My brother is becoming radicalized; how do I bring him back?
November 23, 2016 10:45 PM   Subscribe

So, following this election and its disastrous results, I've decided to heed the calls of liberal commentators and take some responsibility for talking to my family who contributed to it. Specifically, I want to connect with my younger brother and bring him back from the brink of anti-government militia-like conspiracy thought.

My brother isn't a bad person, and overall, he's a geeky, bookish, well-educated guy. However, in many respects, he fits the mold of the angry young white man who becomes "radicalized" online: he has served in the military for around twenty years, including a deployment to a war zone; since leaving active combat duty, he has worked in the intelligence industry. His teenage years and deployment were filled with a lot of anger toward the family, the military (once he'd joined), and the world in general, as far as I could tell.

Our family background is generally conservative with strong support for the military, but no one has ever really had anti-government leanings apart from him. He has occasionally posted dubious information about conspiracy theories like HAARP or anti-Semitic theories about bankers on social media, and has used some racist language (which is definitely not something the rest of my family does). While casually chatting with him recently, he laid out an elaborate fantasy about founding an independent nation-state on the soil of the United States and fending off government attempts to invade and destroy it to collect taxes. He has several guns. I am concerned that these beliefs could potentially lead to a violent incident, or even to his joining a militia once his military service is complete. I may be reading way too much into his behavior and I don't want to dictate his political beliefs, but when I read about the Bundy family and the other people who occupied the Malheur wildlife refuge this year, it reminded me of him.

While I am not very close to him, we don't have a bad relationship and we enjoy talking when we get the chance to get together. We've always enjoyed discussing geeky things (cartoons, comic books, Star Wars) and trivia, and we have compatible senses of humor so we can always joke around comfortably together. I haven't challenged him much on either his anti-government beliefs or mild racism before, but now I'm afraid that's contributed to him retreating further into conspiracies and not realizing that his beliefs are out of the mainstream. He doesn't have many close friends, which I think further adds to his isolation, and he doesn't get along well with the whole family.

What I'm looking for is ways to introduce more reliable information to him in a way that he would be receptive to, that wouldn't alienate him or make him think I'm trying to lecture him. He knows that my political beliefs are pretty far left, but we've never really discussed our political differences, for better or worse. I don't really care whether he himself holds conservative beliefs; I mainly care about him getting truthful information, rather than being mired in right-wing conspiracy theories. The main thing I do not want is to become estranged from him, especially so I can serve as a lifeline for him if he needs me. Probably the best way for me to communicate with him would be via phone call or text, since we live too far apart now to talk in person. I'm curious what has worked for people in similar situations. I just don't want to make him defensive or drive him away.
posted by inky_the_pinky to Human Relations (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone I know that has ties to military or government pretty much knows that what's "mainstream" is never ever the real story, so I think this first part is tough since you will be trying to tell him that his first-hand experiences are not accurate.

It's troubling that he has outlandish ideas about fighting the power structure in a way that will put him into violent conflict with a system much much more powerful than he is. If you can respect his views, maybe you can probe more and find out if this is exuberant fantasy to blow off steam, or if he really really thinks this will work?

You can and should call NAMI.ORG (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and ask them specifically what to do if you determine your brother is suffering mental illness or heading for some sort of crisis. It's OK to call them, it's what they're there for, to help people like you and your brother.

I don't know what you do about the racism. How do you change someone's mind if they think their fellow human beings are not worthy of the same rights and respect as themselves?? "Gee Bob, people of color are just like you and me, we're all human. It's sad to hear you malign people based on the color of their skin." I think basically you have to use gentle wording, but you maybe should call him out when he engages in hateful racist rhetoric.
posted by jbenben at 12:21 AM on November 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Posted too soon.

Overall it sounds like he's having a tough time regarding his role in the military, and it sounds like his experiences are hurting him. I think he requires support of the type many veterans desperately need, but rarely receive. I think if you approach him from this perspective you will have better luck.
posted by jbenben at 12:26 AM on November 24, 2016 [11 favorites]

For a lot of combat vets, time in theatre is the most meaningful thing you've ever experienced, and the people around you there are the most important people in the world. It's difficult to square that with the rather hum-drum reality of working for an enormous, heaving bureaucracy where ninety-six permissions from forty-eight mandarins have to be secured at every turn. Conspiratorial thought can be a coping mechanism, and the idea of literally taking up arms again with people with whom you trust to pursue a new mission that feels fraught with significance - well, I think it's at least kind of understandable, and more appealing, perhaps, because it plainly goes against the grain.

I suggest you pick up Sebastian Junger's book Tribe because you might find some useful insights. Maybe come to a point where you can draw a line between his veteran status and his current thinking and discuss it with him. Maybe pass the book on to your brother if you think that would be welcome.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:27 AM on November 24, 2016 [16 favorites]

Most successful persuasion is slow and come from "I love you," not "you're wrong," so a big part of this will be strengthening your connection to him, finding shared values and interests, that sort of thing.
posted by salvia at 7:08 AM on November 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd suggest trying to find ways to get him connected more to outside pursuits, hobbies, or just pleasures that provide a more diverse worldview for him to experience. Direct confrontation of differences might not work for the best, but exposure to other ways of seeing the world and positive discussions of shared values and a open space for discussing differences in perspective without trying to force change can sometimes lead to the underlying problems that feed the fear or anger getting some useful attention. If he is more deeply troubled though, then seeking outside counsel would be wise if there is a fear of a mental health issue being involved.

A deep distrust in other people or the government of the sort that leads to conspiracy theories and the like can come from a feeling of inadequacy, isolation or being at odds with the "normal" world. Helping him find new obtainable enthusiasms can help build some additional stability or meaning for life that might otherwise seem elusive. Simply engaging him, being supportive, and building trust through care can be a good first step in showing that there are other perspectives he may not see at the moment. It may be that you can't wholly reach him, that sometimes happens, but even making the effort can be enough sometimes to keep normalcy from feeling completely out of reach. Good luck and thank you for the effort, caring about others is always a value worth supporting.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

For a lot of men this is a reaction to "failing" at the whole being a man thing: good job, wife, kids, house, dog etc. Is he struggling with leading a happy life in general? Is that something you can help with by doing normal, civilized things with him: invite him to a dinner party, go to a play, go to an art museum, volunteer at a soup kitchen, confide in him about your life and ask his opinion. Generally put him in situations where people act normal and he's expected to too.

I think scifi is great but it's definitely encourages apolacytpic thinking, I'd try to engage with him about other causes.
posted by fshgrl at 9:33 AM on November 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

With his interests, your brother may be susceptible to getting involved in backyard hobby farming. This is a healthy thing to develop a passion for. He'll get some good physical labour, form a connection to his local soil and seasons, and get away from the internet for a while.
posted by heatherlogan at 10:43 AM on November 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm really guessing here, but I'd go with what salvia said above. Interact and connect, let him know that you care about him. Spend time with him when you're out. When you encounter these ideas, ask questions more than you make statements. "How did you find that information?" "Is there a backup source reporting the same thing?" "That hasn't been my experience." There are certainly communities that have dealt with either creeping or existing extremism, and I wonder what they've done?

Everyone I know that has ties to military or government pretty much knows that what's "mainstream" is never ever the real story, so I think this first part is tough since you will be trying to tell him that his first-hand experiences are not accurate.

This is not chatfilter, obviously, but it's inappropriate to stereotype people like this. I've worked in government, with literally hundreds of people who aren't in any way conspiracy theorists. Very few people that I know are what you describe here.
posted by cnc at 1:37 PM on November 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's ok to say to him, "I'm worried about you and the things you are saying." Being honest without being judgmental would probably be the path I would take, because it cuts to the real issue - your concern for his mental health.
posted by Toddles at 8:08 PM on November 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like he may have exposed to the Sovereign Citizen movement. It's a sort of political cult that infects its members with contagious memes that sometimes almost appear to mimic mental illness. Doctors can't help. Even brushes with the law only strengthen thier resolve. About the only thing I can suggest is using the Socratic Method to help him realize how unrealistic these beleifs are. Do a youtube search for "street epistemology". Most of the videos are about religion, but this movement is very much like a religion to its adherents. I have a friend who is caught up in this stuff, and I wish I had heard of street epistemology before he moved away.
posted by ambulocetus at 5:57 PM on December 19, 2016

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