Out of Their Heads and Into Their Conversation: Countering Extremist Ideology

by Angela Trethewey, Steven R. Corman & Bud Goodall

Ideology is often ignored or deemed irrelevant to strategic communication because it is an old, possibly leftist, idea that is associated with academic social critique. It is treated as something that lives in the heads of individuals, driving them to radical action. From this point of view the concept is not really practical because by the time someone has adopted an ideology, it is too late.

We advocate a different view of ideology, as a system of ideas about how things are or ought to be that circulates in social discourse. This is a more practical view because it treats ideology not as an idea stuck in someone‟s head, but as something that is subject to influence through strategic communication. To be effective in these efforts we must understand culture and narrative, and have a clear grasp of what ideology does.

Ideology has four functions. We illustrate these with detailed examples. Naturalizing means turning socially constructed, politically-motivated, and fluid ideas into taken-for-granted assumptions, beliefs, and meanings. Doing so makes them seem fixed, objective, and “naturally occurring.” Obscuring is denying or hiding contradictions in ongoing systems of meaning, making them seem to be seamless, coherent, and unified worldviews. Universalizing means presenting the interests or concerns of those in power as the interests of all group members. And structuring involves creating rules and resources in a social system that preserve an ideology.

Adopting this point of view we can see that the way to resist ideology is to interfere with its functions. To undermine naturalizing we can focus on challenging assumptions, beliefs, and meanings behind an ideology. To fight obscuring we can target contradictions, pushing them into the open. To target universalizing we can engage subgroups and their leaders, politicizing the differences in interests that ideology tries to smooth over. And to resist structuring we can place stress on the structures and/or promote alternatives that might replace, undermine, or circumvent them. We provide several examples of each of these ideology countermeasures.

Of course these same methods are used by extremists against us. This makes it imperative that we avoid at all costs giving adversaries ammunition with which to challenge our assumptions, target our contradictions politicize our groups, and breach our structures