Humankind’s history is so littered with examples of vicious extremism that you would think we’d be able to instinctually discern between charisma and character, love and hate, self-interest and selflessness. We are so desperate for direction, however, so anxious to blame someone or something else for our plight, that we’ve become even more likely to conflate fanaticism and vision.
A number of increasingly sophisticated mechanisms are in place to capitalize on this confusion. Thoughtless think tanks, corporate lobbies, and politically segregated communities—virtual, religious, and geographic—prey on our propensity to reject empathy and compromise in favor of manufactured difference and conflict, which is the mother’s milk of demagoguery. Hijacked and rotting from the inside, institutions designed to monitor and expose corruption no longer check or balance.
Fanatics have mastered the art of disguise. Like pure-hearted revolutionaries, they reject and rebel against an indefensible status quo. Like altruistic mothers, fathers, and mentors, they profess, and in many cases believe, to be fighting for our best interests. They are self-made. They are unabashedly ostentatious. They seem to be who we wish we were.
As essayist Amos Oz writes in this month’s cover story, though, there are chinks in extremism’s airbrushed armor. The pretenders, craven politicians, and empty oracles are still highly susceptible to hubris, a condition that never fails to fell the false hero. They also lack self-awareness, which usually reveals itself as humorlessness. Most importantly, their survival depends on whether or not we allow them to prey on our fears. Take away that deadly ploy, refuse the charlatans that combustible fuel, and the con game is a bust.
Admittedly, this is a daunting task, especially given the frightful realities our increasingly discordant society must confront, from economic chaos to environmental degradation. We possess an important advantage, though. As one of our 25 visionaries, author and activist Parker J. Palmer, points out in his new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, the enemy of hope is abstraction. If we evaluate our troubled globe from 30,000 feet, as a viewer instead of as a participant, it’s almost impossible not to be daunted. If we engage with our neighbors, no matter how they look or sound, and use local institutions as points of contact instead of receptacles for complaint, the root of our worst fears, the intangible “other,” will begin to decay.
To come full circle, the question all of this invites is whether a fundamental shift is possible without leaders. Or, as I often catch myself thinking when an elected official or public personality abandons his or her convictions in the name of opportunistic conciliation: Where are today’s pure hearts?
The answer is that they are all around us. They are the everyday citizens, academics, artists, and activists who eschew empty promises and choose instead to take action. They walk their talk, no matter how many landmines litter the long journey. They tell the truth, even when a little white lie would make things easier in the short term. They are passionate and open minded, opinionated and humble.
They are all of us—not who we wish we could be “if only,” but who we are at our best.
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.