The Internet has been around long enough that it feels commonplace, but it is still a powerful, disruptive force. Vast wells of knowledge and legions of smart people are just a click away. So are toxic ideas and predatory individuals.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the Internet is that information is no longer buffered behind library walls, news editors, or social mediators. Why pore through a card catalog, wade through a book, or consult a scholar? Why wrestle with a complex argument over days or weeks when you can plug your question into a search engine or chat immediately with someone who claims to be an expert?
In his 2010 book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr explored how throughout history human thought has been altered by “tools of the mind” – from the alphabet to maps, clocks, printing presses, and computers. Web access, he writes, has come at a cost: rapid sampling, cursory reading, distracted thinking, superficial learning.
Superficial learning isn’t just a regrettable side effect. As Alexander Pope noted, it is a dangerous thing. That’s especially true when radical ideas are involved. As anyone who has studied Scripture, philosophy, or political theory knows, it takes dedication, concentration, and inspiration to distill meaning from a complex argument or make sense of archaic language. Phrases taken out of context, simplified by literalism, clouded by mysticism, or twisted by glib propagandists are easy fallbacks when ideas seem elusive or contradictory.
This is why extremism thrives on the Web. In a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), Peter Ford and Sara Miller Llana report on Europe’s urgent, multilevel campaign to combat Islamist extremism, which is largely, though not exclusively, spread via the Internet.
Let me stop for a second and acknowledge the debate raging about Islamist extremism. Many argue that violent jihad is integral to Islam. Others believe that Islam, as President Obama said recently, has been hijacked by violent extremists and that all religions have been visited by that plague. That is not a debate that can be settled with a few quotes from the Quran and the Bible or a few references culled from a millennium and a half of history.
Millions of Muslims think in millions of different ways, as do Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and anyone who thinks. The present need isn’t to win a grand battle over history or theology; it is to encourage deeper, more empathetic thinking among impressionable young people attracted to toxic ideas.
As Peter and Sara’s reporting shows, deradicalizing Europe’s young Muslims is a complex effort. It involves persuasive sermons by credible moderates, family intervention to prevent a young person from going down the social media rabbit hole, monitoring, counseling, and a sophisticated Web strategy to counter jihadist messages. The connecting thread in all of these efforts is to coax alienated individuals out of the shallows where inflammatory concepts inspire cruel acts.
Knowledge isn’t found by skimming or by selectively choosing quotes to wave as a flag. Knowledge requires immersion. It is the tool that opens the mind and embraces humanity in all its complexity and diversity.
John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.