On Fanaticism



Were I to set out to create a fanaticized society, I would begin by dividing its population into several inward-looking groups, to each of which I would relate a narrative about who they are and how they came to be. This story could be political or religious, true or false, as one likes, but it must have no alternative and speak of an absolute that looks favorably upon them and them alone—some heroic figure or divinity, a shining city perhaps, some glorious past or promised future. If the narrative stretches credulity, this is easily remedied through daily confirmation, news reports, and education. Communication within each group would be largely virtual and anonymous, with all statements limited to a few lines, while inter-group communication would be discouraged. The name of the game would be attention and the loudest voice would dominate. Nonconformists, should any exist, would suffer the infamy of finding certain epithets—elusive to definition but feared—permanently attached to their names. Among this blueprint’s merits are that it is perfectly adapted to a technological age and it is simple while allowing for infinite variation.

Fanaticism is often in the news, but it is not a novel phenomenon. In the middle of the last century, French existentialist Gabriel Marcel observed in his Man Against Mass Society that fanaticism had become something of an epidemic throughout a good part of the world. What, he asked, is the nature of fanaticism and what is to be done about it? The answers he gave hold surprising relevance for our times. First, he said, let us not speak of fanaticism, as if this were a kind of worldview unto itself, but of what he called “fanaticized consciousness” for we are speaking of an attitude of mind that may attach itself to any number of ideas. The ideas themselves are sometimes extreme, but quite often they are not. No ideas, he thought, are inherently fanatical, and to say that certain ideas lend themselves to fanaticism is true only to a degree.

Fanaticism, Marcel believed, requires additional conditions which include the presence of a group. Even the lone wolf is a member of some notional community, at least in their mind. One is not a fanatic in isolation. Whatever ideology one subscribes to must create a sense of belonging and ideally one of personal transcendence as well. The fanatic must see oneself as embroiled in conflict against some despised adversary. A herd mentality takes hold: not I alone but my group is embroiled in a high stakes battle of good and evil. Since group psychology and individual responsibility are as oil to water, a mass society may be readily fanaticized by means of propaganda over which the state enjoys no monopoly. When individuals are not thinking for themselves, they will go along with what everyone around them is thinking with very little resistance and will be rewarded for doing so, usually in the form of social acceptance and the pleasures of righteous indignation. One who does this never thinks oneself a fanatic—a committed person perhaps, a true believer, but not a fanatic, any more than one might think oneself a heretic or an infidel. The fanatic is always the other person, the member of some competing group in a contest that is basically Hobbesian but in a collectivized form.

Fanaticized consciousness is rooted in passion, and no passion is more effective in mobilizing populations than fear. This is the fear of an enemy, some evil or insecurity that can be converted into outward aggression. There must be a perception of danger and preferably war, a sensation that readily motivates groups into becoming uncompromising in their views and hostile toward their enemies. Such fears are easily stoked by means of modern communications technology and propaganda that appeal to people’s vulnerabilities. Today, social media greatly facilitate the process by creating in-groups and instant trends, by spreading a thought like wildfire before anyone has had a chance to think about it, by anonymous communication for which no one is responsible and feelings pass for reasons, and by disabling any higher-level conversation or much of anything beyond a “Here we stand.”

The fanatical mind suffers from what Marcel called a “deficiency of imagination”: one is oblivious, often willfully, to the humanity of our enemy and to the consequences of our actions for both ourselves and others. This form of consciousness is more like an unconsciousness, an intellectual laziness that allows one to condemn others whom one has not really seen and whose claims have not been heard. The fanaticized consciousness does not question its own premises. When one is surrounded by a mass of humanity, none of whom is questioning their assumptions, why should one do so? How could one, even if one had a mind to? One’s individuality having been surrendered, any ability to think has been surrendered along with it, likely without our being aware of it. One then shows no resistance to what the group decides to do. One goes along, adapts, and is compensated for doing so. If one has never thought about one’s beliefs, values, or way of life as a whole, nor has anyone else. Even if we tried to, we would lack the tools.

Ideologies have changed since Marcel’s time, but the underlying phenomenon of which he was speaking has not and is readily seen on both the right and the left. Today it is likely more an intellectual failing than a moral one, remedies to which can be identified once we have understood the pathology. They include renewed attention on the ties that might still bind members of a society into some semblance of a community; educational institutions that open minds rather than conscript them into an orthodoxy; regarding ideas as hypotheses rather than absolutes; politicians who grasp the concept of public service; news organizations that know the difference between journalism and propaganda; social narratives that can find their way back to reality; and forms of communication that defy compression into a tweet.

The antidote to fanaticized consciousness is seeing human beings for what they manifestly are: alike and unalike, passionate and rational, inspired and flawed, and a miscellany of contradictions. Fanaticism in our time is a refusal of a few things: perception, reason, self-reflection, humility, empathic understanding, any one of which would suffice as a remedy and all of which require an effort of individual thought. Waiting for a president or a prophet to unite us will not do, for we are not speaking of any simple top-down matter. Any antidote to fanaticism will need to emerge from the bottom up, if it is to emerge at all.

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