Beware the zealot

I first heard the phrase “beware the zealot” many years ago. At the time I found a little irony in the situation as the person delivering it had very firm views on life. Most of his views could not be faulted as they were idealistic and centred on environmental sustainability. A few were based on scientific principle. An example would be – all life must be carbon based. The problem was, that he treated any view to the contrary as ill-informed at best and idiotic at worst.

Having held the phrase, “beware the zealot” in my head for some years, I worked hard at keeping an open mind – only to realise that my perception of an open mind was in fact closing my mind. Once you are sure about something, it becomes difficult to consider alternative views. Even if what you are sure about is that your mind is open.

For the purposes of clarity, this essay has no relevance to, and does not offer any comment on, the Jewish faith.

A zealot is easy to spot. It is the person who pushes their view on a subject at any opportunity. They are more likely to tell you that you are wrong and less likely to listen. Noticeable differences between a zealot and an expert is that an expert is less likely to use their personality to push their point, more likely to know the limits of their knowledge and have a greater willingness to listen and consider alternate points of view, and consequently have an openness to changing their view.

Paraphrasing Stephen Covey, “Do you listen to understand, or to be understood?”

Being a zealot does not make a person’s view wrong, but it does mean that they are less likely to realise when their actual knowledge, if they have any at all, has migrated to being their opinion only, and that the conversation they are driving is no longer based on reliable fact. Or the facts they are citing are only obliquely related to the point they are making. It’s like ripples in the pond. The inner ripple is informed knowledge, the next ring is oblique knowledge and the outer ripple is mere opinion and the outer ring tends to always be substantially bigger than the inner ring.

The labels “zealot” and “fanatic” are generally considered as interchangeable. In my opinion, a zealot is slightly different to a fanatic in that a fanatic will readily twist and distort the facts to achieve their objective or promote their point. Think ISIS, or Julius Malema, a South African politician who readily fabricates facts to promote his own political agenda. A zealot will defend their position as strongly as a fanatic, but without maliciously distorting the facts.

Political correctness is group think at the national or international level and is a made for zealots. History is littered with examples of when the national belief was so strong it overrode common sense. Think McCarthyism or burning witches, and more recently weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). A topical example is global warming. Few would deny that global warming is happening and real. But for some, what is up for debate is the cause. For a politician to come out and say that global warming may not be manmade would almost certainly end their political career. The earth and its atmosphere is a big place and there may be forces acting on us that are so large that we cannot compute them. In times gone past, people called things they did not understand magic or an act of god. As science provided explanations, magic and religion were discounted and people who had fervently defended a position were now found wanting. Is global warming another example of things we just don’t fully understand. I don’t know. While I support the science, I am not going to aggressively challenge a person, who states that global warming is not manmade. I would happily get into a debate with them to find out why they believe what they do.

The best remedy against a zealot is exposure. Exposure is education and through exposure a person is better positioned to challenge their own conviction on a topic. Exposure assists the audience to critically evaluate a zealot’s commentary on any given topic. But the reverse does not hold true. Education does not equal exposure. Often the worst zealot is a highly educated person who is so sure of their education that their mind is closed to other views. I have lived in South Africa, Australia, and India, and it would be easy for me to talk forcibly and knowledgably on these countries. If my audience had not visited these countries and had the same exposure as me, then they would have to treat my view as factual. The truth of the matter is that I left South Africa twenty-five years ago, and no longer have an informed idea of how things are there today. Equally, I have only lived in northern India and have only a very general idea of how it is different to southern India. My comments on either subject would be under informed or simply wrong.

This brings me to the realisation that the real zealot to beware of, is the zealot within. When am I not prepared to say, “I don’t know”?

It is easy to be sure of something, but under close examination, to be found wanting. I have been in this position many times and I now realise that even when I am sure of something, it does not make me universally right. I may be right, but only in a restricted way. For example, you see many pundits on social media delivering their content with conviction, without realising or acknowledging that their view is localised to their culture or geography and that it may have little relevance in other parts of the world. Again, it does not make their view wrong, but it does mean that their view is not as balanced as they present it to be and balance is vital to mitigating the passion of the zealot within.

Each person has a continuum of knowledge. On one end is a comprehensive understanding of a topic and on the other end is complete ignorance on that topic. The greater the level of passion a person has for a topic, the more likely they are to be pushed towards behaving as a zealot and talking knowledgably on the topic, irrespective of where they sit on the continuum. Consider, you don’t have to understand global warming technically to passionately believe it’s a global emergency and to constantly motivate everyone around you to change their behaviour appropriately. Being less than expert on a topic does not preclude a person from offering an opinion either. Just think about the example of parents watching their kids play sport. Most parents only have a general understanding of the rules of the game, but that does not stop them from opining and critiquing the referee who is “always” biased when their kid is on the losing side. Their zealous passion for their kid’s team causes them to forgo any balance they would otherwise have had towards the game.

Having said that, the world would be very boring if no one had an opinion. Having an opinion forces you to take a position and that makes you interesting. There is nothing wrong with a passionate, rich debate where opinions are presented and challenged with intensity and fervour. It can be entertaining, informative and invigorating as views are exchanged and positions morph with shared knowledge. In the case of zealots, they are less likely to change their opinion, more likely to fail to recognise when their view is an opinion and attack or completely dismiss and disparage anyone who holds a different opinion. If you find yourself doing this, it is time for self-reflection and time to question if your knowledge is as comprehensive as you believe it is.

The zealot within can disable your life without you knowing it. Once convinced of something, even without necessarily realising it, you miss out on life as you doggedly stick to your position. Simple examples include “I don’t dance” and “that’s not something females should do”. Zealots may also find that they are left out of conversations or group decision making as the group knows exactly what the zealot is going to say and therefore it’s not worth asking their opinion.

They say the older you get the less you know. It’s a patronising statement aimed at the “young bulls who are charging the gates” armed with knowledge and insights they have recently learned, without realising that in many cases they are merely repeating “knowledge of the ages”.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

The flip side is the older generation lamenting that “if it was good enough for me…or when I was a youngster…” without realising that times have changed and what was appropriate for their time is not appropriate for today and they should stop zealously holding onto a past that no longer exists.

It is true though, that as we get older, we are more exposed to the vagaries and variables of life and we start to appreciate how small our own knowledge is when compared to how much there is to know. We also start to realise how unimportant many of the “vital” positions we took through our lives really were.

I close, with a smile, noting the irony of writing an essay on zealots.