“So,” he remarked, “the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”
Remember the fatwa on Salman Rushdie? Rushdie spent 10 years in hiding living under British police protection and used the secret alias Joseph Ashton. To this day the fatwa has not been lifted and as recently as 2016 a story emerged that 40 Iranian state-run media agencies had raised additional funds for the bounty on Rushdie’s head, thereby renewing the fatwa. Rushdie’s “offense” was writing a book—only published in English FYI—that insulted fanatical Muslims, in particular the hardline authoritarian clerical leadership in Iran (do they even read English?) To this day, Satanic Verses remains a controversy and one wonders if it’s possible to read the book for it’s own merits, knowing the ridiculous tribal politics that swirled around it. Who was served by this turn of events? Certainly not the Muslim community.
This week on I’ve watched what I can only call a pack of online fanatics devolve into a purity spiral and mob an individual with a sinister smear campaign. The previous week I watched another mob engage in a smear campaign against another individual, and a media outlet facilitated the smear attack. Several months ago I watched another pack led by purist with a large following smear another individual. In the first case, the heretic said a thing the mob didn’t like and also liked a thing the mob didn’t like. In the second case, the heretic tried to enter a local political campaign to challenge woke orthodoxy at the local level. In the third case, the heretic decided to get involved in an activist movement and met resistance from those in the movement who did not want that kind in their movement. In each case the mob vilified its target through the most vicious tactics—almost like the social media version of Daleks—lock onto the target and destroy by any means necessary. Purity spirals fuelled each of these mobs.
Purity spirals only serve the fanatics who engage them. Whether it’s blasphemy being defended, or whether it’s safety or safeguarding, it matters not, the underlying fanaticism as a human behaviour remains the same—subversion or undermining. Religious fanatics claim to promote godliness by destroying anyone who insults their god, present day activist fanatics claim to promote safe spaces or safeguarding by destroying anyone who says a thing they find offensive or disagreeable. In both cases we have a self righteously angry mob poised to wage a righteous war against their designated enemy. The irony in the case of religious fanatics lies in the fact that they violate the laws of god in punishing their blasphemers. The irony in the case of activist fanatics lies in the fact that they harm the mental wellbeing and safety of their blasphemers.
When you try to challenge fanatics you meet a wall of resistance. Many years ago, when I did a stint of psychiatric nursing on the acute admission ward of an asylum, we all followed the primary rule when interacting with patients that had fixed and acute delusions—do not challenge the delusion or you simply become part of it. Meaning, you will drive the individual further into their fixed, rigid and removed-from-reality mindset and mind loop. I find extremists very much like this—resistant to rationality, incapable of nuance or any kind of empathy, unable to dialogue in an adult fashion where people tolerate disagreement and agree to disagree. In extreme cases this becomes dangerous when fanatics project their disturbed fantasies onto the human object of their disagreement and incite some kind of punishment by mob social vigilantism.
This happened to Salman Rushdie, as I mentioned above. Yet we don’t even need to confine ourselves to the world of religious fanatics to see this behaviour play out. Present day activism provides more than enough examples of fanatics who decided they needed to somehow punish the blasphemer or heretic du jour. Twitter and other social media platforms provide the battlefield for this stuff—which we call culture wars and cancel culture. Battlegrounds become corpse-riddled fields of carnage and decay. Quillette published a book of 20 tales of this new kind of social torment, and the whole world has watched on as gender extremists pilloried JK Rowling for a very compassionate and balanced piece she wrote on her website in defense of sex and sex-based rights, and let’s not forget Amy Cooper, who lost everything and lives in hiding in an undisclosed location. Beyond these stories, many more exist—social media contains of sea of canceled corpses, and for every story we do hear about, we can rest assured many others exist. Students of history will see the alarming similarities to McCarthyism. Have we gone back there, really?
Mainstream corporate journalism has become less and less about reporting facts of events and letting readers arrive at their conclusions and more about promoting a narrative and telling readers what to think. Twenty years of war on terror and a million lives later—that’s over 300 mainly Muslim lives taken for every one life lost in 9/11 if you do the math BTW—and we now have begun to see the lies fed us by the leaders of the military industrial cult and their pet oligarchs. That’s we—we the public, the taxpayers, the voters, the parents and loved ones of the young men and women sent off to war—we bought the lie fed us by fanatics. Those of us who did not lived mild to moderate persecution as the object of vilification of those who did and anyone who attempts to dig deep and understand finds they lose friends quickly and appear on the radars of those others they would really rather not as a sinister apologist or traitor of some kind.
A powerful elite mob enacted a revenge fantasy and the media played along on pain of punishment. A dying empire suspended habeas corpus and invented a new name for torture to justify abusing it’s designated scapegoat, the same dying empire that sells itself as freedom-loving and democratic. Independent thinkers and journalists challenge the mob—many times to their peril, as we have seen with Julian Assange. It can feel scary and definitely lonely to live as a free and independent thinker—you need resilience and an internal locus of control. You need principles and values. You need a veil for your nafs.
Nafsi Nafsi it’s all about me . No, though, it’s actually not.
Like I’ve said, it’s a futile exercise to try to dialogue with extremists, and when you do, when you ask them what needs to happen for them to stop their social media kangaroo court heresy trials, they give you an answer laden with emotional rhetoric which essentially boils down to repent or perish. It all seems quite fire and brimstone. Fanaticism helps no one and indicates a dire need for some kind of mitigating psychological deprogramming remedy for the minds stuck in it. I think we forgot character and values. We allowed ourselves to become slaves to our emotions, to our unbridled rage—it has led us to this point. If you imagine the collective society as a brain, presently we have the amygdala—the fear and rage centre located the brain stem—reigning supreme.
We fell down a hole when we started rewarding fragility and poo-pooing resilience, when we chose individualism à la identitarianism over values and principle, and decided we could justify abuse in certain cases— we invited a mindset that promotes mediocre, ego-driven character. Attempt discourse with certain segments of the population, and you can now feel like a lone daycare worker surrounded by a mob of cantankerous sugar-addled, sleep-deprived toddlers in the throws of tantrum. Only the toddlers are adult-sized and drunk on their own entitlement and rage. Hyperbole and dramatics everywhere. How much do social media algorithms contribute to this growing intolerance of the other?
I have no brilliant edgy answers, really. I come back to one thing—it looms large—CHARACTER. Character matters, now more than ever—it is the only thing we each own that no one can take away. Gad Saad talks about channelling your inner honey badger by being intellectually fierce, courageous, and never capitulating to those trying to crush you. That’s anti-fragility, ie resilience. Character can be your super power—we can each effect so much by simply choosing to exert a measure of self control, humanising those whom we other, and trying to understand and build bridges, rather than blowing them up.
Character reflects the inner you—it tells me who you really are, and whether or not I can trust you. I trust very few people and that has nothing to do with how well their ideology or opinions align with mine, and everything to do with character. I can’t trust you when I see you LARPing Witch-Finder General and launching a witch hunt every time a person says a thing you dislike, or when I see you spin yourself into a disproportionate victimhood snit and disparage your interlocutors. I don’t want to belong to your cultish tribe or attend your cluster B tea party or compete in your oppression olympics. In Islam the words adab and akhlaq describe what I’m talking about—essentially, what does the landscape of your heart look like? Are you stocking your explosive supply to burn bridges, or are you channelling your inner honey badger and building your resilience? You get to choose.
So, to wrap up—we can point to two underlying challenges. First, the growing fanaticism driven by social media algorithms and a culture of manipulation with associated propaganda machinery which seeks to divide, discourages resilience, and makes no room for nuance or independent thought or disagreement. Second, the facile way we seem to embrace dehumanisation, designating the other, projecting a villainous narrative onto that other, scapegoating and then purging that scapegoat from the social landscape. These two behaviours work together to create an assault on truth. Without truth freedom dies.
Let’s remember how Julian Assange has remained one of America’s pet scapegoats—recent developments in his case reminds us how far the American Military Industrial Cult will go to punish truth-tellers who expose its manipulation and lies, and how America’s global sycophants will watch and even facilitate the persecution. Speaking out feels like conquering an insurmountable fear, and the more one has the greater the fear perhaps, because the greater will be the cost when the witch-finder general mob comes to collect its pound of flesh or cart you off to the flaming pyre. Still, fear manipulates—when will we stop and open our eyes and realise they will come for us too, unless we stand up and push back? Do not cower. Elle n’a jamais plié.
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