Are we seeing a True Believer phenomenon?


It seems to me that every so often the thoughts of some “philosopher” kinda bubble up in my noggin and make their presence known whether I like it or not.

The type of philosopher I’m referring to doesn’t have to be some ivory tower intellectual remote from the real world. Nope the best are folks who are very observant of the human condition and present their commentaries in language and terms that we ordinary folks can understand and appreciate. Mark Twain’s books about “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” are marvelous philosophical works, but the one I think is his absolute most telling is “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” which is a forceful criticism of many human traits and activities.

But enough of this generalization of philosophers.

The one that has now grabbed my attention is Eric Hoffer and his 1951 book, “The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements,” in which he discusses the psychological causes of fanaticism. Hoffer was no “ivory-tower” philosopher in that he worked for more than 20 years as a longshoreman in San Francisco. Can’t get more “down to earth” than that. (If you’re interested, “The True Believer” is available through Amazon. I downloaded it to my Kindle some years ago so I have it readily available for moments like this.)

OK, so what does Hoffer have to say that is of interest today? Well, to begin with, Hoffer states that mass movements begin with a widespread “desire for change” from discontented people who contend that control of their lives lies beyond their own power and have no confidence in existing culture or traditions. Feeling their lives are so damaged there is no hope for advancement or satisfaction as an individual, they become “True Believers” and are ready to participate in a movement that offers the option of submitting their individual lives to a larger collection of individuals acting together to further a common cause.

So what are some characteristics of a “True Believer?” A basic truth according to Hoffer is that, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … [True Believer] movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” Yep, they gotta have someone to detest using spectacles such as massive numbers of followers in marches or demonstrations designed to make the individual feel overwhelmed and awed by their being part of advertising their hostility to the cause(s) of their discontent.

“The [True Believers] loathe the present.” Thus, because they regard the modern world as vile and worthless, they inspire a perpetual battle against the present by demanding change. What else? Hoffer notes “The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certainty … presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. If a doctrine is not intelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither intelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. … Believers ignore truths that contradict their fervent beliefs. The Believer cannot be weaned away from the cause by an appeal to reason or moral sense, fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certainty and righteousness of the holy cause.” There’s lots more, but I figure this is a thumbnail sketch of what makes a “True Believer.”

All right, so what’s all this about? Well, it’s that Hoffer’s description of “True Believers” might be a guide to understanding what’s going on in our society today. His work may well give some much needed context to the happenings that are so disrupting our country — a way to “get our arms around,” to comprehend, what is so baffling. In raising the prospect of “True Believers” in the current upheavals, I realize I open myself to being labeled an “ist” of one or more varieties and the safest option would be for me to simply keep silent and not share Hoffer’s diagnosis and conclusions. Those who know me well, however, understand that I’m a teacher above all else.

Good teachers don’t teach WHAT to think — that’s indoctrination. Good teachers educate HOW to think, that is, by understanding, absorbing, and evaluating information. And so, if this little article has inspired any readers to think about Eric Hoffer’s description of the nature of mass movements and the “True Believers” that are thereby generated and whether we may be witnessing a “True Believer” phenomenon today, my purpose has been achieved.

At least that’s how it seems to me.

Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a regular contributing columnist and local area resident, may be contacted at [email protected].

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