USS Clueless -- The mark of a fanatic

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The mark of a fanatic
Stardate 20010624

George Santayana famously said that "Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim." But that describes the most extreme fanatics. The lesser fanatic is harder to spot. Fanaticism partakes of some of the characteristics of a cult.

Fanatics have extreme world views; they don't see shades of grey. Phrases like "If you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem" are symptomatic. To a fanatic, if you're not 100% on his side then you have to be 100% opposed to him. It is not possible to somewhat agree with a fanatic; absolute agreement is the only acceptable alternative.

To a fanatic, the message is important. Therefore normal rules of social decorum do not apply; the vital importance of the message overrides such trivial concerns. Everyone will hear the message all the time, everywhere. It's simply too important not to take every opportunity to spread the word.

Of course, since the fanatic is obsessed with the subject matter, everyone else must be secretly whether they admit it or not. If they object to the message it can't be because they're bored with it, or because they think that the forum is inappropriate. It must be because you've tapped a secret fear. You've reached something! Time to pour on the message.

Of course, the subject of obsession is too important to joke about, and any attempt at a joke will be treated as a pathological manifestation of deep-seated fears, not as a conversational gambit to deflect the conversation to other more interesting subjects. (There can be no more interesting subject, after all, and we already know that if someone doesn't want to hear the message it's because they're part of the problem.) If he's cracking wise it's because he really knows, deep down, how important the subject is and is trying to hide from it.

There will invariably be at least one unfalsifiable or tautological aspect to the obsession. For instance: if you agree with me, then my thesis is true. If you refuse to talk about it it's because deep down you know I'm right but you refuse to admit it. If you disagree with me then it's because you've been deceived or because you are part of the active opposition.

There is an element of paranoia in true fanaticism. It isn't possible for a fanatic to accept that the subject is unimportant or less important to others. A fanatic can't accept the idea that someone else partially agrees with him, for instance, let alone the idea that someone else simply doesn't care at all. There is an active conspiracy of people opposed to this vital truth, but you never know when you'll encounter one of their agents, let alone someone who has unwittingly been indoctrinated by the opposition.

The difference between an advocate and a fanatic is a matter of degree. One can be an advocate without being a fanatic. Fanatics are the extreme case of advocacy.

An advocate recognizes that the subject isn't really important to everyone, and that there are places where the subject isn't appropriate for discussion. A non-fanatical advocate keeps a sense of proportion, and recognizes that there can be shades of grey in other people's opinions. An advocate may have opponents but recognizes that there are neutrals, too. (A fanatic, on the other hand, doesn't accept this possibility.)

The most important difference is that an advocate chooses his fights, and saves his ammunition for the big battles. To a fanatic, they're all big battles.

Fanatics are objectionable mostly because they're tiresome. There's a time and place for everything. For a fanatic, now is the time and everywhere is the place.

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