We've all had the experience of visiting with someone and thinking, "Wow, this person is really out there!" or even "This guy's crazy!" But what if it's not that obvious? What if that person with the edgy ideas seems thoughtful and rational? What if the person is so persistent and persuasive that you actually begin to doubt your version of reality?
More importantly how can you tell if the person is "safe" for you to be around? People who have extreme points of view aren't intrinsically evil, but it's good to know if the person you're talking to is an extremist. So, how can you know if a person is radicalized? Of course, one encounters radicals in all walks of life. Extremes can be found on both ends of the political spectrum and in every situation where people can disagree. I recently encountered an extremist in an unexpected place. The meeting was in a professional environment; I was supposed to be receiving customer service, so the resulting diatribe caught me by surprise and I didn't handle it as well as I could have. The incident occurred when I went in for an eye checkup. And the run in occurred with the ophthalmologist. It was my first meeting with this doctor, who by the way, is highly rated as a physician. The doctor was only in the room with me for about a few minutes, but in our short time together, the doc managed to tell me:
- He came from a wealthy family in Iraq, but lost everything before moving to New York
- That he was raised in a tough neighborhood of Brooklyn
- He owns an AR-15 automatic weapon - That he exchanges personal emails with Senator Rand Paul - He contributed money to President Trump's re-election
- That the January 6, 2021 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol was an organized, calculated move of the left - That Covid-19 virus was deliberately launched by the Chinese
- That either Covid-19 or the vaccine contains HIV (I couldn't follow at this point)
- He was disgusted with the USA and planned to retire to Switzerland
Toward the end of our time together, the doctor's comments became ad hominem. He said that he couldn't understand how a "bright person" like me didn't see things the way he does.
During the four-minute visit, the doctor also managed to talk to me about my vision. One might wonder why I didn't terminate the appointment by walking out. But this is the really interesting thing about people who are radicalized: I didn't expect it.
Shock and awe
The encounter was in a professional environment. It was our first meeting. He is a physician. The tone of the conversation was not emotional, but efficient and delivered as a rational discourse. Twice before leaving the exam room, the doctor said it was nice to meet me. It's also worth noting that I actually like direct, opinionated people. I even liked my eye doctor, until I started thinking more about what happened. Driving home from the appointment, I became angry about the encounter. I didn't begrudge the doc having a point of view, but I resented him talking like he did during my eye exam appointment. Free speech may be a founding principle of our country, but that doesn't mean all speech is appropriate -- or even reasonable. My conversation with the doctor might not be out of place over a beer at the local pub, but it was inappropriate in a customer service scenario. I might have been able to refuse delivery of the conversation or at least postpone it, had I been more prepared. This inspired me to do some research on the subject.
It helps to be aware of who you're talking to, so I've came up with a list of tips for coping with people who have been radicalized. Here's how to tell if a person is an extremist.
Shock and awe. Extremists are not subtle. Be prepared for a barrage of pointed opinions, often presented as "facts."
Unbalanced conversation time. Radicalized people talk more than they listen. If they do listen or ask questions, it's usually so they can get ready to talk again.
New topics are introduced in quick succession. Edgy propaganda will be continually introduced to the discussion. Biased and misleading information keeps coming at you, often before the prior topic is properly addressed. It's like playing verbal whack-a-mole.
Passionate tone often steeped in anger. My ophthalmologist didn't seem emotional, but clearly, he was pissed off.
They have all the answers. Extremists are not in problem-solving mode. They know exactly what to do and are not shy about saying so.
Frequent references to adversaries. Extremists have an "us against them" approach to life. The opponents can be both real and imagined. If they think someone is an adversary, that's enough.
Eagerness to engage. Radicalized people are always ready to rumble. They never say, "Well, maybe it's best for us to discuss this another time." Extremists are always working the full court press and have a take no prisoners approach to issues.
Confirmation bias abounds. Extremists are not interested in objectivity. Evidence and corroboration of their claims almost always comes from subjective or "friendly" sources.
Absence of humor. This may be the most telling characteristic of all. Humor makes all things bearable. But extremists cannot bear what's happening, so it's hard for them to make light of the subject.
How to handle extremists
Once you know you're talking to someone who's been radicalized, you can try several proven gambits. All of these options require thinking on your feet and thinking a few moves ahead:
Option A: Engage and try to meet the extremist in the middle. Of course, it's going to be a choppy ride, so buckle up. I attempted polite conversation with the doctor, but it didn't go well. He monopolized the discussion and used our time to pursue his agenda.
Option B: Filter out the propaganda. Ask the person to focus on the task at hand and offer to talk about other things later, if there's time.
Option C: Shut it down. This gambit requires a degree of curtness and follow through. If you realize you're in an exchange with an extremist, you can get the radical to step back by saying things like:
"I don't talk politics."
"I don't think this is an appropriate topic for us right now."
"I'm interested in your views, but perhaps another time."
Just end the call or the visit
You might be curious how I chose to handle the relationship with the ophthalmologist. It turns out that I didn't require additional services. My eyesight, it turns out, is pretty good. And now I see extremists for who they are. Hopefully, you do, too.
Remember that old adage: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.
For more info on this topic, read:
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
Talking to Strangers: What We Don't Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell
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