I think it’s safe to say that most people have ideals. An set of ideas of about what constitutes “perfect” for them, on any given subject. It can be on human rights, peace, civil liberties, the economy, the environment, agriculture, you name it, someone has an ideal version. There are those who advocate for their ideals, and do their best to persuade others to work towards or implement them. Much of our progress has been made because idealists went to work to make their ideals a reality.
The problem comes when the line between “idealism” and “fanaticism” is crossed. When an idealist becomes a fanatic, the ideal becomes their consuming passion, and anything that is not their ideal is unacceptable. Practical considerations, information that counters it, or allowing for intermediate steps is not something they want. They want their ideal to be implemented as they see it, right away. As an example, let’s take someone who wants to end a famine in Africa. They look at agricultural figures for the United States, Canada, and so on, and realize that there’s “enough extra food” by them to feed everyone in the famine zone. All well and good, so far. A fanatic would then demand that those countries immediately ship their extra food to the famine zone. They’re are going to end that famine. It’s simple, just take the extra food grown by those countries and give it to the people who are starving! Sounds simple, but as we’ve seen from the relief efforts on the disaster in Haiti, the “simple idea” often has many problems in implementation.
Let’s look at some of the ones for my example. Who’s going to pay for the food? There is a cost of production. It costs money to grow, harvest, and process crops. That needs to be paid for. There are the transportation costs and issues. How are you going to get it there? How are you going to pay for the transportation? Once there, how do you get it to the place it’s needed? How do you distribute it fairly? Finally, there’s the issues of what caused the famine, and how do you prevent it for the future? Fanatics wave those considerations aside as “irrelevant.” The ideal is to feed starving people, obstacles to that otherwise worthy goal are not worthy of consideration.
I’ve seen a rise in this phenomenon in American politics over the past few years. The number of “political activists” who cross the line from idealist to fanatic. They demand that their “perfect” solution be implemented, and lash out at anyone who may disagree with them. Even those who may have the same ideal, but acknowledge the difficulties and are willing to consider alternative routes to achieve the goal are attacked. These result in “purity wars.” Only “true believers” are welcome.
The result is that the fanatics marginalize themselves – which at times seems to be a self-validation of the “truth” of their cause. They also damage efforts to achieve their ideals. At some point, the ideal can be painted as the province of “nutcases and loons,” the “lunatic fringe” with some justification. It makes it much harder for those who are working to achieve it to actually get it done. The pragmatic, on-the-ground, “work hard” people who study the issue and work to make progress on it are hampered by the fanatics, and often have hard work destroyed by the fanatic’s actions.
I’ve spent a lot of my time on the Internet debating with various fanatics. I don’t do it because I expect to change their minds. That would be a lost cause. I do it because there are those who aren’t fanatics, to show them that there are reasonable people who are idealists – but are pragmatic and realistic about achieving their ideal.