Inside the Mind of Fanaticism

Inside the Mind of Fanaticism
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Fanatics are gaining power and legitimacy. Some countries are already dominated by fanaticism -- think North Korea, Syria and Myanmar. Some are flirting with it -- think Hungary, Poland and the United States. Some countries are repeated victims of fanatic terrorists -- think England, France and Spain.

The United States has always had its share of fanatical groups, but never before Trump have they felt so emboldened or been given such legitimization from the White House.

We will be helpless to deal with rising fanaticism if we fail to understand its political, economic, religious and psychological roots. I have invited Andre Haynal, a world's expert on fanaticism, to help explain it to us.

Professor Haynal has been a close observer of fanaticism for 80 years. He vividly remembers Hitler’s terrifying speech exulting in Germany’s takeover of Austria and lived under three different fanatic regimes in Hungary (the Nazis, the Communists, the Hungarian Fascists). He has studied with concern the Trump phenomena in the U.S. and the growth of fanatic nationalism in many European countries.

Professor Haynal is the former Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Geneva; former President of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Association; and the author of "Encounters with The Irrational". He is assisted by his wife Veronique Haynal, a psychotherapist in Geneva, who shares fully in all his work.

The Haynals write: “The dictionary defines a fanatic as someone with excessive and single minded zeal. Synonyms include extremist, radical, chauvinist, militant, bigot, sectarian, diehard, and dogmatist. ‘Fanatic’ is derived from a Latin word that described possession by a god or demon. In current usage, it more often describes possession by a cause or belief system- religious, nationalist, racist, political, or ideological.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift describes the bitter and bloody war between fanatic Lilliputians and equally fanatic Blefuscudians- over the proper way to crack open a soft-boiled egg. Eleven thousand people chose death over the dishonor of cracking open the egg in the middle or on the narrow end.

Many factors are promoting fanaticism:

  • Rapid societal change- in technology, economic opportunity, living arrangements, traditions, ideals, values, expectations
  • Leaving people feeling disconnected from the past, frightened in the present, not in control of the future
  • Fierce job competition from computers and multinational outsourcing
  • Feeling that others (especially minorities and immigrants) are stealing status and resources
  • Comfort in belonging to a closed community of like-minded believers
  • Socio-economic deprivation and inequality
  • A charismatic leader who confidently comes forth with grand promises offering prosperity, security, and stability

Why is fanaticism on the rise now?

  • Crushing overpopulation – the world census, 1 billion in 1800, is now 7.6 billion and growing at the astounding rate 1 billion people every 12 years
  • War, famine, and drought- resulting in massive migrations
  • Political turmoil and societal instability
  • Weakening of previous consensus cultural norms
  • Dissolution of family ties
  • Increasing concentration of wealth
  • Religious tensions
  • Humans are less necessary as producers and consumers in a world increasingly dominated by computers

What are the characteristics of fanatic leaders?

  • They may differ widely in intelligence, personality and goals - but all use similar methods to turn followers into fanatics.
  • They convey a simple message with powerful conviction and constant propaganda.
  • They deny truth, manipulate objective reality, distort facts, and create fake news.
  • They are intolerant of contradiction and destroy opposition.
  • They delegitimize and censor alternative views.
  • They divide issues and people sharply into good and bad.
  • They create scapegoats and targets of anger.

Fanatical followers need:

  • A simple answer, black or white
  • To be protected against imagined ‘evil’
  • A sense of community
  • To feel important
  • To feel better than the ‘others’
  • To secure special rights and resources, in this life or in the next
  • Redemption

What can reduce fanaticism?

Empowering the people; giving them a sense of responsibility for the community; educating them to distinguish real facts from surreptitious falsities; encouraging them to see through propaganda on talk radio, social media and the Rupert Murdoch fake news outlets.

Fanaticism thrives where there is deprivation and inequality. If we hope to reduce it, we must make the world a better place -- reducing inequality, controlling population, and ensuring a life worth living."

Thank you so much Andre and Veronique for your wise words.

Although individual fanaticism is probably as old as human psychology, institutionalized fanaticism is a creature of the agricultural revolution. The clear delineation of a powerful, rich, ruling class from their chattel subjects depended upon the religious doctrines that promoted fanatic devotion to defined leaders. Religious movements have ever since been the cause of, or excuse for, much of the world's wars and prejudice. In the last few centuries, fanatic nationalist and political ideologies have added to fanatic religion as a cause of war and terrorism.

The seeming victory of rational thought over religious doctrine during the 18th century Enlightenment promised a possible reduction in the power of fanaticism. But the Reign of Terror ending the French Revolution proved that secular fanaticism could be quite as deadly as religious.

The Internet has been a great disappointment. Hailed as a promoter of knowledge and democracy, it has instead become more a propagator of propaganda.

Trump, a creature of fanaticism and its egregious exploiter, has raised social networking into an art form of prejudice and hate. Fanaticism breeds fanaticism in a self-reinforcing, vicious cycle.

Trump will never be cured, nor will his very most bigoted followers. But many of Trump's supporters are much more reasonable people, temporarily deceived now, but likely eventually to return to rationality and moderation once the US returns to normal leadership.

We must elect anti-Trumps- leaders who will bring us together as one people, rather than encourage fanatical and self-destructive divisions.

During our long history as a nation, we have almost always been much better as a people than we are today. I have faith we will again become much better as a people when the Trump blight is overcome.

There will always be bigots- racists, misogynists, anti-gays, anti-migrants, and anti-Semites. But they must be contained- never again encouraged and exploited by the president of the United States.

And the fight is not just in the US and against Donald Trump. He is just one grotesque example of a worldwide phenomenon. Fanaticism will continue to thrive unless we confront its root causes in over-population, inequality, and degradation.

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