From the prevention of radicalization to the promotion of social justice and solidarity

As our research project is coming to an end, it is time to take a look at what we have understood of PVE-E in the Finnish context so far. As we know, PVE-E policies vary a lot from one country to another. In some countries, such as Finland, the objective of PVE-E is to strengthen the national and democratic values and the students’ resilience to cognitive manipulation and radicalization by, for example, teaching them critical thinking and media literacy skills.

This type of resilience-focused approach comes close to the tenets of education on democracy, peace, global citizenship, and human rights, which all aim to build more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, and secure societies. What is underlying all these approaches is the need to react to the hostile intergroup attitudes and the growing tensions between identities and worldviews in our societies, and the need to support children and youth growing into adulthood with mindsets and capacities that allow for and potentiate ecologically and socially just futures. Therefore, there is not anything radically new in PVE-E, it’s mainly a new focus, one tinted with urgency.

However, we argue that a strong focus on the students’ resilience is not unproblematic, because it may overlook the reasons that make the extremist views appealing in the first place, such as perceived social injustices, unsatisfied needs, and other grievances. To discuss this, we first need to take a closer look at the process of radicalization.

Radicalisation and PVE-E

There is no definitive answer as to why some people radicalize, but it is possible to look for common patterns with special regard for individual life trajectories and individual cognitive responses to these (Cassam in Sardoč, 2020). Several studies have shown that the reasons behind radicalization into extremism typically relate to grievances and unsatisfied needs, like the needs for safety, autonomy, a sense of identity and belonging, self-esteem, and meaning (e.g., Womick et al., 2019; Kruglanski et al., 2019). Needs are usually presented as being “objective” because they are innate, universal, over-generational, and non-substitutable. However, while the needs are universal, the satisfaction or non-satisfaction of a need is felt on a personal level and is always a subjective experience (Helne, 2021).

Unsatisfied basic needs typically lead to strong, uncomfortable emotions, such as self-pity, shame, frustration, and fear, and to mindsets characterized by cynicism and hostility. And as we know, emotions fuel behaviors and actions. Basic needs are fundamental for wellbeing, and people are programmed to aim to satisfy them, one way or another. Then what the person chooses to do depends a lot on the individual’s resilience, their capacity to cope with adversity.

But if we look at research on other negative developments in adolescence, like substance use, violence, isolation, or depression, we can see that the same unsatisfied basic needs can also be found there. These are just different symptoms of the same illness.

Briefly:

  • Research on radicalization shows us that the non-satisfaction of basic needs leads to grievances and negative emotions, such as shame, fear, and anger, which may trigger negative intergroup attitudes and lead to radicalisation, substance use, or other negative developments.
  • Research on wellbeing, in turn, shows that the satisfaction of basic needs is connected to resilience, life satisfaction, and more meaning in life, which are positively related to positive intergroup attitudes and prosocial behaviors, such as activism and solidarity.

In this light, we argue that focusing on developing youths’ resilience to radicalisation through critical thinking and media literacy skills is somewhat problematic. It doesn’t really address the reasons behind radicalisation. In this sense, we don’t believe that the development of new PVE-E strategies is a sustainable way forward toward more peaceful and socially just societies. Instead, we should examine the way young people’s needs are addressed in education and think about how we could guide young people to deal in a more positive way with the injustices and grievances they see in their own lives or around them.

Let us remember that in a distorted way, radicalization is also a proof of agency, demonstrating a will to pursue and live according to one’s deepest values and visions. This is, ironically, totally in line with what for example the most recent UNESCO report on the Futures of Education calls for: we need to repair injustices while transforming the future. But the methods to make the changes happen must be socially and ethically just, which necessitates careful reflection together with young people. Our societies cannot afford radicalisation into extremism being an option for youth to repair the injustices they have witnessed or experienced.

The role of education in societal change

Education is indeed well positioned to facilitate societal change. If we look at the Finnish national core curriculum, we can see that all factors conducive to societal transformation are already there. However, regarding the need to expand the circle of human concern and global solidarity and prevent societal polarisation, conflicts, and radicalisation, we need to reconsider the focus and priorities of education in the 20th century.

To get more insights into the development of the future of Finnish education, and contextualized knowledge for the planning of the new PVE-E policies, we examined the following themes among Finnish youths during our 4-year research project: youths’ resilience, life satisfaction, values, intergroup attitudes, prejudices, justifications for othering, dogmatism, and open-mindedness, and more.

Here are the most important findings in a nutshell:

  • Most Finnish youths are resilient and have lots of resources for wellbeing.
  • Most of them have very other-focused, transcendental values that emphasize our shared humanity, equality, peace promotion, and beneficence.
  • Finnish youth’s mindsets are predominantly inclusive of all types of social groups and do not want one group in society to dominate the others. Half of them like the current status quo and want to keep their lives as they are now. They want equality between people and are rather open-minded towards different views and perspectives.
  • Finnish youth are not prejudiced in the same way as the older generations, because their prejudices are not based on ethnicity, religion, or culture, but on distrust and fears that one group of people would prevent them from living their life according to their own values, e.g., drug users, people with criminal records, or people with decadent lifestyles and attitudes.
  • Finnish youth feel alienated from people who are racist, discriminative, and dislike intellectual laziness. 
  • Finnish youth see that school education plays a huge part in the well-being, attitudes, and worldviews of young people. The young students had lots of ideas on how schools could become more meaningful places for them, develop their skills to live together and understand each other and prepare them better for their futures. 

In the light of our own findings, we can thus argue that there is very much potential in Finnish youth to participate in the building of more socially just and peaceful futures. They have the right mindsets, the right values, and lots of resilience. Most of them are inclusive and caring. They see very clearly the problems and needs there are in their environments, and they have ideas for how to change education to build more understanding and less hostility between people. They are ready for change. But is the school ready to facilitate them in this?

We claim that education in the 20s should have a moral obligation to provide children and young people with the tools and opportunities that enable them to pursue the changes they want to see in their future.

(Paper presented on 14th June in NYRIS Youth Research Symposium, Oslo, Norway, shortened & edited version)