Slouching Towards Fanaticism

Broken Friendships

It broke my heart when a dear friend of some 25 years, a soft-spoken, devout pacifist and Buddhist, suddenly began

shouting obscene remarks about a political candidate: not just about her politics, but also about her person! It was hard to believe I was talking to the same individual I had known for so long – or thought I had known. He was unrecognizable as far as I was concerned and we had nothing more to say to each other. We hit a brick wall and the friendship ended. Period. A year or so later, after the 2016 election, we found our way back to each other with incredible gentleness and some sadness, but we have never been quite the same. Something had gone awry in our friendship and something had also gone awry with the American political system.

Yes, it can happen here…

For several years I have been thinking about the issue of creeping fascism in our country and in the world. In the United States this increased intensity began in earnest with the primary season heading into the 2016 presidential elections, or perhaps just bubbled at last above the surface. It has now been almost four years since the first draft of this post sat in my website’s unpublished content folder. My initial plan was to go “On the Record” with this concern and a prediction at that time, but the draft languished unfinished. Typically I post intuitive analysis and predictions, then follow up later when a topic subsequently hits mainstream news outlets. Occasionally, however, I have to wait years for certain predictions to come into public view, and the 2016 presidential election cycle was no exception. I told several friends that there was no way Hillary Clinton, a female, would immediately follow a black man as elected President of the United States. Such a move would spell a threat to the domination and  worldview of a select group of resource-rich white men whose strict constitutionalist view pays homage to a founding document unfettered by later, more inclusive amendments, including the Bill of Rights. I reminded those friends that fifty years elapsed between legislation granting the vote to black men and that giving it to women. The possibility of black and female presidencies following immediately on the heels of one other would raise alarm and would be halted by any means necessary!

And so it was…

Something about the Sanders campaign back then struck a nerve with me too but I could not fully explain why. This concern was especially curious given my decidedly liberal and clearly “progressive” politics. This malaise wasn’t just about race or gender. What was it that was making me so uncomfortable? Why was I focused so much more on Sanders than on the other raft of unacceptable and sometimes patently worse candidates? Why was the hair standing up on the back of my neck as social media became increasingly uncivil and uncivilized?

Fanaticism as an organizing tool

I gradually came to realize that the most compelling issue for me is not about left- or right-wing politics, nor even about racial or gender equality, though all those issues are important to me. The predominant issue for me is – and remains – fanaticism in any form and from any quarter. Fanaticism makes the hairs stand up because as a sociologist trained in social movements and collective behavior, I have seen how quickly the move from civilized to barbaric can happen. The shift usually follows the slippery slope of self-righteous fanaticism, especially the rendering of the Other as somehow less than fully human and undeserving of understanding or compassion.

I have even taken to calling the extreme left the Alt-Left, considering it not one whit different from the Alt-Right. The Sanders campaign and supporters in 2016 were fanatical and have still not let up four years later. Both extremes of true believers would lock up anyone who disagreed with their worldview without a second glance; both would discriminate against me as a black woman with different rhetoric but precisely similar consequences. The right is unapologetic about its political and social conservatism; the left is self-righteous and unaware of its own dismissive and often racist treatment of the very people it claims to represent. Thanks, but I will pass on both extremes, regardless of any professed and laudable platform.

Even with the best intention, fanaticism destroys civilizations and exposes the potential for savagery lurking within them. Savagery is not determined by the presence or absence of written language or creature comforts such as water and technology; it is determined by the presence or absence of fanatical behavior.

Much of my thinking would rightly be considered radical and certainly unconventional by both extremes on the right and on the left. My insistence on living in a both-and, rather than an either-or world, for example, is undoubtedly radical. This is particularly relevant if radical means a dramatic departure from present circumstance or convention, an action that triggers social change. What I hope, however, is that no matter how radical my thinking, my deeply held convictions will not make me a fanatic.

The absence of fanaticism is what I continue to seek in a presidential candidate or a next-door neighbor or a good friend or a teacher. My commitment is to avoid fanaticism in any form and to embrace decency no matter the intensity of agreement or disagreement. Perhaps that candidate’s campaign has changed since then – I certainly hope so.

It is my blessing and honor to have friends and acquaintances who would place themselves at literally every point on the continuum of social, political, and religious perspectives: right, left, up, down, middle, none. What allows us to meet each other is our willingness to step delicately around fanaticism, to ignore it, to actively avoid it without judgment or blame, to simply vote with our feet and our heart. This is not an easy path for me nor for the many I know personally, but somehow we manage to make it work. Indeed, some friendships have suffered and have been lost irreparably, but so many others have endured and persisted and blossomed and flourished over the decades. This warm embrace of deep conviction without fanaticism is possible and this is the sweet spot I seek in all potentialities. I hope and expect to have good company here in our shared space.

Published by Helen L. Stewart PhD

Endlessly curious, writer, speaker, blogger, intuitive, author, consultant. Retired university academic administrator and faculty member. Citizen of the world. Traveler. Human being. Perhaps in reverse order.

One thought on “Slouching Towards Fanaticism

  1. Well said, Helen! I will not support Bernie Sanders, either. Mainly because I just don’t believe he can win the American vote against Trump. But your point is well-taken: fanaticism in any form is destructive.

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