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The age of fundamentalism

  • Published at 05:54 am September 24th, 2013
The age of fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a topic that occupies a large part of the collective consciousness in most parts of the world today. Earlier this month we had the 12 year anniversary of 9/11, an event that arguably had the biggest impact on the global political landscape in recent memory, and that brought the issue of terrorism, and Islamic fundamentalism along with it, to the forefront.

However, I would argue that fundamentalism is not a discreet characteristic of certain groups of people or particular ideologies. Rather, we live in an age of pervasive fundamentalism and we all participate in it regardless of our chosen set of beliefs or ideology.

One of the definitions the Merriam Webster dictionary provides for fundamentalism is: “A movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles” (emphasis added). Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Westboro Baptist Church are examples of religious fundamentalist organisations. One can argue that laws enforcing strict secularism in France or the recent “values charter” in Quebec that bans the wearing of religious symbols by public employees constitutes a type of secular fundamentalism.

The attempt to combat religious fundamentalism has given rise to fundamentalist responses from the secular, liberal forces, the most horrific recent example of which can be found in Egypt where the attempt to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood led to the death of thousands of people.

Of course, the reasons behind Egypt’s second revolution are complex and the battle between religious and secular forces is only one part of it. However, it’s hard to deny that the need to “protect” secularism provided ample cover for a lot of recent atrocities there.

In the political sphere, differences between various ideologies have also hardened into “fundamentalist” positions on crucial issues such as climate change and response to the global financial downturn. While there have always been disagreements among adherents of different ideologies, what makes the current moment unique is the degree of polarisation between the various camps. Each camp or group seems to be closed off by such rigid beliefs in their worldviews that it makes the prospect of dialogue or a middle ground very difficult.

An interesting explanation for why people in general seem to be prone to fundamentalism or moral closure of this sort comes from Jonathan Haidt, a contemporary social psychologist who has been investigating the issue of morality and the left-right political divide in the United States.

Haidt posits that from an evolutionary point of view, morality has served a very important purpose in human society where it gave large groups of people (beyond the family or clan) the ability to come together and accomplish great things. “Sacred values” have acted as the lightning rod which allowed diverse groups of people to put aside their differences and act for a common cause – from the construction of the Mayan pyramids to fighting in wars.

Haidt points out that while religion has historically served as the most prominent “sacred value,” examples can be found in recent history where other values have played similar roles, for example, patriotism. As Haidt says, we “circle around” flags, as it helps us to trust each other so that we can fight the enemy. However, this act of “circling” or coming together also has enormous psychological payoffs – it makes us feel good to be part of groups and to be able to clearly mark out the “enemy” or “other.”

However, this very aspect of morality, taken to fundamentalist extremes, also distorts our view of the “truth.” As Haidt says, “morality binds and blinds.” It cripples open-minded, critical thinking and instead encourages us to think of dissenters as “evil,” or, if we are feeling more charitable, “stupid.” In other words, it gives rise to moral self-righteousness or hubris.

However, as societies become more heterogeneous, this causes serious conflicts, which is what we are witnessing in many countries around the world, ours included. The unwillingness to accept the fact that the other side might have a legitimate point of view (even though we might disagree with it) or something worthwhile to contribute leads to the breakdown of democratic discourse and leads to the oppression of the powerless by the powerful, which is the antithesis of democracy.

A brief aside here – it is quite interesting that the proliferation of information and availability of media seems to have done little to stem the tide of polarisation. The United States is a particularly good case study for this, but similar trends can be found in other countries too.

Recent research indicates that people self-select the media outlets that most closely correspond to their own point of view. Given the plentitude of choices, readers (or viewers) tend to seek out things that reinforce their existing worldview instead of those that challenge them.

Lest I sound too “holier than though” by this point, let me confess that until quite recently I had refused to read the Economist because I found their editorial stance a bit too “pro-market.”

Previously, major news outlets often served as the consensus builders in societies by providing readers with a multitude of viewpoints. However, the fragmentation of the media market has meant that the role and ability of these traditional media powerhouses to create common ground has declined.

As the problems we face as a collective have become more complex, bafflingly, we seem to be retreating into simplicity of approach, which is fueled by our moral fundamentalism. But, the demands of our time dictate that we need to do better. The challenges we face are daunting enough that they should require us to set aside our moral blinders and see if we can use every tool that is available to us, regardless of their source.

But how do we get there? Should we be all compelled now to become moral pragmatists and give up our ideals for middle-ground compromises? Not at all. However, as Haidt says, we should all strive for a bit of “moral humility” – the recognition that any point of view, regardless of how alien to our own, might have something worthwhile to contribute and that our own point of view, no matter how fond we are of them, is only one among many.

Perhaps that can be the beginning of a morally humble, sophisticated and pluralistic point of view, which is so necessary for the diverse and increasingly complex world we live in.