Secular Fanaticism: Cathedral Politics in a Declining Age

Even when he turns from religion, man remains subject to it; depleting himself to create fake gods, he then feverishly adopts them: his need for fiction, for mythology triumphs over evidence and absurdity alike. His power to adore is responsible for all his crimes: a man who loves a god unduly forces other men to love his god, eager to exterminate them if they refuse. There is no form of intolerance, of proselytism or ideological intransigence which fails to reveal the bestial substratum of enthusiasm. Once man loses his faculty of indifference he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his idea into a god the consequences are incalculable. We kill only in the name of a god or of his counterfeits: the excesses provoked by the goddess Reason, by the concept of nation, class, or race are akin to those of the Inquisition or of the Reformation. The ages of fervor abound in bloody exploits: a Saint Teresa could only be the contemporary of the auto-da-fé, a Luther of the repression of the Peasants’ Revolt. In every mystic outburst, the moans of victims parallel the moans of ecstasy. . . . Scaffolds, dungeons, jails flourish only in the shadow of a faith—of that need to believe which has infested the mind forever. The devil pales beside the man who owns a truth, his truth. We are unfair to a Nero, a Tiberius: it was not they who invented the concept heretic: they were only degenerate dreamers who happened to be entertained by massacres. The real criminals are men who establish an orthodoxy on the religious or political level, men who distinguish between the faithful and the schismatic.

—E.M. CIORAN, A Short History of Decay 

Those like Yvette Felarca, a high ranking member of alt-left group By Any Means Necessary, advocates for the use of violence and militant protest to censor oppositional voices. As you listen to the youtube video below about a militant protest against Milo Yiannopoulos’s reception at UC Berkeley one can understand the genealogy of Cioran’s thoughts on fanaticism shifting from religious to secular forms over the past few centuries. The notion of the schismatic, the heretic come to mind. For the New Left there is no place for oppositional thought or politics, they would systematically purify the world of heretical thought and praxis. Although the official site was banned and shut down for its advocacy the group is still very much a part of the underground scene of leftwing activities. Listen to Yvette Felarca in this interview:

Antifa traces its roots to the 1920s and ’30s, when militant leftists battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. When fascism withered after World War II, antifa did too. But in the ’70s and ’80s, neo-Nazi skinheads began to infiltrate Britain’s punk scene. After the Berlin Wall fell, neo-Nazism also gained prominence in Germany. In response, a cadre of young leftists, including many anarchists and punk fans, revived the tradition of street-level antifascism.

In the late ’80s, left-wing punk fans in the United States began following suit, though they initially called their groups Anti-Racist Action, on the theory that Americans would be more familiar with fighting racism than fascism. According to Mark Bray, the author of the forthcoming Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, these activists toured with popular alternative bands in the ’90s, trying to ensure that neo-Nazis did not recruit their fans. In 2002, they disrupted a speech by the head of the World Church of the Creator, a white-supremacist group in Pennsylvania; 25 people were arrested in the resulting brawl.

On the Antifa News site one can gather the militant protests of this group go on unabated.

The new censorship has moved mainstream into algorithmic governance on sites like Facebook and Google. In Epstein’s article The New Censorship we begin to see a trend toward total regulation and policing of thought along ideological lines. As Epstein says,

When Google’s employees or algorithms decide to block our access to information about a news item, political candidate or business, opinions and votes can shift, reputations can be ruined and businesses can crash and burn. Because online censorship is entirely unregulated at the moment, victims have little or no recourse when they have been harmed. Eventually, authorities will almost certainly have to step in, just as they did when credit bureaus were regulated in 1970. The alternative would be to allow a large corporation to wield an especially destructive kind of power that should be exercised with great restraint and should belong only to the public: the power to shame or exclude.

The power to shame or exclude. “Shame” is tricky, even treacherous: its usual understanding contains a trap. As commonly thought of, “shame” seems a virtual synonym for “embarrassment”; that is, to result from being seen by another. This misunderstanding arises, perhaps, because as children we learn the meaning of “shame” when someone projects it upon us. “You should be ashamed of yourself” is a reproach of public behavior—of something one is seen or caught doing. But the essence of shame consists not in being seen or being caught, but in what about one is seen, in what one is caught doing. “Embarrassment,” then, is not a synonym for shame, but the result of one’s shame being seen. “Being seen” or “being caught” are not the essence of shame: we are all seen by others, often and diversely. At times, indeed, we relish being seen: our moments of success and triumph are enhanced by having an audience. “Being seen,” then, is not the core even of embarrassment. The heart of embarrassment is that another sees our shame. The sense of shame comes before the sense of being seen—before, then, any advertence to “other.”1

The Guardian in one report on censorship in the UK reported: “Critics of the government’s flagship internet regulation policy are warning it could lead to a North Korean-style censorship regime, where regulators decide which websites Britons are allowed to visit, because of how broad the proposals are.” Later in the article:

One industry source said: “This legislation stems from a perception that west coast technology companies have alien and unaccountable power that they wield in the UK. But relocating that power to an unelected, unaccountable regulator would be just as problematic, or worse.

“Parliament is where decisions that affect free speech should be made. The government is declaring some speech ‘legal but harmful’, and giving very vague definitions of what that speech is. On issues such as cyberbullying and trolling, there’s almost no detail.”

In today’s world shaming has taken on a more visible sense with the exposure of video and mobile phone conversations. Capturing one’s indiscretions and slips of tongue or racial slurs, misogynist comments, etc. are now used as weapons against in and all oppositional forms that are deemed by the fanatical segments of an ideological front as outside the norms or conventions set by their regulatory control. Shame as a weapon provides the orthodoxy in media and political conclaves the ability to target individuals or groups, expose them to ridicule and exclusion, the appearance of some expression or manifestation of shame produces humiliation, embarrassment, mortification, despair, or disgrace. These shame phenomena are sometimes openly and consciously experienced at the heart of human unhappiness but at other times are hidden from experience because they are so painful. Shame frequently causes one to hide, to avoid interpersonal contact as a protection against rejection, and to conceal the affective experience from one’s own awareness. As guilt invites confession and forgiveness, shame generates concealment out of a fear of rendering the self unacceptable.2

It was George Orwell who first coined the term “groupthink” in his disturbing novel 1984. In this one word he captured the dangers and dysfunctions that can deform the thinking of a group.  Orwell intended “groupthink” to describe the hyper-conformity, manufactured consent, and deference to strong personalities that often permeate groups. Consensus forms out of compliance, passivity gives the appearance of unity, bullying is mistaken for leadership, and self-deception masquerades as conviction. In short, the group pummels its members into submission and calls it progress.

Everyday politicians bully their constituents, shame them into submission with their myriad attacks on oppositional thought and culture. As Cioran states in the epigraph above: “The real criminals are men who establish an orthodoxy on the religious or political level, men who distinguish between the faithful and the schismatic.” This sense that American media has become the overwhelming voice of leftward politics, with the exception of a few conservative newspapers, magazines, and Fox News harbors sad days ahead for such a hyperconformism.

Unfortunately, in the modern left we don’t combat shame, we worship it. Perhaps the most obvious expression of the Left’s present obsession with shame and shaming can be seen in what has been dubbed “call out culture”. The “call out” is a form of shaming — which intentionally labels an individual as fundamentally bad — and is a deeply toxic tendency in the Left. Flavia Dzodan, writing for Tiger Beatdown, describes this dynamic:

Call out culture] works more or less like this: I say something ignorant… Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness… The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”. Flavia Dzodan, Come one, come all! Feminist and Social Justice Blogging as Performance and Bloodshed

At a personal level, perfectionism is understood as being a product of unacknowledged shame — and the same is true for puritanism in group settings. The call out performance reeks of puritanism, and thus shame. Recall that after shame is triggered, a person typically responds in four ways: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others. The “call out” is an example of attacking others in response to unacknowledged shame, which then triggers shame in the target as well.

So is the New Left of our era a return by a strange twist to the early American heritage of Puritanism? Max Weber once asked: “Now how does it happen that at that time those countries which were most advanced economically, and within them the rising bourgeois middle classes, not only failed to resist this unexampled tyranny of Puritanism, but even developed a heroism in its defense?”3 Of course the religious forms of Puritan morality in the sense of methodically rationalized ethical conduct seem far removed from the New Left’s ideological attacks on the far right, but are they? Can we at all see the corollaries between the asceticism and fanaticism of the Puritans and the New Left?

Whereas the Left of the Sixties brought about the sexual revolution in art and mores, the contemporary current of the new Left of our moment has returned us to the Puritan ethic of which renounces the sexual promiscuity of the Sixties. The neo-rationalism and turn to morality within both philosophical circles of the collective left and other forms is shifting us into a highly regulated society of habit and custom with Orwell’s ‘groupthink’ as the central motif.   As R.L. Stephens states it,

Creating a political climate based on shame is an impediment to justice. Shaming is about control, not justice. The shame-rage spiral is an unsustainable burden that ensures that we are unable to mount substantive challenges to oppression. Unacknowledged feelings of shame will destroy us as individuals and as movements. Honestly, I don’t have a strong idea for how we can overcome the shame dynamic in our political spaces.

When we refuse to admit the interchangeable character of ideas, blood flows . . . firm resolves draw the dagger; fiery eyes presage slaughter. No wavering mind, infected with Hamletism, was ever pernicious: the principle of evil lies in the will’s tension, in the incapacity for quietism, in the Promethean megalomania of a race that bursts with ideals, that explodes with its convictions, and that, in return for having forsaken doubt and sloth—vices nobler than all its virtues-—has taken the path to perdition, into history, that indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse. . . . Here certitudes abound: suppress them, best of all suppress their consequences, and you recover paradise. What is the Fall but the pursuit of a truth and the assurance you have found it, the passion for a dogma, domicile within a dogma? The result is fanaticism—fundamental defect which gives man the craving for effectiveness, for prophecy, for terror—a lyrical leprosy by which he contaminates souls, subdues them, crushes or exalts them. . . . Only the skeptics (or idlers or aesthetes) escape, because they propose nothing, because they—humanity’s true benefactors—undermine fanaticism’s purposes, analyze its frenzy. I feel safer with a Pyrrho than with a Saint Paul, for a jesting wisdom is gentler than an unbridled sanctity. In the fervent mind you always find the camouflaged beast of prey; no protection is adequate against the claws of a prophet. . . . Once he raises his voice, whether in the name of heaven, of the city, or some other excuse, away with you: satyr of your solitude, he will not forgive your living on the wrong side of his truths and his transports; he wants you to share his hysteria, his fullness, he wants to impose it on you, and thereby to disfigure you. A human being possessed by a belief and not eager to pass it on to others is a phenomenon alien to the earth, where our mania for salvation makes life unbreathable. Look around you: everywhere, specters preaching; each institution translates a mission; city halls have their absolute, even as the temples—officialdom, with its rules—a metaphysics designed for monkeys. . . Everyone trying to remedy everyone’s life: even beggars, even the incurable aspire to it: the sidewalks and hospitals of the world overflow with reformers. The longing to become a source of events affects each man like a mental disorder or a desired malediction. Society—an inferno of saviors! What Diogenes was looking for with his lantern was an indifferent man. . . .4 (Cioran, my italics)

Maybe we need an indifferent politics, as well. A politics that no longer seeks to erase, exclude, and shame the opposition into hyperconformity. Without oppositional thinking, without contrarian thought we are doomed to self-lacerating annihilation. But then again maybe it’s time for the liberal heritage of democracy to slice itself into finality… isn’t this what they are doing in our time. Are we not seeing the end of democracy and the rise of new forms of tyranny in mind, heart, and flesh? What the new Left condemns in the Right is its own mirrored truth, for the actual militant violence and oppression is the core faith of the new Left in its inquisitorial secularism. Is our a new age of Inquisition, a culture of Shame that seeks to efface the world of its oppositional thought, to deliver the heretics and schismatics to the flames of its Puritan faith?


  1. Kurtz, Ernest. Shame & Guilt. iUniverse, Inc. (July 24, 2007)
  2.  Morrison, Andrew P.. Shame: The Underside of Narcissism. Routledge; 1 edition (May 22, 2014)
  3. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Kindle Locations 38-40). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  4. E.M. CIORAN. A Short History of Decay (Kindle Locations 107-124). Arcade Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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