Who Are the Fanatics? Fanaticism as Politicized Narcissism

Not long ago, in an email exchange, I wrote to a colleague:

“The public library should be a place where the visitor-user should and must necessarily be made to face modernity, but the institution of the public library is NOT charged with forcing/urging people to accept modernity or any of its ideological, sociological, religious, political, sexual, racial, economic, international, etc. facets. The public library’s job is also not to protect them FROM modernity. Those who say that either role is a part of the public library’s mission are invariably ideologues and frequently Fanatics.”

And he wrote back: “[You] use that word constantly but don’t define it. What is a ‘fanatic’, exactly, and what’s the difference between a fanatic and anyone else? Does it have…meaning or is it just a lazy insult?”

So, over this past weekend, I pulled out my dog-eared copies of The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, Cults Inside Out by Rick Ross (especially chapter 10) and From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez by Paul Hollander and tried to think thorough a list of characteristics that Fanatics, as I use the term, seem to share. It’s not perfect, but it should help flesh out the threat I see both within our profession and without.

Intrapersonal Relationship and Familial Origins

-Fanaticism and narcissism of the sort Christopher Lasch wrote about are probably related fragile-ego/fragile-identity phenomena. The level of political Fanaticism in a given society is probably positively correlated with the general level of societal narcissism. This might explain the apparent social media-Fanaticism downward spiral; Fanatical opinions get attention and so the opinions become more Fanatical to get more attention. This might be called the “Twitter spiral.”

-Fanatics, like narcissists, often come from a background of familial trauma or circumstantial instability in their formative years. The biographies of prominent leaders of Fanatical movements often reveal absent or abusive parents, household tension and conflict or other childhood pain. Like those who join cults, those of very passionate political conviction seem to be drawn to the certainty of “their” belief system(s). As stable families become less common, Fanatical belief becomes more common.

-Fanatics enjoy the sense of identity and belonging their belief-driven state of mind lends them and they seek to fuel and strengthen it. They gladly label themselves by way of their reading lists. Fanatics self-radicalize over time by consuming a carefully (if often unconsciously) curated selection of idea-confirming information. Fanatics equate (or, perhaps, confuse) the frequency of such consumption with depth and breadth.

Fanatics hold tightly to their views–sometimes even tighter than otherwise–when they are facing evidence that some point of fact they cherish is wrong. They will frantically seek “saving” evidence to reinforce their belief system even when something they believe has been revealed to be irreconcilably incorrect or flawed. They will sometimes temporarily concede a point only to be found arguing again at some later date.

Interpersonal and Social

-Fanatics easily take offense and are intellectually thin-skinned. Fanatics, like narcissists, react in ways completely out of proportion to the original “offense” and, like narcissists, easily invent offense from their imaginations. Fanatics, like narcissists, also frequently seek revenge. “Fanatical revenge” is the basis of so-called “cancel culture.”

-Fanatics, like narcissists, are grandiose. They inflate the importance of political ideas associated with themselves and inflate their own roles within their movements and causes. If there’s a rally, they HAVE to be there; they believe they have a role to play in history and they believe they have a unique talent or insight that will make things better.

-Fanatics do not value discussion and are threatened by true disagreement (as opposed to conflict/non-confirmation, as explained below). They perceive themselves as more informed, more insightful, more conscientious, more moral, more intelligent and more correct than those who disagree with them. Disagreement is a personal and reality-threatening affront to a Fanatic and they will become quite unpleasant if someone fails to “submit” to their superiority quickly enough. Because they seal themselves off from counterpoint, Fanatics are inclined to bizarre beliefs.

-Fanatics are very often missionaries. They are not satisfied when other people, institutions, organizations, etc. do not give at least limited berth to their belief system(s) and concomitant identity and will tirelessly try to find excuses to change the subject to what they feel is most important.

-Fanatics seek each other out, even if they are ideologically opposed. Opposing Fanatics feel their place in reality through clashing or conflict (which is distinct and different from “disagreeing.”) Clashing/conflict is not an intellectual exercise, but rather the brute force of personality and belief against personality and belief.

Like-minded Fanatics feel their place in reality through their mutual confirmation, which is also distinct from “agreeing.” Mutual confirmation is akin to ideological echolalia, while “agreeing” is an itemized inventory and examination of shared ideas ending with a sentiment of “me, too.” Both conflict and confirmation act upon the Fanatic’s narcissistic need to prove that he exists and is a person of substance.

Fanatics ascribe intentions, good or bad, to other people in proportion to how much others confirm their belief set and worldview. They do not accept the notion of “good faith disagreement” or that a person can fail to confirm their beliefs and still be of equal worth to themselves. Fanatics believe they know why some organization, politician, etc. is “really” doing something–and it is usually for nefarious reasons.

-Fanatics always see the uncommitted or neutral thinker as being more “in the camp” of those with whom they disagree. They consider an unconvinced person as half-lost or practically corrupted, not as half-found or potentially saved. Their first instinct towards those not in complete accord is hostility and suspicion.

–Fanatics specialize in situational ethics. They are willing to do things–and maybe hurt people–that they might not otherwise in the name of their belief systems. Their ideological convictions lend them an armoire of justifications.

-Fanatics frequently belong to “out-groups” and have societal alienation, to a greater or lesser degree, as part of their psychological make-up. The more estranged some people are from the acceptance inherent in being more average or “mainstream,” identity-wise, the more Fanatical their beliefs may become. What reason does a person who feels and believes society is designed to reject him or her have to be moderate?

-Fanatics, like narcissists, have limited empathy and are often blind to social cues. They cannot tell when they invariably, predictably reach the point of being boring or disgusting to those in their social spheres with their monomaniacal obsessions and opinion-sharing. Fanatics are boring boors, which is why they are often loners or spend so much time with fellow-travelers and co-believers.


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