Thursday, 19 August 2010

On balance, excess and religious fanaticism

I am temperamentally suspicious of extreme positions in religion, politics, culture and people. These are commonly described in terms of binary sectarianism: liberal/conservative, progressive/reactionary, utopian/revolutionary. I find these tags intellectually lazy and adolescent. My psychological anxieties about such divisions are that (a) they are too crude to be useful in thinking deeply about ideas. By generalizing, they inevitably degrade the vital nucleus of an idea and (b) nuance, paradox, intellectual humility and the slipperiness of human thought become vices rather than virtues of intelligence. By making an aristocracy of the final word, the possibility that there may be something more to say about a matter or fresh ways of speaking about it are closed off.

It follows that the idea of mature, respectful “dialogue” with contrary perspectives becomes a sign of weakness. The possibility that other views may shed light on a given view is held as anathema. Such sectarianism must turn the person who holds a contrary view into an enemy. They are to be defeated either by battering them into submission with an argument or by battering them physically, verbally or emotionally until they no longer exist. The umbrella term for these attitudes and strategies is fundamentalism.

I am looking for something more balanced, especially in a world where there exist competing and opposing views. A balanced economy. A balanced body politic. A balanced Church. A balanced person. More balance in my life, my ideas and in myself. I believe that because balance is attractive and difficult to achieve that it has an inherent value. But, has it? For example, what makes me think that the “balanced argument” or the “balanced presentation” of a particular argument is of more value than the polemic or the rant? Could, in fact, the polemic or the rant be nearer to the truth of the matter than the meticulous weighing of ideas and expressions on some finely tuned scales? And, how does one determine what is the balance, what is the extreme? I clearly have some idea in my mind of what are excessive positions, but based on what? Maybe I should be more suspicious of balance?

I’ve been thinking about these mental balancing acts because I’ve been reading Adam Phillip’s infuriating and fascinating (you see, I’m trying to strike a balance and ending up with a critical imbalance!) meditation, On Balance. He writes:

When the dramatist Mark Ravenhill writes that “Art that isn’t driven by this basic impulse to create an unbalanced view of the world is probably bad or weak,” we are not shocked by this, partly because after Romanticism we take it for granted that this is the province of art; elsewhere it is balance that is required. Art, ideally, is where the unbalanced views should be kept, as far away from religion and politics as possible. If we want art to be an isolation ward it is because we know just how contagious these so-called unbalanced views of the world can be (fascism, racism and sexism in modern liberal societies are unbalanced views, but liberal democratic values are not).

I’m not sure this view bears close examination. I’m not aware that, for example, in the contemporary art world “unbalanced views” are proliferating and that dangerous germ cultures like fascism, racism or sexism are being grown. The really “unbalanced” views (and they are, at present, minority views) in this environment are that beauty, harmony and truth are more than bourgeois, cultural constructs. Yet, there may exist some art forms, such as in the theatre, and entertainment forms, such as comedy, where playwrights or comedians dare to tip the balance or knock it over.

The reason that Adam Phillips is convinced that “unbalanced views should be kept, as far away from religion and politics as possible” is because the memory of 9/11 casts a dark shadow over his thinking. On Balance is as much a book about this event as it is about balance or psychoanalysis. For Adam Phillips, 9/11 is the example of modern excess that colours all his views of other, lesser examples of excess:

The anorexic and the suicide bomber, the attention-seeking child and the compulsive gambler, the person who has more money than he needs and the person committed to celibacy are all involved, in their different ways, in extravagant violations of law, decency or morality; even though, of course, they may not see it this way. And this, too, is important when we are thinking about excess: what is excessive to one person may be to another person just an ordinary way of life. The devoutly religious are not, in their own view, overdoing it; terrorists are not, in their own view, overreacting to the injustices they feel they have suffered. Indeed, one of the many ways of describing many of our personal and political and religious conflicts is that someone is trying to persuade someone else that they are being excessive: excessively cruel, excessively disrespectful, excessively unjust.

Perhaps, we need to take a more balanced approach to our discussion of excess. Instead of lumping together all forms of excessive behaviour – “the person who has more money than he needs and the person committed to celibacy” – as if they were identical, we need to recognise that different excesses belong to different categories of behaviour. For example, is the excessive behaviour of grief the same as the excessive behaviour of sexual promiscuity? Can you ever have too much grief? If so, what is the right amount of grief? Can you ever have too many sexual partners? If so, what is it about having multiple sexual partners that could be damaging? Different excesses. Different categories.

Adam Phillips concludes his discussion of excess by considering religious excess or fanaticism. This, of course, interested me because I, according to Phillips, am supposedly living an excessive life as a religious celibate and for somebody who prizes balance that is unsettling. But, more importantly, this discussion (post 9/11) has widespread cultural implications. Phillips suggests that there are three ways to account for religious fanaticism:

i. …Excessive belief is called up to stifle excessive doubt, as if the fanatic is saying to himself: “If I don’t continually prove my belief in this extreme way, what will be revealed is extreme faithlessness, or despair, or confusion, or even emptiness.”

ii. ….Excessive acts of belief are required to persuade other people, as if the fanatic is saying to himself: “What matters most in the world to me will not be listened to, or considered, or thought about or even noticed unless a dramatic statement is made.”

I think there is something in these descriptions of extreme religious behaviour, but it is Adam Phillips third description that I found really thought provoking. I will conclude this post with it.
iii. …the religious fanatic is someone for whom something about themselves and their lives is too much; and because not knowing what that is is so disturbing they need to locate it as soon as possible…Because the state of frustration cannot be borne – because, perhaps, it is literally unbearable, as long-term personal and political injustices always are – it requires an extreme solution, which is usually a fast one…Fanatics are people who have had to wait too long for something that may not exist. Wherever there is excessive frustration there is a false solution; this would be an excessive way of putting it. Our excesses are the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.

On Balance, Adam Phillips, Hamish Hamilton, 2010


  1. "What did I want the most in my world? I wanted that which was imperfect in my life to be just so perfect. Crafted by me, perfectly the way it should be. But that was totally impossible unless I was to do it alone, which made the perfectness imperfect from the outset. As it had to involve another. I have since discovered the perfect answer to make my imperfect life perfect. And everything about it is perfectly imperfect" It involves perfect God and it involves Love and it involves very imperfect me.”

  2. A fanatic is somebody not only filled with excessive enthusiasm but also mistaken enthusiasm.

    balance is to weigh a question or argument etc against each other.

    So I wonder which way the scales tip, fanatical balancer or a balanced fanatical ?

  3. Thoughts about this deep, intensive and relevant blog will not leave me.

    The balanced argument versus the polemic rant is about different responses to reaching the truth. One can only engage in a balanced argument if there is some other view to balance it against. This only comes about by sharing adult respectful “dialogue” which is a two way conversation, other wise the truth is one sided. The polemic or rant response is about somebody passionately voicing their truth under feelings of repression, which is a one way dialogue with its own truth, where by response from the other party is welcome. Either way the invisible province between both arguments allows a truth to unveil itself.

    A couple of my most well placed, highly successful friends, who happen to be, well balanced, level headed, Calm, disciplined, diplomatic, moderate and together people, have shocked me during rare moments of intimate conversation where they have revealed a personal lack of integrity. Hidden to the otherwise outside world.

    I on the other hand experience great passion and enthusiasm at times which may be perceived as being unbalanced and excessive even contraversial, but have a deep integrity that wouldn’t (sadly at times) allow me to reach that same point of personal lack of integrity as they have previously reached.

    Striving for balance continually, may equal too much balance (which in itself is an unbalance).
    The point of balance, between balance and excess would be at a different place, to the point of balance between neutral and excess.
    The balance between balance and fanatical would not be either end (of its) scale but half way between.

    I look at it from another angle, fanatics have an excessive amount of passion and enthusiasm for what they believe. At what point does passion and enthusiasm become excessive. And at what point does excessive passion or enthusiasm become fanatical. Is it all about different degrees? Or is it about a mistaken passion or misplaced enthusiasm that makes somebody fanatical?
    For e.g. Take a world class athlete. They have an excessive passion that drives them towards a positive triumph which is celebrated.
    But an excessive anorexic would be driven to death which is alarming.
    However an excessive terrorist would be driven to the killing of self and others, which then becomes chilling.

    Its interesting your final paragraph I agree. Celibacy is something which I do not personally consider fanatical, for not just priests but many others are celibate too. However what’s ‘slightly excessive’ to me, is that others may just quietly commit to It, for the reasons of its virtues, with out necessary locking themselves in, and The Catholic Church/priests very publicly have to lock into something and then regularly publically justify it. I can see why the author places a fanatical slant to it.

    What’s interesting is that those who I consider to be real fanatics and disturbing, seem to feed their passionate enthusiasm with gross public attention, in order to publicise their views, to justify their excessive behaviour, whether I feel it is misplaced or not, and more disturbingly often with violence and without Love.
    Maybe they should have learnt two way respectful balanced arguments or the odd quick polemic rant in the first place. How refreshing.

  4. My last paragraph was talking about terrorist's by the way!

  5. Something undertood on radio 4 this morning sunday 22nd August at 6.00 is all about Anger. It ties in beautifully with your blog. There are some interesting quotes from the Dali-Lama and Aristotle and a great peice of music 'The Four Tempraments'.

  6. "the religious fanatic is someone for whom something about themselves and their lives is too much." Dare I ask do you what that is?

    "Fanatics are people who have had to wait too long for something that may not exist." I disagree.

    Our excesses are the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves." Yes I aggree. Drat!

  7. Extremism and extremists of one kind or another have coloured history for centuries. It is only, I think, when that extremism emerges to the detriment of other people's views and safety that they really make the headlines these days.
    I worry about the quotation "Fanatics are people who have had to wait too long for something that may not exist". This brings into question the matter of faith. Faith in something, surely, is just that; neither provable nor disprovable.
    I also worry about the implied criticism of celibacy. Religious celibates, in the Christian world live their lives in a way they find acceptable for the benefit of others and to try to achieve what "the peace of God which passes all understanding".
    Like the last commentator, I agree that our excesses are (amongst) the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves. This may explain, to an extent, why people offering various and varying therapies are flourishing at the present.
    A very thought provoking blog. Thankyou.