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‘Salad Bar Extremism’ as White Distraction: The (In)coherence of a Category

‘Salad Bar Extremism’ as White Distraction: The (In)coherence of a Category
24th August 2023 Anna Meier
In Insights

Introduction

In 2018, the United Kingdom renamed its ‘unspecified’ category for extremism referrals to ‘mixed, unclear, or unstable ideologies’ (MUU ideologies). Responding to a seeming increase in individuals espousing concurrent beliefs that did not fit within established labels under the ‘extremism’ umbrella, this renaming has been accompanied by a slew of new terms, including ‘composite violent extremism,’ ‘the fractured far right,’ ‘idiosyncratic terrorism,’ and ‘ideology à la carte,’ among others. In the words of US Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray, these individuals choose from a ‘salad bar of ideologies‘, picking ideological ingredients at their discretion and without concern for whether the end result appears coherent to outside observers. The proliferation of information about what might be considered ‘fringe’ ideologies and actors online has only heightened concern about MUU ideologies.

Yet, the degree to which these actors’ beliefs are actually incoherent or unclear—and on what grounds some scholars and policymakers insist that they are—deserves further scrutiny. In this Insight, I suggest that the insistence that neo-Nazi, incel, anti-government, ecofascist, and other mobilising concepts associated with violence classified as extremist are widely compatible due to the underlying power structure uniting them: white supremacy. Put differently, it is neither surprising nor confusing that these beliefs co-occur, as they stem from the same structural sources, even if individual actors do not understand them this way.

Rather than shining helpful light on these actors’ motivations, the focus on ‘mixed, unclear, or unstable ideologies’ serves as white distraction from the constitutive role white supremacy plays in extremist acts and actors traditionally treated as separate phenomena. (I use ‘MUU ideologies’ and ‘MUU actors’ throughout as concise, albeit imperfect, glosses.) Below, I use ideas from Black and trans political thought to unpack white distraction, emphasising the constructed nature of popular categories of extremism and what these categories serve to submerge. The increased exchange of ideas between far-right actors online makes visible just how expansive the far-right category can be, but this does not imply that expansiveness is incidental or incoherent. Ultimately, I argue that the way forward is not nailing down a taxonomy of ‘mixed’ ideologies, but instead shifting attention away from academic and state categories of legibility to white supremacy as the target of scholarly inquiry and policy action. 

(In)distinct Ideologies

Actors classified as expressing MUU ideologies run the gamut from neo-Nazis who also identify as incels (involuntary celibates), to environmental activists who are also fascists, to white nationalists who also admire Osama bin Laden. According to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who has written extensively on what he calls ‘composite violent extremism,’ what unifies these actors is their display of ‘disparate‘ beliefs and lack of a ‘discernible ideology.’ Taken at face value, these claims would suggest that, for example, neo-Nazism and incel ideology are ‘discernible’ as distinct ideologies, but when taken together feel disjointed to the analyst. 

Take Mauricio Garcia, who killed nine people in a mass shooting at a mall in Allen, Texas, in 2023. Garcia was an open neo-Nazi, sporting swastika and SS tattoos and posting white supremacist content online. He also identified as an incel, leading some scholars to classify him as an MUU actor. Tobias Rathjen, who killed 11 people in a racist and Islamophobic attack in Hanau, Germany in 2020, was likewise an incel and conspiracy theorist. “It is impossible to say that he had a single programme,” declared Jonathan Hall, UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, during a discussion of MUU actors.

Yet Garcia’s and Rathjen’s beliefs are, in fact, far from disparate. Misogyny is deeply entwined with racism, both of which are enabled by white supremacy. By ‘white supremacy’ I mean the web of ideology, systems, privileges, and personal benefits that produce unequal outcomes along racial lines across multiple categories of life. Though frequently equated with neo-Nazism or white nationalism, white supremacy is much larger, constituting what Meera Sabaratnam calls a set of assumptions and commitments that perpetuate a racialised hierarchy. That set of assumptions and commitments was developed to make control of colonised peoples and extraction of economic value easier, requiring strict and inflexible social roles, be they dependent on gender, sexuality, race, nationality, or another dimension of identity. That beliefs rooted in preserving the social positioning of white cisgender masculinity would co-occur is inevitable, not surprising.

Traditionally, however, the category of ‘far-right extremism’ or ‘far-right terrorism’ as used by scholars and analysts avoids direct references to white supremacy. If white supremacy is mentioned, it is as a subcategory of ideology expressed by only some far-right actors, rather than directly enabling the racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic power structures that make possible these actors’ worldviews. The problem is not so much that violent actors are increasingly expressing ‘disparate’ beliefs that puzzle scholars and practitioners, but that these beliefs do not fit into the pre-existing categories scholars and practitioners themselves have constructed. The online visibility of various strands of white supremacy, the proliferation of assailants’ manifestos, and the exchange of ideas in digital space make this disjuncture impossible to ignore. They do not, however, make these beliefs inherently disjointed.

Likewise, scholars frequently invoke individuals holding both anti-government and racist beliefs as examples of actors with MUU ideologies. Members of anti-government militias such as the Oath Keepers insist their ideology is not racist, even as they act in partnership with explicitly racist groups and their members share openly racist views; the persistent construction of anti-government and white supremacist actors as distinct entities reinforces the MUU claim. It is hard to take this distinction seriously, however, when anti-government militias’ beliefs about popular sovereignty are rooted in older constructions of a state that more explicitly protected white cisgender male interests, and especially this group’s singular right to commit violence to defend these interests. Again, though individual anti-government actors may not understand their ideology as white supremacy, this does not change the fact that their beliefs uphold, and are thus enabled by, structural white supremacy. It would be more surprising if racist and anti-government beliefs did not co-occur.

Setting aside the fact that some violent actors deliberately insert language into their manifestos to achieve media coverage rather than share their actual beliefs, the ideologies of Garcia, Rathjen, so-called anti-government actors, and others like them only appear mixed when analysts fail to take white supremacy seriously as a power structure. Why is this oversight so widespread?

White Distraction 

The academic study of phenomena called ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ has a well-documented race problem. Despite an overwhelming focus on Muslims as threats, this research engages rarely with antiracist, anticolonial perspectives. This includes ignoring the perspectives of the targets of violence themselves, Muslim or otherwise. The result is a field steeped in white, hegemonic perspectives, with decisions on what counts as ‘extremism’ and how these acts and actors should be subdivided being guided by the preservation of whiteness. Pointing out the racism within counter-extremism research and policy is rarely taken kindly. 

As Toni Morrison so clearly observed, this is the point. “The very serious function of racism,” she writes, “is distraction.” By making the discussion about proving the existence of racism, over and over again, white scholars and policymakers alike exhaust people of colour in lieu of reckoning with how they benefit from white supremacy. “It keeps you from doing your work,” Morrison continues. “ … There will always be one more thing.” 

Gender studies scholar Alyosxa Tudor similarly evokes the concept of distraction when discussing trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERFism) in the UK. For Tudor, this distraction is explicitly white. “Distraction: something that prevents someone from giving their attention to something else,” they write. By keeping public discussion focused on prominent white women spouting transphobia, TERFism precludes urgent questions about how to keep trans, queer, Black, and/or brown communities safe. In doing so, TERFs privilege their own comfort, rather than confronting white supremacy—and especially the role of white women in upholding white supremacy. 

Ultimately, the focus on MUU ideologies is white distraction. Attempting to create a new typology of violent actors’ beliefs diverts attention from the fact that the category of ‘far-right extremism,’ as traditionally used by scholars and practitioners, is disconnected from broader power structures enabling extreme violence and thus unfit for purpose. The concept of distraction reveals that the preoccupation with MUU ideologies, rather than attempting to describe a truly new phenomenon, removes the need to theorise about how ‘disparate’ beliefs are actually connected, and in fact inextricable, within the structure of white supremacy. 

It is not incidental that the MUU category was developed to describe actors falling somewhere along the far-right spectrum, where drilling down into ideological commonalities would force a confrontation with structural white supremacy—which, in turn, would reveal that racism, misogyny, and so on are not uniquely the provenance of the far right. As the marginalisation of antiracist and anticolonial scholarship within extremism studies shows, complicity is not solely the sin of the uncritical.

This is not to say that it is impossible for violent actors to hold simultaneous beliefs that are incompatible with one another. The questions raised by white distraction are ‘incompatible to whom?’ and ‘on what grounds?’. The answers, I suggest, contain important lessons about whose expertise is allowed to count within work on terrorism and extremism and where the holes in that expertise are purposefully constructed. Taking structural white supremacy seriously as an assemblage of violence, rather than trying to parse ever-more-involved taxonomies, would be a first step toward making those holes less cavernous.