Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Fundamentalist

The political left demonizes the fundamental far-right and fundamental Islam takes a beating from representatives throughout the political spectrum. But what is fundamentalism? Or better yet: what has fundamentalism become? And is it productive to use this terminology or is it yet another example of divisive language?

A little over a hundred years ago, fundamentalism was seen in a positive light, at least within the conservative Christian movements which used the term. Theological fundamentalism was born shortly after scientific naturalism and modern evolutionary theory posed threats to what was considered to be core, or fundamental beliefs. Fundamentalism was a mere reaction to modernity. It wasn't until Western media hijacked the word in the late 1970's, for the first time referring to the zealousness of Ayatollah Khomeini as being Islamic Fundamentalism, that even most Christian fundamentalists began to distance themselves from this term. The fundamentalist became the extreme version of the “other.”

In several of my previous essays I have referred to the exponential fragmentation of society that we are facing today. A method of combating this fragmentation, in my opinion, is to understand the symbiotic relationship between social structures and the commentaries, which serve not only to explain, but also to influence those very structures. The interdependence is far-reaching; it's short-sighted to think that politicians and media are the only influence on social structures today. Every Tweet, every Facebook status update, every “like”, every blog and re-blog are contributing to the formation of our society. I think most of us still try to see society as something outside of ourselves and power as something that doesn't concern us. We seem somehow incapable of comprehending the shear vastness of this social system into which we are inextricably woven. Only when we can begin to grasp this vastness and understand the discourses which form every involvement between “society” and “us,” and “us” and “them,” can we begin to realize our responsibility that we bear as an active part of society.

It is, therefore, not only indicated to work for social change but also for conceptual change. Just as I advocated questioning ideologies in my essay “Where's the 'Common' in 'Common Sense'?,” I see an urgent need for self-regulation in the realm of perception and expression. When we become aware that our comments contribute to the very structures that we may be fighting against, for example, we need to vigilantly control what terminology we are using and why. And more importantly, realize how terminology is symbiotically influencing our perceptions.

In the twentieth-century a reduction in the use of pejorative racist terminology backfired in the culmination of the concept of “political correctness” in the 1990's. Every attempt to minimize social offense was sarcastically called PC, the abbreviation of “politically correct,” and demonized as over-regulatory. A goal of society in the twenty-first-century in trying to steer away from the Culture Wars which have seeped past the boarders of America and which threaten to take on the magnitude of a Cultural World War should, therefore, be to recover from this embarrassed blemish of political correctness and fear of over-regulation and move to a position of self-regulation and responsibility.

In this light I would like to rehabilitate the concept of fundamentalism. The word “fundamentalism” contains an accusation. If we call someone a fundamentalist it has little to do with how they might refer to a holy text. Much more, we are suggesting that they are radical, extreme, closed-minded. Calling someone a fundamentalist might be descriptively valid, but it doesn't make a person less radical, less extreme, less closed-minded. Much more important than avoidance of the use of “heated rhetoric” (see my essay “REVOLUTION NOW!”) is avoidance of divisive rhetoric. Calling someone a fundamentalist serves to widen the gap between “us” and “them.” And as with any accusation, it not only says something about the object of the accusation but also the person saying the accusation. When we call someone a fundamentalist we are showing that we are unwilling to work with that person and we expose ourselves as being more closed-minded than we would like to admit. In essence, more like them. And when blaming the fundamentalist for a given political situation, we are in fact shirking our responsibility for contributing to the fertile ground in which fundamental ideas take root. (I will be addressing this in more detail in a future essay.)

Although I would never propagate eliminating words from our vocabularies, I am keen to understand words and the consequence of usage. And I also advocate the dynamic development of language. If we want to turn down the flame heating the Culture Wars we need to not only redefine our positions but also our terminology. Instead of eliminating fundamentalism we can redefine it.

Let's look at the word architecturally. The majority of permanent housing structures are built upon a foundation, a fundament. As different as the housing is, so different will be each fundament. But every fundament has one thing in common. It's not just the thing that holds up the house. Far more it is a mode of communicating between the landscape and the house. A major aspect of the fundament is, therefore, to take in the language of the terrain and translate that information into a level surface.

There is something in the universality of a fundament, therefore, that seems to often be overlooked. The Protestant Fundamentalists of the late nineteenth-century addressed the term within their given theological structure, seeking to define that which was fundamental to their beliefs. That's like analyzing one fundamental structure in terms of one specific type of topography. But what if we examine a fundament globally? What if we carry over the idea from architecture that a fundament is a mode of communication between a given terrain and that which is built upon it? Then the idea of fundamentalism in a global sense could refer to a universal search for basic values, common to all cultures or religions or schools of thought. What is it, therefore, that we all build upon, that leveling base? What is it, therefore, that, regardless of terrain, brings us all to a point in our beings, both individually and collectively, that is flat, solid, and determining?

This is fundamentalism. And in this respect we should all see it as a goal to become the fundamentalist. Only when we broaden our view and realize that the details that we are fighting about, however important they may be, are still just details, can we acknowledge the fundament, the common ground upon which we could build together.


  1. If I understand, we are all fundamentalists insomuch as there must always be something fundamental to our individual systems of belief -- whether it be the Bible, the Qur'an, empiricism in science, or whatever. Ultimately, there must be a non-rational first principle upon which all others are based. So, the term "fundamentalist" becomes incomplete and meaningless in itself, since each of us holds SOMETHING as fundamental. I would argue that the legitimacy of that first principle should be judged primarily on how effective it proves as a basis for actually meeting the needs of the individual and of the community.

  2. Philip, I'm not quite sure that we understand each other yet. In this essay, I didn't suggest that there must be something fundamental to our individual system of beliefs. Rather, I suggested that a fundamentality exists as a precursor to any system of beliefs. Indeed this is banal: we need to eat, we thrive in a social environment, we want a good life for our children, we tend to be guided by the principles of a system of belief, etc. And I find it imperative to recognize this common ground. Too often we are shown images of the "other" as a monster. Certainly this is nothing new. I'll draw on a familiar example: the Third Reich was able to inspire many German citizens to view Jews as "Untermensch;" at the same time Allied Forces held Nazi Germans to be monsters. Indoctrination through fear seems to be very effective in bringing normal people to a point of making exceptions to what they would define as human. As soon as another person is no longer seen as human, rather as a monster or sub-human, then there can be no more sense in human rights. I have met many educated people who unfortunately believe that an individual's "immoral" actions deem him to be an animal or monster and exclude him from being human. As soon as this thought-pattern develops, it can be applied and extended at will. Nazis were able to massacre many an Aryan homosexual or Aryan person with disabilities or Aryan alcoholic by mere extension of principles and policies. Contrarily, they granted "Honorary Aryan" citizenship to Japanese nationals. If we don't focus on the human race as all-inclusive then human rights become arbitrary rights.

    On a different note, you said something very interesting in stating that there must be a non-rational first principle upon which all others are based. This is something gladly overlooked by those condemning religion in general as being incongruous to scientific thought. We have merely to look at Euclidian axioms to see a parallel example of experiential givens in mathematics, our "purest" science. At any rate, in my plea for fundamentalism I do not call on the individual to examine and refer to his non-rational first principle. That would just be meandering in details. I call for going beyond this, for a broadening, not a pin-pointing. In my appeal for a global fundamentalism I think it could also be advantageous to analyze local thought structures and identify an essence of that thought, thereafter comparing that essence with other thought structures. For example, one might identify the essence of Christianity as "love one another," Jesus' single commandment common to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John and compare that to the essences of other religions. The simplicity of a global fundamentalism could prove to guide us better than a mere disassociation from the term as it is currently used in mass media.

  3. I do not use the word "fundamentalist" very often; so I really haven't given much thought to it's exact meaning.

    I do feel that it is important to have exact meanings for words because if we don't have exact meanings, then it becomes difficult to communicate. That doesn't mean that words can only have one exact meaning, its just that, if a word has more than one meaning, people need to know those different meanings and when they apply.

    Remember when Bill Clinton said "It depends on what "is" is."

    A weird example of getting in trouble for not knowing the meaning of a word occurred a few years ago when U.S. Senator George Allen called a guy "macaca" at a political event.

    He had no idea that the word was used as a racial slur in the Belgian Congo, (he claimed that he just made up the nickname on the spot) but his opposition used that word against him and George Allen lost the election.