Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Do you know a fanatic, are you a fanatic?

           Fanaticism seems in the air of the times: public decapitations on YouTube, various ethno-religious cleansings..

            So how do you do tell a fanatic, then? Perhaps the most concise definition comes from a Mr Robert Reich (in a facebook posting):

"Yesterday I urged you to talk with people who disagree with you. That requires respectful engagement. But I'm not suggesting you waste your time on people who are willfully ignorant. The six signs of willful ignorance:

(1) The person you’re debating uses nastiness as a substitute for thought; 

(2) attacks the source of an argument rather than the argument’s merits; 

(3) claims causation from mere correlation (e.g., a rooster’s crowing makes sun rise); 

(4) disputes facts on which there’s an overwhelming scientific or historical consensus (evolution, climate change, widening inequality, the Holocaust); 

(5) blames or stereotypes entire groups of people; 

(6) repeats the same point without responding to arguments or information you provide.

Did I leave anything out?"

Sociologist Karl Mannheim in Ideology and Utopia

"Nothing is more removed from actual events than the closed rational system. Under certain circumstances, nothing contains more intellectual drive than a fully self-contained, intellectualistic world-view"

             A more formal, less descriptive, definition might be extracted from the observations of philosopher and student of political systems, George Sabine:A History of Political Theory (1961), page 924 - 925:

"Yet despite their great and authentic differences, the philosophies of National Socialism and Communism had one characteristic in common. Both have the authentic mark of fanaticism: at some point they became intellectually unapproachable by one who was not a devotee. Both demanded a surrender of critical judgement to blind faith and set up a barrier to communication between insiders and outsiders or between leaders and followers.

.. Government both for National Socialists and for Communists is the control of society by an elite which alone has access to truth and which therefore has the privilege of dictating both behavior and belief."

            On the "intellectual unapproachability" of fanatics: the arguments of fanatics often are insulting to reason, human intelligence, even - in extreme cases - to human dignity. Example: the use of ad hominem attacks (character assassination) by GW "sceptics" or deniers. This is a sure sign they have no (or few) valid scientific arguments in their quiver. Greek teachers of rhetoric (public argumentation) rejected the ad hominem as an unworthy tactic 2500 years ago.

George Sabine: A History of Political Theory (1961), page 908

"..scientific refutation is almost powerless against a theory that depends on the will to believe."
??? ALMOST powerless you say ???

          Prof Sabine's theory of knowledge is worth consulting:

              But why this potent "will to believe" in the first place? Why does it exist? What "Darwinian survival value" could such a "will to believe" (what is patently false) possibly hold?

              We can only speculate about the reasons that evolution would create such a will, leaving it to social scientists to devise experiments which may answer this question. One such attempt was the work by psychologist Leon Festinger in his theory of cognitive dissonance.

               Festinger speculates that we all carry a "road map of reality" around in our heads which tells us "how the world works", who or what is friendly or useful, who or what is dangerous. As long as the map works fairly well, most of the time, we are happy. But when consistent information from the exterior world invalidates out internal map, we are confronted with a highly stressful situation. This negative mental / emotional state is "cognitive dissonance": what we believe has become "dissonant" with information arriving from exterior reality. One can argue that cognitive dissonance has long term survival value since it forces us to readjust our reality map to conform better to the real world we are actually experiencing.

               However, different individuals have highly variable tolerance thresholds for cognitive dissonance. If an issue is of great personal importance - such as the security of one's offspring - powerful negative emotions can be generated by strongly dissonant information. Some "high authoritarians" will reject with vehemence - if not violence - conflicting information (and / or the bearers of that information). Witness the incredibly vicious, vituperative fanaticism of some global warming "sceptics" and deniers. (Otherwise, one could only wonder, stupified, how is it possible that so much sheer hatred could be evoked by a rather esoteric aspect of atmospheric physics by members of the public with no formal training in science beyond a high school physics, chemistry and biology!)       

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