How to Fix a Fanatic

How do we get one group of people to “count” to another group of people? Not, thought the philosopher Richard Rorty, by relying upon Kant and telling them they are being “irrational.” He thought solidarity was rather “an inclination of the heart,” grounded in nothing but contingent emotional identification. Solidarity can be embedded, or not, in the contingent cultural practices of a society but can’t be proven “right” or “true.” He thought a human-rights culture “no more needs a philosophical foundation than does a recommendation to take an aspirin if you think you’re coming down with a migraine.” Rather, it needs culturally shaped intuitions and practices, for it is from these that we get our sense of shared moral identity, not the philosophers.

There [is] nothing bigger, more permanent and more reliable, behind our sense of moral obligation to those in pain than a certain contingent historical phenomenon—the gradual spread of the sense that the pain of others matters, regardless of whether they are of the same family, tribe, colour, religion, nation, or intelligence as oneself.

Rorty’s idea is that certain Western poets and novelists, muckraking journalists and contrarians “spoke as they did” and so created “our traditions.” Solidarity happens because we “talked ourselves into being the kind of people who cannot live with themselves if we neglect those duties.” Rorty urged us to carry on this work by devoting our energies to moving the heart by the education of sentiment or, the same thing only more candidly expressed, by the manipulation of feelings.

And now, with How to Cure a Fanatic, a beautiful and wise little book that fits in the palm of one’s hand, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz­—a longtime advocate of mutual recognition, compromise, and the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—has rendered the philosopher’s intuition in a novelist’s prose.  

Oz has many useful suggestions to make about curing the fanatic, most based on his experience of growing up in and among fanatics himself in wartorn Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, though, it is his appreciation of the power of literature to educate the sentiments that comes through strongest. 

Fundamentally, the fanatic “lacks imagination,” argues Oz. That is, he lacks the ability to empathize with the Other; he can’t walk in their shoes, even for a second. “The seed of fanaticism always lies in uncompromising righteousness” that grows until “the fanatic can only count up to one; two is too big a figure for him or her.” To gain a little imagination “may serve as a partial and limited immunity to fanaticism”—precisely because it confronts the fanatic with the two and by doing so “may help cause the fanatic to feel uneasy.” If it does its work, then “the zeal and the simpleness” of the fanatic’s life “go away.” And once gone, they rarely come back.  

Oz suggests that certain works of literature (not all; some only “inflate hatred”) “contain an antidote to fanaticism by injecting imagination into readers.” For example, in Shakespeare, Oz points out, fanaticism always ends up a tragedy or comedy. As the curtain falls, “either [the fanatic] is dead or he becomes a joke.” And there is Gogol, and Kafka, and Faulkner and Amichai, Mann and Lampedusa. And, of course, there is the Israeli Amos Oz and there is the Palestinian Izzeldin Abuelaish.

This Christmas I gave Oz’s essays to my son as a gift. He is 17 years old, getting active in politics and intends to study it at university. He is entering a world beset by fanaticisms. I can think of no better way to cultivate his imagination about their sources of strength and their points of weakness.


Photo Credit: Herber3

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