Extraordinarily Effective Ways

A black and white photo of young boys

I was listening to weekend radio, the other morning, sipping coffee and before walking my dog, and heard the following story on how ISIS is increasingly using children in its war — such as child suicide bombers.

Give it a listen:

While having no interest to condone such actions or minimize how horrific such attacks are, I was nonetheless intrigued by how the interviewee, “terrorism expert John Horgan” (who is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, at Georgia State University), attempted to explain the way ISIS members are able to involve children in their plans. For his explanation of the “extraordinarily effective ways” they use sounded to me not just remarkably like, but pretty much identical to, how we (and pretty much everyone else) enculturate young members into our groups.

One of the things that really struck us … is just how systematic and structured this entire process is …, through which … they progress these children from being merely passive bystanders to full-fledged, fully committed, mobilized fighters…

Asked for a condensed version of the process (which will be detailed in his forthcoming book [read a related article by his co-author here]), he replies that it first involves “toys and treats” and then later school — “intense indoctrination” — in which group values are used to motivate and then reward (via prestige) select children, those who show an aptitude for what ISIS represents and seeks to achieve, as a way to shape them into accepting the naturalness of the worlds they happen to inhabit.

As I heard this I thought back on my own upbringing and schooling…

His answer also reminded me of a video from the now defunct news magazine show “Nightline” that I sometimes still show in my intro class, in which the attorney and so-called cult expert Cynthia Kisser (onetime director of what is now known as the old Cult Awareness Network), described the techniques that cults use to control their members — as I summed them up in a chapter back in 2003 (p, 110), they included:

Bullet points about people's daily routines

Yes, many of my undergrad students roll their eyes at this one, for they easily see that this is how pretty much how any group manages its population; the military quickly comes to their minds as an example (as I noted in the above-cited chapter), especially evident to the vets in my classes, and, with just a little prodding, their own parents count as effective examples.

But what’s interesting in both her case and in the case of Horgan trying to account for ISIS’s success indoctrinating children and adolescents, is our general inability to see these techniques as routine and thus banal (though, yes, still incredibly effective); instead, we exoticize their use when it contests our own purposes — and so we end up being fascinated by how “extraordinarily effective” they are when others use them.

Yet when we use them, it’s just teaching, I guess. But when others do — such as that opening pic from a Soviet-era school — well, it’s anything but school to us.

So it seems to me that the exoticization we place on others is the interesting and “extraordinarily effective” thing, here — how, in this case, we so easily fail to see the similarity in social techniques. I’m not sure how Horgan would describe the schooling I had as a kid, and whether he’d be amazed that I came out the other end feeling patriotic or astounded that some classmates ended up entering the military, where they were committed to fighting and dying for the country, if needed. Perhaps he would try to theorize this, puzzled why anyone would willingly accept such a future for themselves; or perhaps we’d see this as just the way things ought to be.

This isn’t an argument for relativism, however; it’s instead an invitation to take seriously just how mundane our common repertoire of social techniques is — and given that we share them we might have an insight into how to grapple with uses of them that strike us as undermining the goals that we’re trying to achieve.

2 Replies to “Extraordinarily Effective Ways”

  1. Thanks for the insightful post. I was wondering whether you might be able to expand upon the last paragraph and describe in more detail what ‘taking seriously’ the banality of “our common repertoire of social techniques” might entail. As a grad student working in the humanities, I see this phrase –“take seriously”– quite often in my readings and I suppose I don’t understand the insider shorthand yet.

  2. Not sure if you’re in the study of religion but that phrase–“take religion seriously” was once pretty popular (still is for some) and used to signify anti-reductionist approaches, as if Durkheim or Marx etc., didn’t take religion seriously _as_ religion and thus dismissed it, or, as the old phrase went, threw the baby out with the bathwater in their reductionistic approaches. So I guess I’m intentionally lampooning that approach by asking just the opposite–to take seriously the mundane nature of life–which doesn’t make it uninteresting, of course… But now the burden of making this or that worth talking about, aka interesting, falls on us and not on the world–that is, now the world does not leap out and proclaim significance, as many scholars once (still?) thought.

    Do you know Pierre Bourdieu’s little book, On Television? Worth looking at. Has a nice quote there that I’ve often used: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness. Flaubert was fond of saying that it takes a lot of hard work to portray mediocrity. Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How can we make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extraordinary it is?”

    See how chpt one here.

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