In recent years, we have been aware of the inflexibility and judgmental nature of people who define the world and their values narrowly. The basis of their position is often religious; fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims brook no disagreement, although the source of their ideas is different, they are both convinced of its inerrant nature.
It is a truism that some find least acceptable those who agree with them almost 100%. Any difference in positions becomes magnified. I suppose it’s easier to give up on convincing those who agree with us about little if anything; the nearer we are to total harmony the more frustrating it must be if it eludes us.
Within Islam, the followers of the Prophet have divided themselves into two distinct factions, the Shiites and the Sunnis. The chasm occurred generations ago, but like the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s feud the rivalry continues.
Much of the history of the followers of the Nazarene is a record of disputes over interpretation of various passages from their religious texts. The vast number of denominations grew as the solution to each clash resulted in further cleaving of the body of believers.
Viewed from the outside, religious divisions have both advantages and disadvantages. Adherents to each sect can fashion a tradition that fits or suits them ideally, that may strengthen their faith and increase their ability to affect the world. An obvious disadvantage is the degree that larger and larger numbers of people are defined as being outside of that belief system.
Religion is not the only basis for fundamentalism, though. In fact, the mechanism may be applied to nearly any set of beliefs. A First Amendment absolutist, for example, may be said to practice a form of fundamentalism. Essentially, any position that is “not to be questioned or challenged” represents evidence of fundamentalism.
In some ways, fundamentalism simplifies the world for people, since answers are “obvious.” Those of us who see things as being more complicated and find balances more even can have a tough time sorting out details that fundamentalists can simply ignore. Murky minutiae may lead to decades of sorting and evaluating, while others either have come to a snap decision or didn’t even realize that a choice was available.
Fundamentalists may dismiss others as “relativists,” since our positions are conditional and dependent upon myriad factors. We can’t pretend to have all of the unshakeable core values they enjoy. Recognizing that others and we have erred in the past, locking inflexibly to a position prematurely seems rash at best. Although we may envy their decisiveness, people like myself understand that there is value to both approaches; fundamentalists tend to see those who are fundamentalists (but whose positions are different from theirs) and those who don’t fully agree with them as simply being wrong.
One of the ways I measure fundamentalism is the degree to which it is inflexible. A vegetarian who denounces another who almost exclusively consumes fruit, vegetables, roots, etc.—but who also dines occasionally on cheese, say. Now eating a slice of cheese may represent an imperfect practice of vegetarianism, but most of us wouldn’t class that person with someone who kills bunnies for sick kicks. Fundamentalists might easily convince themselves that there is little no difference between a cheese eater and a bunny murderer.
Moving (finally!) into the political realm, we see those on all sides of many positions who accept no deviation. It’s their way or the highway. Ironically, they will loudly reject those most in opposition to their views, but they do that in an almost rote manner; their true ire is reserved for those who don’t completely agree with them. The basis of the division may be significant, but often it’s miniscule.
Going back to the example of the First Amendment, I am nearly an absolutist; I think that as much as possible people should be able to read, write, and think as freely as possible. Yet I don’t think that freedom should allow anyone to shout falsely “fire” or “bomb” in a crowded public place. In the view of some that might mark my support of basic intellectual freedom as weak or at least suspect. There may be nothing I can do or say that would change their minds.
In a democracy, considering proportionality seems rational. If a tiny sliver of 1% would form an immediate and unshakeable link between my opposition to creating a false panic and Gestapo-like tactics, I may have to sacrifice their approval. I can simultaneously admit that my support for unfettered speech has limits, while still believing that I embrace freedom to the greatest extent possible in a civil society.
It seems to me that this test of proportionality is a consistently valid way of appraising entrenched positions. As our views become rigid, they also become brittle. Perhaps that accounts for some of the desperation we see as folks cling ever tighter to perspectives that are not just skewed but are simply dysfunctional. If they admit any imperfection in their tightly constructed worldview, it may all crash down in a heap.
One trick fundamentalists employ is to focus exclusively on either offense or defense; they loudly proclaim either what they’re for or what they oppose. Garden-variety nihilists may have the easier path; it doesn’t matter what it is, they’re against it (or they just don’t want to discuss it). People who hold firmly to positions may be supporting their convictions, or they may be going through the motions and doing what they feel is expected of them.
Folks who are simply anti-everything are at a major disadvantage—especially among liberals. We may select elements of the “pro” fundamentalist’s beliefs, adopting or adapting those we find useful. We instinctively know that we will never be “anti” enough for the other crowd, though. We may reject some of the same things these elaborately negative people do, but rarely because they persuaded us to. If we recognize our own imperfection, we immediately create a barrier between them and ourselves—perhaps not by choice. The overwhelming negativity of this approach is self-limiting; who wants to march in a parade with people who may be taking us to our execution by firing squad?
“It’s in the way that you use it,” is how the song goes. We’ve also been told since people had tongues that, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” or some variation. Still people persist in the harshest, rudest, interactions with others they are purportedly trying to influence. The more extreme their attacks, and the cruder their language, the less likely they are to change a single mind. This increases their frustration, and their reaction is often not to re-evaluate their tactics but to escalate them mindlessly —further dooming their efforts.
I have in mind particular topics here at Daily Kos which seem to generate automatic responses which look a lot like fundamentalism to me, but I prefer to keep this diary as general as I can. In the comments section, feel free to include points as specific as you wish. I hope this can be a freewheeling conversation, but see no reason it can’t be a respectful one as well.