Learning is the Most Important Process in a Human Life

Guest blog post by Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate/co-author of The Gift of Our Wounds


I’ve learned a lot in my 49 years. I spent 7 years of my life leading and organizing white nationalist hate groups, before brave people who I claimed to hate lead me to a better place. Another 7 years in the rave counterculture, shaking my ass to house music in an environment that was the polar-opposite of hate and violence. Then, on the MLK Holiday of 2020, I celebrated a decade of working internationally in the peace building and counter-violent extremism sphere, preventing and intervening in violent extremism of every sort. Today it is my personal mission to bring about a society where all people are valued and included.

Here are some things I’ve learned that I feel are important to understand during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Human beings have been conditioned to narrow our minds to binary thinking in response to trauma. This is an evolved trait that for the bulk of our 200,000 years of existence has enabled us to survive. When early Homo sapiens were faced with a saber-toothed tiger, we had to recognize the threat and conceive an escape plan instantly. Spending even a moment in contemplation meant we’d end up as dinner.

Today, we live in an exponentially different world, yet we retain the same survival instincts. While physical threats are certainly still a thing, our struggle for survival is no longer simply trying to avoid being eaten by large predators. And for billions of people, our struggle for survival is no longer simply about finding food and shelter. The fact is that up until society was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we just weren’t struggling like we used to. We didn’t have to, thanks to modern advances in agriculture, economy, and technology.

Now, with worldwide shelter-at-home orders in effect, massive, sudden unemployment, and the grim toll of the COVID-19 virus itself, our survival struggle is once again front and center. We are all suffering because of the pandemic, in one way or another.

As noted above, when people suffer, they instinctively seek binary answers: yes/no, black/white, good/evil, etc. They seek certainty. And binary answers are the raw material of all violent extremist narratives. Variations of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” are common to the rhetoric of every form of religious and political extremism, as are stories of oppression and feelings of victimhood. We want to believe that we’re with the good guys, and that we’re fighting against the bad guys. When our respective lived experiences lead us to feel an affinity towards a particular identity or ideology—essentially, a story—unprocessed suffering can lead us a step further to hate those who lack that affinity.

In the society we all took for granted not too long ago, most people had healthy ways to process their trauma: faith, music, art, sport, hobbies, academics, etc. Every person who was able to process their suffering, in whatever way was their jam, became someone who wasn’t going to transfer the hurt to someone else.

Because of the pandemic, conventional means of coping are no longer an option. Now, if we’re not working in a field deemed “essential”, most of us have nothing to do but sit at home, connected to a global information system that we rely on to communicate, order groceries, and somehow keep ourselves entertained. That same system is also really good at producing echo chambers.

All violent extremist narratives are interdependent. The far-Right requires a far-Left for the ideology to function, and vice-versa. Violent Islamists exist in symbiosis with Islamophobes. Extremist beliefs are so dependent on their perceived opposition that at least as much time and energy is spent defining the out-group as is defining the in-group. As we all suffer through the pandemic, it’s all too easy to willfully forget that we’re all suffering together, and convince ourselves that there’s an ominous bad guy behind COVID-19. In this way, self-organized groups of people convince themselves that their version of the story is reality, affirm and validate each other, and then galvanize and separate themselves from those on the other political or religious pole—extremists who are equally convinced of their own version of reality.

This is how and why extremist ideologies flourish during times of great struggle. Because life has suddenly become hard, it becomes easy to regress to binary thinking that feeds violent extremism, directly or indirectly. The upheaval of the certainty that once ensured our survival can lead us to our doom today.

In order to transcend the lure of such extreme convictions and certainty, we must intentionally work to see ourselves in others, and to see others in ourselves—especially when who they are, or how they think, falls outside of our perceived in-group. Failing to do so feeds violent extremism.

Which is why we must direct our energy towards healing, and connection, rather than tripling-down on our political beliefs. Faith in the basic, primal goodness of humanity is the soil that nourishes our finest evolved qualities: kindness, compassion, courage, forgiveness, and love.

Today, more than ever, we need these noble aspects of our human experience in order to process our individual and collective trauma in a healthy way, just as we need to wash our hands, wear masks, and isolate ourselves to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We have the power to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic more enlightened, more connected, and more able to progress towards a society where all are valued and included. Or we can spiral downwards in a might-makes-right mess of separatism and strife.

Engaging with our faith and our love, choosing to listen and learn rather than dictate and dominate, is what will make the difference.

by Arno Michaelis
Author of My Life After Hate/co-author of The Gift of Our Wounds