It often occurs to me that those who unreservedly believe in something never notice that the rest of us find their faith unbelievably deranged. Such reservations as we express are pushed aside in an attempt to somehow add certainty; but the only effect is to put them ever more firmly in the Mad Box.
I don’t believe that women with short skirts cause earthquakes (although I wish the ones who wear them without the legs for it would desist). I don’t believe that a communion wafer transubstantiates into the flesh of a long-dead prophet, and I don’t believe that decisive markets cause wealth to trickle downwards.
I’m sure that in the 1930s, very few Germans outside the Hitler Youth really believed that all Jews were Communists. Equally, I believed Solzhenitsyn when he said that hardly anyone beyond small children truly imagined that Stalin could feel their every emotion.
Yet the reality is that the Church of Rome, the Nazis and the USSR were of enormous historical importance. And today, Harriet Harman and her bizarre belief that men cannot function correctly without the constant supervision of women is shaping the future – such as it is – of the Labour Party. In the US, a Tea Party with beliefs most of us would consign to the Dark Ages looks set to be a decisive factor in the November elections there. In Iran, a regime is preparing to vapourise Israel because of its belief in something even a majority of Muslims would regard as a baseless superstition.
While extreme beliefs have never had any difficulty in attracting those who feel wronged in some way, I suspect a big part of our contemporary problem is that balanced opinion isn’t news. Digital communication and 24/7 news media exacerbate an already serious human problem: without them, people wouldn’t almost immediately learn about K’ran-burning nutters, childish imprisonment of innocent tourists, Tea-Party sabre-rattling, and Lesbians Against the Papal Visit.
And that’s the rub: the non-stop searchlight of news seeks out the barmy minority, while ignoring the moderate consensus. It’s almost as if one needs a Google Earth – if only to allow us to watch normal people doing everyday things, the better to ignore the maniacs.
Is it, I wonder, a coincidence that media owners tend to be extreme human beings – Maxwell, Black, the born-again Murdoch, and the reclusive Barclay brothers? ‘All human life is there’ the News of the World once proclaimed. But that was always an disingenuous claim: most of what we learn comes through an innately biased normality filter. We would all do well to remember that when deconstructing that Daily Mail headline.