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Christian Picciolini is an award winning television producer, peace advocate, and a former violent extremist. After leaving the Neo-Nazi skinhead movement that he helped to create in Chicago in the 1980s and 90s, he began the painstaking process of making amends and rebuilding his life. In 2016 he won an Emmy award for producing an anti-hate advertising campaign aimed at helping people disengage from extremism.
Julia wanted to talk to Christian about redemption and forgiveness: As someone who has himself done bad things, what makes him now worthy of being loved? And what about the men he works with – violent extremists who, in Christian’s words, are simply children with emotional potholes needing to be filled. Once he reaches them and they decide to leave the hate movements they’re a part of, do they deserve forgiveness from society too?
And what do the answers with respect to these men have to say about how we as a society deal with perpetrators of workplace sexual misconduct?
Christian’s life since leaving the white power movement over two decades ago has been dedicated to helping others overcome their own hate. He now leads The Free Radicals Project, a global extremism prevention and disengagement network.
His involvement in, and exit from, the early American white supremacist skinhead movement is chronicled in his memoir, White American Youth.
His latest book Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism was released in February, 2020. His disengagement work is also spotlighted in his MSNBC documentary series, Breaking Hate.
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My interview today is with Christian Picciolini. He is an award-winning television producer, a public speaker, author, peace advocate, and a former violent extremist. After leaving the hate movement that he helped to create – namely the Neo Nazi skinhead movement that started in Chicago where he grew up – after leaving this movement that he helped to create during his youth in the 1980s and 90s, he began the painstaking process of making amends and rebuilding his life.
He went on to earn a degree in international relations from DePaul university, and in 2016 he won an Emmy award for producing an anti-hate advertising campaign aimed at helping people disengage from extremism.
His life since leaving the white power movement over two decades ago has been dedicated to helping others overcome their own hate. He now leads The Free Radicals Project, a global extremism prevention and disengagement network.
His involvement in, and exit from, the early American white supremacist skinhead movement is chronicled in his memoir, White American Youth. His latest book Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism was released in February, 2020. His disengagement work is also spotlighted in his MSNBC documentary series, Breaking Hate.
The reason that I wanted to talk to Christian is because he has confronted the issue of being a person who has done awful things and has done the hard work of changing himself deep inside and then living his life in pursuit of redemption and forgiveness. And not simply asking people to forgive him, but earning the right to be forgiven.
Especially towards the end of the conversation is when we really got into these questions of what does it take to earn redemption? How do you hold somebody accountable? How do we establish gradations of punishment?
And spoiler, Christian had interesting answers, but not the end-all, be-all. It’s not like we have the solution here. Just like all of these episodes, what we’re doing here is we’re asking questions and we’re contemplating difficult juxtapositions. If this, then what?
The other reason that I wanted to talk to Christian is because he’s working with offenders. Now in his case, he’s working with violent extremist offenders, and for the most part, the people that we’re talking about on this podcast, wanting to offer redemption to, are not violent extremists. We’re not talking about offering redemption to Harvey Weinstein. We’re talking about putting him in jail.
We’re talking about your average guy who has maybe behaved in some ways that if people were cognizant of it now, that guy would be in a lot of trouble for it. And part of the purpose of this episode is to awaken in men a motivation to grab that bull of shame by the horns and call yourself out. In your own heart, to start with. And do the work that you know you need to do to, first of all heal yourself.
Whatever – as Christian calls it – whatever your potholes are, whatever the wounds and hurts and challenges of your life have been that have maybe prompted you to make some bad choices, get some healing for yourself. And then figure out how to stop engaging in behaviors that are harmful to other people.
And then finally go out into the world with the acknowledgement that you know you’ve done some wrong and you want to do the work to make it right and trusting that you’ll be given the opportunity to do that. Christian is a terrific model of that. As he himself said, perhaps the reason that he has escaped what we now call cancel culture is because he outed himself before anybody outed him.
And I do think that that’s a big ingredient in the reaction that people get from the public nowadays in our cancel culture. If you try to hide the awful things that you did, people are going to have a lot more vehement reaction when it finally does come out. So I hope you enjoy this interview. I hope that you find some inspiration in the work that Christian’s doing, and I hope it inspires you to want to join the conversation.
Julia: So I’m here talking with Christian Picciollini.
Christian: Hi Julia.
Julia: Hi. And of course I’m Julia Kline and Christian, I’ve been talking about this interview with you for a couple of months cause I’m very excited to have this conversation. Partly cause you’re a cool guy and you’re doing really amazing work in the world and you know, they ought to be talking about giving you a Nobel for God’s sake.
Christian: Well, I don’t know if there’s a Nobel for, for just being a human being, but —
Julia: well, there’s, I was listening this morning to an interview with a woman who’s just received the Nobel prize for having passed legislation, and I’m going to totally screw this up, to protect survivors of sexual assault.
And she’s now started a foundation, her tagline for it is that we teach others how to pen their rights into law.
Christian: That’s great. Yeah. That’s empowering people. Wonderful.
Julia: And that’s what you’re doing. So if she won Nobel for it, why not you?
Christian: Hopefully what I’m doing is just making sure that the world does not suffer from what I used to be a part of. a lot of people think it’s about me helping Nazis and I guess technically it is because I’m trying to get them to not be Nazis anymore when I help disengage them from their ideology. but that’s not why I do it. I mean, I really am doing it to protect mostly the world from the harm that I know that they cause.
Julia: And that’s why I wanted to talk to you because this podcast is about sexual assault. And to my knowledge, that is not something of which you have been accused. Am I correct in that?
Christian: I have not.
Julia: So we’re not talking to somebody who is a perpetrator of sexually inappropriate behavior and sexual violence. And, you are a person who was a perpetrator of other kinds of inappropriate and violent behavior.
Christian: Yeah. And I don’t think that there’s very much of a distinction between those two things, because it really is just a violation of a person. Whether it’s me verbally attacking them or attacking them with my fists, or if it’s a sexual assault.
And certainly, I would never say I was never in my life complicit with demeaning women or participating in toxic male environment. Absolutely. I would never – I’m not innocent of that. I don’t think any man is innocent of that. But the violence that I perpetrated, I can see so many parallels to the type of violence that women endure.
Julia: my philosophy on how we heal from this era that we’re in – this #MeToo era, this post-#MeToo era – is that we need to apply a transformative justice model. and so the argument that I have sought to make in this story that I’m telling is that it is in the best interests of those of us who have been harmed and who are at risk of being harmed in the future to treat those who have harmed us as human beings.
And to hold out the possibility that there is redemptive quality there and to do whatever we can to awaken the best part of them – of him, of the hims, because this was almost all men that we’re talking about.
And you do something similar in a very different category of violence.
Julia: And you were just speaking to, I, I gather from your comment that, that, there’s this question, “hey, aren’t you just helping Nazis? And isn’t that a terrible thing?” And I see that pushback all the time within the #MeToo era, within the #MeToo movement – this idea that, ” we can’t be helping men for God’s sake. Poor white men and their tender little feelings and they weren’t treated well by their daddies, and now they don’t know how to be masculine. And so now they’re assholes. Oh, poor them. And so we’re going to give a bunch of resources to helping men? Fuck that. We need to give him the resources to helping women.”
Julia: Well, yes, and. We need to root out the real cause. We can’t just put them all in jail. It ain’t going to work.
Christian: This is an important, important question and an important discussion because I think about this all the time. I was once a terrible human being.
I was a person who demeaned other people based on what they looked like, what color their skin was, who they prayed to, who they loved. I hurt people because of that. Twenty, thirty years later – 23 years after I left – people love me. They accept me, they trust me. and they come to me for guidance. And I ask myself all the time, does that same forgiveness exist for other people who’ve done other things?
I’ve had both the blessing and the curse of having been involved in what I did. the blessing, meaning that now I understand the motivations of why people end up there. And I also understand the motivations of what somebody needs to get out.
and the curse is, of course, that I participated in that. and my goal has always been to one, get people to forgive themselves. To self reflect and understand what they did was wrong and forgive themselves so that they can go seek forgiveness and make amends. Because I don’t think that people who have not forgiven themselves, at least partially, and understood that what they’ve done is wrong or what it’s been driven by, can effectively go out and make a positive change.
And that wasn’t something that I came up with on my own. That was something that somebody told me that I had heard in my past. An African American security guard at my old high school, who I met years later. I didn’t know what to say to this man because it was somebody who I had hurt and somebody who I had tormented. And I said I was sorry.
he accepted my apology. But he also said, that’s good for you. It makes you feel great, but it doesn’t really do a whole lot for me. He said, I need you to really self reflect and think about what you’ve done and why you’ve done it, and then forgive yourself for it. And then go out there and, and atone for what you’ve done. And make amends for, for that, and seek forgiveness from the people you’ve hurt. That’s what I’ve been doing for, for 23 years.
Julia: And where in your journey did that conversation happen?
Christian: So I left the white supremacist movement – so I was recruited at 14 years old in 1987 and I disengaged eight years later in January of ’96.
For the five years after that, I was a good person. I had met people along the way that forced my change. I had abandoned my ideologies, but I still was not treating myself very well. and then years later in 1999, I met the security guard again that I had, you know, I had made his life hell,
Julia: you left the movement in what year?
Christian: ’96. Yeah, this was after I’d left the movement,
Julia: And you met him in 99.
Christian: Yeah, 99. And I still – for those four or five years, I had been really trying to outrun my past. I was not interested in coming clean. I tried to make new friends and – if the listeners could see me, I’m covered in tattoos – I would wear long sleeves and I moved and I tried to escape who I was. I was afraid of being judged the same way that I had judged people.
When I met him, he was the first person that I really kind of said, “I’m out. I’m sorry I was wrong.” but I didn’t know how to move forward. And he’s the one who told me , that’s great. I’m glad you’re out. But your story is important because it’s not just the story of some white kid who became a Nazi. It’s the story of every kid that I’ve ever watched over in this high school – thousands and thousands of them who were looking for a sense of identity, community, and purpose. And because they weren’t looking in the right places or didn’t know where the right places to look were, they were given that sense of identity, community, and purpose by a really, really bad person.
Julia: Yeah. And that’s certainly one of your big themes. people are fascinated by you. In addition to everything you’ve just said about your story, You’re an Emmy award winning producer, correct?
Julia: and also you founded an organization called life after hate?
Julia: And which I believe you’ve moved on from, is that correct?
Christian: Yeah, I’m no longer with life after hate. I co founded a nonprofit called the Free Radicals Project which is a global network of people doing the work that I do, helping other people disengage from extremism. because I was traveling the world, and I noticed that when I would speak to Muslim groups, that somebody would come up to me and say, I was in your shoes, but I went a different route. I went towards the Islamic state, or I went towards Al-Qaida or those ideas —
Julia: as opposed to —
Christian: As opposed to neo-Nazis like I did. And I started to recognize that there were people – mothers, who were stopping other kids in Somalia from joining civil war and things like that, that were already doing this work that I was doing and that we were using the same process but didn’t know it.
And it was always about compassion and empathy and seeing the child, not the monster. which is a concept that really, I’ve come up with that, it doesn’t matter if the person, the offender, let’s say is 16 or 60. We have to learn to see the broken child in them and not the monster.
Because they were not born haters. They were not born rapists. They were not born ISIS supporters. They were not born in a gang. and of course, that does happen where people are raised in those things, but they still have to learn it. and because they learned it, it can be unlearned. we just need to repair the motivations that led them there.
Julia: And so I’m wondering what your answer is to the question or to the objection that I, I know you get a lot, which is, okay, fine. So these people who are monsters now weren’t born monsters. And fine, some crappy things happened to them along the way that turned them into monsters. I’m willing to stipulate, crappy things happen. It’s not their fault.
And, crappy things happen to a lot of people. And those people don’t turn into monsters. And so I can hear the voices of some people saying, crappy things happened to me —
Christian: — and I didn’t go that route.
Julia: I’ve been slogging away, doing what’s right, and now you’re going to turn around and give all kinds of benefits to the guy who was a monster? What about me?? where’s the benefit for somebody like me who’s made the right choices? And I’m struggling. I’m just barely putting food on the table. My wife’s about to leave me. I’ve got – you know, I’m messed up in the head. Where’s my resources?
Christian: Yeah. And I would say that those people are also at risk of going in the directions of – I’m putting up air quotes – as extremist behavior: drugs, suicide, school shootings —
Julia: Trumpism —
Christian: Trumpism. So listen, of course. We don’t live in a black and white world despite what we’re being told, right? Despite what we’re being made to feel that everything is a black and white solution to a problem. The same thing exists with every single person on earth. We’re all nuanced, right?
I happened to be standing in an alley at 14 years old smoking a joint. And a guy walked up to me and said, as he pulled the joint out of my mouth, “that’s what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.” That guy happened to be America’s first Neo Nazi skinhead, and he was recruiting me.
Had I not been standing in that alley —
Julia: that was here in Chicago, right?
Christian: That was here in Chicago, The birthplace of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement, the South side. And this is an eerie kind of coincidence, but that dead end alley that I was standing in that I was recruited in, is at the corner of union and division streets.
Yeah, it’s a, it is a very eerie coincidence that I didn’t even recognize until,
Julia: Oh my God, that is unbelievable.
Christian: It’s a dead end alley at the crossroads of Union & Division.
Julia: At the crossroads of Union and Division. Holy cow.
Christian: Weird, right? So anyway, I was standing there and had a group of ballerinas come up to me or a baseball coach and said, Hey, you know, you want to go dance or play ball? I probably would have gone with them. that was my interception, so to speak.
I don’t want to discount the females in the movement that ended up going there. But a very close colleague of mine, Shannon – and I don’t mind talking about this cause she talks about it publicly all the time —
Julia: — she and I have gotten to know each other quite well over the last couple of months.
Christian: Well, she has an amazing story. she’s the mother of seven children. She was in the movement at the same time I was, we knew each other back then, and disengaged around the same time. But what I learned after the fact, getting to know Shannon, is that at 14 years old, she was raped at a party. And that made her feel worthless and very unsure of where to turn and also very angry.
Julia: That, and – because Shannon and I have talked about that as well — and I’ll add that it wasn’t the rape itself. But also the fact that she felt as though her parents would feel that it was her fault she had gotten raped.
Christian: yeah, her parents would have been more upset with the fact that she had gone out drinking and lied to them about that, than if she came home and said that I was raped.
Julia: Right, she was afraid to tell her parents.
Christian: And what that caused her to do was become very, very angry. And not being able to release that frustration, she found the other angriest people that she could find to hang out with. And those people were skinheads. And she was able to release her frustration through violence, through words, that were pent up in her.
it really is just a matter of first of all, what information – what stimulus – we have access to. But also this can happen to anybody. And it doesn’t have to happen when you’re 14. It could happen when you’re 40, and it can happen when you’re 60. And we’ve seen that, in the age of Trumpism, that it really is emboldening people who may have had this kind of rage or grievance or something confusing inside of them that they can’t figure out, has manifested now as violence or threats against the other.
it’s a very dangerous thing to paint a complicated society in very black and white terms.
Julia: Yeah. And so tying that together with where we were at a few minutes ago – the question of resources. your answer was, ” yes, you person who has been walking the straight line despite having had crappy things happen to you, you deserve help too.”
Christian: of course.
Julia: You deserve love and compassion and you’re getting the short end as well, and that’s wrong too. And one of the things that I reflect upon as I think about the causes of where we’re at, is that it seems to me that as a society we are like red lining on the enormity of the problem.
Julia: And it seems to me that for a very long time, one of the ways that society, quote unquote kind of held itself together was by decreeing that this group of people we’re gonna do the best we can for. And that was generally white people —
Christian: — white males,
Julia: white men, more so than white women. Although white women were always supposedly protected, although if her husband wanted to hit her and rape her, whatever–
Christian: subservient, they were still second class.
Julia: — and they were financially cared for. but what’s happening now in our society is we’re saying, you know what? It’s no longer okay to just throw under the bus a huge swath of people because they’re Brown, because they’re gay, because we don’t like their religion because whatever the other things are. And in my opinion, because of the widespread ubiquity of easy access to technology and ability to communicate we’re all seeing it. Like all of us, quote unquote good white people who thought under the era of Obama that racism was over, we are now being treated to viral videos on Twitter of like, “see there’s another one. See, there’s another one. See, there’s another one.” And we’re having to face in our Twitter realities like, Oh my God, there are so many fricking obnoxious white people out there saying horrible racist things. The Brown people never had any doubt. They knew. It was happening to them. But us white people, we were able to live in a bubble, and that bubble I think is what’s breaking.
Christian: Yeah. Yeah. That bubble is also privilege, right? So when we talk about privilege, people also always think like, Oh, but I worked really hard. My parents struggled. That’s not really privilege. Privilege is also not having to think about those things that people deal with every day. That walking out of your house as a white person is a whole lot different than walking out of your house as a black person and the things that you have to deal with every day.
Julia: Or going in to work as a man as versus as a woman.
Christian: Absolutely. I mean, doing the same work —
Julia: Or being in high school as a straight kid versus as a gay kid
Christian: Yeah. And hopefully, hopefully that bubble is starting to break. but there was also an indication that there’s a lot of pushback and confusion, which tells me we have a lot of work to do.
Julia: I have this sense that we – we’re building towards something and, and what I see is, is that the quote unquote good people of the world recognize that there is a huge problem. the challenge is that that problem feels too big to solve.
Julia: And I have this hypothesis that the solution is actually through increasing love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Christian: You’re right. And let me tell you —
Julia: And that’s so counterintuitive for most people.
Christian: This is obviously something I think about all the time.
Christian: we’re so used to people solving problems for us. Big problems, right? Like, you know, our government is going to step in and fix that. They’re going to pass legislation to abolish that or do this or do that.
Julia: Robert Mueller is going to release a report that’s going to fix this whole–
Christian: Right, it’s going to fix everything. Again, black and white solutions to very complicated problems. The solution is that every single person has the ability to do this work. We all touch people. We all have friends. We all have family. We all have coworkers. We all have strangers that we pass on the street every day. we can impact that change that we want to see by leading it ourselves. By just making good happen by understanding that if we push a problem away, weld the sewer caps on it and hope it goes away, it doesn’t. racism has existed on this soil for 500 years. there’s no indication it’s slowing down. obviously we’ve seen progress in certain areas, but we’re also seeing that we’re going backwards in so many ways.
we all have this ability to show compassion to the people that we feel don’t deserve it. Because if we think about it, they’re really the ones who might need it the most. and that’s a hard thing for people to swallow, to show compassion to people who they don’t feel deserve it. But if you were in my position and the position of the hundreds – maybe thousands of people – that I’ve worked with, the one unifying common thread through all of those stories is, is that what led them to that extremist movement or to the fringe or, or to that behavior, was not the ideology itself, but it was the fact that they were searching and trying to fill a void of belonging, of meaning and a family.
if we can provide that to people – and this is not about only bad people. This is about everybody. We need to show children – we need to raise children to be vulnerable, and the way we do that is by being vulnerable ourselves with them. If we have conversations about maybe things that we’re not secure about ourselves with and open up to our children as they’re young, as they’re growing up, maybe they’ll feel the same way about doing that with us. They’ll be able to communicate their confusion growing up. And they won’t go searching for answers in places that they’re not really mature enough to understand the consequences of.
And once they’re in, once they, they belong to that behavior, it stays with them the rest of their lives. As a stigma, as a change in their, in their being, as you know, as a ripple effect to the rest of the world. The goal is not always to help the bad people. It’s to stem the flow of bad people happening. And the only way we do that is by realizing that we all have this universality of brokenness to some degree, and that we all need each other to get past it.
Julia: so a couple – both big directions I want to go in from what you just said. One is about – I wonder if you just described is most true at the extremes. It’s kind of one idea. And the other idea is this idea of individual feelings of unsafety and of threat. That fundamentally, these abusive behaviors in whatever category they are, come from a feeling of unsafety.
Christian: Uncertainty, I would say. Yeah.
Julia: Sure. I would respond that uncertainty breeds unsafety —
Julia: From the uncertainty that makes us feel — I would say like at the base base baseline is unsafety caused by some other things kind of growing up out of that, right? And that it is like to the extent that anybody feels unsafe, that makes us hyper aware of the threat that might be coming. Because if we don’t feel safe, we feel vulnerable to threats–
Christian: Right, it’s protection, self protection mode, armor.
Julia: I see that – in some ways that’s easy to see. Like we look at the extremes. It’s easy to say, but I also see it, for example, in, conservatives who say that we shouldn’t be giving any financial assistance to poor people, because they feel that those poor people are just going to take advantage of it. That for whatever reason, they’re undeserving, and they also have beliefs that they’re going to do unworthy things with the money that they’re given.
Julia: And it’s my belief that the people who hold those kinds of beliefs feel threatened by the very idea of those, quote unquote lazy or bad or unworthy people getting money or being treated as humans or having some social mobility – I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s —
Christian: It’s a loss of control. It is a fear of loss, of losing safety, of losing certainty, of losing tradition. and it’s so interesting that you say that because in the world of extremism, they fear monger to make people afraid of those threats. But they also create the conditions that keep them afraid. So when we’re talking about conservative Republicans, not only are they fear-mongering saying, Oh, those illegal aliens or whatever the flavor of their ire is for the day, but they also create the conditions that keep that active. Because that keeps them in control. It keeps them providing the solution to the people who think it’s the right solution.
and that’s the situation we’re in, is we are all afraid. and we’re all isolated too. More so I think, than ever, even with the internet. and that fear and isolation has turned into hatred in so many cases. Hatred of other races, hatred of other religions, hatred of women, hatred of LGBTQ. And it’s fear and isolation that’s caused that.
Julia: And so what you were saying a few minutes ago – and I’m paraphrasing – is that people aren’t born into these ideologies. they have to be taught them. And that therefore they can be untaught. And essentially, again, paraphrasing that when you awaken people – and what I would say is when you somehow remove their feeling of unsafety, when you give them true sense of safety and control – then they no longer need to be abusive, no longer be hateful.
Julia: and then they basically come to the light —
Christian: Crutches be gone! Because racism or hatred was always a crutch. It was always protection. What you’re talking about, I called potholes. along our journey to find that sense of identity, community, and purpose – which I think drives every decision we make – people hit potholes along that road. those potholes are trauma, they’re mental illness, they’re poverty, they’re privilege. it can be anything. It could be chronic unemployment. it’s that unsafety, that feeling of, I’ve lost control of that portion of my life.
And those potholes detour them to the fringes where they’re searching for protection or searching for answers, and they’re searching for identity, community, and purpose. And sometimes for some people, the lure of violence of an extremist group is sometimes the only identity, community and purpose they’ve ever been offered.
for some people – like, I didn’t grow up in a bad situation. My parents didn’t abuse me. They weren’t drug addicts, they’re still married, they loved me. but my pothole was abandonment. They were immigrants who came over from Italy in the 60s and had to work their asses off and I never saw them. They were gone seven days a week, 14, 15 hours a day. And as a kid, I wondered like, what did I do to push my parents away? Why aren’t they here? And I never knew how to ask so I just got angry and angry and angry and I felt worthless.
And then, having gone from this powerless kid who then was picked on his whole life – cause I never had any friends – at 14 years old when I was standing in that alley and that man showed me what my identity could be, what my community I could be accepted in could be, and gave me a purpose, I bought.
It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t understand what he was talking about. It didn’t matter to me that I hadn’t been raised on racism. It mattered to me that I was now filling those potholes, except it was filling them with sand. And it wasn’t until I filled them with the proper asphalt and concrete, that I was able to drive straight on that road and recognize that what I was doing was wrong.
Julia: And so your story and the work that you do is at the extremes, right? and so getting back to the resources again, you of all people can talk about how incredibly resource intensive it is to undertake this process with any one individual person. what you do is you get people out of the movement.
And I’ve heard you say a couple of times, both live and on videos I’ve seen of you, that there are in fact people who the public thinks of today as leaders in the hate movement – or in various hate movements – who you know actually are out because of the work that you have done. And they can’t say so you can’t say —
Christian: Well they’re not out necessarily, not always. They’re out psychologically, and they’re out mentally and their heart is out. But it’s sometimes impossible for them to leave those circumstances. so in those cases, it could be that their family is involved and if they leave the movement, they’re walking away from their family, their blood family.
it could be that, there are people, good intentioned people pushing them back saying, no. You are a Nazi. And they’re saying, but I don’t want to be anymore. And they’re saying, no, but you always will be. So there’s that obstacle.
but there are also other obstacles where it’s just very tough to make the decision to start over. Even though your heart and everything tells you that what you’re doing is going through the motions and that you’re hurting yourself and other people, that it’s easier sometimes to just stay.
Julia: But as far down the road as you have gotten them, it’s incredibly intensive, correct? Of your personal time and intention, right?
Christian: Oh yeah. I’ve got over 300 needy children that I work with on a daily basis. And again, those needy children are adults. they’re spread out all over the world, and every one of them needs a network of aftercare. Whether it’s counseling or job training or life coaching or tattoo removal, they all need resources and resources like that don’t exist.
There’s no directory for me to go to and say, okay, which psychologist is going to take a pro bono case in little rock, Arkansas? Where there aren’t a whole lot of psychologists taking pro bono cases who is willing to accept a person who is or was a Nazi, because what they think is, Oh, I’ve got to debate this person under ideology.
And I say, no, no, no. That’s the last thing I want you to do. In fact, I never do that. I never discuss their ideology. I never debate them. I never tell them that they’re wrong. What I do is I focus on the human being and I build resilience. I’m a pothole filler and I’m a bridge builder, so I have to build bridges and it’s extremely difficult. Probably the hardest thing in my work is finding, building that network of resources around every person. Because I have to start from scratch every time I do that.
Julia: And what it makes me think about is the people that are more in the middle as opposed to the extremes. And if we’re talking about your garden variety Trump supporter, for example, or your garden variety chauvinist as another example. And so these are not people engaging in extreme behavior —
Christian: I would argue with that and say that they are, that they are contributing to it, no matter how mild their actions or words are.
Julia: Certainly contributing to it. But what these people would say is like the garden variety chauvinist, who is constantly taking credit for women’s work at work, or is making inappropriate comments about their skirt or whatever the case may be. Right? Garden variety chauvinism. and that man’s defense is, “I’m not assaulting anybody. I’m not guilty of this stuff. don’t make me a Roy Moore. Don’t call me a Matt Lauer. don’t put us all in that same boat.” They might more ally with an Al Franken or some of these other men who are guilty of smaller crimes. and now we’re having a conversation about a Joe Biden.
Right? And people believe that we are putting Joe Biden in the same bucket as Roy Moore and Donald Trump and Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, whatever. like, no, Joe Biden is not in that same — his actions are not the same. And yet the chauvinism is, as you just said it’s a starter drug.
Christian: Right, right. It’s a gateway
Julia: Gateway behavior. Exactly.
Christian: Absolutely. I think that they do contribute it on a larger scale. the impact, for instance, a group like the incel movement, which stands for involuntary celibates, which, are a group of really frustrated young men who blame women for all the frustrations in their lives.
And to me that really is no different than a white supremacist who accepted an ideology to blame people for the problems that they probably could have controlled in their lives in many cases. and they’re murdering people. They’re murdering women based on this hatred of women.
and there are different levels, but here’s the thing. nobody starts out as a killer. Nobody starts out as a rapist. I think it starts somewhere, and that even if it never ends up being rape or assault, that that kind of information spreads to other people in their lives.
Julia: And so I I guess the question i s , how much easier or harder is it to fill the potholes of somebody whose potholes are much smaller?
Christian: Well I think —
Julia: Or we can assume that the pothole is smaller if the resultant abusive behavior is much milder. I’ve talked to plenty of men who are like, “I don’t do those behaviors, don’t talk to me about –” and they’re not able to see that their subtle chauvinism and sexism is actually being driven by some sort of a lack or fear or unsafety inside of themselves.
Christian: There really is no difference. it would be no different for me working with a violent Nazi versus somebody who’s just an American racist, grandfather or uncle. I mean, it really is about —
Julia: the Charlottesville marcher.
Julia: Who’s not taking any other action other than that.
Christian: And I’ve done that. Right? I’ve worked with organizers of the Charlottesville rally and I’ve worked with people who just posted about it and wished that they were there. Or were there. and really my approach is no different because it really is about the child and not the monster. It really is — the severity of what they do with their behavior is sometimes just a matter of environmental stuff. Or a matter of a closer influence, pulling them closer to that behavior, not existing. so I approach people the same way, no matter how deep their potholes are.
Julia: and I guess that gets back to the question of resources, right? So if it’s going to cost you 100 hours to fill someone’s potholes, no matter what level of behavior they’re at, is the return on investment enough for you to do that, if the result will be that there’ll be one fewer marcher in the next Charlottesville rally? Versus if the result is there’s gonna be one fewer suicide bomber in the world.
Christian: Right. Well, you know, it’s impossible for me to distinguish what somebody’s intentions are because I could be working with the most outspoken Neo Nazi in the world, and everybody thinks that that person is the biggest threat. but I could also be working with some 17 year old kid who nobody’s ever heard about, who’s never been on anybody’s radar, who’s telling me that he has a gun and wants to walk into a building and shoot people.
I’m not gonna measure potholes at that point. I’m going to focus on what I think the priority is. But my priority is not always what other people’s priorities are. So do I help the person who is continuing to spread this well oiled machine of recruitment? Or do I stop the person who is going to murder 15 people? Of course I’m going to protect human life. And in that case, I have a duty to report that. And hopefully somebody else would step in at that point to help But I never But I never know if that person who is influencing other people is influencing somebody who’s going to walk into a school.
So I can’t – I’m not distinguishing that, so much as I am this person needs help and I cannot turn them away. Because if I would have been turned away – and there was nobody for me to turn to, by the way, when I wanted out. If somebody would have turned me away, I would’ve gone back. And I have a hard time – I have a hard time prioritizing that, unless there’s an imminent threat of harm. Then of course I would.
Julia: So that’s a fabulous segue to the last part that I want to talk about, which is what I said we were starting to talk about, which is the question of redemption and forgiveness. And getting out.
the question that began our relationship – you were a speaker at a panel discussion that was about hate, and on the panel was you and a rabbi and Michael Masterson —
Christian: Michael masters, former head of Homeland security – DHS – for cook County, yeah.
Julia: Yeah. And so a law and order guy, if there ever was one. it struck me that my goodness gracious, michael masters trusts you. Works with you. And I posed the question to the panel, what’s the role of forgiveness and redemption? And the rabbi gave a rabbinical answer, which was lovely.
You gave an answer, which we’ll talk about now. and Michael did not answer, on the panel. And afterwards, I approached Michael. I said to him, how is it that you’re able to forgive Christian? And he didn’t have a good answer to that.
I asked him. Could you imagine forgiving anybody else that commits these acts of terror? And his answer was basically, man, is it hard for me. And he kind of couched it by saying, I work with – I see up close and personal – the very worst of the worst. The hardcore, really violent people who caused the deaths of many people. And he said, I really have a hard time forgiving that. And I said to him, well, how is it that you’re able to forgive Christian? And he didn’t have an answer.
Christian: yeah. And I wouldn’t, that’s a hard – if you were to ask ME that question, how I forgive Christian, I would have a hard time answering that question.
Julia: How you forgive yourself, or how he forgave you?
Christian: How I forgive myself.
Julia: Let’s talk about both of them.
Christian: Okay. I don’t expect anybody to forgive me. I expect people to hold me accountable. And I’ve held myself accountable for 23 years. and I continue to do that. how I forgive myself – and I’ll have to ask Michael that the next time he and his wife and me and my wife go out to dinner, cause we do that pretty frequently
Julia: and it he gives you a meaningful answer, I would love it if you’d pass it along.
Christian: So I cannot speak for him, but I can understand how it would be difficult for somebody to trust me, to forgive me for what I had done. And all I would say to that is don’t. Just, let me keep doing what I’m doing and let me prove myself.
Julia: Which raises a question. There’s a note that I just jotted down. You said you want to be held accountable.
Julia: And I notice that you are not in jail.
Julia: if being held accountable meant that you would have to surrender your freedom, would you feel the same ?
Christian: I think so. but I would say that I never did anything to warrant being in prison. I don’t think, I mean, I certainly hurt people. I was in fist fights and street fights and I created propaganda that influenced a lot of people. There was always something inside of me though that I think stopped me from going over the edge and I have to credit my family for that, because I wasn’t raised to be that way.
so there was – while I did go through the motions and I definitely – I hurt people for sure. I don’t know that 23 years later there would be anything… If we’re talking hypothetically, yes, I would. I would hold myself accountable. If I knew I had hurt somebody in a way that warranted me going to jail, I would absolutely not only offer myself up for that — because I think that every day of my life, I live as an example for the people that I want to help. And if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do. but I would also seek forgiveness from the people that I’d hurt and made amends to repair the harm that I had caused.
Julia: I believe you about that. And in fact, I believe that if in fact — say that something you had done had resulted in the deaths of three people. Directly. And you’ve talked about how you wrote the lyrics to a song that inspired somebody who did kill people, but you’re not legally responsible for his actions. but if you had – if one of your evenings of violent shenanigans had resulted in three deaths and you in fact were sentenced to life in prison, I believe that you would still be doing this work from a prison cell.
Christian: Absolutely. It’s who I am.
Julia: But I think not very many people would. And this gets into this question of accountability and consequences, particularly as we talk about for sexual harassment and sexual assault. I think one of the reasons that men – as we go down the list from Joe Biden to Al Franken to Louis CK to – on down the list to Harvey Weinstein and rapists, right? Matt Lauer, rapist, allegedly. It becomes more and more difficult.
Christian: I have a hard time with Harvey Weinstein. I don’t know that I forgive Harvey Weinstein. I don’t know that I —
Julia: I mean, it becomes more difficult for those men to be willing to be held accountable.
Christian: Oh, sure.
Julia: Because what they are being held account to is — not only is it something that they don’t want to have, it’s something they feel they don’t deserve.
Julia: So Al Franken says – I can imagine him saying and a bunch of people, his defenders saying, Al Franken maybe deserves SOME kind of consequences, but what’s being inflicted upon him is way more than he deserves. He doesn’t deserve to have that have lost his job. and whatever any given man is on that spectrum —
and now we’re shifting gears to talk about that as opposed to violent extremism, I recognize that. But wherever a man is on that spectrum of, I know I engaged in some level of sexually inappropriate behavior. But I believe that if I fess up to that – and this gets back somewhat into our idea of unsafety and lack of control – if I fess up to that and I put myself at the mercy of these enraged feminists, they’re gonna do something to me that is way worse than I think I deserve.
Christian: I think that that’s a valid concern. And I think we have to ask ourselves if things that we’ve done in our past that maybe don’t rise to the level of Harvey Weinstein or even Louis CK —
Julia: If you were an Al Franken —
Christian: Right. Is that a death sentence.
Julia: — Somewhere between butt groping and maybe forcibly kissing somebody, right.
Christian: Or let’s say Joe Biden, who – one could argue that was the generation he was raised in. It was acceptable, at least among white men, to do that. maybe he didn’t know any better. Like he’s a grown man, he should know better not to do that stuff. But is that a death sentence for him?
Christian: `Like it should be for Harvey Weinstein, who is a criminal, who essentially is the equivalent of walking into a mosque and murdering 50 people, destroying the lives of women the same in – certainly not in exactly the same way, but destroyed the lives of those women in some way.
Julia: And even if it’s not a death sentence, is it the death of his career that’s the other question. Even if you’re not being asked to surrender your freedom —
Julia: And certainly not your life, you’re being told that you can’t work, and you’re given that – that was the argument of Noam what’s his face, who runs the Comedy Cellar in New York, who put Louis CK back on stage. he said that he asked the question, well, at what point should I be allowed to put Louis back on stage? And he said the answer he received from many people was never. And he said that he felt that was unreasonable.
I happen to agree, that is unreasonable, but the answer isn’t, we’ll put them back on stage now with no personal reflection.
Christian: Right. And I think that’s a key. It is the self reflection. But not only that, it is also about – so let me put it into perspective. There are some people that I work with that are very happy telling their story publicly after they denounce, right? And then in that way, they’re partly making amends by informing other people and doing that. But they’re doing things in their community as well. And there are some people who are like, “I did the work to get out. I’m a better person. I don’t want to tell people what I was a part of. I’m going to continue to do good work, but I don’t want to bring that scrutiny to my family.” because let’s face it, we are in a world right now where it’s like, if you’ve ever done anything wrong in your life —
Christian: — it’s over. Like, you know, like you’re done. and I somehow escaped that. And maybe it was because I came clean before somebody outed me because I knew it was the right thing to do. And I did the work, and it wasn’t necessarily because somebody forced me to do that
now somebody like to Louis C K I agree. Like it’s not a death sentence. What he did was wrong. but if we were to equate that to like a crime of retail theft versus murder, it’s probably still a class A misdemeanor or class, C felony or whatever. but he probably doesn’t deserve to be put on death row. Right? What is the work that he needs to do before he can gain that acceptance, that freedom, that trust back
Julia: And what is your answer?
Christian: My answer is only he knows that. He has to do the work . I don’t know if that’s education. I don’t know if that’s — it has to be genuine, I guess is what I’m saying. I don’t know what that means for him. But he has the ability to influence people. And maybe if part of that influence is being genuine on stage in his comedy routine to address these things, then maybe we should allow him onstage to do that. Because maybe that’s how he impacts people the most.
Julia: I think that’s a big part of it. Is being sorry, versus being sorry that you got caught.
Julia: And then beyond that, okay, I really am sorry, and now I’m going to reflect. like what that security guard at your high school asked you to do: what brought you to that place? But that’s a deeper level. And the farther down that path of personal reflection a person is allowed to go, in my opinion, the greater is the redemption that should be given to that person.
Christian: There should be scrutiny, right? people need to be held accountable. they can’t just say, I’m sorry, I’m going to do a little bit of work, do my community service, and then I’m going to go live my life and never think about it.
Julia: And what does that look like? What does scrutiny and accountability look like?
Christian: I think families can hold people accountable. I mean, the same way we hold people accountable who are alcoholics or drug abusers. When we see them going back to those behaviors – if we care about them, we intervene and we say, I’m concerned. I don’t like that. Get back – here’s the path forward, not that one.
Julia: What would be a toe into the water again? if somebody that you would say, I’ve gotten this person out of the hate movement – what to you would be a gateway behavior? That would indicate they’re certainly not like full on in it, but Ooh, that’s not a good sign.
Christian: And are we talking just about extremist quote unquote behavior in general, which could mean sexual assault?
Julia: Sure, take it broadly.
Christian: The warning signs are the same across the board. It’s the same thing we tell parents. If your kid is withdrawn, if your kid is lonely or if that adult is isolated or – and I say kids, but this applies to everybody. If they change their behavior suddenly. If they go from very low self esteem and low self confidence to an extreme jump, then that that means that they’ve somehow been empowered in ways that they’re not comfortable sharing with you, but it’s still empowers them. like they found a movement and they don’t want to tell their parents what they’re involved in, but all of a sudden they’re more confident than they ever was.
It’s the same with drugs, behavior changes. groups of influencers change and isolation occurs even more so than before. Isolation is what pulls people to those movements and marginalization to some degree. But what they don’t recognize is once they’re a part of those movements, they’re actually more marginalized and more alienated than they ever were before. They’re just surrounded now by this warm blanket that is toxic.
so, you know, the warning signs are: marginalized, lonely, broken, pothole-ridden, insecure. because an extremist behavior could be like, I’m going to just do drugs to self medicate my pain. Or I’m going to commit suicide to self medicate my pain, or I’m going to hurt somebody else to self medicate my pain.
Julia: I also find myself wondering is on that kind of boomerang, of – what we’re describing is somebody who’s been in the far end of extremist behavior. Once their potholes get filled and they are awakened and they kind of boomerang kind of to the far end. I mean, maybe not quite the to the extent that you have, but they kind of become a full on really good person.
Christian: Or a full on bad person on the complete opposite end of the spectrum,
Julia: at least not being hateful, right?
Christian: I call that cult hopping. And it’s a behavior and a phenomenon that I’ve noticed – again, because people are searching for identity, community, and purpose and not ideologies. they will jump from one extreme to the other, that they will go from being an extreme far right Nazi to being an extreme far left anti Nazi. And I’m not in that boat. Like, of course I’m anti Nazi, but I wouldn’t call myself like a militant —
Julia: Would that be like Antifa?
Christian: Potentially. I’ve definitely seen people go back and forth. And I’ve also seen Antifa go to Nazis. it really is about this cult hopping. people are searching for identity, community, and purpose. it’s about repairing those potholes, but it’s also about replacing the identity, community and purpose with something positive.
`If you don’t – you can take somebody out of a Nazi group or make somebody stop raping women, but they’ll probably go into some other really nasty behavior, you know? so it really is about —
Julia: Again, the safety and replacing it with something positive. That’s where like, okay, I’m no longer filled with fear and uncertainty and self doubt and a feeling of worthlessness. And now I’m filled with a feeling of safety and a certainty that I am supported and that I am loved, and that it’s not, I’m not loved for what I do, but for who I am.
Christian: And I have agency and I can contribute, and I am now, you know, worth something, or at least they’re telling me, so.
Yeah. It could be a dangerous thing. I’m still a recruiter. You know, I was a recruiter 30 years ago. I’m still a recruiter. I still look for vulnerable people, and I still promise them paradise, except now I deliver. try anyway.
Julia: On that note – I could continue talking to you forever and ever. but you’ve got important work to be doing in the world.
Christian: Well this is important too. So thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Julia: Of course, yes. It’s been a very interesting conversation, thought provoking.
Of course. Thank you.