Listening to convoy protesters is the best deradicalization approach, professor says

Alex Khasnabish is no fan of the convoy protests that have swept across Canada.

In fact, he recently participated in a counter-protest in Halifax, where he works as an anthropology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University.

A chance meeting at that event reinforced his belief that the protesters need to be heard in order to prevent their further radicalization.

Khasnabish said his group was approached by a man who took exception to one of the counter-protester’s signs, which described convoy supporters as “idiots.”

“He looked like the quintessential big, white dude trucker,” he said. “We could have seen each other as avatars of the things we disliked and walked away. Instead, we had a really good conversation for about 15 minutes and agreed that many people on both sides of this have much more in common than they might think.”

Khasnabish, who researches radical politics and social movements, was moved.

“For me, it was the best moment of that protest,” he said. “It was a deeply human moment. It reminded me that, when we come together in a sincere effort to just hear somebody else out and figure out what’s bugging them, that we find political paths forward that we don’t see otherwise.”

As the main convoy protest winds down in Ottawa, and others pop up across the country, Khasnabish says Canadians should be seeking out similar interactions so that anti-mandate activists aren’t pushed further outside the political margins.

“We don’t need to destroy our opponents in terms of their humanity in order to advance our points or our concerns about their political expression,” he said. “It’s the worst kind of arrogance to suggest that these people don’t have anything to say, don’t have any points to make, and aren’t really practising politics.”

For example, he said, many of the protesters share progressives’ concerns about the lack of paid sick days, overburdened health care systems, and aging public infrastructure.

They also have some legitimate grievances about the sometimes perplexing and paternalistic public health measures that have been imposed during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We should be able to have a good-faith conversation about vaccine mandates,” he said. “But the commitment to good-faith disagreement is falling even further out of reach.”

And while some of the protesters appear to hold bigoted views, condemning them all as “white supremacists” is unfair and counterproductive, said Khasnabish, a self-described “ambiguously racialized person.”

“From my experience with them here in Nova Scotia, I certainly don’t think that the majority of them are white supremacists,” he said. “That term means something. It has a specific political meaning that we should observe for people who believe that white people constitute a distinct race that is placed over and above other races of humans on this planet that entitles them to special rights and authority that other people ought not to have.”

Professor Alex Khasnabish

The same applies to those who have been calling the convoy protesters fascists, he said.

“People can have really odious opinions and not be fascists. Fascism is a very particular thing. It is not just people who don’t think like you think.”

For Khasnabish, the convoy protests have constituted a “mass radicalization event” that needs to be taken very seriously.

“Above anything, what we need to take from this moment is that this is not fringe anymore,” he said about the movement’s scale, organizational abilities, and “intentionality.”

“It’s not being spoken to. It isn’t being engaged,” he said. “It’s being exiled instead, and I think if all we do is make it impossible for these people to have conversations in society, then you’ll end up with a predicable result. If all you leave to people is radicalism, they’ll take radicalism.”

And that’s the precise direction they’re being pushed in by well-organized and well-financed far-right groups, Khasnabish said.

Focusing on day-to-day issues that could unite protesters and their critics would help counteract the far-right’s recruiting efforts, he said.

“All those conversations have disappeared and have been replaced instead by how you feel about the protests and about the Emergencies Act,” he said. “So we are actually no further along on those material issues that, to their credit, the convoy is at least pointing towards in their frustration.”

Another way to ease tensions and promote greater understanding would be to use less partisan and vitriolic language, especially on social media.

“It’s not just the far-right, it’s not just racists; it is our existing political class,” Khasnabish said about those inflaming the situation. “It’s also overzealous social justice activists too, in some cases. There is plenty of guilt to go around on all sides here, with people who are deeply invested in raising the temperature constantly.”

He believes all Canadians, regardless of their political leanings, have been let down by a political class that is “adrift” and a legacy media system that is “thoroughly broken.”

The country needs big ideas and bold pronouncements to help us find more common ground. Instead, Khasnabish said, it’s being run by “managers” who seem incapable of bringing people together.

“I would like to think this is not the moment where we look back in 20 years and say, that was when society really fell apart,” he said. “But it certainly feels like that some days.”

(Header photo: Pixabay)