On 12th April, academics, researchers, teachers and other practitioners came together at the University of Northampton to discuss how to teach about the extreme right. We wanted to find out what had changed when engaging with people on this issue over the past few years, and how to impart knowledge about the extreme right in the era of the social media, the ‘Alt Right’ and the rise of Trump. What ethical problems do educators – whether they be in schools, universities or advocacy groups – face when they engage with such a potent subject matter? How do we connect meaningfully with students? How can we make the past relevant to today’s generation of learners?
The day kicked off with an excellent keynote talk by Dr Aaron Winter, who told us about some of this work with schools in London, as well as offering his reflections as a sociologist of race and racism. In an era where the extreme right is on the rise, he explained that there are many new opportunities for academics to engage with – and shape – public debates, such as through discussing new forms of extreme right terrorism. However, academics need to take care on how to contextualise new forms of extremism. Aaron spoke of the need to avoid amplification, and also highlighted the importance of discussing much wider issues of racial discrimination in society, and by the State. He also posited that the extreme right is not the only source of racial prejudices. We therefore must talk about other related issues in order to arrive at a more open and tolerant society.
Regarding Higher Education, Aaron spoke about the growing issue of extreme right groups developing a presence on university campuses; as well as the tensions in government attitudes to simultaneously promoting unfettered free speech on campuses, on the one hand, whilst also pursuing what some deem to be a restrictive Prevent Agenda on the other. When addressing students in schools, he used his recent experience to offer some cautionary points. For example, he highlighted the dissonance he found between walking through school hallways peppered with posters warning against recruitment to groups such as Isis, before delivering sessions challenging Islamophobia. His talk suggested such institutions need to think more carefully about the student audiences for their messages, and how they will interact with them. He also distinguished between teaching about the extreme right, and teaching people to be resilient to extremism. Interventions focused on the latter should not assume young people are on the cusp of making life-changing decisions to become extremists; rather they need to make people feel empowered to respond to the divisive agendas and racist messages extremists disseminate.
Finally, a crucial issue repeatedly stressed by Aaron, and one that became reflected in many later discussions, was how to offer context when teaching about extreme right cultures. The study of history was important here, and Aaron explained that a historical perspective helped us see that the ‘now’ is not exceptional, and there are lessons to learn from the past. He also added that those delivering the Prevent Agenda had a lot to learn from generations of anti-fascist and anti-racist activism, from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in America to the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) itself. He highlighted that civil society, not the state, was crucial in dealing with growth in extreme right activity.
It was Aaron that set the scene for a day of productive and informed sessions.
Dr Ben Lee then spoke about his experiences authoring a guide to the extreme right for Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). His main conclusion was that squeezing an explanation of all the dynamics of the British extreme right, as well as a sense of its history, into a guide that should take about 20 minutes to read was ‘traumatic’, and he made a good case as to why! Writing for people who he described as ‘bright but busy’ working in various security services, as well as other branches of government, was difficult. As an academic he found writing in a way that avoided ambiguity, and offered little of his own interpretation of data, was particularly unsettling. Moreover, he found the need to provide crisp evidence for every claim surprisingly challenging, again highlighting the difficulties of writing briefing documents for a security services audience. He hopes to update the guide in the future, not least as the extreme right political space is fast-moving, and parts of the text have already become out of date.
In the Q&A session afterwards, Ben also reflected on how he felt his guide was actually of limited use for university teaching, and would be wary of giving it to students. He though his guide lacked the contextualisation that he would want to give students who were researching this topic in an HE context, again highlighting some of the tensions when communicating subject knowledge on the extreme right to different audiences.
Steve Rose from Tell Mama then offered some further thoughts on issues posed by communicating with both the wider public and government agencies. He reflected on Tell Mama’s role as a third-party reporting service, established in 2012. The types of hate crimes and hate incidents that Tell Mama have recorded since this time have helped it engage with ongoing debates on public policy, safeguarding, as well as developing counter narratives and awareness raising of crucial issues. One example of providing a counter-narrative by Tell Mama related to a Muslim woman who was erroneously depicted as walking on by during the Westminster Bridge attack in 2016. Tell Mama helped her respond to racialized criticism of her on social media:
Steve was also thoughtful discussing the ideological nature of much of the reporting received by Tell Mama. In 2015, for example, 45% of cases had some clear marker of connection to an extreme right perspective. He spoke about how working with Tell Mama has helped him see how conspiracy theory thinking is central to extreme right cultures that encourage such messages. A crisis of masculinity was a further element of the contemporary extreme right, he added. It idealises activities such as mixed martial arts and graffiti to offer a combination of dangerous yet bounded experiences that would appeal to young men in particular. Finally, he warned against the threats of violent extremists. Here he discussed how the psychological concept, narcissistic solipsism, can help understand the ways in which the ideas of figures such as Tommy Robinson can be internalised by terrorists such as Darren Osborne.
Our first afternoon session included a workshop exercise, where delegates handled material from the Searchlight Archive. At the University of Northampton, we use some of these materials in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. Typically, we use magazines and other published media from extreme right organisations, materials that are often overtly racist, yet are also crucial documents for analysing the extreme right. Through workshop activities, we collated a wide range of thoughtful feedback on how we can develop future teaching using this material. Issues posed included how to offer students the context needed to critically assess such documents, and how to allow students to analyse the textual and visual discourses found in this type of extremist source material.
There was also a presentation by Daniel Jones and Siobhan Hyland, the co-organisers of the conference. In response to previous feedback from staff and students, they are currently developing an online module designed to make the Searchlight Archive more accessible to undergraduate students at the University of Northampton.
The final session of the afternoon kicked off with Anna Castriota, who teaches at a college that prepares international students for university. She reflected on the issues with teaching students who sometimes manifest sympathy for extreme right positions. What to do if one of your students goes to a bookshop and purchases a copy of Mein Kampf, because it is ‘cool’? She also reflected on how teaching international students can raise problems where views considered taboo in the UK are more normalised and acceptable in a home country. She concluded that, when it came to being an educator, offering a critical and oppositional perspective to the extreme right was a moral issue, not an ideological one. She added that it is important to foster the critical skills necessary to study fascism as part of history, and this inevitably leads to a stance that does not endorse extremism.
Reflecting on schools rather than a college, Uta Rautemberg – who is currently studying for a PhD at Warwick University whilst also working as a teacher – then discussed issues posed by teaching the Holocaust to her secondary school students. She explained that she found it difficult to identify what areas to select, restricted by a timetable that allowed here 90 minutes per week on the topic. What to focus on? What to leave out?
She also highlighted some of her more, and less, useful teaching materials. Documentaries featuring eyewitnesses, such as Nazis: A Warning from History, remained crucial teaching aids, as do primary sources such as Ernst Heimer’s The Poisonous Mushroom. Less useful in her experience are films such as the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Her students found this material far less accessible as it was fictional. Students, she stated, needed the subject matter to be as ‘real’ as possible, and so fictional media was actually a barrier to teaching the Holocaust in schools. She concluded that it was far more difficult to teach the Holocaust to students who were less academically able, and worried about how to avoid making the subject seem, inadvertently, ‘cool’.
Finally, Larissa Allwork talked about her experiences of leading a university student trip to Berlin, again to teach about the history of Nazism and the Holocaust. She explained how teaching this history in an embedded way allowed for new ways of developing student understanding. The trip offered three themed days of activities, one linked to Nazi era politics and culture; a second focused on the history of Nazism and genocide; and a final day focused on Jewish life in the City. Some of her concerns were with the logistics of planning teaching around three days of tightly scheduled activities. However, she also drew out some useful pointers for those planning such trips, highlighting that through hard work they can be highly rewarding.
In particular, she commented on the need for including time for reflection and contemplation. Her experience was that first-year university students were often relatively unworldly, and so meeting those affected by the Holocaust, albeit largely of a second or third generation, in a foreign country gave the teaching a dimension missing from standard classroom sessions in the UK. Moreover, in her planning she ensured there was time for more thoughtful and reflective contemplation in the schedule. Again, this was important as it helped move away from content delivery to students processing and making sense of the subject matter in a way that promoted empathy and understanding.
In sum, the workshop raised many more questions than it answered, though in many ways this was the point. By creating a space to reflect on our own practices for teaching about the extreme right, and seeing how other educators develop their approaches on this issue, we all felt we gained some new knowledge from the day. I would strongly recommend others find such reflective spaces to think about how to engage audiences with subject knowledge on the extreme right.
For me, some of the crucial issues raised included: ways to foster critical skills needed to analyse extreme right cultures; how to present context to students in a way they will ‘connect’ with; how to relate history meaningfully to contemporary contexts; strategies to deal with students who might be more sympathetic to some extremist ideas; conversely, the importance on not preaching, and not assuming students are going to do something wrong; and finally how to ensure there is space to develop empathy for those targeted by extreme right.
Dr Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow with CARR, and Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton. See his profile at:
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