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Youth's vulnerability and resilience to far-right narratives

Expert opinion

Stanislav Dodov is a social pedagogue with extensive experience in the fields of human rights and child protection. He is an active promoter of freedom of expression and inclusion of children and youth in public processes. Stanislav has worked as a coordinator, facilitator, trainer and consultant for organisations  such as UNICEF, UNFPA, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the National Network for Children.

Is there a "blind spot" for far-right ideas and actions (including violence, e.g. hate crimes) in Bulgaria? What are the reasons? How vulnerable are young people to such ideas (and actions), especially on the Internet?

I am afraid it is the opposite of a “blind spot” situation. In the last 15 years or so, we have witnessed the normalization of the far-right discourse in the public domain, not only in media and in the actions of  state institutions, but also gradually in everyday life. At present, this is most clearly visable in the contrast between the reactions of international institutions, on the one hand, and developments in Bulgaria, on the other. While the European Commission warned that it had started proceedings over the systemic weaknesses in the fight against racism and xenophobia and over systematic violations of EU law and keeping in mind the 2006 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights against Volen Siderov for Holocaust denial and anti-Roma speech, the Sofia City Court has, on a number of occasions in contrast to historic truth and even the expert opinion of witnesses, ruled that General Lukov and Lukovmarsh sympathizers were just patriots acting in the name of the motherland. During primetime on the Bulgarian National Television, Holocaust deniers are being cited. A number of recent Cabinets were partly composed of representatives of political parties with obvious far-right programmes, which was the formal recognition of the cornerstone role that far-right narrative has at the highest level of governance. What is even more disturbing is that these developments are almost completely hidden from public focus. There are not many people who see them as a serious sign for concern or worthy of their interest. The few who do, unfortunately, are not in senior positions. On the contrary, the normalisation is growing stronger. There is the simplest explanation to this: it does not happen because we actively consent to or promote far-right ideas at any level – it ratherhappens because there is a systematic admission of such ideas, step by step, as a crutch for different interests and needs of the strong of the day, or in order to get more views, more votes, etc. It should be left to the social sciences to explain how identity and national pride became the most outstanding part of the 30 years of democratic transition. In this context, young people are not only vulnerable to extreme ideas, but grow up in an environment soaked and conditioned by them. It is urgent - and perhaps too late - to recognise this. The results of some pragmatic political moves and media agenda which can be labelled as far-right are about to become internalised, authentic values for many.

How should we talk about and understand the processes during which young people absorb far-right ideas? Although in a small number of cases, motivated by hatred of others and rejection of basic democratic principles they are willing to resort to violence?

I do not think that prevention is a solution for Bulgaria - at the public or community level it is too late. Another reason is that prevention of the far-right can happen and makes sense in countries where the past is an officially recognised fact and has been condemned as wrong. In Bulgaria, it is just the opposite: the past is being mystified constantly. So as far as children and young people are concerned, we rather have the task to intervene and reduce the damage that far-right ideas have already  done and could do in the long run. Also, the issue is not about the far-right as such, but about democracy as a concept. The only cure for anti-democratic attitudes is democracy at play. Unfortunately, democratic principles and democratic life in general have turned out to be something very abstract and distant to the majority of Bulgarian people. If we lived in a truly democratic country and citizens were perceiving it as such, the proliferation of far-right ideas would have faced many more obstacles. If all your life no one has come to ask you what you think and what you want, there is no reason for you to value your vote in elections; if no one has ever given you a shovel to work on the garden in front of your building, it is not your fault for not taking care of it; if you are used to the idea that a local Mr. Big Shot or a company dictates the life of an entire region, you have no reason to value the virtues of checks and balances or the importance of municipal authority; etc. I have been working with young people for many years and I can confidently say that those who have a truly democratic experience in their daily lives, in the most optimistic interpretation, are in fact a statistically negligible minority. How can we expect them to suddenly become "active European citizens" and defenders of democracy? Sociological surveys of civic activism and political engagement definitely show that over the past 30 years each subsequent generation has had less and less democratic experiences or any kind of democratic participation in practice. Each and every year, less is being done for the inclusion of children and young people in democratic processes and democratic everyday activities, such as decision-making at schools, joint creative activities, community actions. Therefore, young people need to practice democracy, rather than receive lessons or much less accusations for being “undemocratic”. My whole professional experience with young people is learning and practicing democracy, and I can assure anyone that "appetite comes with eating". Anti-democratic attitudes only projected by people who either have never had a real touch of democratic life or by people who have a direct and personal interest in ruining democratic life for everybody.

As for violence, it is not immanently anti-democratic, nor is democracy immanently non-violent. I am afraid that the educational task for the adults is to make sense of the processes where violence starts feeding anti-democrac trends and whose interests this serves. For example, a group of junior neo-Nazis was organising beatings of LGBTI+ youngsters in Plovdiv and the public response was meant to sound threatening but sounded absurd instead: the lesson is not that psychiatric or educational care were needed, or that those young people needed to study European Union law. The lessons are that the local social fabric is completely torn and being a democratically inclined young person is not only a matter of being unpopular but also threatening one’s survival. This rupture, in turn, is often the result of violent processes that the already established discourse on violence would never recognise as violence: for instance, in the cases of economic exploitation or discrimination in access to public services. Another prominent example was that, during the months celebrating Plovdiv as the European Capital of Culture, a local MP, who was member of a political party within  the ruling coalition, stated he was prepared to use illegal means just to stop a supposedly "homosexual" photo exhibition. In other words, how can we talk about far-right ideas at all, when we see them present in government?

What alternative messages should be brought to young people as a counterpoint and corrective to political populism, far-right and hate speech, conspiracy ideas and disinformation? In what is the most effective way to present them (from whom should they come, in what format - online campaigns, in class, etc.)?

In this case, "alternative" is a really important word. Indeed, for young people in Bulgaria there is currently no other identification as accessible as the nationalist one and there is no other political reasoning or action beyond the right (it is first moderate before it becomes far-right). However, “alternative” should not mean marginal and the messages themselves should be our last concern. Currently, young people receive all kinds of messages in all sorts of circles, but some messages remain marginal while others dominate. This is determined by the dominant environment in general and the dominant practices, it is not just speech or images. The moment for prevention and spreading messages is irrevocably gone. In my opinion, if we want young people to be more resistant to far-right ideas, we have to start from scratch now and create completely different living conditions for them. A democratic school, a democratic neighborhood, a democratic theater, whatever - these must become norms accepted by the state, not marginal practices. There is much more democracy on the street than Facebook leads us to believe: for example, young Levski hooligans make friends with Roma people without any restraint: a practical example which is difficult to translate through formal mechanisms and technocratic language. On the other hand, the push for changes in the civic education curriculum, new textbooks and new content in school is admirable but it remains just a message because the civic education grade will not be useful later in life. The far-right interpretation of life is not only more convincing and applealing, but also more useful, because the democratic one still does not provide even the simplest identification. At some point, there are much bigger social and cultural benefits for abandoning or even beating Roma friends than campaigning to encourage voting in European elections. Among all this, there is a transition period when one will maintain the friendship while sharing Hitler quotes on social networks in the meantime. If there is any time for intervention, it is just during this thin gap, most often happening in adolescent years. However, outside of that, radical change is needed for everyone, far more than targeted messages and specific interventions.

What methods, practices, approaches that are already applied by the NGO sector (or state institutions) in other areas could contribute to the successful prevention of extremism among young people? What models and specific methods for working with young people on these topics would be the most effective and most appropriate?

I would not recommend any specific technologies. Extreme ideas come in response to extreme circumstances: extreme apathy or lack of human, let alone citizen, care. Yes, there are working models: specific spaces and structures of democratic representation and decision-making, action-based and participatory research methods, all sorts of methods for creative expression and sharing, empathy programs, etc. It is worth noting that those are never strictly training or educational programmes. In order to keep young people free from far-right or extremist ideas, firstly, this should not be the end goal in itself, and secondly, the programmes should not be paternalistic, but inclusive and creating awareness of the young people’ influence over their own lives and the lives of others. A person who knows only how to obey is doomed to dream to subdue. There may be technologies and specific models, but there is no environment in which to introduce them. I have witnessed excellent ideas and numerous resources sinking into a deeply disinterested institutional environment for years. As a matter of fact, this is the same institutional environment that has been more and more openly tolerating the far-right.


 

This blogpost is published within the Find Another Way communication campaign, which seeks to develop young people’s skills to assess and filter through online content critically, recognize and resist polarizing and hateful narratives and build resilience through non-violent communication and civic engagement. The campaign is part of a joint initiative of CSD, ARC fund and Distinkt Group. It is funded by the European Union's Internal Security Fund - Police.

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