How Not To Think About Fundamentalism

One of my earliest mentors in the historical profession was a former member of Students for a Democratic Society.  He was also a remarkably dynamic teacher who enjoyed pulling reversals in the classroom: before the break, Arthur Schlesinger was the wise and normative advocate of measured reform; after the break Arthur Schlesinger was a googly-eyed plutocrat.   This was a rather blunt way to introduce us to issues of master narratives, methodology, and historiography (in addition to Schlesinger), and it fostered even more quickly than usual our embrace of the grad school dance of mixed praise, which we all frantically began doing because we wanted to prove we were smart:  “I like the Marxist reading of Bewitched, but I’m surprised there’s no conversation with Elaine May on gender.”   Etc.

Anyway, about a third of the way through the semester we read a pretty well-received book about the rise of the Christian Right.  We all loved it.   Then our SDS professor said that he thought the book “pathologized” conservatism, which is to say that according to the author’s narrative the conservative activists in the book became conservative because they embraced delusional beliefs about mid-twentieth century American society.  They were conservative because they dealt poorly with the stress of their narrow postwar lives.  They were conservative because they deviated (pathologically) from the normal, which, of course in the author’s mind, was the liberalism of the New Deal consensus.

Pathologizing, of course, is a long and noble tradition in American historiography:  Richard Hofstadter pathologized pretty much everybody he disagreed with; Daniel Bell believed people voted for Barry Goldwater because they were gullible; and of course Fawn Brodie famously pathologized Joseph Smith, Richard Nixon, and just about everybody else she could get her hands on.   This is not to say speculation about the mental states of our historical subjects is completely off limits – just about every historian makes inferences about things like this.  But today Hofstadter and Brodie’s interpretations seem particularly weak, because they conclude that their subjects do what they do primarily because of mental strain – the implication being that were they mentally healthy they’d have behaved otherwise, and, thus, their political and religious choices were derived from stress rather than, say, reason.

In retrospect I think this was a rather harsh judgment on the book, but the notion’s stuck with me – particularly as I’ve seen arguments about religion rage in the media over the past few years.  Pathologizing seems endemic:  Mitt Romney’s campaign ignored Nate Silver because the Romney campaign was stupid.  Glenn Beck is a loon.  Michele Bachmann is crazy.  And so on.

I see two problems with this, from an academic perspective.  First: simply ascribing opinions that seem unreasonable to us to pathology abdicates our responsibility as students of the humanities to understand the human condition.  Naming something pathological is essentializing, reducing it to the incomprehensible, stating there Is no place for it in our civil discourse.  And that’s a dangerous position to take – particularly if we disagree with the position.  After all, understanding something truly seems a necessary predicate to effectively refuting it.

Second: it’s usually true that most things – even conservatism – are far deeper, more complicated, and thoughtful than most people understand.  Even Protestant fundamentalism has a pretty interesting and respectable intellectual genealogy.  Indeed, fundamentalism is modern in the best sense: it is deeply confident in human rationality to make sense of the world.  It thinks in terms of evidence, proof, calculation, and organization.  It is sure that all information in the universe can be assimilated into a single master narrative.  In this way, fundamentalism is not so different from the naïve scientism – idolatry in the scientific method’s perfect ability to explain the world – that surfaced in the late nineteenth century and continues unabated in the work of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Richard Feynman would likely agree on very little.  But to say that isn’t to say that Aquinas was stupid: his terribly impressive brainpower was simply channeled in directions different from Feynman’s.    Similarly, I don’t here intend to deny that there _are_ stupid fundamentalists – there’s more than a few, just like there are people like Sam Harris.  It is to say, however, that structures of thought which are evidently vastly compelling to a large number of people probably have behind them philosophies and ideologies that deserve greater intellectual respect than the internet often gives.

  • JohnH

    Of note, there is no such thing as “the internet” which can give intellectual respect. On the internet there are largely isolated communities of thought such that in some pools of thought certain philosophies, ideas, and ideologies are given all the respect while in others those same philosophies, ideas, and ideologies have absolutely no respect. If you are seeing a lack of respect for a particular group then it is likely that you are hanging out in pools of thought where that group is not respected. I say pool because they are more then a single site but rather are connections of sites which, if they are in the same pool, feed off of each other and usually have a common set of people reading and commenting.

  • Ben L

    I must say “Indeed, fundamentalism is modern in the best sense: it is deeply confident in human rationality to make sense of the world. It thinks in terms of evidence, proof, calculation, and organization. ” is a very different idea of what I think of when I hear “fundamentalism,” especially as regards to religion. The important thing I take away from not pathologizing people who disagree with you, sometimes strongly about important things, is that doing so other-izes them as well. It leads you to a mindset where their ideas no longer matter, even where they matter less as people. Further more, it exempts you from a careful consideration of your own flaws. If someone is bedridden with a disease I do not have, it is reasonable for me to think I can get up and walk. But failures of human thinking are not binary, and no one is free from them.

  • Joe Spencer

    Beautifully said, Matt. Beautifully said.

  • Ignacio m. Garcia

    It is so difficult not to run to our little hole to get our guns when we disagree with others. But it is important to remember that being an academic or an intellectual should mean that we listen, we analyze and that we make assessments without engaging in pathologizing or demonizing others. And liberals do it as much as conservatives, and when people are on that horse they learn little and teach even less. We can be very different ideologically and still be civil and state our case passionately. When I visit my daughter in Texas the only lds member that takes time to talk to me is the local Tea Party leader. We talk about what is common to us, discuss our differences and then bid a “go with God” farewell until the following summer. Would I ever vote for him, or he for me? Probably not. Would I call him if I needed a priesthood blessing bad? Your darn right I would!

  • rumitoid

    “We do not see things as they are but as we are.” (Nin) (Oh, and many others in different words.) I have seen this belief growing in every forum site. We can no longer make honest or discerning observations (truly relaible assessments of other views) because they are mere projections of our ego. Or archetypes from the sub-conscious. Or subjects of our defense mechanisms. Or the results of childhood trauma. Or the inculcation of fundamental beliefs in our formative years. Reason is not used to discern but is at the mercy of these various unconscious influences and just there to make a presentable explanation (as well as for our survival, both life and image). Yet it does present a very real question, at least to me: how do we know truth?

    Euclidian Geometry was believed for a good time as proof that Reason was, indeed, a direct gift from God, sharing His mind. Then other and equally true and opposing geometries were formulated. Quantum Physics is paradox-central. The stable appearance of the macro-world is an illusion: very solid and utterly reliable but decpetive, no matter how successfully we can “prove” over and over and over again its so-called “laws.”

    The DSM-IV outlines the characteristic of certain pathologies and gives them neat titles. What is the agreed upon universal criteria upon which to make these assumptions? Okay, a person hoards so much stuff that it becomes a serious health hazard. Easy to say, at a minimum, he or she is a bit touched. But are they? Are any of us so familiar with the depths of what is needed for the soul to be about its purpose or find its greatest freedom that we can judge this wrong?

    Where we as a species get cock-eyed is the focus on morality. I have found that pride as much as shame, hope as much as despair, success as much as failure, gain as much as loss, have given truth its necessary dimensions. It is a process. Morality evolves to be a heart devoted to the ultimate well-being of another, the aesthetics of our inter-connectedness.

    What are we left with then?

    Looking at Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachman and Mitt Romney, I want to say stupid, stupid, stupid. Also, I want to say that all Fundamentalists are mentally distrubed, for such a stance is fear-based and provides the necessary distance from others to do whatever is believed necessary to promote their views. It is not unlike alcoholism or Tourettes or Schizophrenia.

    What we all avoid and thus find some form of quandry about making “absolutes” in order to reasonably, and reliably, discern the nut jobs from the sane is getting rid of the enemy: the self we created. Who we are is not what we make of oursleves (though we had little input in that regard for at least fifteen years). Love is immaculate perception, yet to get the love which sees so clearly, we must die to self.

    • JohnH

      “Then other and equally true and opposing geometries were formulated”

      Sorry, but none of the other geometries are opposing to Euclidean; each can be seen as an embedding in an Euclidean Geometric space, such that an elliptical plain can be thought of as being on the surface of an ellipsoid in 3 space and Hyperbolic can be thought of as being on the surface of a hyperboloid.

      “Quantum Physics is paradox-central.”
      Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean that there are actual paradoxes involved.

      “Reason is not used to discern but is at the mercy of these various unconscious influences and just there to make a presentable explanation (as well as for our survival, both life and image). ”

      Reason must have some set of fundamental assumptions about the world on which to build. These fundamental assumptions can not be proven to be true, they must be assumed true either because they are obvious to the individual reasoning or because one can’t reason without them (or because one doesn’t reach the conclusion one wants without it, but that is just a case of circular reasoning so the conclusion is the assumption). An example of a base assumption that every sane person holds is that of induction, as otherwise nothing could ever be learned at all.

      Scholars of all types have additional basic unproven and unprovable assumptions that they use, they must or they could not do the work that they do. Since the assumptions are unproven and unprovable it is logically consistent to hold an opposing view, even in cases where it doesn’t make practical sense to do so.
      It is entirely likely that someone that is listed as stupid or mentally disturbed is just using different basic assumptions and is perfectly reasonable and rational. Perhaps before assuming stupidity it would be a good idea to figure out why they are saying things that you find irrational, what assumptions they have that you don’t (or that you have that they don’t).

      Remember if you think those people are stupid or insane then you are calling nearly 50% of the nation stupid and insane which thing is highly improbable and should make you reconsider the definition of insanity, or consider that perhaps you are the one that is insane.

  • http://www.rulonbrown.com Rulon Brown

    I wonder what you make of George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think Of An Elephant” and his linguist approach to political pathology?

  • http://robertsonian.blogspot.com Jake Robertson

    What an excellent perspective.

    We devout–whatever we devote ourselves to–can get so caught up in our own devotion that we forget to think about our necessary intellectual and spiritual devotion to others, that devotion that stands at the heart of true religion. This, more than anything else, I think, may be the source of our willingness to misrepresent others.

    As a rhetorical scholar, your theorizing on pathologizing makes me wonder if “pathologizing” might not be modernism’s go-to fallacy.

    I recently wrote a rhetorical analysis of the CARM website on my blog, examining the fallacious reasoning in Matt Slick’s discussion of atheism there (I avoided his discussion of Mormonism so as not to seem self-serving; I hope, as a non-atheist, I did the atheist [if not the atheist position] at least a little justice). I am going to link to your discussion here in order to extend that conversation, to remind my students not to take one fallacious writer’s opinions as representative of an entire community.

    Thanks for this.


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