DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We've been asking writers, thinkers and political leaders to help us define how this world is changing and what role we might play in those changes. We're essentially trying to understand the history of our time.
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MOHSIN HAMID: You have to conduct yourself in this world in a way where you are not overwhelmed by anxiety, by things that frighten you.
FORMER PRESIDENT MARY ROBINSON: We need to do things that are very serious. And we have no time to waste.
GREENE: Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid and are also former Irish President Mary Robinson are among the voices we've heard over the past few weeks. And today, we will hear from a man who says his role is to listen.
Christian Picciolini spent his adolescence spreading fear and hate as a white supremacist leader. He got out of that life and went on to co-found a peace advocacy group called Life After Hate. I asked him to start at the moment when he entered the skinhead life. And he described being this lost, lonely, angry kid. He told me it all kind of happened by chance.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: One day I was standing in an alley at 14 years old and I was smoking a joint. And a guy drove up the alley and stopped six inches from me. And when he got out of the car, he walked towards me. He grabbed the joint from my mouth, looked me in the eyes and said don't you know that that's what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile?
GREENE: He had found a community built on hatred. And he immersed himself in it, spread its message, recruited others. He says he doesn't really know the extent of his influence. He'll never stop wondering.
PICCIOLINI: Those ideas that I put out there exponentially grew over time. And every time a Dylann Roof walks into a church and murders nine innocent people or an Alexandre Bissonette walks into a mosque in Quebec City and murders six, I feel responsible for that.
GREENE: For Christian Picciolini, breaking with that life came about as a kind of gradual awakening.
PICCIOLINI: The first catalyst for me was the birth of my child. It questioned my identity, my community and my purpose.
GREENE: You were in this group when you had your son?
PICCIOLINI: Oh, yeah. I was 19 years old. And that really challenged my narrative because my priorities shifted. I suddenly had something to love instead of something to hate.
GREENE: And then take me to a McDonald's that I know you've written about. This was after you had your kids?
PICCIOLINI: That was just before, actually.
PICCIOLINI: So I was 18 years old, I believe. And some skinhead friends and I were drinking. And late one night around midnight, we walked into a McDonald's. And there were some black teenagers in this McDonald's being drunk. I screamed that it was my McDonald's and that they had to leave. They ran across the street. We chased after them.
When we caught one of the black teenagers, we beat him viciously. And you couldn't see or recognize him as a human being his face was so swollen. And as his eyes were shut but he managed to open his eyes at one point as I was kicking him. And I connected with his eyes. And for the first time in those eight years that I was involved, the reality and the consequences of my actions came into focus for a split second.
GREENE: Did you hate him that night because of the color of his skin?
PICCIOLINI: I would have told myself that 25 years ago because the movement is always about blaming somebody else for the problems that exist. It's about blaming that faceless other. And unfortunately, that's the trap that we're in. There's so many young people that are online who maybe don't fit in in real life, who might feel marginalized, who are sitting behind millions of computer screens and phones.
And they're getting sucked into this right wing narrative based on propaganda and the fake news sites. And the recruiters are very savvy because they try to answer their questions and promise them paradise based on making them afraid of somebody else.
GREENE: Christian, I, you know, covering this last election, you know, I met so many supporters of President Trump who were not full of hate, I mean, who were just lovely, lovely people who were parents and just were looking out for their families. But was there rhetoric in this campaign that was somehow speaking directly to some of the kids you're talking about?
PICCIOLINI: Yeah. I mean, I saw a lot of really similar rhetoric, maybe with a slightly more polished output than what we used to say 30 years ago. It was almost the same thing. It was...
GREENE: Like what?
PICCIOLINI: ...You know, anti-immigration. Anti-Liberal news media which I believe is really, you know, their way of softening the Jewish media conspiracy theory. It's a perfect storm I think that happened in November. You know, American folks are struggling. With that, there's also been racism in our country since the day it was founded.
And there are a lot of people who, you know, are mixing messages that appeal to both of those people. So they've taken the edge off of the racist message so that it appeals to the average American. And the election, I think, kicked over a bucket of gasoline that lit up all the sparks that already existed all over the country.
GREENE: Christian, can you just try to connect with a listener - and I'm just going to sort of imagine this - but who maybe voted for President Trump and someone who says like I'm not hateful. I don't hate people because of their race or identity. You know, and they don't see the problems that you're describing. What would you say?
PICCIOLINI: You know, I tend to like to listen to people more than I speak because when I listen, they always inadvertently give me the clues on what potholes existed in their lives that deviated their path down a certain way. And then my job is to fill those potholes. And usually, it's just about injecting a different perspective.
I don't ever battle with anybody ideologically because I think that that just polarizes us further. And when I listen and they tell me and I fill those potholes with, you know, opportunity. I try to find partners that can make these people more resilient, whether they hate or not. Because once you're more resilient and you're more secure, ideology and fear tends to go away because there's nobody to blame anymore.
GREENE: As you think about all of this stuff, how worried are you right now about our country?
PICCIOLINI: I'm concerned. I'm not terrified because I know that there are more good people in this country who are willing to do what they believe is right. But I am concerned because we are seeing a growth in far-right let's say ideology because the white nationalist movement or the alt-right or whatever we're calling it these days, they're now receiving a platform that has become part of the mainstream discussion.
And that's alarming to me because I know how certain things that they say can be packaged in a way that is appealing to people without revealing their true intentions, which are always nefarious.
GREENE: Christian, thank you. We really appreciate it.
PICCIOLINI: David, it's my pleasure.
GREENE: Christian Picciolini is co-founder of a peace advocacy group called Life After Hate. We're having conversations about the history of our time each week this spring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.