We have met the fundamentalists and they are us

We have met the fundamentalists and they are us
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Historian Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into two categories: Hedgehogs, who are convinced that they have discovered a big truth that explains everything, therefore leaving little room for fruitful discussion; and foxes, for whom there are many competing truths. Fundamentalists are the hedgehogs of today.     

The term “fundamentalism” wasn’t always pejorative. It dates back a century to a series of pamphlets called “The Fundamentals,” which defended what the authors took to be the most basic Christian beliefs, including the infallibility of Scripture. But many Americans believe that to call people fundamentalists today is to accuse them of being stupid. At the heart of the charge is that no evidence could possibly persuade them that their views might be wrong. And that can be true of people anything but stupid.   

And yet, fundamentalism has been flourishing and expanding well beyond its theological roots, and this represents a serious challenge for democratic societies. It is ascendant on the ideological left, the right, and even the center, and has taken root in contemporary social thought generally, not just in politics. It leads to a radical simplification of complex questions and unwillingness to learn from experience or opposing views. There is little hope of compromise. It gives rise to dueling monologues of shouting and abuse between those who are certain that they can’t be wrong, that truth and justice are exclusively on their side, and their opponents are either evil or delusional.    


Sound familiar?    

We believe that there is some degree of fundamentalism in us all — that there are areas where we unequivocally know that we are right, and it is therefore impossible to convince us otherwise. For Schapiro, as an observant Jew, there is nothing that could cause him to question the existence of a benevolent God; or, as an economist, that there is any realistic hope to develop an alternative to markets as a way to allocate scarce resources. For Morson, it is clear that even if no absolute truth will ever be revealed, some ideas are surely better than others; and as a literary scholar, that despite the view of influential critics, there is genuinely such a thing as “great” literature (including the novels of his favorite writer, Leo Tolstoy). As one of the reviewers of our new book, “Minds Wide Shut,” put it, we want to keep our minds wide open, but not so wide open that our brains fall out.     

And yet, we are optimistic that even the most ardent of the true believers have the ability, if not the willingness, to change most views in light of compelling evidence. What is required is an openness to face those with whom you disagree with a genuine humility and a readiness to engage. Allowing ourselves to partake in that kind of self-reflection makes us better citizens and helps to foster a democracy that we fear may be in peril. Democracy depends on an acknowledgement that, at least in part, we just may be wrong.    

How might we arrive together at such an acknowledgement?   

For one thing, too many of us live in echo chambers, hearing our words and the words of those like us played back, reinforcing our own opinions rather than challenging them. While living in silos might bring us short-term comfort, it demands all too little of our minds. Liberals can learn something from watching Fox News and taking seriously articles, books and op-eds written by thoughtful conservatives; conservatives can do similarly with CNN, the New York Times and the like.     


And perhaps banishing politics from the holiday dinner table is a bad idea. Your benighted uncle might just have a point of view worth considering. And listening to him might leave you less shocked the next time your preferred candidate, who can’t possibly lose the election, does lose. 

We also suggest engaging with literature that can inspire and instruct us, moving us beyond fundamentalism into true understanding. Realist fiction, in particular, provides us with a master class in empathy with those unlike ourselves. By identifying with characters, we sense from within what it is like to be someone else, to see the world from the perspective of a different social class, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and expression, moral understanding and the many other categories that define and differentiate human life.     

Recognizing not just the rise in fundamentalism, but how it operates in each of us, is a first step away from reflexively condemning the other. The next step is to develop a sincere willingness to listen and to learn from each other, and from real facts, including those that run counter to our preferred views.   

As we at long last prepare for a post-pandemic age, may it be a foxy one.   

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures, where Morton Schapiro is president and a professor of economics. Their latest book is “Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.”