Notes on fanaticism | Inquirer Opinion

Notes on fanaticism

/ 12:17 AM September 23, 2016

I remember that arresting scene from Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala”: droves of people in wide-eyed fascination and undying hope forming a river of flesh and bones in the trail of the virginal Elsa, portrayed by a then youthful Nora Aunor. Cryptic, symbolic and timeless, Ricky Lee’s screenplay was my first awakening to Filipino fanaticism. It was relevant during the 1980s, a decade before I was born and truly a turning point in our nation’s history. And it’s still relevant today—but Elsa now comes in different forms.

Fanaticism is a mystery: how one mortal glorifies another mortal on a makeshift altar, how multitudes are unified in a continuing expression of ardor. In human history, it is not surprising for tribes and races to exalt an unseen Supreme Being, whether manifested in nature or as a sacramental Host. Humankind yearns for something greater beyond itself, after all. But what prompts one to attribute traits of divinity to another, a being not so different from oneself?


Fanaticism is defined in Psychology Dictionary as “an excessive and usually irrational zeal or devotion towards a specific cause or belief.” George Santayana defines it best as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” As for Jeremy Sherman, “It’s not what they believe that makes them fanatics but how they believe it, that they have the final word, no need to consider further evidence, no need to ever wonder or doubt themselves again.” (That sentence is part of his article titled “Fanaticism is a Disease like Alcoholism.”)

At worst, fanaticism is an enemy of humanity. In its most twisted form, fanaticism is turning the human mind against itself, or against others. Religious fanaticism, for example, has fueled the most violent and monstrous of crimes against humanity. We hear of Islamic State attacks today. Way back, it is this fanaticism that incited the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials. In a letter supporting the trials in Salem, minister


Cotton Mather wrote: “It is very certain that the Devils have sometimes represented the Shapes of persons not only innocent, but also very virtuous.”

In its harmless form, fanaticism is funny, often ludicrous. Jackie Huba, in his book “Monster Loyalty: How Lady Gaga Turns Followers into Fanatics,” describes the fanaticism behind pop culture icon Lady Gaga and the machinery behind the public fascination. Because truly, even if the pop star bled in her live performance, or had someone vomit on her onstage, she has sold 27 million albums worldwide.

Fanaticism is no stranger in pop culture and it has been personified as the Sparrows in “Game of Thrones” and the First Order in “Star Wars.” Fanaticism is also palpable in sports, as riots are sparked and violence is heightened in sport events.

In its alarming form, fanaticism is played out when a political leader is so idolized by his supporters that nothing he says or does can be wrong or untrue. President Duterte was recently quoted as telling reporters: “Do not hesitate to attack me, criticize me, if I do wrong in my job.” If this is the atmosphere in the traditional media, the opposite is true in social media, where netizens bend over backward to accommodate their idol’s faults.

Fanaticism starts with an experience: one that is new and shocking. Religious fanaticism, for its followers, is a new experience. Lady Gaga has shock value for her fans. And Mr. Duterte is a departure from the usual members of the landed gentry that have led our nation. The first Philippine president from Mindanao, he appeals to the masses and talks like them, in a nation where 90 percent of the population are classified as lower- or working-class. To many, he is a shift from an unpleasant experience. Whether he is aware of it or not, his leadership has spawned fanatics.

Wole Soyinka writes that with fanatics, the “disposition of mind toward alternative concepts is next to impossible.” This has become palpable in political topics today. Pleasantly, however, it seems that the new administration has awakened a citizenry, now active where it was once passive. But it comes with its poison. Justice Marvic Leonen, in his speech at the Ateneo School of Government, said: “After the elections, we endow the winners in an electoral contest with undeserved entitlement. We create kings and queens rather than public servants.”

Fanaticism may end up in two ways: Either the fanaticism itself wanes, or the fanatics are ruined. In popular culture, it didn’t take long before the adoring fans grew tired of Lady Gaga’s shock value and theatrics on stage. They, too, need real music beneath the glitter.


And in history, fanaticism has caused the fall of empires. Barbara Ehrenreich writes: “Loyalty to chariot-racing leagues eclipsed all political passions. When the barbarians attacked the gates of the Roman city of Hippo, no one much noticed because the groans of the dying soldiers were drowned out by the roar from the stadium.”

Similarly, in the modern fanaticism of the Philippines, we expect either of two results: that the public grows weary of shock value and demands actual leadership, or becomes a witness to the crumbling of unity in a nation on its knees.

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