True Believer: From Activism to Fanaticism

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from activist to fanatic?

| Fall 2015

  • It seems that every instance of fanaticism begins with a passion and then somehow runs off the rails, where the ends justify the means.
    Photo by Flickr/Timothy Krause

Doing my morning scan-and-trash of the emails dumped into my in-box during the night, I pause and stare. “Win a fur!” says the cheerful subject line from a fashion website founded by a friend’s wife. It asks me to click here to comment, which will put me in the running to get an exotic fur jacket from the Southern Hemisphere.

“Are you kidding me?” I whisper. To my way of thinking, with all the stylish faux fur out there these days, supporting the carnage that has launched a thousand anticruelty campaigns around the world makes no sense. Enraged, and without thinking, I click through to the contest, where dozens of women have already left comments oohing and aahing. The comment I leave, written in angry haste, is short on enthusiasm and long on sarcasm. I end it with the words, “Shame on you!”

Feeling only vaguely satisfied, I pause to ponder my actions and wince at the tone I’ve taken, which is only too familiar. As a misbehaving child in church school, I heard that phrase often, delivered with an angrily pointed finger. I left the church when I became an adult, turned off by the fanaticism that Christianity bred. And yet, wasn’t I now guilty of the same thing?

The headlines are full of examples of idealism run amok and mutating into fanaticism. There are suicide bombers, “Christian” ministers waving “God Hates Fags” placards, Earth Liberation Front activists setting fire to an SUV dealership, and crazed soccer fans murdering a referee. People and property are harmed with recklessness. It seems that every instance of fanaticism begins with a passion and then somehow runs off the rails, where the ends justify the means.

I once heard fanatics described as “bitterly disappointed idealists,” and the psychiatrist David M. Reiss, who specializes in personality and character structure, says that’s not far from the truth. “When passion for a cause turns into a search for perfection, it becomes dangerous because it is never achievable,” he writes. “And people can become more and more willing to sacrifice ethics and judgment to attain that perfect way of life—whether it be a personal endeavor, a spectator sport, a political or religious pursuit, etc. That is the dangerous fantasy behind cults.”

The psychologist Kirk Schneider, author of The Polarized Mind, adds in an email that “fanaticism is primarily based on fear and repulsion.” In comparison, passion is more often associated with excitement and positive feelings. The tipping point, he says, is when an individual’s behavior becomes compulsive: “polarized, fixated on one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view.”

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