The Moral Origins of Political-Violence – Lecture by Paul Carls VU Amsterdam 15-09-22

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The Moral Origins of Political-Violence – Lecture by Paul Carls VU Amsterdam 15-09-22

Date Published: 15 September 2022

Lecture by Paul Carls, for the Explaining Extreme Beliefs and Extreme Behavior Workshop, at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on 15-09-22, titled: The Moral Origins of Political-Violence.

Émile Durkheim’s analyses of morality and religion are well known but rarely applied to the realm of politics, to say nothing of political violence. Much literature on extremism also focuses on psychological factors as driving engagement with extremist movements. In contrast to these trends, my paper looks at the issue of political extremism and violence from a Durkheimian perspective, and examines the moral motivations of those engaged in these activities. It studies the violence engaged in by actors on both the far left and the far right in Germany, as embodied most prominently by groups such as the Autonomen and the NPD. Actors in both groups engage in political violence, although with different targets. Interestingly both groups justify their actions in moral terms, as opposing racism or defending the nation. One can similarly detect in their justifications the presence of sacred objects their violence purports to defend: human dignity on one hand or the biological nation on the other. Thus, while both groups have drastically opposing goals, their group ideologies maintain the same moral structures. Importantly, actors who adhere to these sacred objects have emotional attachments to them, which are derived from collective ritual activity. These emotional attachments are thus an important cause of extremist violence. What is this moral structure and how can studying it help us understand the motivations of those engaged in political violence, as well as the source of the emotional attachments that drive such engagement?

My paper proposes to use Durkheim’s concept of the moral fact as a way to understand the political conflict in Germany surrounding immigration, multiculturalism, and national identity. One can identify a moral fact by its moral ideal, which is an idealized notion of community. A sacred object at the heart of the moral ideal legitimates specific moral rules, many of which aim to protect the sacred object from sacrilege and work towards the realization of the moral ideal. For the Autonomen in Germany, the moral ideal derives from the idea of non-domination, or the idea that there should be no structures or hierarchies of exclusion or oppression in society. The sacred object in this system, which is to be protected from sacrilege, is a deconstructive notion of human dignity, and the moral rules include opposition to racism, sexism, xenophobia, the nation etc. The moral ideal of the NPD is, on the other hand, is the biological nation, in which all members of the community are racially pure Germans. The sacred object in this ideal is the idea of the biological German nation itself. Moral rules stemming from this moral ideal include opposition to immigration, multiculturalism, feminist ideology, and the spread of Islam in Germany.

Both the Autonomen and those on the far-right justify and legitimate their acts of violence with regards to their respective moral ideals and both groups believe themselves to being engaging in moral activity that is morally ‘good’. These notions of ‘good’ are rooted in the emotional energy individuals incorporate during collective ritual, indicating the importance of taking into account sociological factors, as opposed to psychological ones, when seeking to explain extremist violence.

Paul Carls obtained a PhD in political science from the Université de Montréal in 2020, was a course lecturer at the same institution, and completed a post-doctoral stay at the Luxembourg Institute for Socio-Economic Research. His book, Multiculturalism and the Nation in Germany: A Study in Moral Conflict, will be published by Routledge this fall.