16 August 2017     home | subject timeline

Extremism, Epistemology and Passion

Yesterday, the columnist David Brooks (a Republican) had an article in the New York Times that he titled "How to Roll Back Fanaticism." He described modesty as "an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set" that he sees on the political right, or alt-right. He described the kind of thinking he likes as a product of having the strength to tolerate the anxiety that accompanies uncertainties. Brooks described uncertainty as putting us "into the free waters of creativity." He associated uncertainty with modesty and wrote that "it seems like a good time for assertive modesty to take a stand against the "spiraling purity movements we see today."

Under his article were many more than a thousand reader comments.

Someone wrote about adding humility to modesty, the recognition that we might be wrong, which invites self-searching analysis and respects the views of others.

A couple of readers confused modesty with weakness. There was the complaint that fascism wasn't crushed with modesty.

Hamid Varsi from Iran wrote that he admires Germans because they constantly criticize their nation's failings. This he claims inspires self-improvement in all aspects of the nation's activities, from societal to industrial.

My view: telling people they are insufficiently modest or humble isn't going to convince them to change their thinking. Describing what racism is in all its complexity might help a bit if they have modesty enough to listen. Improving their historical perspective requires extended education. Explaining the fallacy of applying generalizations to individuals might help with some. But humoring them or putting them with some kind of moral equivalence will not. Charles Krauthammer, a politically conservative (and a real shrink) today avoids that and scolds Trump for his equivalency "cop-out."

Brooks spared us the quote from William Butler Yeats about the best lacking all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. It's only half true: the best do have convictions. (Rather than certainty, like scientists we can draw conclusions from facts while keeping an open mind.)

John Yeats, however, got it right with his comment that "Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave a paradise for a sect." Contrary to the fear of some, the Klan, White Nationalists and Nazis in the US are on their way to remaining sects rather than growing in success much beyond where they are today in mainstream politics. We can thank those who speak against them – without making their demonstrations for the cameras any greater.

Hannah Arent warned us against moral righteousness. And Neitzsche had a couple good lines:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.

Finally, in the racially biased fiction titled "Gone with the Wind," Rhett Butler displayed sensible modesty when to a pro-war fanatic (Scarlett's brother) he passed up a duel and merely apologized for all of his "shortcomings." Butler was not the weak one; Scarlett's dumb brother was.


Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.