February 13th, 2016
THE fact that fundamentalism is blooming precisely in an era of complete global interconnection and widespread access to information seems counterintuitive. It would seem reasonable to expect that growing interlinkages between different cultures would foster an acute sense of global empathy and an amplified capacity to grasp and appreciate the vast variety in which we human beings go about our lives. The basic premise is quite simple: greater interconnectivity should mean greater opportunities to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes on a regular basis, hence expanding our capacity to recognize and understand others’ feelings (emotional empathy) and others’ beliefs (intellectual empathy). If empathy is a human aptitude fostered by proximity and ongoing exchange, then a globalized and interconnected humanity like the one that has emerged in the last few decades should be ideal for empathy’s development.
Unfortunately, the reality seems to be quite the opposite: the rise of global interconnectivity is not only failing to promote a sense of global empathy, it is promoting empathy’s evil twin: global fundamentalism. It turns out that greater chances to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes do not necessarily mean that we will expand our capacity to empathize: we might as well hate those shoes and the actual experience of having to constantly try them on can in fact fuel our hostility. It seems that in a world where otherness was reasonably isolated it was easy to be tolerant—as the annoyance of having to deal with others’ beliefs was in reality quite minimal. But in a globally wired world, coping with otherness has become a central feature of our daily life raising the stakes of our ability to tolerate. As such, what looked like a suitable environment for enhanced empathy is turning out to be fertile ground for the rise of a new breed of super-charged fundamentalism.
That fundamentalism has taken the upper hand in an era that seemed ideal for fostering global empathy is the greatest tragedy of our time. But we cannot reverse course and unlock the empathic potential of our era if we fail to grasp the real reason why fundamentalism is ahead. Exposing what I believe to be the central reason behind the rise of fundamentalism is precisely one of the core objectives of this blog.
As I have argued elsewhere, it is our cherished idea of freedom as moral autonomy—and the political and social system that has spawned to protect it—that are responsible for our incapacity to reap the benefits of an interconnected society and for leaving us vulnerable to rising fundamentalism. My thesis is simple yet profoundly disrupting: growing fundamentalism is the inevitable byproduct of an increasingly interconnected plural society that refuses to outgrow the classic liberal idea that our individual worldviews should be held and justified privately. To put it bluntly, the widespread conviction that we all have the right to believe whatever we want in private is a time bomb in a world where privacy itself is being dismantled. We need to wake up to the fact that if privacy collapses, we can no longer hoard beliefs in the same secluded way we used to; we have no choice but to change the way in which we believe whatever it is that we believe in. As the dogmatic baggage that we have all been carrying privately since the Reformation gets reconnected into global social and information networks, we find ourselves ill prepared to justify one another our deep-rooted convictions and we quickly slide into fundamentalist tendencies of varying degrees–which in turn tend to be directly proportional to the non-negotiability of our convictions.
It is important to emphasize that I am not attempting to pass metaphysical judgment on our liberal idea of freedom as moral autonomy—I personally see the liberal tradition as the greatest legacy of the Enlightenment and one we should all celebrate and protect. My take here is wholly pragmatic: I just want to point out the practical difficulties and counterproductive consequences of our liberal idea of freedom when viewed through the prism of our globalized and interlinked times. To me, the successful implementation of the liberal ideal of autonomy can only be achieved in an environment where a clear distinction between a private and a public realm can be secured. Such a division—which indeed existed from the reformation until recently—is rapidly disintegrating in the era of social networks, the blogosphere and the twitterverse. The emergence of the hyper-public “Netizen” is rendering liberalism obsolete and exposing its dark side: the fact that in reality we are nothing more than dormant autonomous fundamentalists poorly prepared to defend our most cherished beliefs publicly. The current rise of fundamentalism is the most vivid symptom that liberalism, despite all its good intentions, has run its course.
Any serious attempt at ending fundamentalism and giving empathy a chance will need to offer a novel way of understanding our autonomy that is consistent with a world where keeping our beliefs private and quietly tolerating each other is no longer practicable. Providing such a novel take on autonomy that should put fundamentalism to rest is a great task for our generation. To be autonomous today we need to move beyond the liberal dictum of being able to privately select our own worldview—we require more than that as privately justified moral and religious beliefs are nothing but fuel for fundamentalism in an era of growing interlinkages. To be autonomous today we need to subject our formerly private worldviews to an ongoing process of open public deliberation. As the world grows interconnected, we need to go beyond the complacency of liberal private autonomy and regard ourselves as free individuals only when our beliefs have been appropriated through social discussion—when they are viewed as cleansed from fundamentalism. In an interconnected world, a freedom that deserves the name has to be socially constituted.