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How to deconstruct enemy mindsets

In an interesting and topical lecture taking place at the Hochschule Fresenius in Munich in October, students and guests had the opportunity to discover what enemy mindsets are, how they are established and what can be done to dismantle them.

The lecture opened with a theoretical introduction by Dr. Markus Fath, an expert in conflict research, who presented the various aspects that are involved in the construction of enemy mindsets. For example, common strategies are the dehumanization of an entire group of people and a refusal of empathy towards them, victim blaming, zero sum thinking or applying double standards to certain behaviors. Another crucial part in successfully establishing an enemy concept is emotional blackmail, where people are held in a situation through a combination of fear, guilt and a feeling of obligation – strategies that can be observed in child abuse offenders, domestic violence but also racially motivated violence.

According to Dr. Fath, it is important to realize that having a world view like this does not automatically mean that a person is bad or dangerous. However, it can become dangerous when it is viewed as the one and only truth, as is the case for example with Ku Klux Klan members, anti-Semites and other groups. In order to create a change in behavior in people belonging to groups like this and to prevent violence motivated by their enemy mindsets, it is important and necessary to challenge their world views, which is a goal that the second speaker of the evening, Daryl Davis, has pursued since the 1980s.

Since then, the acclaimed American musician and author has been challenging racist mindsets in Ku Klux Klan members and supported a great number in exiting this group. As he explained, the question how worldviews like theirs come about and are cemented in people’s minds is something that has concerned him since his first encounter with racism during early childhood: as a young boy, he had stones thrown at him from the crown during a scouts parade. While he at first thought that this attack was aimed at the boy scouts in general, his parents explained to him that he was the only one affected due to the color of his skin. Therefore, the question ‘How can you hate me, if you don’t even know me?’ started to form in his head.

Based on this interest, Davis decided to interview Ku Klux Klan members in order to find out the motivation behind their hatred and violence towards colored people and to record his findings in a book. His first such encounter was with Klan member and state leader Roger Kelly, whom he interviewed about his beliefs. They stayed in touch and over the years a friendship developed between the two men. Davis was even allowed to come to Klan meetings and speak to other members about their motivations for being a part of the KKK as well. As Davis explained, their exchange was always based on respect: even when they did not agree on topics, both sides were allowed to speak their minds and voice their opinions.

As Davis grew more popular within the Klan, he was able to interview members across the country for his book ‘Klandestine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan’. Even after the publication, he continued to attend Klan meetings and speaking to members. His presence resonated with a lot of people: within a couple of years of meeting Davis, Roger Kelly left the Klan and many more followed him throughout the years. Thus, Davis can credit himself with supporting about 200 former KKK members in exiting the Klan and abandoning their racist world views.

When asked about his reasons for continuing to meet people whose mindsets differ so much from his own, he explains that racism is something that should not be ignored as it can spread quickly and is then difficult to contain. Therefore, it is important to act sooner rather than later. In Davis’ opinion, ignorance about other people can create fear from them which, if not checked, leads to hatred and violence – something that can be seen in the attacks in Halle, Charlottesville, New Zealand and other places around the world today. In order to prevent such violence, it is important to tackle the source of the problem – ignorance – with dialogue and education. By talking to each other rather than about each other, enemy mindsets can be deconstructed for a more peaceful and friendlier society – which is also why Davis continues to meet with Klan members to this day in order to help them leave their violent, destructive paths behind and to build a better future!