Culture Magazine

Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
This is new from Princeton University Press. I read it as a case study in cultural evolution:
Bail, C.A: Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream. (eBook and Hardcover)
Here's a paragraph from the opening chapter (which you can download at the link above)
The principal contribution of this book is a new theory that explains how cultural, social psychological, and structural processes combine to shape the evolution of shared understandings of so- cial problems in the wake of crises such as the September 11th attacks. Such events provide fringe organizations with the opportunity to exploit the emotional bias of the media. Media am- plification of emotional fringe organizations creates the misperception that such groups have substantial support and therefore deserve reprimand. Yet when mainstream organizations angrily denounce the fringe they only further increase the profile of these peripheral actors within the public sphere. This unintended consequence creates tension and splintering within the mainstream—but also gives fringe organizations the visibility necessary to routinize their shared emotions into networks with more powerful organizations that help them raise funds that consolidate their capacity to create cultural change. From this privileged position, these once obscure organizations can attack the legitimacy of the mainstream precisely as it begins to tear itself apart. With time, these countervailing forces reshape the cultural environment—or the total population of groups competing to shape public discourse about social problems—and fringe organizations “drift” into the mainstream.
The evolution of cultural environments is particularly powerful because it is largely invisible. None of the civil society organizations that inhabit the cultural environment can view it in its entirety because of its sheer size, complexity, and ever-shifting boundaries. Instead, they rely upon powerful institutions such as the media to communicate the contours of the cultural environment back to them. The inevitable distortion that occurs throughout this process sets in motion a chain of irreversible events in which mainstream organizations inadvertently transform their environment through their very attempts to prevent it from changing. Meanwhile, such distortion enables fringe organizations to disguise themselves as part of the mainstream until such deception becomes real—or until the irreversible cultural, structural, and social psychological pro- cesses just described transform the contours of the cultural environment outside the media as well. These broad shifts continue to shape the evolution of media discourse in turn, but also the ways in which policy makers and the broader public understand social problems—as later chapters of this book describe.
H/t 3QD.
An interview with Bail at Salon. From the interview:
This is where I think evolutionary ways of thinking are really important. A big story in my book is the tendency for media rich [organizations] to shape a lot of outcomes outside the media. So, for example, when these anti-Muslim fringe groups develop a high profile after September 11, they use their privileged position to forge ties to other organizations, service groups, and so on. And this enables them to effectively create a sea change not only in how Islam appears in the media, but how people think about Islam outside the media. And so we see this kind of sounding board effect, where the more a rumor is repeated, in them more and more high profile and official setting, the more it becomes true.
So much of the story of the book is about the evolution of this fringe narrative, from a group of kind of hawkish neocons whose careers are mostly over, to a point where nearly every candidate in the 2008 Republican election is warning about the advance of Sharia law, and the looming threat of Islamism for the future of Western civilization. And now more recently, of course, we see the spread of this to people like Bobby Jindal, again, very high profile, very mainstream, public figures, reproducing this message of so-called “no go zones” in Paris.
So the idea is really to think about cultural change, about the tendency for media coverage of fringe groups to set in motion a chain of processes that allows them to rise to public prominence precisely because of the efforts of mainstream organizations to prevent them from doing so. So it’s sort of a story about the unintended consequences of media coverage, I suppose, to put it simply.
And then a bit later:
Sociologist and social psychologists have long recognized that during periods of crisis people tend to look for sources of information that validate their feelings, and this is both an individual level, and also in the societal level, so journalists searching to figure out the true meaning of Islam may be more likely to gravitate to towards the crazy person waving a sword rather than the rather more calm, measured, dispassionate person giving a lengthy theological explanation of the tenets of Islam.
This really has two functions: one it attracts a lot of attention, and then to get your second question, it also provoked a pretty significant response from the mainstream….So, in other words, the amplification of the emotional fringe discourse promotes an equally emotional response in the mainstream, that had the unintended consequence of a further increase in the profile of the fringe.
This is what I call the riptide in the book. This is in keeping with the environmental metaphor I use throughout the book, of kind of flowing waters. This pulls mainstream organizations further out to sea, precisely as they struggle against the current that’s drawing them out there.
This is really basic stuff, recalling the Talcott Parsons material I'm so fond of (and which I quote in this post):
There are sociologists and social psychologists who have produced a pretty long literature that explains how shared fears create really durable social bonds and so that’s the primary mechanism I talk about in the book for the routinization of emotions into the social networks that enable anti-Muslim fringe organizations to establish ties to elite circles, but then also to expand their own media infrastructure via movies, creating subsidiary organizations, and they really become able to create their own media spectacle, rather than depending on the media spectacle create the story.

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