True Believer

True Believer

Writer Jane Ganahl wonders: How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from activist—to fanatic?

Doing my morning scan-and-trash of the emails dumped into my in-box during the night, I pause and stare. “Win a fur!” says the cheerful subject line from a fashion website founded by a friend’s wife. It asks me to click here to comment, which will put me in the running to get an exotic fur jacket from the Southern Hemisphere.

Are you kidding me?” I whisper. To my way of thinking, with all the stylish faux fur out there these days, supporting the carnage that has launched a thousand anticruelty campaigns around the world makes no sense. Enraged, and without thinking, I click through to the contest, where dozens of women have already left comments oohing and aahing. The comment I leave, written in angry haste, is short on enthusiasm and long on sarcasm. I end it with the words, “Shame on you!”

Feeling only vaguely satisfied, I pause to ponder my actions and wince at the tone I’ve taken, which is only too familiar. As a misbehaving child in church school, I heard that phrase often, delivered with an angrily pointed finger. I left the church when I became an adult, turned off by the fanaticism that Christianity bred. And yet, wasn’t I now guilty of the same thing?

The headlines are full of examples of idealism run amok and mutating into fanaticism. There are suicide bombers, “Christian” ministers waving “God Hates Fags” placards, Earth Liberation Front activists setting fire to an SUV dealership, and crazed soccer fans murdering a referee. People and property are harmed with recklessness. It seems that every instance of fanaticism begins with a passion and then somehow runs off the rails, where the ends justify the means.

I once heard fanatics described as “bitterly disappointed idealists,” and the psychiatrist David M. Reiss, who specializes in personality and character structure, says that’s not far from the truth. “When passion for a cause turns into a search for perfection, it becomes dangerous because it is never achievable,” he writes. “And people can become more and more willing to sacrifice ethics and judgment to attain that perfect way of life—whether it be a personal endeavor, a spectator sport, a political or religious pursuit, etc. That is the dangerous fantasy behind cults.”

The psychologist Kirk Schneider, author of The Polarized Mind, adds in an email that “fanaticism is primarily based on fear and repulsion.” In comparison, passion is more often associated with excitement and positive feelings. The tipping point, he says, is when an individual’s behavior becomes compulsive: “polarized, fixated on one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view.”

As for what causes fanaticism, Schneider says it often starts early in life. “In the case of many of the world’s most notorious fanatics—and I would include such figures as Hitler, Mao, and Stalin as well as many terrorists among this group—the kernel of their extremism seems to be a sense of helplessness and insignificance, which is often based in abusive and traumatic backgrounds.”

Yikes. Was I approaching this level of fervor? In recent years, the cause of animal welfare had taken root in my heart after I stumbled into rescue work with feral cats in my neighborhood. I saved cats, and the cats had saved me. Now deeply in it, I began to see how easily my passion was tipping the scales toward fanaticism. Everywhere I looked, I saw people taking care of animals “incorrectly” or being insensitive to their needs, and my response to it became swifter and angrier; the comment on my friend’s website was a prime example. It’s a tipping point every activist must guard against. You become aware of a problem, are driven to find a solution, realize there is no easy solution, and then become frustrated, even angry, bitterly vocalizing to anyone within earshot exactly how things should be done. The transformation from activist to fanatic can close your mind to well-meaning people with other points of view and have a negative ripple effect on the rest of your life.

The clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula says there is a way to guard against the conversion of passionate activism to fanaticism. “The line in the sand is whether you’re willing to hear the opinions of others in a respectful way and not alienate them—despite your devotion to your cause,” she says. “If your passion results in the loss of relationships or significant distress
within those relationships, and a subsequent desire to only keep company with people who share the same opinions, the line has been crossed.”

Adds Schneider, the human cost of fanaticism also includes the loss of an ability to “appreciate the wonder and beauty of life, and be spiritually free.” And paradoxically, the fanatic, tunnel-visioned activist would likely bring about less change. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

All of this has me wondering what camp I occupy: passionate activist or borderline fanatic? And should I apologize for standing up for what I believe to be true? After all, it has taken me a lifetime to care passionately about anything but myself. Perhaps the true line in the sand is what lengths someone will go to for a cause. Would I stand in a shopping area with a placard denouncing fur? Of course. Would I bomb Neiman Marcus for selling it? Of course not.

Carol Simone, a Palo Alto–based spiritual coach, advises tempering one’s activism with nonreactivity. “The challenge—and great opportunity—is to learn how to be of service without judgment,” she says. “Try to notice life by watching it like an unfolding movie. Every living thing has its own history and story, with lessons to learn.”

And if you feel as though you’re going to “go fanatic” on someone, remember: “Everyone has differing levels of consciousness, but at the soul level everyone wants to love and be loved, to be honored. Our job is to show up fully with love’s highest frequency: our compassion.”

Wincing at the word compassion when remembering how I flamed my friend’s website, I write an email and send her an apology—not for what I believe, but for how I said it. For how invested I was in making her wrong, and in a very public way. And I suggested, as gently as I could, that she consider changing the site’s policy. I may be interested in winning, but not at all costs.

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.