Christian Picciolini on Escaping the Neo-Nazi Movement and Helping Others Leave It Behind

Christian Picciolini

I’m Alan Alda, and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Christian: I can sit across the table from a neo-Nazi, whether he’s wearing khakis and a polo, or has swastika tattoos on his face, and I can let all the ideological talk just kind of fly by me. Sometimes it means sitting with my fists in a ball under the table and being really angry internally. But what I do is I introduce them to the people that they think that they hate. I can tell you that every single time I’ve done that, I’ve never had a bad experience and everybody’s always walked away different.
Christian Picciolini has a remarkable story. It’s a story that helps the rest of us understand what leads an ordinary person take on a life of hate and violence. He knows because he was once a leading organizer for the Neo-Nazi movement. But more than that – he knows what it takes to help people in that movement to leave their hate behind and take on new lives. As in the title of a recent film about him, he knows how the Break Hate.

Alan: 00:00 Christian, I’m so glad you can be on with me. When I saw your show on MSNBC, Breaking Hate, I was so moved by it that I thought, “I got to have him on if he’s at all free.”
Christian: 00:15 Alan, I have to tell you, I am so grateful and honored to be here. You’ve been somebody who’s been an inspiration my whole life, from afar.
Alan: 00:24 Thank you. Now you’re my inspiration.
Christian: 00:26 Well, thank you. We can be each other’s.
Alan: 00:28 Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s really amazing. Just so we know where it started, anybody doesn’t know your story, but by now an awful lot of people know your story, but you got involved in one moment in an alley with the neo-Nazi movement.
Christian: 00:49 I did.
Alan: 00:50 What happened that night?
Christian: 00:51 Gosh, well I was 14 years old. It was 1987. Nobody in America really knew what a skinhead was. I didn’t know what neo-Nazi skinhead was. And I’d come from a really great family, Italian family who were immigrants in the 60s, and they loved me. But because they were immigrants, they had to work seven days a week, sometimes 14 hours a day. So I really didn’t have a connection with my parents. I mean, we loved each other and we saw each other from time to time, but I didn’t really have an intimate connection with them.
Alan: 01:27 Because they were tending to the business all the time? Is that it?
Christian: 01:30 Yeah, well being a kid, you wonder why your parents aren’t around and wonder what you did to push them away.
Alan: 01:36 Yeah, right.
Christian: 01:37 But yeah, they were just working. Certainly looking back now, I don’t blame them at all. But I’d kind of lost my way. I felt very abandoned by my parents growing up, so I started acting out, and at 14, one day I was standing in an alley, smoking a joint, and a car came roaring down the alley. It was a muscle car, and this guy gets out with a shaved head and boots, and he walks up to me. And then he grabbed the joint from my mouth, and he looked me in the eyes and he said, “That’s what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.” I have to be honest, Alan, I was 14, I didn’t know what the heck a communist, a Jew, or even what the word docile meant.
Alan: 02:14 But other than that, it seemed to be going well.
Christian: 02:17 Yeah, it was perfect. No, I mean, but I was so desperate. And I think that that is kind of the moral of the story is ideology is not what’s radicalizing people today. I really think it is this broken search for identity, community, and purpose. Something that we all look for in our lives. And I was standing in an alley with a lot of potholes, but if can think of those potholes as obstacles in our life’s journey, I’d hit a lot of potholes that detoured me.
Alan: 02:44 So one pothole was the unfortunate situation that your parents weren’t able to really tend to you.
Christian: 02:50 Sure, and they didn’t know because I wasn’t vulnerable. I wasn’t telling them what was happening.
Alan: 02:55 Yeah, yeah. So as those potholes pile up, it’s hard to get down the road without falling into them and losing your structure.
Christian: 03:07 Or getting lost.
Alan: 03:08 Yeah, and you found … It’s interesting, when I talked to Father Boyle, who gets kids out of gangs, he didn’t feel it was a question of finding a family. He thought it was that they were ready to have a kind of living death, that they had no other life and that they might as well disappear this way.
Christian: 03:36 That’s interesting. And I think that there are some people that are so desperate that in order to feel better about themselves, they have to make somebody feel worse than they do so that they can enjoy some semblance of happiness, even though that’s completely misguided. So I think that that is accurate for a certain percentage of the population that might go to gangs or towards extremism or a cult or whatever the case may be.
Alan: 04:02 But the difference here is that once you join it, you get a philosophy to go with it.
Christian: 04:08 Well, it builds you up, right? It’s false, but it did give me a sense of identity. I knew who I was at that point. I knew what my family was after having felt for 14 years that I didn’t have one. And my purpose, I was told what my purpose was, and it became a part of me.
Alan: 04:25 Which was what?
Christian: 04:26 Which was to prevent the white race from being killed off the face of the earth. It was this whole notion of white genocide, that multiculturalism was this conspiracy to destroy the white race. And that’s what I believed.
Alan: 04:42 So they go from not just being asked to not have absolute power over everybody else, but from feeling if they don’t have absolute power, then that equals genocide.
Christian: 04:57 Yeah. Sometimes equal rights to the dominant class feels like oppression, because something’s being taken away. I really think that they use these narratives of fear, through the centuries I think extremists our autocrats have done this. It’s always about playing on some very real grievances that people might have, but to inject fear to make those grievances out of control so they make absolutely no sense and have no semblance in logic. So what they’re saying is, “Well, our country’s being taken away.” Or, “Black on white crime is higher.” And these are all false statistics that they’ve made up. So to a larger percentage of the population who’s not willing to do the work and look and might be isolated or ignorant, they take that as truth. And unfortunately, there are a lot of news outlets that are pushing this misinformation as truth.
Alan: 06:07 But you had a one on one experience with this guy in the alley, and if I remember right, was he the originator of this movement?
Christian: 06:15 He was America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead leader. The group that I joined was America’s first skinhead, neo-Nazi skinhead group. And it had started in Chicago. A lot of people don’t know that.
Alan: 06:27 So he and his assistants-
Christian: 06:33 His minions.
Alan: 06:34 Yeah. They indoctrinated you into this hate philosophy. But then-
Christian: 06:40 Not at first though.
Alan: 06:42 Ah, interesting. What did they do?
Christian: 06:44 It was about boosting my pride. It didn’t start out with telling me to hate people. There wasn’t even hateful language at first. It was about after he pulled that joint from my mouth, Alan, he put his hand on my shoulder and he asked me what my name was. And I told him my name, Christian Picciolini, and he said, “Ah, fine Italian name. Your ancestors are great warriors and thinkers and artists and have dominated civilizations.” Because he knew after just talking for a few minutes that that was the only thing that I knew anything about because I had grown up in this Italian bubble, in a part of Chicago where everybody in my neighborhood was from the same village in Italy. And it was a bubble. And he knew that that’s what was important to me. And he used that small little piece of my identity and boosted it up. And then he would switch it over and say, “Well, you know there’s somebody who wants to take that away from you?” And that’s when the hate started. The period from roughly 15 and a half or 16 until I was 20, I was a pretty violent person. And I hurt a lot of people. I’ve tried to make amends for that, but I certainly don’t know everybody who I’ve hurt. But I can tell you that every time I did hurt somebody, and I thank my parents for this, I had regret every time, and shame. But I continued to do it because staying a part of it and having that family and that identity, it was the only thing I knew since I was 14.

Alan: 08:45 You remind me in that wonderful Ted Talk you gave-
Christian: 08:49 Thank you.
Alan: 08:50 It was so from the heart. And there was a moment that I remember, almost as if I were there to see it when you described beating up a kid, a black kid I think. And you caught a look in his eye.
Christian: 09:10 Yeah, I connected with him for just a moment, as I was hurting him.
Alan: 09:17 What did that do to you?
Christian: 09:20 Well, first I think it made me realize that it could have been somebody that I know. It could have been my brother, it could have been my father, or somebody that I loved. And knowing that I wasn’t just hurting him, but I was hurting them too. And I don’t know what it was. I mean, I really still to this day don’t know why that one instance affected my unlike the other ones. This one really was very visceral. And I still remember his eyes. I still remember looking into them and asking, having a conversation internally while I was hurting him, thinking that this wasn’t something I wanted to do.
Alan: 10:03 That seems to me to be so important, the moment of human to human contact. This is a person like me, and like my relatives and friends, people who I wouldn’t want to be hurt. It’s just hurting him is like hurting them.
Christian: 10:22 Yeah, it was the last time I committed an act of violence. And from that moment on, I was still the tough guy, but I would make excuses to not go to a fight. And I was the leader of this group at the time. It was very difficult to have this internal struggle to understand who I was, wanting to leave but not being brave enough to do that because I was scared to leave it all behind and start over.
Alan: 10:47 Was there any other influence on you besides the look in that kid’s eye?
Christian: 10:52 Yeah.
Alan: 10:53 Where did it come from?
Christian: 10:54 There were … I had doubts every day. Again, thank you mom and dad for that. But I opened in ’95 a record store. I’d gotten married in ’92, at 19, and we had two kids, and she was not a part of what I was a part of. She was, “Normal,” and she always encouraged me to leave. And the only way I know how to do that was to distance myself without leaving. So I told my crew, I was leading about 100 people at the time, that I wanted to step back and not leave, but just take a break. So I opened a record store. And the goal was to sell racist music that I was importing from Europe.
And it was 75% of my revenue. This was before the internet. People were driving from across the country to buy this stuff. And I had to stock other music so that the city wouldn’t shut me down, because if they knew I was a racist record store, they would take my license. So I started to sell hip hop and punk rock music, and heavy metal music. And I never expected to have any customers for that because everybody knew who I was. But they started to come in and these people were African American and they were gay.
Alan: 12:11 And they were buying records from this guy on the other side of the counter was a skinhead?
Christian: 12:19 Yeah, with a confederate flag T-shirt on or something really offensive.
Alan: 12:23 And did they look at you funny or start a conversation about it or what?
Christian: 12:27 Well, they could have broken my windows, they could have punched me in the nose, but instead they spoke to me and they listened more than anything else. They listened to me, because once I started to talk myself out of the bravado, I started to be real with them. And then over time, it was really their compassion, the empathy for me that they showed me, when I least deserved it. And frankly, they were the people that I least deserved it from. That really was the most powerful transformative experience for me, because I always say that hatred is born of ignorance, fear is its father, and isolation is its mother.
I’d been afraid of these people and I’d hated them because I’d never met them. I’d never in my life had a meaningful conversation or interaction with them. But when I did, I recognized that we were more similar than we were different. And that the differences were the beautiful things, the language, the food, the music, the culture. All the things that I always loved and still love today. Maybe not for those eight years, but it was really their ability to filter out the noise of what I was saying, and listen to the words, that helped them recognize that I was lonely, that I felt I was capable but didn’t feel respected. And all those things, and the abandonment obviously, but all those things kind of pushed me to a place where the only people that would accept me were these bad guys..
Alan: 33:09 When you were thinking of leaving….
Christian: 33:12 Scariest thing I’ve ever done.
Alan: 33:14 That’s what I want to know. Did you feel that you were in physical danger?
Christian: 33:20 I did. I was a leader, so locally, I was a selfish leader, so it kind of imploded when I left, and I think I was lucky about that.
Alan: 33:31 What do you mean a selfish leader?
Christian: 33:33 I didn’t train anybody to take over when I left. So there was no heir apparent. There was a lot of disorganization. And people kind of went their own ways. So locally, I didn’t have a threat of violence against me, which is why I’ve managed to stay in Chicago, I think, for my whole life.
Alan: 33:50 They’re not still mad at you? Now you’re out talking and making videos and-
Christian: 33:56 I get death threats every day.
Alan: 33:57 Holy moly.
Christian: 33:58 Yeah.
Alan: 33:59 So how do you deal with that?
Christian: 34:01 I filter out the noise. And I think there was one point in my life, from the time I was 14 until I was 22, I would have put my life on the line for something that is awful, destructive, self-destructive, frankly a bunch of garbage. If I have to run into that fiery building today, I’m willing to do that because I know I’m doing the right thing. I can get hit by a bus tomorrow, or I can get beat up by some skinheads. And it hasn’t happened yet. They talk a lot. But I’m willing to-
Alan: 34:39 I wouldn’t challenge them so much.
Christian: 34:41 Oh, I challenge them every day. They know that. I’m their biggest challenger.
Alan: 34:45 I personally would hold it down a lot. These fine people.
Christian: 34:49 I don’t know if I’d go that far. That’s funny that you say that, because when he first said that, I was very, very angry that he said there were very fine people on both sides. Like I think most of America was.
Alan: 35:01 What did you finally arrive at as a reaction?
Christian: 35:05 My reaction was if I believed they were all bad people, then I couldn’t help them, and that at one point in my life, people could have said that about me. Which I’m sure they did. And I may not have gotten help. I may not have found that. So I have to believe there are very fine people in that crowd.
Alan: 35:22 That’s so interesting. That’s a way of looking at it that just never occurred to me. Even when I heard your idea of extending compassion to people who least deserve it. I hadn’t extended it out to that long a boardwalk.
Christian: 35:37 Yeah. There is something I agree with the President on then. That one thing.
Alan: 14:08 The idea of extending respect, compassion, to somebody who least deserves it is really interesting idea. And when I heard your story, I was thinking of Sarah Silverman’s story.
Christian: 14:26 Oh, yeah. She’s great.
Alan: 14:26 She was the first conversation we had on this series. Because her story was being compassionate and kind to a person who was as rough on the internet with her as you can be with somebody.
Christian: 14:40 So I actually … I’ve done Sarah’s show, and she’s great. She’s become a bit of a friend. And she could correct me here if I’m wrong, but I had done her show before that incident happened. Somebody, one of the internet trolls, was talking really bad to her online. And rather than ignoring the person, or rather than attacking back, she asked him how she could help.
Alan: 15:39 And she got him free counseling, free psychological … And now, when I went to talk to her, I interviewed her in her kitchen, and she said, “Oh, I was just texting with that guy today.”
Christian: 15:51 That’s amazing.
Alan: 15:52 I mean, months later, had developed a relationship with somebody who made her the object of his hate.
Christian: 16:00 Yeah, I mean he attacked her, and the normal reaction is to defend, but instead of putting her fists up to defend, she kind of opened her arms. And again, she can correct me here if I’m wrong, but this was after I’d been on her show and I’d given her the advice to-
Alan: 16:13 So explain that advice. How do you do it?
Christian: 16:17 Well, it’s simple. And we can all do it. And its to find somebody that we think is undeserving of our compassion and give it to them, because chances are really good that they’re the ones who need it the most. They may not deserve it, but they need it. It’s really interesting, you never know what somebody else is going through. And we’re all going through something. It could be that person you walk past on the street, or somebody who doesn’t open a door for you. I’ve stopped and had those conversations with people, and the things that you find out about what’s happening, whether it’s sickness, or relationship issues, things like that.
Alan: 17:48 It may be petty of me, but I have a particular feeling of unhappiness when I open the door for somebody and they waltz through it, not even looking at me. The funny things is, and we do this when we teach communication, we have an exercise called the rant. And for two minutes, I would be yelling at you about something that I really feel truly, deeply bad about.
Christian: 19:35 People pay money for this?
Alan: 19:36 Yeah. And you listen, and then your job is to introduce me to the rest of the room having heard not my rant, but having heard what’s under it.
Christian: 19:47 I love that.
Alan: 19:48 What’s positive about it. And you introduce me in the most positive way based on all the things I said. But you never refer to the rant. And it is wonderful training in listening under the surface to what the other person is giving you.
Christian: 20:03 And that’s what I do too. I filter out the noise.
Alan: 20:05 So when you’re talking to a kid who’s now in the neo-Nazi movement, and he gives you all the stock footage about hate and how these people are killing us and destroying our country, you just let him go on and on.
Christian: 20:21 Well, part of me thinks it’s ridiculous, because it’s the same stuff I used to say when I was 15 years old. And looking back now, I recognize how ridiculous I sounded saying these awful things. So I think maybe having been a part of this is a little bit of a curse, but also a blessing, because I can sit across the table from a neo-Nazi, whether he’s wearing khakis and a polo, or has swastika tattoos on his face, and I can let all the ideological talk just kind of fly by me. Doesn’t bother me. And maybe that’s because I used to say it. Maybe I’m desensitized to the point … I’m not desensitized-
Alan: 20:56 It doesn’t trigger anger in you?
Christian: 20:57 Right, it doesn’t trigger me. I’m still sensitized to it being an awful thing, but it doesn’t trigger me. And I can sit there and hear the words that are written between the lines, and I hear things about … And they don’t even know they’re telling me, but things about their father, or their children, or about growing up. And they always glaze past those things. “Yeah when I was young, my dad left, beat me. I found him.” He’d committed suicide when he was six and this and that. And I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down because those are the important things.” Those are the potholes that we need to fill.
Alan: 21:32 When do you ever get from listening with compassion and empathy to actually talking about the hateful words? How do you make that transition?
Christian: 21:46 Well, I work with people sometimes for years. And sometimes shorter. I try not to debate them. I try not to argue with them ideologically, and sometimes it means sitting with my fists in a ball under the table and being really angry internally. But what I do is I let them come to their own decisions. I introduce them to the people that they think that they hate. So I’ve spent hours with Holocaust deniers and Holocaust survivors, with Islamophobes and Muslim families or Imams, homophobes and LGBTQ communities. And they have to be ready to get to that point, but when they do, I can tell you that every single time I’ve done that, I’ve never had a bad experience and everybody’s always walked away different.

When we come back from the break, Christian tells me how he’s helped people escape from hate groups…. over 200 of them.
This is Clear + Vivid. Now back to my conversation with Christian Picciolini

Alan: 24:41 It sounds like you have an organization, which I don’t think I was aware of.
Christian: 24:45 Yeah.
Alan: 24:47 What is it? How big is it? How’s it funded? How do you do this?
Christian: 24:50 All very good questions. It’s called The Free Radicals Project. It’s a global intervention and prevention network. So if you think of what I do like Triple A, the car service company, people get in contact with me when they’re having trouble.
Alan: 25:04 When they hit a pothole.
Christian: 25:05 When they hit a pothole.
Alan: 25:05 They call your Triple A service.
Christian: 25:07 That’s right. And then I will contact the local tow truck to go help them. And it really is about setting up these community groups that, again, they don’t have to be ideological, sometimes they’re psychologists, sometimes they’re faith leaders, sometimes they’re job trainers, or educators, and it’s really about them surrounding this person and finding out they can fill the potholes and building resilience. I’ve never met a happy white supremacist. I’ve never met a happy terrorist. They’re all miserable. And that’s part of why they’re there. Because misery loves company.
Alan: 25:45 So you work on them one person at a time. In Charlottesville, there they were. It looked like hundreds of them.
Christian: 25:54 Yeah, about four or five hundred.
Alan: 25:56 And that seemed like a group that needed to be dealt with. Is one person at a time the only way to do it? I don’t know how else you can do it with what you describe as your method.
Christian: 26:10 Yeah, no. I mean, I may be the only person on earth who cannot wait to put myself out of a job. But what I do is something anybody can do. I mean, I’m not a rocket scientist. I may have a different experience and a different … Now I have two perspectives, one from when I was involved 23 years ago, and one for the rest of my life. And that gives me an edge in working with people. But what I do is nothing that anybody can’t do. They can be compassionate cautiously. They can show empathy to people that maybe they don’t think deserve it. Just having these conversations like Sarah did changed that person’s life. And anybody can do that. But I also want to be clear, having empathy and compassion does not mean enabling their ideology. It does not mean agreeing with their ideology.
Alan: 27:00 In my opinion, the way I define empathy, having empathy doesn’t mean you have compassion. It’s just being aware of what they’re going through.
Christian: 27:08 That’s right.
Alan: 27:08 Or what their point of view is. And that can promote compassion if you are inclined to be compassionate. Or you can use the empathy you have against them. You understand what they’re going through, the way the guy did that night in the alley. He knew what you felt and he was skilled at using it against you and turning you into one of his followers.
Christian: 27:31 That’s exactly it. He manipulated a vulnerable person. And he understood, he had empathy for me because he was able to put himself in my shoes and understand what I was going through. But then he manipulated me knowing that I was vulnerable.
Alan: 27:47 Far from compassion. If he was really compassionate towards you, he wouldn’t be using you the way he did.
Christian: 30:16 And that was the trick, right? I mean, had he been mean to me like all the other bullies had growing up, well that would have just been business as usual. He knew how to tow the line, to walk right up to it, but not cross over. So when he pulled that joint and he smacked me and he said what he did, he was just waking me up and setting me up so that he could come in and smooth it over. It was a technique that he was using. I think one of the issues that … I get asked all the time like, “How do we help these kids?” Well, first of all, the pre-radicalization process starts from the day we’re born. It didn’t happen to me at 14 years old. I didn’t just wake up that morning and say, “I’m going to be a Nazi.”
It had been building for a long time. Not the ideological stuff, but the anger, the frustration, the marginalization. And I could have gone and become a drug addict, I could have gone and joined a cult, had a group of ballerinas been across the street, I would have been the greatest ballet dancer on earth. You do not want to see me dance though, did not go that way. It was what came in front of my path at the time, and it was so seductive to me, not because of anything else but belonging that I jumped at it.
Alan: 31:28 Sounds like the recruiting process is similar to your disengagement process, which is one on one.
Christian: 31:36 Very astute. I’m still a recruiter. I’m still looking for vulnerable people. Except now I’m not trying to drag them into my misery. I’m trying to help fill their potholes so they can get back on the road and go to where they’re supposed to.
Alan: 31:48 How many people have you worked with?
Christian: 31:50 I have worked with about 300. I’ve helped over 200 people disengage.
Alan: 31:55 And are the other 100 people you’re still working with? Or did you just let them go?
Christian: 31:59 No, I never let anybody go. Sometimes they let go of me, and I don’t know how to get a hold of them. That’s pretty rare. But some people I’m still working with. And actually, some people from the Charlottesville rally, some of the figureheads of that rally who were pretty involved in making it happen, I’m actually working with. Once that happened, that even was a sign to them that they didn’t want to be involved, that they had taken it too far.
Alan: 32:26 People who were organizers?
Christian: 32:28 Yeah.
Alan: 32:28 So that sounds like a critical group of people.
Christian: 32:31 Yeah. For me, I really, I try to see the broken child in everybody and not the monster. And I think that whether that person’s 6 or 60, there’s still a broken child in them. I wouldn’t shame my child, I wouldn’t hit my child, I wouldn’t disown my child or scream at them in public. I’m not willing to do that to human beings anymore either. And I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve learned how to do this just through experience, and frankly it’s what happened to me that I’ve replicated. And I’ve had a lot of success with it.
Alan: 41:44 Can you tell me an example of somebody you’ve pulled out of this awful life?
Christian: 41:49 Yeah. Oh, let’s see. I’ll tell you about Darrel. So Darrell, it was about three years ago, he had contacted me after reading my book, and he was not happy with the way my book ended, because I had left the movement and he was still in it. He had just been discharged from the military in basic training because he was injured. This was before I think going to the Iraq war, so this was a long time ago. And he’d kind of let this anger build for years, and years, and years. And he contacted me one day and I talked to him back and forth for a few weeks. And he told me he was in the park, pushing his daughter in a stroller, and walking his dog, and he saw a muslim man praying on the ground. And when he told me that all he wanted to do was go up to this man and kick him in the face while he was praying, I said, “Darrel, I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow, but I’m flying to Buffalo.” That’s where he lived. And I did. I flew out to Buffalo the next day because I thought he had been making progress, then all of the sudden, this happened and he had to see what was happening in his life. And one of the first questions that I asked him when I sat down with him is if he had ever met a muslim person before. And he said, “No, I hate them. They’re evil. They want to kill me. I want to kill them. This is what I was trained to do.” And I excused myself, I went to the restroom. And I pulled my phone out of my pocket, very quietly Googled the local mosque. And I called. And in the bathroom-
Alan: 43:19 You didn’t know anybody at the mosque?
Christian: 43:20 No, I had no idea. And I don’t usually do it this way, but I was in Buffalo, it was kind of a dire situation. And I spoke to the imam who answered the phone and I said, “Excuse me, but I have kind of an odd question. I have a Christian man here who would really love to learn more about your religion. Do you mind if we stop by?”
Alan: 43:40 Couldn’t put it in a more extreme way.
Christian: 43:43 Yeah. I kind of filled him in a little bit after that. I said, “This isn’t just a normal thing. I want to prepare you.”
Alan: 43:49 Not only he wants to know more about you, he wants to kill you.
Christian: 43:49 Yeah, I wasn’t going to let anything happen. But we went there, and I told Darrel we were going to lunch, because if I told him we were going to the mosque, he would have said know. And then halfway to lunch, I said, “Well, we need to make a pit stop.” And I told him where we were going, and the man in the passenger seat, he got white. Physically ill, he wanted to throw up. He was anxious. He was having a panic attack because we were going to the mosque. And I pulled over, and kind of went back and forth, talking it over. And finally in convinced him by challenging him.
I said, “Listen, if you’re a tough guy, military guy,” I said, “The least you could do is walk through those doors with me.” And I said, “If you want to walk out after that, I’ll go with you.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And we got there, and I knocked on the door, and the imam answered. And he said, “You’re late.” I said, “I’ve only got 15 minutes before preparing for the prayer service.” And I said, “We’ll take it.” Two and a half hours later, sitting around a table talking, he had given up his prayer service to give it to the other imam to do. And we were crying and hugging each other, and very oddly bonding over Chuck Norris.
Alan: 44:55 What?
Christian: 44:56 Yes.
Alan: 44:56 How did that happen?
Christian: 44:58 The imam was a massive Chuck Norris fan. It turned out that Darrel was a big Chuck Norris fan. And they just started bonding over Chuck Norris. I didn’t have to do anything. Chuck did it all. But I’m really happy to report that years later, there’s really not a Friday you can drive down their neighborhood and not see them eating falafel together because they’re friends, and Darrel will go, and he’s still a Christian, but he goes and he sets up chairs when they need help and things like that. And that’s the kind of connection I think that people are afraid of, because we fear what we don’t understand. And we need to do a whole to of understanding right now, and a whole lot of listening and stop talking I think.
Alan: 45:38 This is so timely I think. And I mean, you said we need to do more listening now. And you’re really saying how timely this is. We’re so divided in our country that people sit down to a holiday mean together and they can’t talk sometimes. Or they talk and within a minute, they’re screaming at each other.
Christian: 46:05 Yeah. Well I think a couple things. We need to listen, because listening is an important part of communication. People forget about that. They think it’s all about talking. But we have to listen. And I think we have to stop thinking that everybody who has a differing opinion than us is a Nazi, or an awful white supremacist, because most are not, I can tell you. And I think-
Alan: 46:32 Having been one-
Christian: 46:33 Having been one [crosstalk 00:46:34]
Alan: 46:34 The difference between having a disagreeable opinion and being a Nazi.
Christian: 46:38 That’s right. I’m a pretty good judge of who is a Nazi and who isn’t these days, unfortunately. But I think that this whole idea that we’re treating people with a differing opinion as the enemy is wrong, because that is what positive conflict is about. Now, if you’re saying, “I want to kill Jews or I want to kill black,” that’s different. I mean, that’s not a differing opinion, that’s just flat out wrong. And I think we still have to be able to listen to them though, not to enable what they’re saying and not to support it, but to listen to what it is that led them down that path, because I guarantee you none of them were born, came out of the maternity ward wrapped in a swastika flag. Maybe some did, but those people still had to learn it. I think they still had to be taught how to hate.
Alan: 47:27 Well, what about someone who says, and maybe not recognizing his or her own obstinate nature, who says, “I’m willing to listen to them, but they go right to their string of lies.” And you might hear this from either side of the political spectrum now.
Christian: 47:43 Yeah. Well, I think things take time. I think that we can’t expect to have one conversation with somebody and they’re going to change about everything. But I think that if we continue to have these connective moments, these really important instances of understanding and empathy, over time, you’ll see that people talk less and less about what they think they need to say, and will talk more about what they want to say. And I think that what we’re hearing now with all the polarization happening in America is nobody’s listening, everybody’s talking. And we’re not filtering out all the noise to find out what America’s potholes are.
Alan: 37:20 The leadership of the various leaders of the neo-Nazi movement, are there hundreds or thousands?
Christian: 37:30 I would say as far as adherence, probably in the tens of thousands in the US. If we’re talking about Europe, it’s much larger I think.
Alan: 37:39 So do they get a little upset that they know you’re chipping away at their membership?
Christian: 37:45 Well, if I checked my phone right now, I could probably show you how upset that they are that I’m chipping away at their membership, because there will be threats, there will be death threats. They’re not happy because I am one of the only people on earth who has this perspective of having been one of them, but also having seen the other side and being able to speak about both. And I think for them, the biggest thing that they fear is truth, because everything that they do is based on lies. It’s based on conspiracy theories, it’s based on the belief that they’re better than somebody else. It’s based on their idea that they should rule the earth as the dominant species or whatever they want to call it. And they’re all lies.
I mean, so the biggest threat to them, the biggest ammunition that I have is truth. And I do that every time I speak about this, just like I’m speaking to you right now. This is probably the fastest growing social movement I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.
Alan: 39:31 I wonder about this. You’re working one person at a time. The guy who recruited you is working one person at a time.
Christian: 39:51 Right.
Alan: 39:52 Is that how we got to tens of thousands of neo-Nazis? Or is there some attraction to the movement itself?
Christian: 40:00 That’s a really interesting question. So when I was involved, it was pre-internet. Everything was face to face. Everything was about a pamphlet, or a book, or going to a meeting. That’s very rarely the case today. What we have now is we have the internet.
Alan: 40:17 So you can get a one to one relationship over the internet?
Christian: 40:20 With many, many people at once. So a propaganda piece can affect 10 thousand people, or millions of people.
Alan: 40:27 And then you can capture them in chat rooms and really work them one to one.
Christian: 40:31 That’s right. And that’s what they’ve done. And what they’ve started to do is something that I think is really the most disturbing thing I’ve seen this movement do is they’re starting to target people in really safe places on the internet. Or at least they were traditionally safe. Things like autism chat rooms and forums, gaming forums, where they know a high percentage of people there might be marginalized in real life. They may not have strong relationships with peers, they may be lonely, they may be looking to be a part of something because nobody’s ever given them that chance. They’re marginalized. So they go to these places and they promise them paradise. And that sounds familiar because all extremist groups do.
Alan: 41:12 Oh that’s so interesting.
Christian: 41:13 Yeah. So they are specifically targeting people that they know might want to join a community, might want a sense of powerfulness after having come from powerlessness. And that’s how they enable people to join.
Alan: 41:29 Well, we’re running out of time, but I must say, it’s been … It really has been inspiring to talk to you, and very eye-opening.
Christian: 28:00 Can I tell you a story?
Alan: 28:01 Yeah.
Christian: 28:02 And I’m sure you get this all the time, and just a small fan boy moment. Growing up, from as long as I can remember, even before I was recruited at 14 years old, I would sit and I would watch M*A*S*H. And I think it was because when I would watch, it would mirror my family. Here you have in M*A*S*H the 4077, who’s this dysfunctional loving family. And that was my family. And being so insulated and in a bubble growing up, I would put myself in the television and I would be in those scenes. And I think that’s why I love television and I produce now is because of M*A*S*H. And I have to say that still to this day, when I’m sick, when I’m having a bad day, I go to my TV and I search for M*A*S*H and I can always find it and it always makes me feel better.
Alan: 29:11 Well, thank you to take it away from me, my involvement in it.
Christian: 29:16 Thank you.
Alan: 29:18 I hear from that … I hear in what you’re saying that it’s a kind of … I hear in what you’re saying that it kind of validates the idea that if you are involved in fictional characters who are actually feeling emotional, authentic emotions toward one another, that that can increase your own sense of empathy, you can be more aware of what other people are going through. And when that happens, I think it’s been shown that your own sense of being aware of how you feel about things comes more to the surface. You’re more able to be honest with yourself about how you feel. Possibly the look in that kid’s eye that night not only registered on you but you knew it was registering on you because the human contact had brought it to the surface.

Alan: 48:24 Let me ask you seven quick questions, if you’re willing.
Christian: 48:29 Oh boy. Yeah.
Alan: 48:30 Seven quick answers. And they’re all in some way or other about communication.
Christian: 48:35 Okay.
Alan: 48:36 What do you wish you really understood?
Christian: 48:39 Myself.
Alan: 48:41 Nobody ever said that. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Christian: 48:47 That I might look scary, but I’m not. I look like a bulldog.
Alan: 48:51 You haven’t looked scary yet today. Those are the old days. What’s the strangest question someone has ever asked you?
Christian: 49:01 Oh boy. I don’t know that I have a strange question somebody’s asked me. But I can tell you that young people ask better questions than older people. When I speak to high schools, or even middle schools, they will ask the deepest questions, whereas the adults don’t.
Alan: 49:20 That’s so interesting. These are supposed to be quick questions, but what’s an example of that?
Christian: 49:25 Well, I’ve never had an adult stand up and say, “My friend, I think he’s a white supremacist, what can I do to help him or her?” But young people do, will stand up in front of a whole school and say, “I’m really concerned about somebody I care about, and I don’t want them to go down that road. What can I say? What can I do?”
Alan: 49:40 Great. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Christian: 49:45 Stop listening I think.
Alan: 49:50 What, do you do something else? You take out your cellphone? What do you do?
Christian: 49:54 Stop a … I think that’s the hardest question I think I’ve ever got. I’m an introvert, so I usually just go run and hide somewhere when somebody starts talking.
Alan: 50:06 Okay, next question. Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Christian: 50:13 I think the people who willingly and knowingly manipulate other people, not because they believe in something, but because they want to control people. I would still have empathy for them, but I would find it very, very difficult to do that.
Alan: 50:31 How do you like to deliver bad news? In person? On the phone? Or by carrier pigeon?
Christian: 50:38 I was going to say, isn’t there an Uber for that? The guy just dials somebody else?
Alan: 50:42 I think you’re the first person who’s picked carrier pigeon.
Christian: 50:46 I do believe in just being honest with people. So I think I would just tell them outright.
Alan: 50:50 Yeah, that seems to be your life now is talking straight stuff to people.
Christian: 50:56 I try. I’m not perfect.
Alan: 50:57 Okay, last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Christian: 51:06 Oh, I think that … I would find it very hard to end a friendship I think, especially because my profession is to make friends with really bad people. So I’d have to do a lot to push me away. But I would say not ever recognizing your own vulnerabilities, not being able to do that.
Alan: 51:33 Thank you so much, Christian.
Christian: 51:34 Thank you, Alan.
Alan: 51:35 It’s been great.
Christian: 51:35 It’s my pleasure.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

My thanks the sponsors of this episode. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science. So, thank you.

Christian Picciolini floored me with this conversation. He’s been through so much in his life and he’s managed to turn bitterness and rage into a life that’s positive and helpful.

You can learn more about Christian in his new book, “White American Youth: My Descent Into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement – And How I Got Out.” And try to see his emotionally riveting documentary, “Breaking Hate” which aired on MSNBC not long ago.

You can find details about Christian’s book, documentary and all his other projects at:

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!

Next in our series of conversations I talk with Bill Bradley…
Bill: 24:56 A lot of people, you know if you have a friendship, if you have a marriage, if you have any kind of relationship and you behaved as the current partisan politics goes, it wouldn’t work. And sooner or later the people will say, “Let’s … we can’t tolerate this. We want something different.” It’s okay to question somebody’s judgment, but not their motive.