We need to understand the tools of persuasion used by members of the far-right British National Party (BNP) if we are to combat the messages of prejudice they spread. That's according to Mick Finlay and C Wood, who analysed articles published on the BNP website after the terrorist bombings in London in July 2005, written by party leader Nick Griffin and the party's legal director Lee Barnes. Publication of this study is timely, coming as it does when the BNP are enjoying increased electoral success.
Quoting extracts from the BNP articles, Finlay and Wood say the arguments resemble a conspiracy theory and they identify the use of two tools of persuasion in relation to Muslims in Britain: the "accentuation effect", which is the attempt to portray outgroups as homogeneous and distinct from ingroups; and "essentialism", which is the idea that members of a given group all share important, essential qualities.
Griffin, for example, argues that there is a consensus among Muslims that the later, more violent verses of the Koran (the Muslim holy text) override the more peaceful, earlier verses. In reality, according to Finlay and Wood, there are clear, ongoing disagreements between fundamentalist and classical interpretations of the Koran.
Elsewhere, Barnes writes that all Muslims are in pursuit of the same aim - destruction of the British way of life - even if some of them seek to do it through violence, while others do so through peaceful preaching.
This practice of painting an "outgroup" as homogeneous has a long and dangerous history. The Nazis, for example, claimed that all Jews were part of a global conspiracy, and Hutu extremists in Rwanda claimed that all Tutsis were accomplices of the rebel forces.
Another theme of the BNP writings is to blame the London bombings on multi-culturalism and its liberal supporters.
Further tricks employed by the BNP writers include labelling Muslims and liberals as fascist and Nazi - labels usually directed at the BNP themselves. Griffin also uses what the researchers describe as a "show concession" - making an apparent admission (e.g. "yes, we're politically-incorrect") before invoking a morally superior motive (e.g. "but at least we're telling the truth"). Both BNP writers also use esoteric detail and scholarly references to increase the apparent validity of their claims. Barnes, meanwhile, makes use of rhetorical flourishes including making biblical references, invoking the symbolism of the flag and deploying alliteration (a poetic device that involves using a string of words that all start with the same letter).
"If social psychology is to offer suggestions as to how to reduce prejudice, it must also look at how to upset these malign sources of social influence," the researchers said. "As many anti-racist campaigners have pointed out, opposing right-wing extremism requires us to have a detailed knowledge of their arguments, so that effective counter-arguments can be made."
C. Wood, W. M. L. Finlay (2008). British National Party representations of Muslims in the month after the London bombings: Homogeneity, threat, and the conspiracy tradition. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47 (4), 707-726 DOI: 10.1348/014466607X264103
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.