I’ve recently been reading about the formation and institutionalization of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal after 1478. While some may see this subject as having no relevance to the modern scene, this view would be incorrect. The establishment of any system of psychological domination follows certain patterns, and those patterns repeat themselves in history.
We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and far removed from the barbarities of the past. And it is true that those who do not toe the party line are no longer literally burned at the stake. But the psychological impulses are still there, and the punishments are not imaginary. What are the features of the apparatus of control, both modernly and in the past?
1. The belief in fear. The modern “social justice warrior” believes that the best way to achieve its ends is through fear. The French historian Bartolome Benassar had a brilliant phrase to describe this: “the pedagogy of fear.” In the days of the Inquisition, Dominican friars would enter small towns and read their “articles of faith” to the crowd, thereby putting the public on notice. Anyone who had committed a heresy (which could be nothing more than a statement) should come forward to recant; and if anyone knew someone who had, they should report it themselves, or else suffer arrest.
This fear was all too real. The Inquisition had the right to deprive people of their property and their lives; it extended this punishment to the descendants of the accused. The paradox of all this was that this fear generated over time a determined resistance.
2. Assimilation is not enough. Some think that by toeing the politically correct lines, they can avoid getting denounced themselves. This is not necessarily true. Before the advent of the Inquisition, Spain was a unique melting pot of three faiths: Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism. Naturally, the fault lines were always there, but there was a degree of admixture there that would have been unthinkable in other parts of Europe.
For example, during the reign of Henry IV (1454-1474), imitation of Moorish dress and customs was extremely popular. In 1497 King Ferdinand and his nobles themselves dressed in Moorish style at Burgos to celebrate the coming wedding of his son Prince John. Moorish fashions could be found in the sayo, a kind of body suit, and the hooded cloaks called the albornoz and the capellar. Even the Spanish exclamation “Ole”, we are told, derives from the Arabic exclamation “W’allah.”
There was also much cross-association between Christians and Jews. But after the Reconquest in 1492, Spanish society became more militarized. There grew an overriding need to find scapegoats for ills both real and imaginary. Centers of political power encouraged this feeling, as it helped add to their power.
The point is that barbarities can erupt even in societies that have seemingly enjoyed a high degree of tolerance. If someone thinks that persecutions can’t happen in democratic countries, he is mistaken. They do happen. People who refuse to toe the established orthodoxy are marginalized and systematically deprived of the rights that privileged sectors enjoy.
The point also is that even “toeing the line” is eventually not enough. Those who allow a climate of fear to be created and nurtured will themselves eventually be exposed to its heat.
3. The need for a public ritual. Just as the Inquisition had its auto da fe or public confessions of faith, so our modern social justice warrior seeks to create public spectacles to highlight his power over others. Talk-show confessions, recantations, kangaroo courts, and similar artifices are the modern equivalents of the auto da fe.
4. The need for a confession. The need for a confession is a powerful psychological mechanism of domination. By forcing offenders to confess and seek forgiveness, the Inquisitor and the social justice warrior are able to spread fear and also to show their domination over others.
5. The elevation of emotion over reason. To generate the frenzies needed for people to do inhuman things, Inquisitors and social justice warriors alike both make direct appeals to the emotions. They whip up people with emotional stories both real and imagined. By generating this type of climate, people are more willing to go along with them, and do things they might not otherwise do.
We must not shrink from calling things what they truly are. When we see the warning signs of persecution and intolerance, the alarms must be sounded.
When the Inquisition was established in Spain, the smarter or more mobile of the conversos saw the “writing on the wall” and fled (a converso was a person of Judaic or Moslem faith who had converted, but was suspected of secretly practicing his old faith).
One exile left a poignant symbolic message that is worth retelling. I found this story buried in a book on the history of the Inquisition.
His name was Yahuda Ben Verga. He was a Spanish Jew who had converted to Catholicism. When he fled to Portugal after the Inquisition took root in Spain, he left three white doves in his house in Seville, each one with its wings broken.
The first dove was plucked and had had its throat cut. The note on the bird said, “These are those who left too late.”
The second dove was plucked but still alive. The note on it said, “This is like those who cut it very close.”
The third dove was healthy and had all its feathers. Its note said, “This is like those that got out first.”
Read More: Arousing The Fighting Spirit In Your Men