Editor’s Column: How to argue with a fanatic

Niki Turner
We’ve always had opinions, but in years past we mostly kept them to ourselves, except in the company of close friends and family, and we used manners and acted like people had value when we interacted with them in person. There were unspoken rules. You didn’t bring up religion or politics (or a lot of other topics) in polite company. Religion and politics were private, matters to be kept between you and your God and you and your voting booth (two things intended to be kept separate for the sake of the Republic, according to the Constitution).
Thankfully, at least in our small towns, most folks still adhere to those unspoken rules when they interact in person. Even if I totally disagree with your social media persona or political position, I’m likely to be polite to you in person. Why? Because I remember you’re just another human—a skin sack full of dirt and mostly water—with family issues and aches and pains and bills to pay. When it comes down to brass tacks, we have more in common than not.
That’s what we have to remember when we encounter fanatics. A fanatic is defined as “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause.” There are also fanatics about exercise, diet, hunting, recycling, climate change, sports and just about any other topic. But it’s the political and religious fanatics who tend to stir the strife and division pot more than the rest. Possibly because they try to lump every other cause into their political and/or religious ditches. (They can’t help it, they’re single-minded.)
Social media is a virtual hothouse for fanaticism. It’s so easy to post and share, so easy to block and unfriend, and equally easy to interact in comments without any of the human-to-human interaction that keeps us from acting like a bunch of irrational toddlers.
So here’s the question: how do we argue with a fanatic?
The best answer I’ve found (and don’t always obey) is from French philosopher Voltaire: Don’t.
Reportedly, Voltaire attempted a debate with an English Quaker about baptism. At the end, he declared, “I took care not to dispute anything he said, for there’s no arguing with an Enthusiast. Better not take it into one’s head to tell a lover the faults of his mistress, or a litigant the weakness of his cause—or to talk sense to a fanatic. And so I went on to other questions.”
It’s time to move on to those “other questions.” Let’s move away from “he said, she said” and “us vs. them” and “liberal vs. conservative” arguments and start asking things like: What can we do to better our community? What can we do to improve our planet? How can we help someone who is struggling or hurting in our neighborhood?
Most of us are still able to be polite in person. Maybe if we take that one step further and start acting on that politeness, we’ll be able to effect some actual change and progress. (Shhh. Fanatics don’t like change, or progress. It messes up their agenda.)