A former white nationalist leader who attended the notorious “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville said he changed his extremist views after taking ecstasy as part of a scientific study, according to researchers.
The man, only identified as Brendan, took the psychoactive drug MDMA in February 2020 as part of a University of Chicago study about whether its use increased the pleasantness of social touch, wrote Rachel Nuwer, author of “I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World,” for the BBC.
After completing the study, Brendan left a cryptic message at the bottom of a survey for the researchers.
“This experience has helped me sort out a debilitating personal issue. Google my name. I now know what I need to do,” he said.
The researchers looked up Brendan and discovered he had been the leader of a US Midwest faction of Identity Evropa, a notorious white nationalist group rebranded in 2019 as the American Identity Movement.
Brendan had led the white nationalist group up until two months earlier, when activists exposed his identity and he lost his job.
Researching Brendan further, the scientists also discovered he had attended the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
They later reached out to Brendan asking him to clarify what he meant by his comments at the bottom of the survey.
“Love is the most important thing,” he told them. “Nothing matters without love.
“This is stuff you can’t really put into words, but it was so profound,” Brendan said of his experience with the drug.
“I conceived of my relationships with other people not as distinct boundaries with distinct entities, but more as we-are-all-one. I realised I’d been fixated on stuff that doesn’t really matter, and is just so messed up, and that I’d been totally missing the point. I hadn’t been soaking up the joy that life has to offer.
“There are moments when I have racist or antisemitic thoughts, definitely,” he said. “But now I can recognise that those kinds of thought patterns are harming me more than anyone else.”
Brendan said he had leaned left while growing up but became more right after joining a conservative fraternity at the University of Illinois.
He described feeling encouraged by Donald Trump, noting, “His speech talking about Mexicans being rapists, the fixation on the border wall and deporting everyone, the Muslim ban – I didn’t really get white nationalism until Trump started running for president.”
He said he joined Identity Evropa to meet others who shared his views and quickly rose in the ranks, eventually traveling around the US and Europe to huddle with other white nationalist groups. He likely would have continued along this path had his identity not been exposed, Nuwer noted in her article.
Harriet de Wit, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Chicago who led the experiment, was still astonished by its results nearly two years later when speaking with Nuwer for her book.
“Isn’t that amazing?” de Wit said. “It’s what everyone says about this damn drug, that it makes people feel love. To think that a drug could change somebody’s beliefs and thoughts without any expectations – it’s mind-boggling.”
The use of MDMA and other psychedelics have gained traction in the medical community as they have shown positive results for treating some disorders such as PTSD and alcoholism.
Brendan told Nuwer that the drug helped him “see things in a different way that no amount of therapy or antiracist literature ever would have done.
“I really think it was a breakthrough experience,” he said.
Still, he said he knew of other white supremacists who had previously used MDMA but had not changed their minds.
According to Nuwer, MDMA “does not seem to be able to magically rid people of prejudice, bigotry, or hate on its own.
“But some researchers have begun to wonder if it could be an effective tool for pushing people who are already somehow primed to reconsider their ideology toward a new way of seeing things,” the researcher wrote.
“While MDMA cannot fix societal-level drivers of prejudice and disconnection, on an individual basis it can make a difference. In certain cases, the drug may even be able to help people see through the fog of discrimination and fear that divides so many of us.”
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