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Created: November 3, 2001
Latest Update: March 13, 2002


What's a Fundamentalist?

On Saturday, November 3, 2001, Teidra Rankins and Kizzy Perry wrote:

Hello Jeannie,

This is Teidra Rankins and Kizzy Perry. We have a question to ask you based on the definition you gave us in class of a Fundamentalist . You talked about the Fundamentalist a couple of days ago, and you defined it as someone who pushes someone going on the wrong track, back on to the right track.

jeanne's comment:
Good note-taking, you two. Yes, you got that right. The fundamentalist does nudge people rather strongly back onto the right track. Some fundamentalists are very insistent about this, and may even use punishment, shaming, shunning to get the deviant back on track. Other fundamentalists rely on group pressures to persuade the deviant back to the right path, and most fundamentalists, at least that I know of, use modeling behavior to illustrate how one should stay on the right path. Confucious would have liked that aspect: the modeling of good or "right" behavior.

But there is one important part of my definition that you missed: the fundamentalist is convinced that the path that he/she is following is "the right" path and considers those who do not follow that path as deviant. If we're talking about religion, then the fundamentalist believes that his/her religion is the "right" moral path, and that others are simply wrong about their chosen path. If we're talking about science, the fundamentalist believes that his/her methodology, say "positivism," is the "right" scientific path, and disrespects other methodologies as "not appropriately scientific."

And finally, many fundamentalists over the centuries, have believed that they can and should force all people to observe their fundamentalist beliefs, justifying violence and torture, if necessary to force those Others to "believe." That's how we got the Inquisition in Spain during the Middle Ages. That's how we got the Hundred Years War in Europe, the center of "civilization," between Protestants of various persuasions and Catholics. And that's how we got the Crusades, between Christians and non-Christians.

Our question is "So, does this mean that anyone can fall under the category of being a Fundamentalist, if they have the characteristics of the definition? Would an example of a Fundamentalist be a parent, friend, or even a teacher? Considering that they all work independently or dependently to keep the child, friend, and student on the right track, all of these people mentioned seek to keep you out of trouble and on the straight and norrow.

Please respond!

On Saturday, November 3, 2001, jeanne responded:

Good reasoning, Teidra and Kizzy. What do you think, given my tightening up of the definition of fundamentalist?

I think that parents, teachers, friends do play the role of fundamentalists lots of times. But let me clarify the way in which they do so. To the extent that they believe that they "know" what is "right" and do not allow you to deviate from it without considering that their perception of "right" may not apply in your situation, yes, they are fundamentalists. To the extent that they are willing to punish or force you to accept what they believe to be "right," they are structurally violent.

To the extent that the fundamentalist in whatever belief system we are considering (i.e. political: democracy; economic: capitalism; religion: Christianity) wishes to constrain others to the beliefs he/she considers "right," we have dominance and exploitation of Others. That dominance may be in the form of "teaching our children what is "right." Or it may be in the form of doing what's "best" for an "indigenous people" who we have conquered or militarily subdued.

Notice there's a tension in there. Socialization requires that society shape its members, at least to the extent that they can function together without chaos. But each step of socialization removes some of the freedom of the individual. That dilemma never goes away. It's one of the fundamental conflicts in life. When does socialization become structural violence to the Other? There is no "right" answer. For that we have to go back to Rawls and Nozick on what is social justice? Preference for the social group, without which humans do not thrive, (Rawls) or preference for the individual (Nozick)?

When George Bush says that "We will win!" that is a fundamentalist position that assumes that winning is an acceptable goal, and that to deviate from wanting to win is "wrong," and that those of us who do so deviate from adversarialism must be forced back onto the "right path of winning" by the force of dominant discourse at the very least. That's fundamentalist. There are times when we all assume a fundamentalist stance, as you so appropriately noted in your question. Whether that harms an Other depends on the degree of force we are willing to use to insist that others accept our unstated assumptions as "right."

Does that help?
love and peace, jeanne

P.S. Teidra and Kizzie, I just came across another example of how we all slip into fundamentalism. I went to the icebox to get a Dr.Pepper. We have a little section on the icebox door that holds about six cans of Dr.Pepper. Arnold takes good care of me, and usually keeps it filled. I drink the Dr.Pepper in a cup and rarely drink a whole one at once. So over the many months of writing Dear Habermas I developed the practice of putting my opened Dr.Pepper back on the right side so that I wouldn't forget or have to hunt for the open can.

Yesterday I went to the icebox to put back an open can, and Arnold told me rather peremptorily "Put it on the left. That way you won't miss the open can." There's a hidden assumption in there that I had no such procedure myself, so he gave me a rule to follow. No, I didn't say anything. One can't always analyze every moment of life. But it did amuse me, and I remembered it just now as a put my open can of Dr.Pepper back - on the right. Hmmm, maybe in the interest of world peace, I should switch it to the left. That's probably a compromise I could live with.