Why we have to talk about fascism

Richard Parncutt 

2021 April


There. I have attracted your attention by putting the word "fascism" in my title. That's a good start. Now let me explain why I did that.

Fascism is one of the worst things we ever did. It seems to have gone away, at least in many countries. But there is a permanent danger that it will come back. To stop that from happening, we need to understand the causes. When we see the causes happening, we need to act before it's too late.

People don't like to use the word fascism. The very mention of it makes you sound like a radical. Or at least someone who is irrationally angry, and therefore possibly not trustworthy. Perhaps a communist, or someone who actually cares about other people.

For most people, their reputation is the most important thing. Give a group of educated people a theoretical choice between saving a million human lives on the one hand and preserving their reputation on the other, almost everyone will choose the latter. That's why hardly anyone has the courage to use the word "fascism" when referring to things that are happening right now. It can also explain the widespread silence that is currently reigning on many other crucial issues.

Most of those who talk about fascism divide into two groups: those who use the word  "fascist" as a general insult for anyone they don't like, and those who conduct astute academic discussions about fascism. But everyone should be talking about fascism because it is one of the greatest threats to humanity. We should be talking about it in public, in ways that everyone understands. 

Let me explain briefly what I mean by fascism. It is more than "far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism", which is how Wikipedia defined it in 2021. To understand fascism, you have to understand where it comes from. The origin of fascism can be broken down into four elements.

Step 1: Superiority-illusion. It's part of our animal nature to think that the group we belong to is superior to other groups. We have a feeling that our "ingroup" is superior to our "outgroups". If I speak English I might think that English speakers are superior, or if I play the piano I might think that piano players are superior. Whatever my "ingroup" happens to be, I can find good reasons why it is superior. But anyone with a head and a heart knows that that cannot be true. The trouble with fascists is that they don't seem to have that head and/or that heart. They mistake their feelings about their own superiority for the truth. Then they get together and reinforce their irrational idea.

Step 2: Purity-illusion. If we think our group is superior to other groups, we naturally want to keep it that way. That means looking after our group by making sure it maintains its identity and doesn't get mixed up with other groups. That's the idea behind ethnic cleansing. Stop out-group people mixing with in-group people and corrupting their pure minds or worse still, mixing their genes with "ours". The trouble is, nothing is ever "pure" in this sense and mixing with other groups is actually usually beneficial.

Step 3: Victimhood-illusion. The next step is to feel like a victim, although one is in fact victimizing others. It's called victim blaming. The logic runs like this: My ingroup is inherently superior, but those inferior outgroups are being treated equally. Some are even getting better treatment than my group, from my subjective viewpoint. Therefore, something must be done. As long as I believe that my group is inherently superior, I feel justified in attacking other groups, and I can use my irrational logic to convince myself and others that in fact they are attacking me.

Step 4: Lies and violence. Fascists start out as reasonable people. They are flesh and blood like the rest of us, and they are not suffering from any particular psychological disorder. They try to explain to each other and to their outgroups why they are inherently superior. Surprisingly, their arguments are not accepted. The outgroups come up with plausible counterarguments. What makes fascists special is their failure to listen to or understand those counterarguments. For fascists, their feeling of superiority is more important than any logic, so their response to rational argument becomes increasingly violent. The violence starts out being verbal, often in the form of lies, misleading arguments, or denial. That leads to discrimination or mobbing. It's when the violence becomes physical that things start getting dangerous.

Any group of people that displays all four features has fascist tendencies that should be labeled as such. If we want to stop fascism from re-emerging, we have to nip it in the bud.

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at uni-graz dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage