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The first question which an anthropologist might ask is whether fanatics are found in relatively stable, isolated cultures whose members have no contact with the outside world. This is a question to which we necessarily have only partial answers, as a society that is open to study is no longer isolated from information about the existence of a vastly different culture. My full experience of fanaticism among preliterate peoples is all from cultures in contact with others. It would be my judgment that without the existence of cultural choice among old or new, domestic or foreign, the kind of "closed minds" which we today call fanaticism, would not exist. Fanaticism is, however, a continuing possibility where there is choice, both among those who cling to the old in the face of the new, and those who become the dedicated proponents of change. Furthermore, it is necessary, of course, that the choice between old and new forms be a conscious one, not merely a slight change which is viewed as an emerging eccentricity of a particular group.

In societies with only an oral tradition, it is possible to have almost continuous change-like the perpetual re-editing of a sacred text without attracting the attention of either opponents or proponents. (1) For example, if two instances of some hitherto unrecognized form of polygamy-such as a man marrying a mother and her daughter-occurred in the same hamlet among the Arapesh of New Guinea, the rest of the language group might shrug their shoulders and say, "That is becoming the custom in Ahalesmihi." (2) Among the Manus it was said, "The Mbuke people have very different customs from ours; there, a widow has to speak to you with her back turned." These are both societies in which rapid small change, viewed merely as variations on a theme, could occur without heavy emotional weighting. (3)

The same kinds of minor behavioral variations can, however, be attached to a cargo cult led by a new prophet who is advocating some highly drastic activity, like eating up all the food or throwing all possessions into the sea in expectation of all the wonderful goods which will come by ship. In such instances, an entire population may be swept into a violent, all-or-nothing advocacy of an essentially untenable position for days or weeks, while awaiting the promised cargo which never comes. It is not only the presence of skeptics, missionaries, government, and the disillusioned people who had a cargo cult last year which generates fanatical belief, but also the growing sense of the impossibility of fulfillment. As adherents and believers fall away, those who remain faithful are visibly found among the more disturbed and more enthusiastic original followers of the new cult. (4)

Theodore Schwartz has studied one cult which became a political movement without completely separating the cult promises of instant European wealth and the political promise of a transformed society based on adopting European ways. The leader himself, Paliau, went through periods of varying degrees of messianic sense of self. There is furthermore an interesting example from North American material, of the leader of the Ghost Dance, Wovoka, (5) who twenty years later became the leader of a different tribal group, which dramatizes the relationship between the "fullness of time" and the personality and message of the prophet. (6) The prophet who wanders abroad, his own faith in his powers waxing and waning, until the distance in time and space between the original vision and its promised fulfillment becomes greater and greater, may be definitely correlated with the degree of unfounded belief that is demanded from the new adherents.

Today, due to newspaper reports of small, aberrant groups, we have many instances of an original revelation which fails to materialize, the persistence among some part of the group in the belief, and the resulting increase in fanatical attachment to the belief. The Trotskyite belief in the World Revolution, the renascence of Moral Rearmament in Africa, the believers in the ultimate reinstatement on the throne of Scotland of a royal Stewart, the rumors of the existence of the Russian Princess Anastasia, are all examples of the survival of members of a disappointed group who live on, sometimes with new roots, sometimes flourishing again in a new ground. The term fanaticism should, I think, be distinguished from the original burst of belief, and should be reserved for the attempts by the leader himself, or his followers, to combat disbelief in the face of endlessly deferred and increasingly unlikely realization. Fanaticism may also occur among even quite small groups of primitive people in response to an unmanageable series of events which results in quite profound changes in social organization. I have studied one people, the Mundugumor of the Yuat River (now called the Biwat River), (7) who had developed a completely unworkable form of social organization which demanded that marriages be based on brother-sister exchange through five generations, with further complications-including a change of sex in each generation and the insistence on biological descent through brothers and sisters rather than through cousins. They had elaborated a form of proscribed marriage which was so impossible to realize that there was not one correct marriage in the village. There was also a conspicuous difference in the power of the Big Men with many wives, and that of the insignificant smaller men with only one wife or no wife at all. These smaller men were able to cling to the demand for the impossible marriage system with such fanaticism that, instead of altering their social organization to deal with the realities of birth, death and sex ratios, everyone in the village felt ashamed, everyone was married wrong, and so was unable to greet anyone else correctly. Those who hold out for an outworn system in our own society by refusing to let a road go through, or a subway be built, or an archaic law be repealed, may have a comparable deleterious effect upon effective and needed change in other matters such as abortion, birth control, or sex education.

We also find instances of fanatical belief in the system of the enemy, and in the weakness of those who are its possible victims. The Manus, who abolished their own endogenous religious system which explained illness in terms of the ghosts of the recent dead and the use of magic, found it relatively easy and cognitively harmonious to shift from the moral discipline imposed by ghosts to the God of the Mission. But the magic, which had previously been poorly integrated, left a vacuum which was filled by the alien magic of the indentured laborers brought from other islands. They were held responsible for the illness and deaths which did not fit. The individual and group sense of dissonance which leads to the kind of paranoia found in groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, and in fears of the CIA, is often projected onto the "outsider" or an enemy with tremendous strength and cunning. For example, consider the statement, "There are no priests who are Communists, but there are Communists who are priests."

The conditions and state of fanaticism recur with the same manifestations: a closed mind, a refusal to entertain counter arguments, a willingness to destroy those who threaten the fanatically held belief, an attraction for disturbed individuals, and an increase in strength as the belief becomes more untenable. This suggests that we are indeed dealing with a psychological mechanism which recurs with different degrees of intensity at every level of social organization, depending upon whether or not the time is ripe. I am sure that the kinesics of fanaticism--the glazed look, the face that is purposively closed and nonreceptive-vary enormously, although this has not yet been analyzed with film or subjected to computer analysis. But, from the small flying saucer or millennial cult whose believers wait in sheets and for whom the promised event MUST come, to the present-day Republic of South Africa where leaders burn their boats in reaction to the rest of the world, cross-cultural analysis suggests that fanaticism is panhuman.

A major research problem would seem to be how to transform the disillusioned fanatic back into a temperate, moderate, self-critical human being, instead of producing human wreckage among those who, once robbed of their fanaticism, are like mechanisms with broken springs, and the source of a paralyzing skepticism within society. It may well be that the inevitable counterpart of spreading fanaticism is a contagious cynical apathy which in the end may be even more dangerous to the very much needed sense of world community.

Notes and References

(1.) Margaret Mead, Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, Garden City, New York: Natural History Press/Doubleday, 1970.

(2.) Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, New York: Morrow, 1935.

(3.) Margaret Mead, "Homogeneity and Hypertrophy: A Polynesian-Based Hypothesis," in Polynesian Culture History: Essays in Honor of Kenneth P. Emory, Genevieve A. Highland et al., eds., Honolulu, Hawaii: Bishop Museum Press, 1967, pp. 121-140.

(4.) Theodore Schwartz, "The Paliau Movement in the Admiralty Islands, 1946-1954," Anthropological Papers of The American Museum of Natural History, 49, 2 (1962).

(5.) Philleo Nash, "The Place of Religious Revivalism in the Formation of the Intercultural Community on Klamath Reservation," in Social Anthropology of North American Tribes, Fred Eggan, ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937; James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, Anthony F. Wallace, ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

(6.) Margaret Mead, New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation-Manus, 1928-1953, New York: Morrow, 1956 (reprinted 1975 with new preface).

(7.) Mead, Sex and Temperament.


(*) Margaret Mead is Curator Emeritus of Ethnology of the American Museum of Natural History, and is probably the world's best known anthropologist.
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Author:Mead, Margaret
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017

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