The Fanatic and the Addict

Is addiction related to fanaticism?

Posted Mar 27, 2011

What do we mean when we say that someone is a fanatic? One variety of fanaticism has to do with religious or political views. This sort of fanatic is a person who is so sure that his or her views are the truth that they see anyone who holds different views as evil or inhuman.

But we could also say, for example, that Bob is a "snow-boarding fanatic." In this case we may mean the label as almost a compliment. We simply mean that Bob loves to snow-board so much that he would rather do this than just about anything else.

A third sort of fanaticism is usually designated by using the shorted form of the word, that being "fan." We could say that Jillian is a Justin Bieber fan, and what we would mean is that Jillian not only loves the music of Justin Bieber but that she is completely fascinated by him as a person, that she may have started eating his favorite foods and that she fantasizes about meeting him.

Most people regard the first form of fanaticism as potentially dangerous, and the other forms as harmless, if sometimes a little over the top. But the fact that we use the same word for all of these behaviors also suggests that they share something in common-a person becomes involved in something to a degree that is so excessive that it pushes other ideas or activities out of the way. Fanaticism always entails a lack of balance in a person's life and thoughts.

In this, fanaticism seems like addiction. By making that comparison, I don't mean to imply that addiction is equivalent to being a Lady Gaga fan. Addiction is a life-threatening problem that causes untold suffering in our society. But it is also true that addiction is similar to fanaticism. Addiction too entails a lack of balance, a situation in which one substance or activity crowds the rest of a person's life out of the way.

In fact, some addiction experts (such as Bruce Alexander) define addiction in this way: An addict is likely to be a person who is adrift from their moorings in the values of their community and as a result they are desperate for self-definition. Thus, like the fanatic, the addict loses his or her balance and becomes focused on just one desire. And that desire can become like a cancer, spreading and taking over a person's life.

This brings me to the point of this post: Why is it that addiction and fanaticism (including fandom) are so widespread in our time? I think Alexander comes as close as anyone does to answering that question: Just as fanaticism and addiction grow by crowding out a person's other values, a person who is firmly committed to ta braod range of personal values is better able to resist addiction or fanaticism. In its relentless pursuit of economic growth and profit, contemporary society erodes people's commitments to their families, their traditions, their communities, and their ideals. And in so doing, our society leaves people more vulnerable to addiction and fanaticism.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website.  Photo by Ed Yourdon.