A Letter to Portland State from a Student Veteran, about Extremism, Warzone Lessons, and Academia’s Blind Spot

Why University subculture harms our efforts against propaganda and extremism— and why Professors like Dr. Boghossian can help

I have been long weighing the need — and the risk — of writing an open letter to certain circles of the wider academic community, about very specific problems, their potential consequences, and the need to address them openly. My name is John. I’m a graduate of Fordham University with a Bachelors in political science, and a US Army veteran with time in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. I write as someone who loves the social sciences, and is deeply concerned about the rise of far-Right narratives and bigoted movements. I also write with a wide base of knowledge and experience to fall back on, from the war zone to the campus. I focus heavily on countering dangerous ideologies, recruitment and extremism. This includes several projects to combat fundamentalism and hate on various ends of the idea spectrum, from radical Islam in the Middle East to white nationalism in American cities. Understanding how to engage the Taliban and combat their narratives can bring a good bit of insight to addressing radicalization in our own backyard. Many friends and experts across relevant fields — including defense, cyber and anti-terrorism — share my feelings about certain blind spots within many of our universities. I sincerely invite faculty and students alike to discuss how we can best win the fight against extremism. I am here to express my concerns about how some of the culture seen and felt within academia is making potentially harmful mistakes in this fight.

I should start by saying that I have a (often misunderstood) military background in what is popularly known in the civilian world as ‘psychological warfare’. I do not stare at goats. But I do stare at Russian bots, at alt-right Twitter accounts, and radical left Antifa protests. I stare at and analyze propaganda of all kinds. I stare at the failure of conversation on social media and campuses, and see the areas where academia is often making huge mistakes that — in spite of good intentions — ultimately only help the extremists gain ground.

In the war of ideas, and the ongoing battle for hearts and minds, campuses are a battleground. The space in which we have conversations about social issues is a battleground — a key part of the ‘civil terrain’ in which millions can be swayed from the zone of reason and compassion and into the corners of hurtful ideas and radicalization. Or vice versa. Academia sets much of the tone for how we wage this war of ideas. This letter will put forth an argument which comes from my years of combating — or seeing firsthand — radical recruiting, extremism, hate, and dangerous ideologies around the world, and understanding success as well as failure in how to fight it.

Most of the leaders in academia have likely not heard the argument I am putting forward. With due respect, I offer it with sincerity of heart. I simply ask that it be received with openness of mind.

There is a dangerously closed and conversation-stifling atmosphere in much of academia at the moment, and this is harmful in certain ways that most are not seeing. Dr. Peter Boghossian — likely familiar to most who will read this letter — teaches philosophy at Portland State, with an emphasis on cultivating skepticism, critical thinking and the Socratic method. In light of his ordeal with PSU over the Grievance Studies Hoax, many students (and some prominent academics) have come to his aid, stating how his approach to critical thinking and discussion has been a breath of fresh air. Many have expressed (in support letters) how suffocating the atmosphere on their campus often feels, making honest and open discourse on important issues seem practically impossible. Regarding this, he recently said something that I have heard other academics reiterate: “I am deeply concerned that we are failing students.”

I can’t stay silent on this either, as I am deeply concerned that much of the social side of academia is failing the fight against extremism. I’ve seen what this failure of conversation does for extremist recruiting all over the world. Be it Islamists, white supremacists, or others. In environments where fear, dogma and ideology hold back honesty, bad ideas actually grow stronger — often right under the noses of those who seek to stifle conversation. In environments where good and decent people are afraid to have the important conversations, the fringes of discourse tend to thrive. Online recruiting and the power of social platforms can feed off this like never before. Academia is enabling this environment, and it is a serious problem. As someone with the requisite background, I have to say something.

Antifa gathering at a Patriot Prayer event, Portland. (Image credit here)

I will try to keep this article as short as possible, and will not devote space to the backstory of the Grievance Studies Hoax and the pushback against Dr Boghossian, which is what prompted me to write this article. For those unfamiliar with the recent events at PSU, and their efforts to level charges of misconduct against Boghossian, details can be found linked here, here, here and elsewhere.

Rather, I want to make the case for why people who — like me — fear the rise of authoritarianism, despise hateful movements, and strongly oppose the far Right, should examine some of these problems within wider academia. Most importantly, why people should do this honestly and with an open mind, regardless of their views on Dr. Boghossian or the recent hoax. If we are to get serious about combating extremism, echo chambers, Russian propaganda, and far-Right recruiting, we need to be willing to see these blind spots.

Academia’s Blinds Spots: Failing against Extremism

I write as someone who understands the dangers of tribal thinking and echo chambers, and has seen the harm of this in many areas of our human landscape — from the university and various political circles, to disturbingly effective recruiting campaigns by various extremist communities — prime among them Islamists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis. I understand how extremists recruit, how their propaganda and narratives work, and how their messaging targets intellectually and psychologically vulnerable people who are susceptible to these bad ideas.

There are many reasons for why people get radicalized or drawn into the gateway zone of harmful ideas. Prime among these reasons include upbringing, life trauma, unstable family, identity conflicts, or a deeper void and psychological need for community (and, of course, harmful false certainties and beliefs passed on through ideology). However, in the case of modern online extremism and various far-Right communities, such recruiting may simply capitalize on the false choice that many young people feel when they don’t know where to go to speak their minds, or where to find a community that will allow them to express themselves.

For example, if people are afraid to honestly discuss evolutionary psychology (often due to being reflexively labeled as ‘alt-Right’ or branded a misogynist), this creates a dangerous opening — an ‘ignorance vacuum’ of sorts, as well as a kind of curiosity vacuum, for more people to be misled by pseudoscience masquerading for political ends. When the atmosphere in certain parts of academia discourages honest teaching or discussion of evolutionary psychology, in areas such as male-female mating strategies for example, countless young people will likely seek answers elsewhere — including in the ideological funnels of the ‘Manopshere’ and the more radical brands of the ‘pickup artist community’ online. An environment where students and professors are reluctant to talk about these things with scientific authenticity is very problematic — it makes it all the more dangerous when groups like the alt-Right misrepresent and weaponize the field of evolutionary psychology for their own ends. When there is not a buffer of reasonable discussion for people being lured in by bad ideas — when no alternative discussion space exists — closet radicals do their work far more effectively. As someone trying to share my knowledge and experience as a counter-propagandist, please believe me when I say that this dynamic is not something you want to take lightly. Stifling honest conversation will often assist the extremists, and hurt our ability to fight back.

Many people see a legitimate problem, such as the excesses of political currentness or the dogmatic toxicity in some social justice movements, but feel afraid to break the silence. Then, the far Right steps in and crudely breaks the silence, posing as the one to bravely call out the Emperor’s New Clothes. Had the more mainstream academic Left been upfront about problems within their own community, and called out the Naked Emperor themselves, it would make the job of people like Milo far more difficult, if not impossible. Yet the academic Left’s refusal to openly confront these problems tends to hand the job to extremists on the Right. This is the ‘Red Pill’ illusion that they create — and it is a dangerous false choice. Yet more and more young people on campus and online are falling for it, and the excesses of the Left are helping move them along this journey.

This occurs much to the delight of the far Right propagandists themselves, who target these people with their messaging. Extremists often rope in such people by posing as moderates, and falsely claiming that they are the answer, “bravely stepping in” to fill the vacuum. Of course, this is a false choice (and never a good excuse to go to the far Right). Sadly, however, such false choices can drive people to the extremes, and have made recruiting and propaganda much easier for political charlatans and hate communities. When nuance is crushed, it becomes harder for average people to navigate the landscape of ideas in a sensible way. Various forms of intimidation and silencing can also have the effect to driving needed discussion underground — often into the corners of extremist echo chambers. Not only off of campus, but on campus as well.

This atmosphere also increases academia’s blind spot when it comes to the best ways to combat extremism, propaganda and bad ideas. As well as when it comes to seeing their own mistakes, adapting, and refining their approach. I explain this in depth here, here and here.

Finally, there is a reality — so soberingly reflected by the Evergreen incident — that we have to talk about and address: Today, Professors themselves must fear intimidation from ideologues and fringe voices, and this is occurring on both sides of the political spectrum. Such intimidation includes being run off campus, sustained harassment, being fired, or worrying about being fired for merely voicing a view or point of dissent that departs from any number of ideological dogmas.

This is a categorical problem that sensible and honest people on different sides of the spectrum should come together to address.

What is my frame of reference to this problem?

I have admittedly never been to PSU, do not have a PhD (just a BS), nor spent more than an hour in Portland. However, I do see the wider patterns of radicalization and recruiting, in a way that transcends any one campus. In a way, in fact, that often transcends borders. I lived in Europe and speak a number of European languages, including German, Russian and Spanish — and have seen neo-Nazi gatherings and dangerous street protests in Europe well more than once. I’ve spent time in war zones analyzing population dynamics, sectarian strife, insurgent propaganda and messaging, and how militias form. Many others with military or defense, or anti-extremism backgrounds can help academia better understand how to respond and adapt to our modern battlefield of ideas. Many vets — including student vets on campus — have a great deal to offer this conversation. We’ve made countless friends across language and culture barriers, including with Muslims fighting for their own future against the toxic forces of fundamentalism. We’ve had to interface multiple times with less-than-friendly people among the civilian population.

Me in Afghanistan, 2012, working with the local population to combat the narratives of Taliban extremists.

Many of us are very well trained. Numerous wargames in the military — using live role players, mock villages and realistic scenarios that seem straight out of a Hollywood movie — have equipped myself and others in Psychological Warfare, Civil Affairs, and various Special Operations Forces, to understand these dynamics even more sharply. This has included more training scenarios in civil disturbance and protests than I can remember. The cyber domain is now an active ingredient in the mix, and this is being integrating into how many of our experts train as well in understanding the ‘human battlespace’. The point is, many of us know how radicalization and extremism operate, be it in the street corners of Baghdad or the online chat rooms of closet Alt-Right gateway platforms.

Red Team Analysis: Helping us learn, making us stronger

In the military, defense sectors, we have a term for helping organizations see their blind spots and exposing their unbeknownst weaknesses: we call it Red Teaming. A Red Team will try to expose areas where you are vulnerable, or susceptible to attack. Their ultimate goal, through red team analysis and wargaming, is to help you become better, to refine your defenses and cover down on your weak points. I have participated in countless wargames and can attest to the immense value of this process.

However it is process not confined to military ‘red teaming’. It can apply to any system that allows a serious feedback loop, and invites a learning process of ongoing refinement and improvement by wanting to see its mistakes. A system that works is one which allows itself to be pressure-tested, rather than remain in its own protective bubble — as such systems are prone to heightened vulnerability, and prone to fail their intended mission. As I write in The Reason Challenge, the key difference between a fantasy-based system and a reality-based system is its willingness to change and adapt, and its ability to pit itself against the resistance of the real world. This is where science — as well as mixed martial arts and Jujitsu — excel, and where American politics and ideology fail. This contrast is as stark as it is revealing — revealing of why the former areas function so well, and the latter so poorly.

Dr. Boghossian’s approach to pressure-testing can be found in his work teaching critical thinking to inmates in prisons, his love of Brazilian Jujitsu, and his promotion of Socratic discourse. His words on reliable epistemology underlie his reasons for seeking to expose blind spots and thought bubbles in academia: There are better and worse ways to arrive at answers.

Exploring this further might actually be the key to fundamentally changing our stagnant, inflexible and broken system of ideological conversation — not only in the University, but around the country. This environment does not only stifle conversation — more fundamentally, it stifles our actual ability to solve problems. To understand the nature and complex reality of issues and reliably arrive at answers. It hinders the very environment in which we try to tackle hate, extremism, radical recruiting and far Right movements.

Let’s work together to fix this. If more students and faculty step up and come forward, knowing its the right thing to do, this will change minds. It will inspire more to speak out, and act on what they privately feel to be correct, rather than being cowed into passivity by the fear of ideological ostracism. It will be a domino effect of edifying honesty. Let’s reevaluate how we see more of our critics, and ourselves. It will make us all stronger in the fight against harmful ideas. I invite Portland State students and faculty alike to step up and come forward in support of this.

A healthy space for mindful conversations (and a buffer against the toxic extremes)

We need to foster incubators for honest discussion and self-reflection, to identify genuine problems within our own ‘idea community’, see our blind spots, and hear necessary criticism and different perspectives that enrich our own understanding. Peter Boghossian’s approach to critical thinking crash course is a prime example. We do not need more Milo-style zero-sum conflicts between “SJWs” and “anti-SJWs”; we need to provide open, public alternatives to extremism, hate, combative discussion, and group bullying (on any side). Show people more visible alternative platforms and narratives, and the space in which such can occur on and off campus, as a way to draw away from extremist views, radical communities and toxic ideas. We need to do this while encouraging reason, humility, compassion and skepticism.

That is our best way forward.

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