Understanding ISIS through the insights of Eric Hoffer

David Brooks writes: After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, some people’s minds flew to the materialistic element of the atrocity — the guns that were used in the killing. But the crucial issue, it seems to me, is what you might call the technology of persuasion — how is it that the Islamic State is able to radicalize a couple living in Redlands, Calif.? What psychological tools does it possess that enable it to wield this far-flung influence?

The best source of wisdom on this general subject is still “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer, which he wrote back in 1951. Hoffer distinguished between practical organizations and mass movements. The former, like a company or a school, offer opportunities for self-advancement. The central preoccupation of a mass movement, on the other hand, is self-sacrifice. The purpose of an organization like ISIS is to get people to negate themselves for a larger cause.

Mass movements, he argues, only arise in certain conditions, when a once sturdy social structure is in a state of decay or disintegration. This is a pretty good description of parts of the Arab world. To a lesser degree it is a good description of isolated pockets of our own segmenting, individualized society, where some people find themselves totally cut off.

The people who serve mass movements are not revolting against oppression. They are driven primarily by frustration. Their personal ambitions are unfulfilled. They have lost faith in their own abilities to realize their dreams. They sometimes live with an unrelieved boredom. Freedom aggravates their sense of frustration because they have no one to blame but themselves for their perceived mediocrity. Fanatics, the French philosopher Ernest Renan argued, fear liberty more than they fear persecution.

The successful mass movement tells such people that the cause of their frustration is outside themselves, and that the only way to alter their personal situation is to transform the world in some radical way. [Continue reading…]

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