An Essay on Fanaticism

cartoonAll of us know fanatics – people who believe so strongly in a person or cause that there is no reasoning with them. Either you see things their way or you are a fool. Fanatics will not listen, will not consider other opinions and will not change their minds even if you present them with inarguable proof — they will never back down. These “True believers” believe so strongly in their cause they would almost rather die than admit they were taken in or were wrong.

You’ve probably never heard of Eric Hoffer, few have unless you study philosophy. He Eric Hofferwas known as “The Longshoreman philosopher” and was made famous by the publication in  1951 of his book “The True Believer, Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements.” His book is an interesting look into the minds of fanatics from the perspective of a “blue collar intellectual.” Speaking of fanatics if you look up the etymology of the word “fan” as in sports fan, you’ll find it comes from fanatic.

I first became aware of Hoffer in the mid-60s when I was hosting a daily hour-long radio talk show. Those were the days before computers so each evening after dinner I would head to the public library to “study up” for the next day’s show. That was a time of serious polarization when protestors believed that the American government was not to be trusted.

Although written over a half-century ago Hoffer’s thoughts ring true for a good many of our contemporary people and ideas.  “The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” It seems to me that one line captures the essence and therefore the attraction of certain political figures today.

fanaticsTrue believers can be found anywhere and everywhere and belong to no particular political or religious philosophy. What makes them stand out is that they are absolutely sure that anyone that disagrees with them is dead wrong and furthermore, they assume that their beliefs reflect those of a majority of the people. The True Believer is likely to spout off in a room full of strangers with his views on a controversial subject with the assumption that everyone agrees with him. He is always surprised when someone speaks up in opposition and then, of course, is shocked to find that several people disagree. They, of course, are complete idiots. The arrogance of the true believer knows no bounds.

One might conclude upon reading “The True Believer” that most politicians fit the mold quite well until you consider how many of them flip flop on issues. True believers never flip flop. That is not to say that some politicians are not true believers. There are many of them and while I will not mention anyone in particular, you can easily identify them by their devotion to a cause or an issue. One identifying factor of the true believer is that he always has an enemy; a person or cause so terrible as to threaten life as we know it if not defeated. The attacks against this entity become so loud and so frequent as to approach hysteria. If you stop and think about the political environment in which we live today, you can easily identify several such individuals and the primary enemies that emerge are Muslims, Mexicans, and Homosexuals.

In the True Believer, Hoffer says, “The enemy—the indispensable devil of every massthe devil movement—is omnipresent. He plots both outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. If anything goes wrong within the movement, it is his doing. It is the sacred duty of the true believer to be suspicious. He must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies, and traitors.”

True believers are easy prey for conspiracy theories and often will believe claims that are so outlandish as to be ridiculous, like the claim that the Sandy Hook Massacre didn’t happen or that the moon landings were all phony and done in a Hollywood type studio. True believers, when presented with the truth, will discount the source. Snopes, Politifact, Fact Check. Org and other fact-checking websites will be labeled “part of the Marxist conspiracy” or, “They cannot be trusted because they are controlled by the Alt-right white supremacists” a claim that dismisses the evidence without ever viewing it.

mexicansHoffer was a keen observer of the human condition. He collected knowledge simply by watching his friends, neighbors and work associates and identifying among them those who displayed the traits of the true believer. Obviously, no one is right 100% of the time, but Hoffer’s characterizations apply more often than not so when 60 years later you read his material again he seems almost prophetic. Read this quote from his book and then reflect on the recent animosity toward Mexicans and Muslims. “There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation or any distinct group by its least worthy members. Though manifestly unfair, this tendency has some justification. For the character and destiny of a group are often determined by its inferior elements.”

Those of you who have read Eric Hoffer might suggest that overall he was quite conservative and I would agree. I’m using him as an example to point out that good ideas and observations can be made by anyone regardless of where they fit in the political spectrum. Hoffer has found some truths that should be recognized and that apply to true believers of every stripe. For example, I defy those of either the left or right to argue that the following section of Hoffer’s book has never applied in their thinking.

“We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. […] The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. […] If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine. When some part of a doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it.”

My bottom line is that True Believers whether from the left or right often are so logichypnotized by the thought process and the people who promote outlandish beliefs and unproven theories that they become immune to logic and to facts. I know from personal experience that whenever I write anything critical of President Trump, for example, that I will get an immediate reaction from his followers but they never take issue with what I said, rather they will say, “But look what Hillary did,” or they will attack me personally as being biased and not interested in the truth. Then when confronted with their aversion to factual commentary they will dismiss the criticism as being nonsense. True believers rarely argue fact for fact. They will almost always attack the source or the messenger while never responding to the original doctrine. Once you recognize the characteristics of a True Believer, you can realize that it is absurd to engage them. It is best to take Mark Twain’s advice. “Never try to teach a pig how to sing. It takes a long time and it irritates the pig.

And from where I sit that’s the truth





2 thoughts on “An Essay on Fanaticism

  1. Thank you for another great piece, Bob… I recognized so much of what I see today in our political discourse in your piece. Your advice to step back and take a rational look at logic before we get caught up in staunchly defending one side or another is very good advice indeed. Keep them coming!!


  2. So hits the mark. I have a relative that fits the mold quite tightly. Always raging against imaginary enemies , assuming that everyone in the room is in agreement, even as some if us sidle off to nonexistent errands. Exhausting.


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