Join the Caravan, the classic 1987 work of extremist recruitment, written by the godfather of the modern jihadist movement, Abdullah Azzam. Like Mason, Azzam spends substantially more time discussing the in-group than the out-group. But Azzam’s diagnosis is different and more hopeful.

Azzam is critical of Muslims who “sit back” instead of traveling to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union on behalf of the religion. He describes some as “unfeeling,” with “cold hearts” and “greed for life.” But others, he argues, have been distracted, misled or poorly educated. Because Azzam believes that many Muslims can still be awakened to their “obligation” to take part in jihad, he pursues the mass mobilisation strategy that Mason has rejected.

The significance and evolution of extremist in-group critiques are ripe for additional detailed study (and will feature prominently in my forthcoming dissertation).

In-group critiques offer opportunities for those seeking to understand and counter extremist violence and extremist narratives. The types of critiques, and their severity, may be useful in diagnosing a movement’s proximity to violence, and the type of violence it is likely to commit. The evolution of an in-group critique over time may provide insights into how volatile and radicalised a movement has become.

Finally, there is much work to be done in understanding how extremist ideologies form and how extremists are beholden to the in-group’s consensus values and understanding of reality. As social beings, humans seek to validate their understanding of reality by checking their own perceptions against the perceptions of their peers.

What an extremist movement says about its in-group is a reflection of its relationship to the status quo in-group consensus. When a movement is far out of step with the mainstream of its in-group, its critique must explain why the in-group has rejected the extremist consensus before it can make any progress.

The in-group critique therefore highlights important (and potentially exploitable) divergences between an extremist movement and the audience from which it seeks to recruit.  Given the often-intractable nature of extremist attitudes toward out-groups, the in-group critique may offer a back door to combating extremist violence and harm.

These insights may play an important role for social media platforms attempting to assess and moderate online content. Advocating harm against an out-group often clearly crosses a line with respect to platforms’ community rules, but the nature of the in-group critique may indicate whether a group is close to violent action, and what sort of action it might take. Content assessment should not just focus on the “us versus them” narrative—it’s also important to examine “us versus us.”