The need for social connection and community support for the people of our society has never been greater.  Being alone, atomized, and unable to relate to the rest of society and those inhabit it opens people up to harmful ideologies and an movemet toward totalitarian thoughts and impulses. Nabeelah Jaffer has written a thoughtful essay about the factors that can herald people into the extremist totalitarian fold.

If nothing else this essay highlights the human need for social interaction and connection.  We crave to make sense of the world and it has been demonstrated repeatedly in history that we are willing to forgo our rational critical selves to find comfort in an absolutist worldview which may indeed be terrible, but offers the warm comfort of having all answers necessary to make life understandable and comprehensible.

We pick up with our excerpt here referring as Jaffer is talking about Jeff an individual who has accepted a anti-Muslim white supremacist world, yet is still friends with the Muslim author.

“Knowing me has made little difference to Tom’s broader ideology, and to his conviction that immigrants in general and Muslims in particular are the great enemy of our time. Factual debate also makes no impact. When our mutual friends disagree at length with Tom’s extreme opinions, he hardens into polarised opposition. He is quiet but stubborn, retreating into his shell with a wounded air. Of course, all of us suffer at times from confirmation bias – a tendency to favour information that supports our existing beliefs. But Tom does not simply prefer certain facts to others – he seems almost uninterested in them. Instead, he returns repeatedly to cliché (something Arendt also noted in Eichmann). ‘Religion taking over like it always has,’ he writes in a typical post, ‘sharia will creep to power and form an Islamic State.’ This is beyond the common run of immigration-skepticism and the distaste for religion that any decided atheist might have. It drums out a single narrow account of the world – past, present and future.

There is chilly logical consistency to Tom’s ideas. If you presume that Western culture represents a single (and singularly enlightened) worldview, then it follows that non-white immigrants attached to less perfect cultures are a threat that must be stopped. If you are convinced that Islam also entails a single worldview that is coincidentally the total antithesis of the consummately enlightened Western approach, then it follows that it must be fought. If you have already decided that civilisation is all that matters in this story, then what need is there for anything else? In ‘Ideology and Terror’ (1953), Arendt suggested strict self-evident logicality was the main capacity left to those who could not engage in true thought: the fact that two and two equals four cannot be denied ‘even under the conditions of absolute loneliness’. Such logical reasoning becomes ‘the only reliable “truth” human beings can fall back upon’ once they have lost the sense of mutuality needed to know their way in a common world. (Though there might be other reasons for this correlation, it has often been noted that a disproportionately large number of violent Islamist extremists have backgrounds in engineering, science or maths.) Logic, after all, needs neither the self nor the other in order to function. Only one premise matters – and it must be allowed to race freely through mankind, executing its inherent law.

Truth is simply not as relevant as what seems to be the truth

Tom’s narrative has no need of facts. They are beside the point. Like other ideas that aspire to ‘total explanation’, the narrative pretends ‘to know beforehand everything that experience may still have in store’. Armed with omniscient knowledge of the ‘true’ cause for all events, believers are relieved of their sense of insecurity. Here, at last, is a consistent explanation for everything. Totalitarian ideas emancipate their believers from reality: their worth lies in presenting a coherent absolute narrative of the world, which, as Arendt noted in Origins, is ‘more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself’. Experience is irrelevant: there is nothing new to be learned about the situation. The idea of a Jewish world conspiracy was once made to seem more true than reality by the Nazis, who simply acted ‘as though the world were dominated by the Jews and needed a counterconspiracy to defend itself’. Truth is simply not as relevant as what seems to be the truth.

When Arendt argued that loneliness was the common ground of terror, she was not thinking of individual acts of terrorism perpetrated by those on the margins – but of the terror of authoritarian ideologies and governments being slowly embraced by society’s dominant majority. The ideal subject of these governments, she argued, was not a convinced extremist but simply an isolated individual, too insecure in himself to truly think: someone for whom the distinction between true and false was beginning to blur, and the promise of a movement was beginning to beckon.”

I see the level of atomization in our society and I am deeply concerned to the extent that extremist ideologies can (and have been) make inroads into the general populace.  The most worrisome part is that once people/populations are committed down the totalitarian road – facts simply don’t matter – and therefore rational dialogue and debate becomes irrelevant.  And there there is nothing left but bloodletting and the frenzied decent in chaos.

This is a great essay, I recommend reading it in full but also having a cheerful tonic at hand to chase back the gloomy implications for our society.