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Spectator Belief

According to its etymological base (see Lexicon), "to believe" means to be willing to act . This definition raises the need to distinguish between active and passive belief. Active belief is enacted, but passive belief is held without acting on it. It might seem contradictory to define passive belief in this way, because we assume by strict etymological definition that belief indicates willingness to act. If I am not willing to act on what I believe, can I really be said to believe it?

The Power of Unanimity

Take this example of belief from the realm of science: nature is purely mindless and mechanical. I may hold this belief without acting on it, or I may enact it in specific forms of behavior: for instance, by extracting ores from the earth with no consideration of how the earth (the environment) may respond to this action. If I believe the earth knows and feels nothing, I can act on it without any concern about the effects that might arise if the earth could react physically or even emotively, like a sentient being. (In fact, such reactions may occur, and even be obvious, but if I believe nature is mindless and unfeeling I will not perceive its sentient response — an example of how preemptive belief conditions perception. Moreover, I may explain and dismiss any sentient reponse as a mere result of mechanical laws, thus confirming my overall belief-system.)

Many people who hold this paricular scientific belief — that the earth is insentient -- do indeed act on it. Countless examples could be cited. But many more people who hold this belief no not enact it in specific and deliberate ways. How do these two cases relate to each other? How are active believers and passive believers linked to each other by the beliefs they hold in common?

It is tempting to assume that belief held without enactment is merely passive, inert, ineffective, but is this really so? In the dynamic of passive consent, those who hold a belief passively may be complicit with those who act out a mutual belief, even when they act it out in ways that are objectionable to the passive believers. This occurs inevitably when the same belief is shared in different modes. Since belief always involves a volitional posture ("willing to act"), modes of believing that produce enactment can override and co-opt the moral energy latent in passive believing.

In the example given, it requires only a small number of people to deliberately enact the belief that nature is mindless and mechanical — this group would include scientists who articulate the belief theoretically and technicians who put it into practice — but these active believers are supported by the passive consent of many. And to the extent that the passive believers do not dissent and resist, the active believers will dominate. They will determine the prevailing course of action. In the dynamic of passive consent, the will of the active believers directs the massive energies of the passive believers. In The Mass Psychology of Fascism (suggested reading, Eternal Conflict), Wilhelm Reich analyzes the social dynamic of massenpsychosen, mass psychosis as demonstrated in Hitler’s Third Reich. He explains how the small handful of active believers commandeered the power of millions of passive believers. He argued that this phenomenon occurs because passive belief engenders a moral vacuum, and invidious people gain power from the energy that rushes to fill such a vacuum.

Cultural anthropologist Rene Girard called the complementation of active and passive belief "the mechanism of unanimity." In Violence and the Sacred, he argues that unanimity is the primary dynamic of all religious belief, but it is extremely difficult to detect because "religion protects humanity as long as its ultimate foundations remain concealed."

The complicity of active and passive belief is deeply devious, operating as if it has a mind of its own. Consent occurs even if the passive believers openly object to the deeds of the active believers. Even though the two groups exhibit different modes of believing, the fact that they share the same beliefs assures that the active believers will draw power of conviction from the passive constituency. It is difficult to accept that belief could operate in this manner, contrary to the true intentions and concerns of many believers, but history and current events provide countless examples of this dangerous tendency.

The Power of Witnessing

The relation of passive believers to active ones can be compared to the crowd dynamic at a football match or any sporting. On the playing field is a handful of people, two teams who represent the active believers. In the stands are the fans, spectators of the event, who represent the passive believers. Both groups are there for the event because they share the same beliefs regarding the rules of the game, the necessity of competition, the capacities of the various players and the values (monetary, if the fans are betting) at play in the contest. The handful of team players who enact the beliefs gain enormous support from those who sit and watch. The analogy is somewhat awkward, because the spectators do not watch passively in the strict sense of the term. They get excited and excitement can even lead to violence. Hooligans are not mere spectators. They shift from the passive to the active mode of participation. However, most spectators are content to cheer the players on or simply take in the action "vicariously." In passive consent, the spectators (passive believers) may not cheer the actions of the active believers, but they nevertheless support them by the act of witnessing. The spectator to belief who watches his or her beliefs being enacted by others is accessory to the their enactment.

What might be called "spectator belief" is not so strange as it may sound. The United States is a country with deep traditions of religious fundamentalism. Many Americans are Christians of one denomination or another who cherish beliefs scripted in the stories of the Old and New Testaments. Among these is the belief in an apocalyptic world-ending in which Good, represented by God’s people, triumphs over Evil. In the current geopolitical situation (2003), President George W. Bush is an active believer whose behavior is reportedly influenced by beliefs scripted in the apocalyptic Biblical scenario, as was that of Ronald Reagan before him. Bush is supported by many passive believers who enthusiastically share the same beliefs, and not only by his most devoted followrs, such as the neo- conservatives. He is also supported by other believers who hold deep reservations about his policies and actions but who cannot effectively refute those policies or resist those actions without questioning the cherished articles of faith they hold in common with the President. It may be objected that passive believers who are unwilling to act out the apocalypptic script in a literal and fanatical way can still cleave to their beliefs and insist on a different way of interpreting them. This is a misleading objection. What matters on the world stage is not how beliefs are interpreted but how they are enacted.

Consequent to the devious "mechanism of unanimity," millions of decent, peace-loving Americans who hold Christian beliefs must time and again passively stand on the sidelines, alarmed, seemingly helpless spectators to behavior they support by default. Through our passive beliefs, we are all accessories to the harm and violence perpetrated by active believers.

"Not in Our Name"

Political rhetoric that invokes the eternal conflict of Good and Evil is highly effective because it plays on the complicity of active and passive belief. With absurdly righteous declarations of how pre-emptive violence will defeat Evil in the world, President Bush holds millions of passive believers in a schizophrenic bind, unable to renounce their fundamental belief that God will assure the triumph of Good over Evil, and yet unwilling to accept the way this belief is enacted in their name.

There is enormous power in the passive witnessing of others who enact the beliefs we hold, and the power works both ways. In the American South during the many decades when the lynching of a black person could go uninvestigated and unpunished, the crime almost always involved a few active believers in racial supremacy who did the lynching, and others who either egged them on or merely watched. In the dynamic of the lynch mob, the act of witnessing enables the deeds of the active believers and at the same time gratifies the convictions of the witnesses. (Insidious participation of this type, characterized by a sense of righteous gratification that unifies active and passive believers, has its original or mythological model in scapegoating, the "victimage mechanism" as Rene Girard calls it.)

It is relatively easy to see how the passive participants in a lynch mob — that is, those who witness the hanging — are caught in the same dynamic as the perpetrators, but what about other people who share white supremacist views but would never be caught dead lynching a "nigger"? These people might not be capable of witnessing a lynching first-hand, but would they be capable of stopping one? Due to the beliefs they share with people who are willing to lynch black-skinned people, they too are credo-bound to racial murder.

In the shared dynamic of active and passive belief, there are no innocent by-standers. No matter if concerned citizens protest under banners that declare NOT IN OUR NAME, protestors may be credo-bound to the actions of those who share their beliefs. How can passive believers disown their share in the perpetration of active believers? To renounce the beliefs they hold in common with the perpetators is perhaps a lot to ask. But such renunciation is likely to be what it takes to withdraw the share of the power co-opted from them by the active belivers. The other option is for the passive believers to dis-identify from the stories that carry the beliefs nefariously enacted by the active believers. As noted elsewhere in this site, beliefs scripted in racial-religious narratives are universally operative in the perpetration of personal and social evils. Until the racial-religious scripts are changed, these beliefs will continue to provide cause for active believers and spectacle for passive believers.

Moderates and Extremists

Unanimity and passive consent operate in a most dramatic way in religious beliefs. With the events of 9-11 the entire world saw a small band of religious fanatics act out their beliefs. Although we do not really know why those horrific attacks were committed -- that is, what the preconceived intentions of the perpetrators may have been -- one part of the story about these events is relatively certain. It is highly probable that the Islamic extremists who died crashing airplanes into the Twin Towers believed in the literal sense of the Koran. According to the Koran, those who die defending Islam are instantly transported to heaven where they enter a paradisical setting, complete with virgins who attend to their every wish.

If the suicidal hijackers believed (as we presume) that at the moment of death they would be instantly transported to paradise, they enacted this belief in a most dramatic way, but many other devout Muslims do not enact it in this way, or in any way. This being so, the response of "moderate" believers (i.e., who do not act in direct and extreme ways on their beliefs) in rejecting and condemning the behavior of extremists has to be re-examined, for the situation is not as straightforward it might seem. Moderate Muslims who hold the same beliefs as the suicidal hijackers exhibit a different mode of believing: they live with what they believe but they do not live it out to the fullest implications. Yet the insidious link between active and passive believing cannot be ignored. Unless moderate believers renounce what they believe, they are credo-bound to the same belief-system as the extremists. As Wilhelm Reich observed regarding the Nazi ideology of the master race, the rare few extremists who enact a credo with massively destructive intent draw their strength from the vicarious consent of the masses.

Disempowering Belief

Active belief is the potent mode of believing, and passive belief is the latent mode. (These and other terms are defined in Modes of Believing.) Due to the "mechanism of unanimity" (Girard), the latent supports the potent. Many kind and well-intentioned Muslims around the world may protest the terrible deeds of extremists who enact Islamic beliefs in a fanatical manner, but as long as the moderates cleave to the same beliefs as the extremists, how can they effectively repudiate the violence arising in their midst? In all the debate among Muslims since 9-11, there is never a word about putting any of the fundamental beliefs of Islam in question. The assumption is, Muslims can retain their belief system and create a society in which they are not threatened by those who enact their beliefs literally, in an extremist manner. But is this really feasible? The problem with passive belief may be compounded by the fact that, additional to making passive believers powerless when someone enacts their self-confessed credo. Potent belief empowers those who act on it, but latent belief can disempower those who hold it. In its default status (hence, "default belief") passive belief can prevent the believer from dissenting or resisting those who perversely exploit their shared credo.

There is a difficult paradox here: it may be necessary to disempower some of our beliefs so that we can withdraw their disempowering effects. The discipline of metahistory proposes that we examine our beliefs so that we can detect those that might serve inhumane ends — that is, operate against the fulfillment of our humanity.

As noted on the home page of Applied Metahistory, belief confers identity on the believer. It produces solidarity. It engenders vast sentiments that engage the believer in rites of hope, vindication, reassurance, and even transpersonal participation. To abandon beliefs is to risk losing one’s identity and falling out of social grace. We may well suppose that many people cling to their beliefs more from the need to maintain identity and insure belonging than because they find compelling truth in them.

With 9-11 the Muslim world experienced the horrific paralysis of spectator belief with distress and disbelief. Eighteen months later with the Bush-Blair offensive against Iraq, the American and British public got their own dose of the same bitter medicine. As I write these words, ten of millions of concerned people, Muslim and Christian, stand on the sidelines of history watching a small band of power-crazed individuals perpetrate crimes against humanity and willfully jeopardise global social order for generations to come. Yet they wonder what they can do about it. But in this wondering, do they look at their own involvement in the actions they detest? Do they consider complicity by belief? And how would the equation change if they did?

JL: July 2003


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.