Course description

Why do millions of people come to believe obvious lies? What motivates extremist violence? How can we convince a fanatic not to be fanatical? This course offers a social scientific overview of extremism and propaganda in human history and society. Using historical case studies and social scientific analyses, students become aware of major patters of how fanatical groups and movements emerge, how extremists come to power, to which ends extremists strive, what the role of propaganda in belief-formation and action is, and how violent means are justified. From medieval crusades and inquisition to contemporary terrorism and persecution, the course examines the extreme fringes of politics. It takes us from the horrors of crusades and early modern religious wars to ideological and ethnic violence, the Holocaust and post-cold war mass atrocities. Political violence in the name of race, religion, empire, class, or ethnicity and weaponization of these concepts is examined in historical and comparative perspective. Techniques of its legitimization are given particular attention, including discrimination, stereotyping, scapegoating, dehumanization, and the dissemination of fake news. As they reflect on the roots and causes of extremist politics, students are also asked to reexamine the assets and liabilities of contemporary media and democratic deficit in our world. The course concludes with historical lessons and policy recommendations aimed at breaking the cycle of extremism.

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