Radicalization Stemming from Pressure for Individualization

CC Pixabay OpenClipartvectors

Discussions about youth’s media practices and contemporary forms of radicalization (jihadism, right wing extremist acts, school shootings…) are often intermixed with clichés about how media affect behavior and trigger violent acts. Taking part in social networks on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube can be perceived as dangerous in that young people’s ‘consumption’ of propaganda messages circulating online could lead to enlisting in radical causes. This way of portraying media practices is now considered outdated as it goes back to literature from the 50’s related to the hypodermic needle theory. This portrayal of media also feeds off the “risk society” model first described by Ulrich Beck in 1986.

With the end of the great principles of social organization inherent to industrial society and the ideology of progress, risk has become the focal point of our society. This change has affected the way in which empowerment is understood. Individualization, demanded of everyone and experienced collectively, has turned identity into a project. One’s identity is no longer inherited in an irrational, natural, or systematic way – rather it results from each person’s introspection. People now have greater independence from traditional forms of social reproduction, i.e. family, class, and gender. Yet, this implies that individuals, solicited by institutions, are supposed to take charge of their destiny and create meaning for their own existence. The immediate benefit is emancipation, as people can choose the groups to which they identify. The downside may be tiredness of always trying to be someone different or suffering from the strain and loneliness of a never-ending process geared towards full autonomy and individuality.

Deviant Practices and Self-realization

Deviant media practices can be characterized as contributing to self-realization. Such an approach expands on previous scientific work conducted on the process of individualization: in a context of declining social institutions and the pressure for personal empowerment, radical behavior and ideas may provide support for individualization. In this text, we will describe how these types of behavior and ideas translate in the realm of the Internet, how fringes of online contributors use the web to develop a network of sociability around radicalization and thereby assert their originality.

The school shooting phenomenon serves here as a case study. Columbine, Virginia Tech and Jokela are typical examples of school shootings: a student, having premeditated his acts, goes to his school to randomly shoot people. This rare and spectacular form of violence is brought into the spotlight through international “transmedia” mediatization, ensuring extraordinary publicity for the perpetrator of the crime.

Bowling for Colombine, Michael Moore, 2002

To comprehend the sociological drivers of radicalization, this text presents an online ethnographic study conducted between 2007 and 2013 during which the e-participations of school shooting fans (conversations, user profiles, and videos) were observed on YouTube. The media packets of the killers involved in seven shootings between 1999 and 2011 will also be examined. Media packets, slightly less than a hundred user profiles, and nearly two hundred homemade videos, in addition to data gathered during direct observation sessions, were analyzed.

The Sociological Drivers of Radicalization

Analyzing the themes discussed in online fan groups to discern what is so fascinating for them in extreme forms of violence shows that they share common interests: the possibility of breaking free from isolation and ceasing to feel like a loser; the opportunity to share impressions about existential dilemmas, and this, with a group of young people from different horizons. But where does such self-loathing, leading young people to take part in this kind of radical e-participation, stem from? Some videos evoke subjects related to the school shooting culture: school, parental authority, relationships with friends, love, death, and the media. More importantly, users converse about broader topics like marginalization, humiliation, loneliness and suffering. The Internet provides these users with an opportunity to connect with others. They share feelings about the social trials of adolescence as well as individual experiences inherent to the human condition. The web is thereby a source of empowerment  (see textbox, article posted on the web).

The ability to transcend the values of society; freedom from restriction of thought; seeing through the facade of modern society; self-awareness is a wonderful thing but it can also be a burden; it can be frustrating to live with awareness of the human condition among so many who are clueless; (…) how could so many be duped into a superficial existence? Because they don’t think! (…) Of course, if you question the way we live or are saddened by its irrationality, then there is something wrong with you! You might be depressed or have a “personality disorder,” society’s solution. Depending on your personality you’ll experience some of the following: feelings of inferiority/superiority, hostility, aggression, frustration, depression, self-hatred/hatred toward other people, suicidal/ homicidal thought etc… And that is normal. [Excerpt from a Fan’s video]

The Internet offers a way to reverse the stigma: one claims his/her originality rather than suffering from marginality. The radicalized teenager thus defines him/herself as a hyper-clairvoyant being, opposed to the unaware masses alienated by conformism. Young people’s sociability networks become a way to distance themselves from inherited social roles; it helps them acquire autonomy. Knowing that prior to their e-participations in groups of online extremists these young people were already searching for direction and meaning to their existence, we can consider youth’s contemporary solidarity with different forms of radicalism as a way of accomplishing individualization.

If we study the videos made by killers rather than those created by their fans, we clearly see that entering a process of radicalization is related to individualization. The very project of a mass shooting not only allows the reversal of social roles, but ultimately it becomes the guarantee of subjective liberation.

When examining videos created hours before the killers’ rampage, this matter becomes apparent if close attention is paid to the evolution in their perceptions (see diagram). Their words express the social domination they are subject to when they examine their past experiences and selves. When they project themselves forward in anticipation of their act of violence, a reversal takes place: they become masters of their destiny. Some of the reasons behind radicalization are apparent in this process of self-realization: their involvement in a school shooting allows them to shed past stigmas and endorse a powerful new identity.

Radicalization enables a posthumous process of individualization, recalling Michel Wieviorka’s « anti-Subject »: subjective empowerment happens through destruction, chaos and death. Yet this individualization takes places posthumously (they commit a « suicide-by-cop » or kill themselves). Their death is the ultimate proof of individuality. Moreover, the fame resulting from their attack provides an additional layer of guarantee to fulfilling the process of individualization since they become immortal.

This same problem of autonomy can be observed in the digital publications created by the Internet users fascinated by other forms of extreme violence.

  • Wieviorka M., 2005, Violence, Paris : Balland.

While individuality is a core value of contemporary democratic societies and individualization is required, originality has become the norm. These young people highlight this contradiction through their e-participations. One of the implicit aspects of individualization is that while differentiation is a norm, it is supposed to be expressed within the confined space of conformity. Being original may be praised, but one must respect social order. Yet, in the case of the school shooting fan network, originality is based on the construction of negative figures of alterity. Some demonstrate blind hatred towards a faceless Other; others reject any type of relationship to the Other and crave aggression. This is one of the first palpable limits in our contemporary belief system, praising originality and self-realization, achievable through individualization.

Before damaging relations to Others, the limits of injunctions for individuality are first revealed in the relation to oneself: the extreme belief in self-realization, obtained via developing one’s originality, can turn into a belief in the omnipotence of the individual. Bold statements for the need to be actors of their own lives and masters of their destiny at any cost is the rule for members of the online group (see textbox).

This demand for individualism may even result in the most radical ideas about the power of the individual, leading to the denial of any social or moral laws. “Self” becomes the sole master of individual destinies. This not only leads the fans like the killers to overestimate their power to shape their lives, but above all, it may also have them projecting a definition of themselves that is self-referential.

Using Politics as an Excuse for Identity

CC Pixabay Geralt

In certain cases, radicalization has less to do with defending a political movement, as some may claim, than with the benefit obtained from committing extreme acts of violence. In other words, the person sees radicalization as a means of regaining power and freeing oneself from a state of subordination. In this sense, contemporary forms of radicalization are not about repositioning oneself on the social chessboard as a member of a subculture or reversing the social roles between « losers » and « winners. » Instead, radicalization is about gaining autonomy and experiencing individuality, while redefining identity in a way rewarding to one’s ego.

This hypothesis finds further support when compared with a study previously published in Mondes Sociaux/Social Worlds: even though participatory media offer new forms of belonging to and challenging society, what serves as the means for joining radical online networks is the individuating use that people make of those networks.

From the example of school shootings, this study found that: 1) participation in a subversive form of self-fulfillment is linked to the promotion of prescribed and anomic values; 2) taking this path is facilitated by the use of social media; 3) this form of radicalization is not a way to promote ideas or political aspirations, but rather a way to glorify individuality, sometimes posthumously, and to send a message claiming a certain identity to an imaginary enemy; 4) radicalization can be a by-product of a Western contemporary belief-system praising originality and making individualization the norm.

To read the French version, clic here

Crédits image à la Une : CC Pixabay Stevepb


Nathalie Paton

UMR 8039 CADIS, CNRS-EHESS, Paris (nathalie.paton@msh-paris.fr)

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Nathalie Paton

UMR 8039 CADIS, CNRS-EHESS, Paris (nathalie.paton@msh-paris.fr)

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