Harold Behr

Student protests are really about the adolescent need for certainty and belonging

Embracing extremism is a natural way to cope with the emotional volatility of being in your early 20s


A keffiyeh is wrapped around the head of a statue of George Washington on the George Washington University campus on May 3, 2024 (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

May 15, 2024 11:28

 Having worked most of my life with emotionally disturbed youths, I have come to regard adolescence as an age of extremism. The phase of development that extends from the early teens into the mid-20s is characterised by volatile moods and inner uncertainty.

As a coping strategy, the young mind adopts stances of exaggerated surety in relation to the outside world, fuelling extremes of behaviour and attitude.

The current wave of pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist sentiment engulfing university campuses epitomises the temptation to embrace extremist solutions without having to examine underlying complexities of the situation.

I watch with alarm how passionate feelings aroused by the crisis in the Middle East are exploited by militants, campaigning for the destruction of the state of Israel without any thought for what that entails for the millions of Jews who live there.

Youthful fervour can be a catalyst for constructive social change, but it lends itself to manipulation by ideologues bent on promoting a sinister agenda.

Universities are fertile grounds for radicalisation. Students, a captive population of keen intellectual acumen, are as capable of irrationality as any other group and they yearn to resolve problems by framing them in terms of “good” and “evil”.

The problem is compounded by the emotional thrill of participating in mass action. Whenever a crowd assembles, especially for political purposes, a collective mindset takes over. This is sometimes characterised as a mob, or a kind of mass hysteria, but is best understood as an increased state of suggestibility: the individual’s capacity to think independently is weakened; the proclivity for violence strengthened.

There is something exhilarating about being part of a throng, chanting slogans and listening to fiery speeches. The leaders of protests present themselves as role models and idealists for their cause, while their opponents are represented in the most demonic light.

Badges, banners and other paraphernalia strengthen the feeling of unity and belonging. I remember with mixed feelings protests in a previous generation against the Vietnam war, when universities resounded to chants of the name of Ho Chi Min, with starry-eyed students brandishing copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, showing no insight into the forces they were fuelling.

One of the sorriest aspects of the caravan of protests now taking over faculty sites is the eager participation of some Jewish students. Their presence is triumphantly proclaimed as evidence that calls for the destruction of Israel are not really about hatred of Jews but the righting of a wrong done to the Palestinian people by a distinct and alien group – the Zionists – with no rights of possession to the land.

No matter that this position defies fact and history. No matter that it carries a murderous implication on a horrendous scale. In these situations, the contingent of pacific idealists will tend to be co-opted and drowned out by the loudest, fundamentalist ideologues.

The self-reinforcing, radicalising collective merges disparate disaffected youth, with grievances tenuously connected to the Middle East, into active supporters of Hamas. It coalesces to spread a blanket of vilification over Israel, hoping to suffocate it. There are disturbing precedents in the early stages of Fascism and Bolshevism, which were adept at absorbing naive young fellow-travellers into their ranks.

Any reasonable observer should be able to see both the tragedy unfolding on the streets of Gaza and the unavoidable Israeli military imperative of eliminating Hamas, a death cult whose openly proclaimed goal is the murder of Jews everywhere. Soldiers are now having to pick up the pieces of a shattered Jewish nation, a democracy painstakingly designed by idealists of an earlier generation, risen from the ashes of previous wars against the Jews.

The principle that lasting change for the better is most likely to come about gradually, through dialogue, is itself an idealistic cause – and a more durable one than the thrill of alignment with extremists. That is something universities should cultivate, but they appear to be failing in the task.

By sallying forth from their bastions of higher learning draped in Palestinian flags, Jewish students must realise they are giving credence to malevolent elements that exult in an unexpectedly rich source of antisemitism.

My one source of hope is that relinquishing simplistic and deluded formulae for remedying complex problems is the most common outcome when radical youths emerge from adolescence. It is part of growing up. My optimism resides in awareness that the individual’s journey from childhood to maturity is paralleled by society’s evolution from a state of barbarism to collective empathy.

But with every shock delivered to a people – and the October 7 massacre are seismic indeed – fresh wounds are inflicted and progress can be retarded, perhaps for generations.

If the current wave of student protests teaches us anything, it is that scholarship in itself provides no immunity against the kind of fanaticism that prohibits independent thought. The antidote to adolescent extremism is education that encourages young people to embrace the complexity inherent in the human condition and that empowers them to resist the trap of ‘either/or’ thinking with its inevitable and dangerous decline into the ‘us-or-them’ mentality.

Dr Harold Behr is a retired consultant in child psychiatry and group analytic psychotherapist.

May 15, 2024 11:28

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