by Isabela Betoret Garcia
Christian Picciolini. Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism. Hachette Books, London, 2020. ISBN 978-0316522939. Pp. 272. Hardcover, £22.85.
Stories about the alt-right rarely have happy endings. Many associate the movement with white supremacists, those men and women who have left a path of violence and death in their wake. Connotations of ‘white supremacy’ tend to include men marching in a university campus in well-tailored trousers and neat haircuts chanting propaganda, such as the ones that marched in Charlottesville; or perhaps the young men who perpetrated unspeakable acts of violence in houses of worship, like Dylann Roof did in Charleston when he massacred nine people or the Christchurch Mosque Shooting where 51 were murdered. The image conjured up is that of hate, a hate that is so unforgiving to those in its path that it does not invite any kind of compassion. Yet, that is exactly what author and activist Christian Picciolini asks of us in his latest book: Breaking Hate.
Picciolini was born to Italian immigrants, in Illinois; by the age of 14 he had joined one of the most violent racist groups in the United States, the Chicago Area Skinheads. By 16 he had become the leader of the group, as well as formed a white supremacist punk band, W.A.Y (White American Youth). Even though he left the movement at 22, he had spent eight years helping it grow. Such a drastic U-turn came, he claims, from interactions he had with the people he had been conditioned to hate – black, Jewish, and homosexual people – and finding some common ground which left him unable to justify his hate. After leaving his former violent life, having spent some years in a dark space of apathy and depression by his own admission, he began to do what became his life’s calling: telling his story. His first book, White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement— and How I Got Out, focused on his life. Picciolini seemed to understand that for people to truly believe that his theory of de-radicalisation could work, they had to understand how he had come to believe in them himself.
Breaking-Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism serves both as a culmination and as a new chapter. A culmination in that it is not only a collection of stories of men and women Christian has helped de-radicalise; it also allows Christian to share the steps of extremist disengagement he has come to believe. With each new chapter, however, it becomes clear to the reader that there is much work to be done, and that extremism really is an embedded cultural problem.
Christian’s proposal is clear: No one is born into hate, and violent ideologies are not what lead people down the road of extremism. When someone encounters what he calls ‘potholes’ in life, they will be in danger of never fulfilling their sense of identity, community, and purpose (ICP). De-Radicalisation is a contested concept with no single accepted process, and many doubt the effectiveness of it. In the field of de-radicalisation many scholars such as Daniel Koeher have pointed to ideology as a key aspect in the road to radicalisation. Picciolini’s theory differs significantly. It is when they trip on their search of ICP that extremism may find them, but ideology itself is the last step. Only by listening to their stories and identifying these potholes, presumably extraordinary patience and compassion, one can extend a hand to bring them back to a normal life. The process he uses includes 7 steps: Link, Listen, Learn, Leverage, Lift, Love, Live. These steps are meant to form a link with the subject, understand how their path in life brought them to radicalisation, help them make amends, and eventually life free. Though his argument is fascinating and compelling, Picciolini does not spend much time discussing alternative theories of de-radicalisation that have an ideological basis, which would lend more credibility to his argument.
The structure of the book relies on the reader connecting with the stories told within. From veterans and men recruited in prison, to a former ISIS fighter, to a seventeen year-old girl caught in a scam that seemed to lead all the way to the 2016 Presidential election— the stories Christian relates are raw and tender. They are simultaneously full of sorrow, anger, and hope. Yet there are underlining reminders that even if disengagement is successful, the subjects of the book may be atoning for their actions for the rest of their lives.
The message of the book is, for the most part, effectively conveyed and persuasive. Because most of the subjects Christian examines in the book were part of the Alt-Right we might ask if ideology truly does not matter as much as other experts say in the de-radicalisation process, and the book would benefit from exploring other theories for Picciolini to more effectively defend his own. The book’s persuasiveness does rely on the author himself, and on the anecdotal evidence he provides of the cases present in the text, which could be more effective if paired with quantifiable evidence of the success of his methods. Upon closing the book, however, a reader will likely reconsider any previously held notions on the psychology of radicalisation which rely on ideology and be willing to consider compassion, and in this point the book is undeniably successful.
Picciolini admits to sometimes almost losing patience, hope, and control when trying to help extremists disengage. But here is where he comes to the most important lesson of all: see the child, not the monster. This is not meant to excuse the actions of extremists because of the abuse they may have suffered, the severe lack of ICP that delivered them into the arms of hate. But rather to remember that basic premise, that no one is born into hate; and if they find their way into it, they can find their way out.
Isabela first completed a Foundation Programme in International Relations and is now a third-year War Studies and History BA. She also works as an International Relations and Politics Tutor for King’s Foundations. She is Mexican-Spanish and lived most of her life in Mexico until she moved to London, and this background has given her a keen interest in migration. She is also interested in how the every-day has become politicised through media, and what this means for the future of journalism and politics. You can follow her on Twitter @isa_betoret.