The MWS Podcast 65: Bjorn Ihler on surviving Utøya, resolving extremism and the Middle Way

We are joined today by Bjorn Ihler , who is a peace activist, writer and filmmaker working against dogmatism, particularly  in the forms of racism, hatred and violent extremism. His work is greatly founded on his experiences as a survivor of the attack on Utøya island in Norway in 2011. He’s written numerous articles for national and international newspapers and has been an inspiration to many activists through participation in conferences and organisations such as the Oslo Freedom Forum, Against Violent Extremism and the Forgiveness Project. Bjorn has a degree in Theatre and Performance Design and Technology from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Art In 2013, he collaborated in the writing of the play ‘The Events’ by David Greig, an account of a survivor resembling the Utoya attack and he’s is currently producing the film ‘Rough Cut – Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity’. Bjorn recounts the events of July 22nd 2011 and its repercussions. We discuss the roots of extremism, how education can play a key role in terms of addressing the problem, especially critical thinking and how all this might relate to the the Middle Way

MWS Podcast 65:Bjorn Ihler as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

6 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 65: Bjorn Ihler on surviving Utøya, resolving extremism and the Middle Way

  1. As a Norwegian (with a non-western ethnic background), a lot of the things mentioned by Bjørn about Norway ‘post 22/9’ makes a lot of sense to me. Many of the psychological insights about ‘post 22/9’ that emerge in this video, such as how one labels the persons involved (broken victims vs recovering survivor), fascinate me. And I admire Bjørn’s ability to bring something good to this world, seemingly fueled by his experiences in the horrible event he has been through.

    Indeed, dogmatism does seem to be the enabling factor behind much of what we would call evil in this world. Sure, we have all found ourself in situations where we think, feel and act in ways we aren’t proud of afterwards (if we are lucky enough to realize that we were mistaken), but I guess it takes the certainty and the narrowness that we see in dogmatism to actually go as far as Breivik did.

    What causes this dogmatism? What is the difference between dogmatism and acting on what you believe? And if we try to avoid dogmatism, how do we avoid falling into its polar opposite, that is total relativism, a state of indecision, inaction and chaos? If acting provisionally, meaning that we act on justified beliefs but stay open for alternative possibilites, how do we know when it’s time to act, and when it’s time to inquire further? Is this ability of discernement the long-sought virtue of wisdom?

    Avoiding dogmatism is one of the main tenets of the Middle Way Philosophy. I believe the highest goal of any philosophy is to act as a sort of compass, to guide us to certain practices and ways of living, which are life and health promoting. These traditions and practices really are the cornerstones of any society and culture, so the question is if perhaps there are some our society have yet to discover, and teach widely to the population. Indeed, our population needs more than just to learn reading, writing and arithmatic. We also needs methods to tend to our mind and spirit, and to tend to the inevitable wounds we will sustain during our lives, some more than others.

    1. I also found Bjorn’s account moving and inspiring, particularly in Bjorn’s refusal to demonise Breivik, and his recognition of the importance of the Middle Way as a sustainable and effective response to extremism.

      Robin’s questions deserve more detailed answers than can really be given on blog comments: I have attempted to answer some of them in my most recent book – ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief’. Here are some brief suggestions or pointers towards answers:
      1. What causes dogmatism? Left-brain over-dominance in which rigid representations of ‘truths’ and goals become established, reinforced by the role such dogmas play in maintaining group power.
      2. What is the difference between dogmatism and acting on what you believe? I don’t think it is acts that are dogmatic, but judgements. If a dogmatic belief is dominant at the time you make a judgement, you will act on it. That means that dogmas are not the only beliefs held even by extremists like Breivik – so as Bjorn suggested, there is still some hope for change. On the other hand, we have to act on non-dogmatic beliefs all the time in order to live our lives.
      3. If we try to avoid dogmatism, how do we avoid falling into relativism etc? By recognising that relativism is a form of dogmatism, and that positive and negative forms of dogma (which may happen to affirm or deny a particular ‘truth’) are equally dogmatic. The effects of dogma may be chaotic in some instances and over-rigid in others, but in both cases the cause is a distortion of judgement caused by rigidity.
      4. If acting provisionally, how do we know when it is time to act, and when it’s time to enquire further? Only according to our understanding of conditions and the (provisional) judgements we make according to that understanding. We need to make judgements not only about how to act, but also when, and if we do so on the basis of beliefs that are more provisional, they are also more likely to be adequate.
      5. Is this ability of discernment the long-sought virtue of wisdom? That depends on your understanding of ‘wisdom’. Wisdom has often been confused with some kind of special knowledge, and even thinkers who have made a big contribution to our understanding of wisdom as a virtue (such as Aristotle) tend to assume that wisdom involves knowing ultimate truths of some kind. But if you understand wisdom just as a pragmatic skill of adequate judgement, then I would say yes. In the above-mentioned book I have a chapter exploring the idea of wisdom using an adapted Buddhist model – that of the 5 Buddha mandala, in which different types of wisdom need to work together in balance. That’s why the 5 Buddha mandala is on the cover of the book.

      1. Thanks Bjorn for telling your story and for laying out a basis for our sharing meanings in situations that seem to defy any.

        I was struck by your careful/thoughtful management of the many polarising concepts/ideologies thrown up by your experience. For example the sane-insane dichotomy: I think it is fanciful and perhaps unrealistic to think that anyone of us is utterly sane or utterly insane. Any notional boundary between sanity or insanity is bound to be arbitrary, subject to shifting, or manipulated, boundaries. Is ‘insight’ ( a defining characteristic of sanity) always present in sufficient form or strength to protect us from at least some serious short term or long-running but concealed madness? And is madness never characterised by some moments of clear insight, insight that fails to find intelligible expression, or – if expressed – is not heard or willingly acknowledged?

        The same goes, I think, for forgiveness and unforgiveness. These ideological positions are often set out as if they exist in hermetically sealed compartments of consciousness, that have to be somehow breached to release their ‘healing energies’, and for people to ‘move on’.

        These things are hard to talk about, or to teach, I think. The prevailing culture in which we live holds up some forms of absolutism as inviolable. Thus, it is better to be strong than to be feeble; it is better to be an achiever than a non-achiever; a striver than a slacker; a success more than a failure; intelligent than thick. Against these assumptive, normative positions, how far can exercises in critical thinking make progress? Maybe we should work on these assumptions first, before moving to anything more high-minded.

        How widely do you find your own opinion acceptable to others: that we should listen to, and encourage the extremists, the murderers and the (perhaps, I suggest) the predatory paedophiles, to tell their stories? Is it true, do you think, that those who have dreadful things perpetrated on them, like those of you who survived (or didn’t survive) the massacre on the island, should give those who perpetrated the massacre the same level of sympathetic and unconditional audience?

        The fact that your tentative story raised so many questions in my mind shows the power you have derived from what you went through, and continue to experience. Is it not perhaps the case that only experiences of extreme events, and their capacity to hugely disrupt our consensus thinking/consensus trance, can bring about to the transformation we all seek, for ourselves and others. Maybe we are too immunised from extremes, from chaos, and maybe we need to be more anti-fragile, and less reliant on ‘order’ in all its manifestations.

        I wonder……..and I thank you (and Barry) for moving me a little further along the road to wisdom.

  2. I too found Bjorn’s interview impressive. I found myself often stopping to think: how would I have come out of this experience? Having watched someone trying to shoot me? Kill me? The mobile phone ringing in the heap of corpses, with no hope of answer. The fatherless children. The children-less parents. The plume of consequences of an act like this, which will unfold through the years to come in ways of which Breivik could not begin to apprehend the scale. Such desperate delusion & entrenched wounded-ness to act in this way.
    What will stay with me is Bjorn’s explanation of how victimhood becomes self-reinforcing; and how the pity he received was so deeply unhelpful. I would like to know if he also experienced empathy, and whether he found that to be helpful. What also stays with me is how important it was for him to understand the mechanics of PTSD, and how this got him back on track. This seems to me crucial for those working with people who have experienced major, unexpected, and un-asked for changes in their lives – such as bereavement of a loved one. Thirdly, the importance of telling the story, of sharing the burden, and coming to the point of realising it can’t hurt you. There’s something wonderful in how he describes this process of externalising it, and sharing it. It reminds me of the practice in some tribes of putting the wrong-doer in the middle of a circle, and denouncing his crime – and, gradually, the wrong-doer moves to join the circle, leaving the wrong-doing in the middle; separating the act of from the person once true, sincere, wholly-owned contrition has been expressed. In one sense, ownership has become collective.

    On the wider issues (I don’t want to make this comment too long – perhaps already it is!) I agree with Bjorn that no culture is static. But on the other hand, I think it is equally true that excessive ‘churn’ & change is unsettling for many people, and that we have to be compassionate and mindful of that. If mainstream political parties can’t connect with those feelings, and people feel they aren’t heard, we will I think see the rise of increasingly right-wing and intolerant parties. The middle way, it seems to me, requires not getting trapped in a polarised open v closed, libertarian v authoritarian analysis. I wouldn’t be facile in suggesting a link between this & Breivik. But desperately awful as Utoya was, what would worry me more is the rise of mass movements. Critical thinking skills are all very well, but unheard, unacknowledged emotions which people are encouraged to feel guilty about for having are much more powerful drivers.

  3. Thank you for this great interview! I was most impressed by Bjorn Ihler’s generous spirit when he talked about the importance of victims’ stores AND perpetrators’ stories. After all that he went through, and all that he will have to revisit the rest of his life, that he is able to see that the perpetrator was a flawed human being who had a story of his own – I almost couldn’t believe my ears! If everyone had the generosity of spirit that Bjorn has, the entire world would be a better place. I was also impressed with the work that he’s doing. This work fits in so well with the aims of the Middle Way Society to encourage that we live a more integrated ethical life. Ihler’s point of view about the importance of stories for stimulating political change and peace building is quite inspiring. I think we are wired for telling and hearing stories, and we are more open to hearing different points of view if these views are expressed within a story, rather than in political debates. Kudos for this thoughtful, inspiring interview!

  4. Thank you (both Bjorn and Barry) for this inspirational interview. It is important for me to listen to stories such as these, as told by those that experienced the events first hand. Firstly, it breaks through the often narrow and distant impressions left by the media: (images of Breivik’s face, or helicopter images of the island) and gives a human element that is so often lacking from sensationalist reports. Secondly, it allows me (and others) to explore and consider the wider, often unexpected, issues that events such as these present us with.

    The question of Brevick’s humanity is one that is especially close to my heart; I am often getting into debates with friends and family members about the nature of evil, and my position that even those that commit the most extreme crimes are complex human beings, not evil monsters, and that to hold such a view is not to condone their actions. I often end up arguing against the death penalty during these debates and the question is always put to me: ‘If somebody did something horrendous to someone you love dearly, wouldn’t you want to see them hurt, or killed’? This is not a question that I can truthfully answer and I fully understand when those personally affected by the violent actions of another seek retribution. That being said I always find myself deeply inspired by those who are able to overcome, in some way, such feelings. To hear Bjorn speak of Breivik’s humanity was deeply moving for me, especially in a world where it often seems that the simplest of actions (intended or not) can provoke hatred and violence (verbal as well as physical).

    I was also struck by Bjorn’s views on art and critical thinking and their potential implications for the education system – especially here in the UK. The arts seem to be seen as frivolous, unimportant subjects for school children and are increasingly sidelined in favour of science or maths. It seems to me that the arts and sciences should complement each other, and if we throw critical thinking into the mix too then maybe we will be able to prepare our children to respond to the world around them (including the horrors that can occur) in more balanced and creative ways.

    I was also interested in Bjorn’s comments on mindfulness. There is much concern about the ‘commodification’ of mindfulness, and some of this is justified. However, I think that there is another factor at play. If mindfulness remains to be presented as something of an alternative lifestyle choice, alongside joss sticks, homoeopathy and crystals then it will remain the preserve of a new age elite. This association gives it it’s ‘touchy feely’ nature, and puts many people off. If one believes, as I do, that mindfulness can be a useful tool for anybody, then it must be packaged in ways that will appeal to a broader audience. The mindfulness project and mindfulness for schools both go some way to achieve this, and through organisations like them it is possible that those who would rather have a glade plug in rather than a stick of incense can enjoy the benefits too.

    I have digressed a bit, but I think this demonstrates a benefit recounting one’s story that I had not anticipated. Bjorn’s story is disturbing, moving, inspirational and interesting. It must surely help him and others to understand and come to terms with the events of 22 July 2011 as well as other horrific events around the world. However, it also creates avenues of exploration into many other, seemingly unconnected features of human life – taking me down lines of thought through which I had not expected to go as a result of this interview.


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