A Proposal

Two days ago, several radical fundamentalists strapped bombs to their bodies, and commemorated the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn by reenacting it.  In the midst of my grief over this tragedy, I started thinking about what leads people to do this sort of thing.  It’s not Islam.  Let me repeat that.  Islam is not the root cause of this kind of tragedy.  It’s something else.


There’s a long history dating back to the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the split of Islam into Sunní and Shí’ih sects, the rise of Islamic culture, only to be eclipsed by the European Renaissance, and the influence, along the way, of various reformist movements, like Wahhabism, that have combined to produce the extreme reactionary forms of militant Islamic groups we see today—groups who see what was once a legitimately glorious culture being threatened with extinction by globalization and are fighting back the only way they know how.  For those who are interested, there are plenty of resources to study the details.  However, you still won’t put your finger on the root cause of Tuesday’s tragedy; at least not insofar as you can claim that the root cause is something unique to the Middle East.


No, the root cause is something way more pervasive.  You’ll find it in American politics, and you’ll find it in the religious wars of the software industry (from vi vs. emacs to Mac vs. Wintel to open source vs. proprietary software).  The root cause is fanaticism, and that begins with the fervent belief that one is in possession of the One True Way.  We’ve all met fanatics in one way or another.  These are the people for whom there are only two ways to do things; their way and the wrong way.  We might have even exhibited signs of fanaticism ourselves.


Now I know what you’re thinking.  We don’t kill each other in the vi vs. emacs debate, and members of Congress don’t shoot at each other from across the aisle, or at least not yet anyway; that, somehow, this is what distinguishes us from the fanatics who strapped bombs to their bodies last Tuesday.  That would be a mistake.  The only reason we don’t kill over our fanaticism is because the stakes aren’t as high.  Our perceived way of life isn’t seriously threatened.


Once fanaticism takes root, the next step is polarization.  Tim O’Reilly has written a couple of times about polarization.  In a post last January, Tim pointed to some analysis done by Valdis Krebs, using the “related books” tool on Amazon, that shows how the books that people read tend reinforce their political preconceptions.  The stark feature of Krebs’ graph is how few people read books that appeal to the other side of the map.  The distance from this kind of polarization to Limbaughesque demonization isn’t very far.


Now, I wouldn’t write about all this, except for one thing: bloggers are in an interesting position with potential for combating fanaticism.  First, with the variety of RSS feeds out there, we have the ability to expose ourselves to continuous streams of ideas from a number of backgrounds.  If we disagree with someone, we can strive to understand what’s right about what they say, not just what’s wrong with it.  Secondly, when we write, we can write to inform rather than write to convince.  We can try to synthesize ideas from a number of camps into a more comprehensive understanding of the issues we’re discussing.


When it comes to polarizing issues, we tend to fall into confrontational patterns of behavior.  Unfortunately, confrontational patterns of behavior very rarely, if ever, change the opinions of others.  It might have a viscerally positive feel to it, but the outcome is no different than if we had not written at all.  Most of the time, it only serves to polarize us even more.  So, what’s to lose by trying a different approach?  Anyone up for a personal anti-fanaticism campaign?





Comments (5)

  1. Pedro Santos says:

    Hi Rick,

    Great post, I support it 100%, but I think that if you go a level bellow fanaticism you’ll find there ignorance, if people were more educated they would not fall so easy in the webs of fanatics. In my opinion the way to fight fanaticism is by educating people to give them broader horizons, to allow them to know and understand other cultures.

  2. Shane King says:

    That people read books that support their point of view shouldn’t be at all surprising.

    If you’re after just the facts, you wouldn’t buy an opinion book! So by buying an opinion book, you’re looking for something other than a neutral piece.

    Now how many people would want to pay money for stuff they already know they wont like? You don’t see too many people who don’t like pop music buying Britney CDs, or people who aren’t fans of classical music buying recordings of Mozart symphonies either!

    I don’t consider it fanatacism, but rather that each person has their own taste, and as such will seek to indulge it.

    I do agree with your broad point: you do indeed catch more flies with honey than vinegar. A lot of people do fall into the trap of preaching to the converted.

    However, I’m not sure the web is going to solve much. If you look at people who run pro-Microsoft sites, nearly every link will be to either other pro-Microsoft sites, or to anti-Microsoft sites, with parts quoted and vigourously denied. The same applies vice-versa.

    Unfortunately it’s inherent in the fact that people are setting up pro/anti sites to begin with. How many sites do you see with banners that proudly proclaim that it’s a ".NET blog" or a "Java blog"? Just about all of them!

    People have set their agenda before the fact, and are unlikely to change it. The line in the sand, the confrontation, happens before they put up their first scap of content.

    I think it’s probably got a lot to do with the need many (most?) people feel to belong. To be part of a team. So they pick their team and run with it. Also, I think being in the middle can be hard. You can get caught in the crossfire sometimes: both sides feel you’re against them!

    I don’t know the solution, all I know is it’s a difficult problem. Perhaps I can be a total geek and suggest roleplaying is part of the answer. When you’re forced to not just think about other points of view, but think as though you hold them, it gets a lot easier to see where people are coming from.

    This is too long as it is, so I’ll shutup now. At least you’ve provked a dialog on the subject, if only from me! 🙂

  3. I always liked the evolutionary approach to the issue of polarisation and fanatascism. We are attracted to viewpoints which are closely related to our own, we defend them (often vigorously) against outside attack and we seek to increase the numbers of supporters of our cause in order to increase the strength of our position. In short, humans like most animals are tribal by nature – it’s evolution baby, it’s in-built (but of course you always have the option of going against evolution – we live where fashion is increasingly overriding evolutionary responses !)

  4. No the cause is hate. It seems endemic in mankind. We’ve made steps at time through our history but those who have the curious idea that we’re now somehow more "civilized" are kidding themselves. Technology helps this hate. Suddenly conservative Christians are aware there are gay, liberal Christians. Christians of various flavors have been killing Jews and Jews killing Muslims and Muslims killing Christians for 2,000 years overf every square foot of one crummy city named "Jerusalmen."

    The liberals love to point their fingers at the conservatives. Read their blogs and switch presidential candidates names around in the U.S. and you can’t tell them apart. Liberals call Bush a Nazi. Heaven only knows what the Republicans are going to be calling Kerry when all the guns open up as November approaches. The Protestants and Catholics have been killing each other for centuries in northern Ireland. Technology helps a great deal, not merely in the efficeincy of the killing but of course in just knowing how bad that "neighbor" you barely new existed, now turns out to be living the equivalent of right next door. There seems to be a resurgence in Christian bigotry towards Jews in the U.S.

    We find conservative Catholics aligning themselves with conservastive proestants and Jewes to oppose the liberals in the liberal camps. Unholy alliances if there ever were any. camps. How many million died from machetes not that long ago in Africa. It barely caused a news ripple in much of European and Nrth American press. I hate to leave anyone out of this so we could talk about the two nuclear powers in south central Asia but it would be a shame to upset anyone. We worry more about what the cause or motivation was of the war in Iraq was than any good being accomplished. Likely none. If we’re liberals we’ll all claim that the U.S. president and Brit P.M. lied to us. Some think they’re both just stupid and made mistakes as the result. Others think it’s turned out great after discovering all the horrors of Saddam’s reign. Of course were kill busy killing Iraquis and Iraquis are busy killing their fellow countrymen, any Americans, Brits or others to happen along. It’s about hate. It’s not complicated. It’s endemic, or perhaps you prefer "epidemic." If the latter they’re really not working on a vaccine. The U.N. is too scared to go back into Iraq. The U.S. and Brits, mostly, are afraid to just leave. Quite frankly someone’s going to lose in any case and no one, considerering the level of hatred, wants to make it easy.

    Some claim a right of choice, others a right to life, some claim the right to freely bear arms, others that no such right exists. Anyone not totally blind will notice that once the problem of fascism was "solved" the world had a small "problem" with communism. Having eliminated some big players we’re broken things down, mostly, to lots of smaller nations getting in on the gore. There’s no lack of hate. Technology helps insure there won’t be. All the marvels of technoogy which bring us closer have suddenly brought folks who hate each closer. Or so it would seem at least to some people who enjoy the game and I’ve got to run. The sky’s falling again.

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