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Speaker spotlight: Christian Picciolini

Meet some of the researchers behind the Cambridge Festival: first up, author Christian Picciolini.

Christian Picciolini is the author of Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism, a leader in the field of extremism intervention, prevention and disengagement and a former far-right extremist who founded the Free Radicals Project to deradicalise extremists. He will be speaking at Learning new perspectives: healing polarisation. Creating hope in dialogue, with Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Jude Kelly, founder of Women of the World Festival on 29th March.

What does the Free Radicals movement do?

Free Radicals Project is a global disengagement platform that aids individuals, and their families or communities, in exiting hateful and violence-based radicalisation through non-aggressive, community-led methods of individual resiliency-building, reconnection, cross-cultural immersion and making amends.

How did it come about?

Free Radicals Project was founded as a result of my own experiences in the US. After leaving the hate movement I helped build in the 1980s and 90s, I dedicated my life to atoning for my past. I now train government and law enforcement agencies throughout the world in the most effective approaches to countering violence- and hate-based movements. I have helped launch exit programmes in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Slovakia and assisted hundreds of individuals disengaging from extremism.

What do you think are the main reasons people join extremist groups?

It's important to note that people are not born to hate. It's learned, and typically outside of the home. Ideology is not the primary or initial push or pull toward extremism. It can be the glue that keeps people there, but it's not the start of the journey. The journey begins as we as individuals search for a sense of identity, community and purpose and hit what I call "potholes" in life. Potholes are trauma, grief, loss, abuse, health and mental health, poverty, even privilege if it disconnects us from humanity. Potholes are life's difficult-to-navigate experiences that can detour us to the fringes in search of answers for who am I, where do I belong and what am I supposed to do? The fringes are full of snakeoil solutions being pitched to people and uncertainty drives their decisions.

What role does the internet play in driving up membership?

The internet has made it so what was once on the fringes in dark alleys is now a self-service, all-you-can-eat buffet. While it has helped democratise society, it has also allowed for misinformation and harmful propaganda and conspiracy theories to spread more easily to vulnerable people. It has also provided a means for hate groups to more easily organise, communicate information and spread fear and disinformation.

How can dialogue help move the dial?

Dialogue is helpful if accountability is not sidestepped. Redemption without accountability is just privilege. We must be responsible for repairing any harm we've caused. That said, a safe space for dialogue, focused on healing and creating a safe space for disengagement, is important as a first step. For me, that dialogue rarely includes debate or rhetoric. You can't argue using logic in an illogical battle with no rules. I try to filter out any ideological noise and listen to and focus on the person's motivators or "potholes". Then I become a pothole fixer.