Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Zealots and extremists

I got a note the other day. It read as follows:

“Dr. Joe, can you share some perspective for my son regarding political extremism in the ‘60s? He’s doing a paper for school.”

I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and wanted to write this gingerly. But I learned that you can’t flank a beach so I’m going to attack this right down the middle. I hit reply and said, “Next week, I’ll give it a try.”

I'm not sure there’s much wisdom to pass down from the ‘60s. We didn’t have any wisdom. We were the generation that believed we could stop the Vietnam War by growing our hair long and dressing like circus clowns. I thought we could stop the war by going to war. You see the irony in that.

The issue does not lie in analyzing political extremism from one generation to the next. Asking that question implies that that a dichotomy exists between the two. Extremism has not changed. What have changed are the issues. Today there’s a lot more extremism as we are a socially, culturally, and politically polarized society. So if you want to understand extremism, view it through 21st-century eyes.

So let’s talk about the zealots, or political extremists. Zealots are anathema to me. Even when I think I know their motivations, I don’t understand them. They are really all the same, no matter the cause.

Zealots originated in the first century as a Jewish political movement opposed to Roman rule. The Talmud defined the zealot as being ‘boorish’ or wild,’ and unwilling to compromise. Today, zealot has evolved to mean extremist.

Is one man’s zealot another’s true believer? I don’t think so. Aside from the particular issue that triggers them, zealots are the same. The problem is that the values and beliefs of those on either end of the spectrum are often so extreme that they sanction banishment, ridicule and ostracism if you don’t think as they think or believe as they believe.

Political extremists/zealots are an aberration in the democratic process. Their beliefs are fueled by emotion and they see the world through limited eyes. A separate reality exists beyond their perspective of truth. Truth is found outside one’s self; zealots forgo critical thought because their opinions are ruled by passion and emotion. They denounce beliefs that are contrary to their points of view and use a form of bullying under the guise of free expression. Free expression is granted only for those who think as they think.

I read the posts of some friends and associates that are displayed on Facebook. Political persuasion is worn on their sleeve. It’s a free country, but it has to be free for others, as well. However, zealots demonize and ridicule opposing perspectives. They lack critical thought in trying to influence others. There is one truth and that truth is theirs.

My advice, dear reader, is to prepare your child to be critical in his judgments. We live in a pluralistic world where one group does not own political, cultural, and social thought. Debate is the foundation of a point of view. Democracy can only flourish when we are free to express our opinion and when we expose our ideas to the danger of controversy.

We should pay more attention to what we think and not what our passions tell us to think. We should make decisions on the basis of what is appropriate for us with regards to ethics, morals, intelligence, rights and commitments. When we blend our perception of truth with a major dose of courage, consciousness and rational thought, we connect with the most self-respectful aspect of our humanity.

Does that help?

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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