Navid Modiri | Conversational Extremism

This interview was conducted in June 2022 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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About Navid Modiri
Navid Modiri was born in Iran in 1983 and came to Sweden as a two-year-old. Already in his late teens, he began to become visible for the public with articles and musical performances. Since then, he has continued with journalistic work at Göteborgsposten and as a host on Swedish public service television and radio. He is the author of several books and is also a popular and esteemed speaker. In 2013, he attracted a lot of attention when he purchased an opportunity to play golf with the Sweden Democrats‘ party leader Jimmie Åkesson, in the hope of better understanding him. This can be seen as a symptom of Modiri’s strong belief in the great value of conversation, especially with people who think differently than oneself. In 2018, he started the podcast Hur Kan Vi? (How Can We?) which was presented as a countermeasure against a media climate with filter bubbles and polarization, with the aim of inviting and talking to people who do not think, feel or feel like himself. He describes himself as a “conversational extremist”.

If I were to ask you to name a subject that you are completely uninterested in, I think you would have a hard time coming up with an answer. Is it true that you are curious about everything?
– Hm, that’s a very good question. Sometimes I’m probably more obsessed than curious. I just have to understand how things are connected and how people function. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about brain research, black holes, law or ideology and philosophy; my curiosity is a natural part of me. It also gets stronger and stronger with each year passing as I meet more people and have more conversations. The more I learn, the hungrier I get. It’s like in strategy games where you start with a small, visible spot on the map and then explore more and more as the game progresses. All the black area on the map is potential for knowledge and understanding. That’s a mind-blowing thought!

“I’m constantly trying to see my triggers as clues and opportunities to talk to someone who thinks differently than me.”

– Curiosity, however, is not always about desire for me. It can also be about me being triggered, provoked, bothered or challenged. It could be a person whose opinions I do not agree with or who irritates me. Then I get curious about why I get annoyed with this person. What is it that makes his ideas bother me? That I get annoyed does not really have to do with him, but with me! Often it’s because I do not understand. How can you think like that? How did you come up with this? Because I have not come to the same conclusion at all. How can we come to such different conclusions, despite our similarities? It disturbs, provokes and triggers me at the same time as I become fascinated. It is there and then that I become obsessed with understanding. Not that we have to be friends or agree on everything, but there are dark spots on the map for me that I have to explore. People I have reacted to in this way are, for example, Ingrid Carlqvist, Jimmie Åkesson, Gustav Kasselstrand, Rashid Musa, Bilan Osman.

You’re probably unusual in that way. A common reaction when someone gets triggered and provoked is to judge the other person as an idiot and to not want to listen to what they have to say. The exact opposite of your way. Does your reaction come naturally or do you have to make an effort to want to listen?
– It’s both. Sometimes I can be really angry before a conversation, but then my colleagues in my team remind me of my own principle, that when you are triggered by something, you should investigate it. I don’t know how other people think and feel in the same situation. I can only do what I do. I constantly try to see my triggers as opportunities to talk to people who think differently than me. But sometimes I fail and I’m not at all as curious and open-minded as I want to be, but I’m working on it!

Navid Modiri in conversation with Jimmie Åkesson.

In your podcast, you’re open to talk to anyone. There are obvious advantages to this attitude. For example, you better understand your own position if you also understand the arguments of the opposing side, as John Stuart Mill pointed out. However, your critics say that you are giving people with potentially dangerous opinions and ideas a platform and that you should limit who you give access to such space to. I guess you have contemplated a lot about this dilemma?
– I have, both by myself and with others and I continue to do so. I don’t know if I’m right that it is good to talk to everyone. But those who claim the opposite don’t know if they’re right either. We both have a conviction, a belief. My belief is that these conversations are important. There are many who agree with me on this, about the value of open and free conversation. But it is not the end stop. The conversation is not the total solution. To claim that it is would mean that you’re absolutely certain. Then you have lost your humility, openness and curiosity.

– I have never thought that the conversation is the solution. I see it more as a vehicle to explore and learn things. Along the way, I make mistakes and I receive feedback and criticism. It has become a natural part of the journey. They’re not just obstacles but also lessons and opportunity to grow. For example, there are few things that are as developing as being the target of a mob and a media hunt. It is extremely difficult in many ways, but it is also a pressure test. What you believe in is tested, whether you can stand by your beliefs and whether you can apologize when you have made a mistake. But damn, it can be hard!

“Civilized violence is something man has been engaged in throughout his history. Duels, martial arts, football and even hip hop. I think conversation can also be such a tool.”

– There’s something I reacted to in the discussion about the normalization of certain opinions and the connection between words and violence. There seems to be a perception among some that there is a causal connection between saying something racist and going out to murder someone, or between saying something misogynistic and then beating a woman. But there’s no proven causality between these two phenomena. Maybe it comes from the fact that you often follow the tracks backwards when something happens. Let’s say a guy picked up an automatic rifle and killed a number of dark-skinned individuals. The police investigation then finds music and chat logs with racist rhetoric in his home. It seems easy at that point to conclude that such rhetoric leads to violent crimes, but that’s not true at all, it proves nothing!

– There are also theories that say that we can channel aggression through civilized forms of violence and squeeze out some of that energy. Civilized violence is something mankind has been engaged in throughout the history. Duels, martial arts, football and even hip hop. I think conversation can also be such a tool. Intellectually aggressive and antagonistic conversation. It can be rowdy and noisy conversations, but there is a premise. The premise is that we are rowdy within the framework of the conversation and then we can even go from there and have a beer together. Hopefully we have then let out some of the aggressive energy. I believe in this, even though I can not prove that this is true.

Photo: Robert Eldrim, Medljus

– There is currently a political proposal in Sweden to ban Nazi movements and groups. The reason is that some people believe that it was the possibility for such groups to organize that led to the Holocaust. It’s most likely a bit more complex than that. Try to add a few more layers, such as socio-economics, geopolitics, information technology and how the German population felt after the First World War. There is so much we miss if we think it’s just about allowing people to organize around a certain ideology. Communism has no flattering history behind it either, should it also be banned? Christianity and Islam don’t have the best track record. You could argue that genocide, slavery and all sorts of things were made possible because some people were allowed to speak and organize, but I would argue that it’s not that simple.

You’re also a father. How do you pass on the curiosity to the next generation?
– I think it’s about what I do. If I am a parent who reads books, watches documentaries, meets a lot of people, travels and clearly demonstrates my curiosity, my daughter will notice it. The same goes for my curiosity about her. If my curiosity about her shines through in our conversations and meetings, I think it will spread to her. It’s easy as a parent to sometimes be judgmental or to think you know everything. If, for example, she starts using TikTok, plays a mobile game or watches a TV series, I can show that I am interested. I can sit and watch or play with her. Then she feels that dad is curious and that curiosity is something positive.

“This means that you can not blame all racism on other people. It’s something we all carry around within us. You are a potential perpetrator, racist, sexist and rapist.”

Your podcast has now produced more than 200 episodes. What have you learned throughout this journey?
– When I started the podcast, I had a lot more prejudices about people. Perhaps mainly about people from the nationalist right and about people who called themselves conservatives. I thought I knew who celebrates and public people were, just by believing in their personas. What has become clear to me, and this is so embarrassingly banal, but to not judge a book by its cover. It’s fundamental wisdom, but there’s a depth to it that I did not grasp four years ago when the podcast started.

– Not judging people based on what you see, how they are dressed, who they vote for and so on is one dimension. But it is also about reminding oneself of the human in everyone. Everyone tries their best, everyone has parents and everyone has been a child. It can be hard to try to see that sometimes. To be able to watch Jimmie Åkesson in a political debate, where he may say things that you do not like to hear, to then meet with him and understand him as a person and a human being. It can be difficult and arduous to grasp both perspectives at the same time. It’s much easier to demonize someone and think that the person is malicious or evil.

Photo: Robert Eldrim, Medljus

Maybe demonizing requires less energy than thinking the way you do?
– Probably. The interesting thing is to think about what it is that’s is energy consuming about it. You realize that the person is not a demon, even though you have seen darkness in him, because some light is now added to the picture. This means that there is also darkness in you. This means that you can not blame all racism on other people. It’s something we all carry around within us. You are a potential perpetrator, racist, sexist and rapist. There is tyranny inside you. It’s hard to realize. “If the Holocaust were to happen here, I would belong to the resistance movement“, yeah right! You would most likely have been a really good camp guard, and maybe me too!

Who would you like to spend an evening with?
– It would be incredible fun to hang out with Joe Rogan. I want to ask him how this whole journey has been for him, how he feels and how he manages to remain so playful. It’s something I really admire about him, how relaxed and playful he is. He’s probably very fun to hang out with!

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