, Salem, MA

October 20, 2012

Watson: Fanaticism is blind to tolerance and compromise

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Fanaticism has been on full display recently. A month ago, after the YouTube video mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammed was seen by conservative Muslims, they demonstrated in the streets, attacked American embassies, called for death to the filmmaker, and generally condemned Western cultural norms.

One week ago, Pakistani Taliban boarded a school bus to assassinate Malala Yousufzai, a well-known 14-year-old schoolgirl who had been speaking out against the oppression and unreasonable rigidity of the stricter interpretations and applications of Islamic law.

These are fanaticisms carried to their worst extremes. But there are lesser fanaticisms and fundamentalisms at play all around our troubled world.

I just watched the current movie, “The Master,” which is a timely depiction of one man’s small-bore fanaticism. This movie won’t be for everyone — it is unrelentingly grim and depressing, and the characters in it are repugnant.

The main character — the fanatic “master” — has developed a philosophy and theories with which to explain our dysfunctions and unhappiness. Only if we open up to all of our experiences, fears, repressed desires, and past lives, will we transcend our limitations and achieve something like nirvana, wholeness, freedom, and joy, he says.

He has written a book titled “The Cause” (of course), which loyal followers should read to understand “the one true path.” The book deliberately does not answer all of the followers’ questions, because the master must reserve some mystery, knowledge, and power for himself. Later in the movie, he publishes a second book, in which he reveals hitherto secret knowledge. He says that he can be generous with his insights.

The master travels from city to city with a small entourage and lectures to quiet groups in living rooms or small public spaces. His influence is very limited.

Parallel to this story — and sort of tenuously woven into it — is the story of an alcoholic bum who blows into and out of the fanatic’s entourage. The bum is mentally damaged, often violent, and absolutely irremediable.

But the master sees him as the ultimate test subject for his theories about setting us free. In very disturbing scenes, he manipulates the bum’s mental instability. When almost everybody else in the film (and in the theater) can recognize that no intervention is possible to repair the bum’s long-ago-destroyed psyche, the master is still blind to that reality.

And it is that blindness and obliviousness and ego — that deficit of empathy and that inability to imagine the lives of others — that define a fanatic and that make the personality of the master so shocking and unbelievable to the movie audience.

We see him unable to abide the questions of skeptics, or even treat his challengers as anything but “enemies” and “attackers.” They cannot recognize the obvious truth, he says disdainfully.

Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer, has written about fanaticism in his 2006 book, “How to Cure a Fanatic.” He cautions us against dividing into “sides,” and against seeing things as black and white.

He writes, “The ability to exist within open-ended situations, even to learn how to enjoy open-ended situations, to learn to enjoy diversity, may also help. I am not preaching a complete moral relativism, certainly not. I am trying to enhance our ability to imagine each other — on every level, on the most everyday level, to just imagine each other. Imagine each other when we quarrel, imagine each other when we complain, imagine each other precisely at the moment we feel that we are 100 percent right. Even when you are 100 percent right and the other is 100 percent wrong, it’s still useful to imagine the other.”

One of the abiding strengths of our 236-year-old democracy has been its ability to hold fanaticisms at bay. With the exception of a few serious mistakes — slavery, the Yellow Scare, the WWII internment of Japanese, McCarthy’s communist hysteria — our governments and our people have been able to avoid the temptations of ideological rigidity, self-righteousness, and imposed conformity.

Because the very founding of this country was in large part a reaction to — and a flight from — religious, class, governmental, societal, and occupational strictures or oppressions, the actions of the new American citizenry and its government were to bake into the very DNA of the aspirations of the country the values of freedom, liberty, tolerance, respect, and egalitarianism that have created the resilient and ever-evolving pluralism and idealism that America is famous for around the world.

Now, justice and responsibility are sometimes missing in our collective actions. And our politics can be bare-knuckled and shrill and small-minded. At times, we seem unable to imagine the lives of others.

As we face this election season, and the enormous, probably open-ended, problems — national and global — awaiting attention, we can remind ourselves not to let our support for our philosophies push away the solutions that may require compromise, risk, imperfection, difficulty, care, and finding life in the gray areas between black and white.


Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at