The Greatest Enemy of Fanaticism


“To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism.”
— from The End of Education, a 1995 book by Neil Postman.

In August, the CDC released figures on coronavirus death rates and comorbidities which right wing social media users chose to interpret as confirmation that only six percent of reported coronavirus deaths were ultimately due to the virus, leading the current president and his cult followers to howl that previously published death totals were wildly inflated, no doubt for no better reason than to make President Dumpster Fire look bad. Some misinterpreted the report out of ignorance, surely, but others who fanned the flames on social media chose to misinterpret it to suit their political agenda.

PSITTACISM PSITTACISM“, a parrot meme created by Nick Connolly.

When a person gets stabbed to death by an attacker, the ultimate cause of death would be blood loss. That doesn’t change the fact that a knife wielded by a murderer caused fatal wounds to open up blood vessels which poured out the victim’s life. For that matter, every death could be attributed to lack of oxygen. But it’s not as if it’s an everyday occurrence that otherwise healthy people suddenly stop breathing and drop dead. There are contributing factors, and some less healthy people are susceptible to suffering catastrophic consequences from them when their body can no longer fight off an attacker. That attacker could be a coronavirus.

“Springtime for Hitler”, from the 1967 film The Producers, written and directed by Mel Brooks, and starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

Social media consumers who jump on everything they see online that fits their distorted and often unreal worldview and then parrot it unthinkingly are not only a nuisance of the present era, but as the most important election of the era looms ahead such people are a menace to public safety. They read and digest vitriolic lies and then spew them out again, magnifying the reach of disinformation, much of it meant to cause harm. The most effective deterrents to the lies spread on social media by fools and evildoers are ridicule and facts. Hard as it may be in these times to keep a sense of humor, it is necessary not only for keeping one’s bearings, but for knocking down nonsense when facts alone won’t suffice.
— Ed.


Consider the Source


Fake news is in the news these days. There’s nothing new about that, really. We have always had to contend with dubious sources for our information, and ultimately we have always had to fall back on our own healthy skepticism and critical thinking to discount those sources. The difference now seems to be with how fast and how far lies can spread through social media, and how well people who believe those lies can insulate themselves from contrary information. Don’t confuse them with the facts!


A reasonable discussion of the issues confronting our society is not possible when different sides come armed with their own facts, all of which conveniently confirm their biases. Before discussion is even possible we have to agree on at least some facts that are, as it were, self-evident. If we insist on our own so-called facts to the exclusion of others, then we descend into tribalism.

What is truth
“What is truth? Christ and Pilate”
painting by Nikolai Ge


How to determine fact from fiction? Common sense observations are a good place to start. Gravity is a fact. Dispute it at your own peril. The Earth is round, as one can see when the Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. Despite that observable fact, because the conclusion requires a leap into abstract reasoning many people throughout history have not agreed the Earth was round. Some people still don’t agree. From celestial mechanics down to whether an ant can move a rubber tree plant all by itself, there is more or less room for dispute regarding the facts of life, depending on how well we can prove them ourselves or trust the proofs of others.

Think of all the common expressions people have used over the years relating to skepticism and the alternative, gullibility:

  • Prove it!
  • Show me!
  • The proof is in the pudding.
  • There’s a sucker born every minute.
  • Tell it to the marines!
  • I’ll believe it when I see it.
  • Falling for something hook, line, and sinker.
  • If you believe that one, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

There are many more, of course. Another expression has to do with learning a hard lesson from gullibility:

  • Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

A twist on that with a nod to a rock song by The Who was coined by George W. Bush:

Currier and Ives Brooklyn Bridge2 courtesy copy
1883 illustration of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking west; by Currier and Ives


Facebook and other social media sites which share news sources with their members have promised to more vigilantly curate what they allow on their platforms, but ultimately the responsibility lies with readers to view all news skeptically, and question their own willingness to hear what they want to hear and little else.
– Ed.