Former Gov. Schwarzenegger leads discussion on ‘breaking the cycle of extremism’

The actor turned politician discussed how a visit to Auschwitz allowed him to confront hate and encouraged him to combat it in his own life.

man at podium

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to USC Annenberg to speak about terminating hate around the world and breaking the cycle of extremism.

Last month, the actor and former Governor released a video addressing anti-semitism and those who possess hateful beliefs with a message that they still have time to change their path. The video came after his visit to Auschwitz, where he came face-to-face with the horrors of the Holocaust, which started his journey to combat global hate.

During a discussion moderated by CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, Schwarzenegger spoke about the importance of using his platform to speak about critical issues and how to encourage change.

“I always feel like when you’re a celebrity, you have the responsibility to use your power of influence in the world,” Schwarzenegger said.

As a son of a Nazi soldier, he spoke about seeing the “tremendous atrocities” committed by his ancestors firsthand and how important it is to prevent them.

“I know that I’m just one voice, maybe a strong voice, but a voice, and that we need a lot of people to come together,” Schwarzenegger said.

When it comes to reaching people and getting them to listen, Schwarzenegger goes on saying how people should communicate rather than attacking those on the other side. He explains how people can do this through conversation.

“Ask them to join us and get out of this mode of hate,” Schwarzenegger said. “Explain to them that hate in their hands never pays off and all of the various organizations and governments that were known for hate became losers.”

Another member of the panel, Chuck Leek, a former extremist and now a member of Life After Hate, a nonprofit that helps guide individuals away from violent far-right groups, reflected on the state of denial that many people live in. Leek pointed out where hatred can be found — according to him, it comes from within.

“I think that we’re missing each other’s humanity,” Leek said. “When I was involved with these things, when I wanted to commit genocide, the person I really hated was me and I couldn’t cope with that.”

When Leek left the white supremacist movement, there were no groups like Life After Hate to help him through the process of de-radicalization. He was on his own.

His journey eventually led him to meet Frank Meenik, a cofounder of Life After Hate. Leek has been with the group since 2011.

As an “exit strategist,” Leek helps individuals navigate leaving hate groups.

“I’ve been where you are. You can get out of it,” Leek said. “You can change your life and society will accept you and you will be able to find a purpose and have a constructive life.”

Another tool mentioned in breaking the cycle of extremism is storytelling. In Schwarzenegger’s September 2022 visit to Auschwitz, he stood alongside Simon Bergsun, a son of Auschwitz survivors, showing the world that within one generation, hatred can be shifted.

Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, a Jewish community seeking to revive Jewish life, spoke about the importance of changing the narrative.

“I think what you [Schwarzenegger] just described in your relationship with Simon,” Brous said, “the two of you finding a way to weep together in Auschwitz and not hold shame, but instead hold the grace to know that together you could tell a different story, that’s the kind of narrative that we need.”

Brous also explains how democratization can be a beacon of social change.

“It allows all other voices to rise to the surface that might not have had room before,” Brous said.

But film director Jon Turteltaub, who attended the talk, explained his perspective on how democratization can be seen as a double-edged sword.

“I’m very concerned with who is expressing and telling the story,” Turteltaub said. He was worried about giving equal time to “the horrible people, too.”

Sixteen-year-old Luba Alkhalii, founder of the non-profit Act for Change, walked away from the discussion with inspiration for her own work.

“It’s really important to look at the view from two different groups,” Alkhalii said. “If we can come in and really bring out both sides right away, we can attack that issue right from the start.”