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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Zealots and extremists

October 26, 2011|By Joe Puglia

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.”

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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.

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