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I hear the term "alienation" a lot when people theorize what is driving some towards extremist ideologies. But I'm not sure what the term actually means.

Notably, people often describe young men who subscribe to white supremacist or Islamic extremist ideologies as suffering "social and political alienation" that deprives them of meaning or a sense of connection to society. This seems to affect people across the income ladder, education level, as well as whether they belong to the racial majority in their society.

Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than the "incel" sub-culture were young men who have grown frustrated with lack of intimacy with women choose to manifest their rage in the form of a mass shooting.

It's all very abstract to me because it sounds like something more complicated than just "loneliness". How do we make sense of "alienation" on a visceral, emotional level?

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    This is a good question, but I don't think there's a good answer to it. It's not just incels. The 9/11 attacks on the US were not conducted by incels. The January 6 "Capitol tourists" were not incels. They were predominantly white middle-aged men, many of whom were married and had children. Aug 20 '21 at 9:29
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    Alienation can simply mean "not finding or liking the proposed political solutions to societal problems."
    – blud
    Aug 20 '21 at 15:48
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Alienation need not refer to loneliness. A person can be alienated from a specific group while still having a support structure, such as a family, or a friends group, to rely on for social fulfillment. Alienation leaves a gap in a person's feeling of inclusion, one that can be filled by a shift to a different social support structure.

In the case of (some) religious extremism, the alienation can be explained by an individual losing their feeling of worth with respect to a perceived standard. For Islamic extremism in particular, many extremists came from impoverished backgrounds (Afghani poverty rates were in the ~35% area in 2007). They didn't turn to violence as a solution, instead, they turned to religious leaders who gave them a sense of purpose and worth. A VERY small proportion of those religious leaders turned their new followers to violence and terrorism.

Political extremism in the USA follows a very similar pattern. As political parties move their goalposts and standards to reflect a changing political landscape, some people eventually feel left behind. They are 'alienated' by society for beliefs that were previously OK to hold, and may feel persecuted, even if nobody knows they hold those beliefs. These alienated people will migrate to groups that validate their beliefs, or give them an easy transition into something more socially acceptable. Again, in VERY few cases, this results in violent extremism.

This is not to say that political extremism doesn't exist in the middle east, or that religious extremism doesn't exist in the western countries. I just picked the examples that are most visible for each group. Additionally, much of alienation comes from how a persons worldview is structured. If you treat worldview as a building, then politics, profession, and religion are all key pillars. Any time one of these pillars is threatened or changed, it can cause a feeling of alienation.

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Wikipedia's definition of political alienation is reasonably accurate:

[P]olitical alienation refers to an individual citizen's relatively enduring sense of estrangement from, or rejection of, the prevailing political system.

The term covers a fairly wide range of beliefs and attitudes, all of which hold that the government does not or cannot serve one's interests or needs. E.g., attitudes like:

  • The government is corrupt or malicious
  • The government is hopelessly, mindlessly bureaucratic, incapable of accomplishing even the simplest tasks properly
  • Individual citizens have no power to control or influence governance or leaders
  • Governance has taken a wrong turn, or was constituted in the wrong way, and citizens are trapped within an undesired system.

The result of political alienation is anomie, in which alienated individuals turn their backs on the system, in whole or in part. They may withdraw from any political activity and rebuke those who try to engage them; they may actively flout social and political norms, standards, or even laws, on the assertion that they are not bound by the strictures of a system they do not agree to; they may individually or collectively try to disrupt, subvert, or uproot the system without any clear intention of replacing or repairing it. How they respond has more to do with feelings than facts: whether they feel indifferent, disgusted, infuriated, maligned... The upshot is that they feel powerless to address their grievances through the normal and established social and political mechanisms, so they walk away from the table or try to muck things up out of spite.

The incel movement is an interesting form of alienation, but it's more a social alienation with than a political one. A better pointer to US political alienation is the fact that many of the rioters in and around the 1/6 insurrection had not voted in that election (and in some cases had not ever voted). They were raging against a (purportedly) corrupt political system that had stolen their power by refusing Trump a second term, but they had not even tried to exercise that power through normal electoral processes. The idea that they were cheated by the system was not a response to any specific thing that happened during the 2020 election; it was a pervasive attitude that predated the election by years, if not decades.

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Alienation is essentially, alienation from the leading institutions of society. It essentially means a complete loss of faith and trust in the government, educational institutions, traditional family structure, and other institutional foundations of society.

If you are alienated from those institution, out of a perception that they do do nothing to benefit you and can't be reformed by any means within your power, then the extremist approaches of extralegal resistance or disregard of these institutions, and active efforts to affirmatively destroy the institutions from which you are alienated, makes sense.

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