How to Engage a Fanatic by David Brooks


(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

David Brooks has an interesting column in the NY Times today. It is called “How To Engage a Fanatic.

At the start of the article, he shares four disheartening stories of people not getting along:

  • A political rant at a baseball game
  • A university campus discussion about whether to allow extremists to speak on campus
  • Conversations in Spain about the impossible challenge of talking with leaders of the Catalan independence movement
  • A meeting of both pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners.

Reflecting on these experiences, he says,

Over the course of these experiences I’ve been rehearsing all the reasons to think that it’s useless to try to have a civil conversation with a zealot, that you’ve just got to exile them, or confront them with equal and opposite force.

To my surprise, he then explains why this is the wrong approach—and commends loving our enemies.

Here are his reasons - drawn from Stephen Carter’s book Civility.

  1. “You engage fanaticism with love, first, for your own sake. If you succumb to the natural temptation to greet this anger with your own anger, you’ll just spend your days consumed by bitterness and revenge. You’ll be a worse person in all ways.”
  2. “You greet a fanatic with compassionate listening as a way to offer an unearned gift to the fanatic himself.”
  3. “It’s best to greet fanaticism with love for the sake of the country”

Very interesting! Precisely because he doesn’t explicitly draw from any Christian sources, this might be a useful article for starting conversations. Of course, once we share a commitment to loving our enemies, we might ask where that value first came from…


(SeanO) #2

Wow - that’s a great find.

It’s very interesting that he literally used the word “unearned gift”, which is a definition sometimes used for grace.

His first point about forgiveness is also something often preached from the pulpit as a way of encouraging parishioners to forgive those who have wounded them.

Out of curiosity, I did a bit of googling on Stephen Carter and it appears he attends an Episcopal Church currently and I would imagine grew up going to Church.

I have a computer science professor who likes attending Church because, according to him, it makes him a more civil human. Perhaps this is a good argument for how even cultural religion can, when it avoids its self-righteous manifestations, be beneficial? I understand the goal is heart transformation, but in discussions with the ‘new atheist’ types, its helpful to have a weaker form of argument for how religion benefits culture.


(Emilio Velis) #3

I think that it’s also worth using the same information to introspect in order to understand why sometimes we can be seen as fanatics as well. Not that we are, but how do other people see us and react to our opinions give us an insight into how to engage all kinds of people not only in a civilized way, but that also our opinions can go through a myriad of pre-made opinions on a given subject.

I say this because sometimes we feel the urge to come and act differently to who we actually are just because we want to be accepted by others instead of put in a box. While this is sometimes understandable, we ought to try and engage in a way that shows who we really are without being afraid of people misunderstanding us.

P.S. I LOVE the fact that I can write posts here on markdown. This forum is getting better and better! Thanks for the hard work, @CarsonWeitnauer!


(Rich Jasper) #4

Stephen Carter the author of Civility also has written a great book entitled “Integrity” which you may wish to add to your reading list. I’ve used it in the business world for numerous presentations and while it was written in 1996, it incredibly shows how prescient Mr. Carter is, especially in the area of news reporting! Enjoy, rj


(Susan Baker) #5

Perhaps not viewing those who disagree with us as “fanatics” and “zealots” will help us see through to the truth.