Self-Winding Movements

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Dangerous social movements like ISIS and the Far Right have things in common but of course not everything. The Far Right isn't anywhere near as dangerous as ISIS, not by a long shot despite frantically loose parallels drawn lately. Still, they have things in common, chiefly that they're like self-winding watches.

No matter how you shake self-winding watches they wind themselves up. No matter how you shake dangerous social movements they wind themselves up, too. 

Support, opposition, confirming or disconfirming news, their claims proving true or false - it doesn't matter. Whatever happens is proof that they're on the right track, their mission holy, true and righteous. Everything fuels them. 

There are self-winding people, too. Trump is one. Rising poll numbers fuel him, but so does rising opposition. If you disagree with him, it means you're a loser, which vindicates him as a winner by default. With the right spin, it's easy to turn criticism into affirmation. Demonize your critics and their opposition proves that you're right.

Self-winding watches never over-wind, but self-winding people and movements do. That's a huge problem. Since they're not self-limiting, they have to be limited from the outside, but since any attempt to limit them confirms them, it's hard to know what to do. 


Self-winding people can sometimes be stopped. Self-winding movements are harder because they can always recruit more people. They recruit easily precisely because they're self-winding. 

No one likes self-doubt. Some of us may be grateful for what we learn from it but it's never fun. Escaping it permanently would be a great comfort, especially to people who don't have critical thinking skills that nag their consciences, limiting their self-winding tendencies. 

Sometimes self-winding movements die for lack of funds. The most dangerous ones are also self-funding. ISIS and the Far Right aren't about to go bankrupt.

Critical thinking demands that we draw parallels carefully. Self-winding is the key parallel between dangerous movements. Ideology is beside the point. Left, right, it doesn't matter. Socialism, nationalism, religious faith -- they can all be self-winding. 

Self-winding movements will always be a problem because, alas and apparently you can fuel some of the people all of the time.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.

Jeremy Sherman teaches at the California College of the Arts and writes for Psychology Today.