Signs That It’s Time to Stop the Zeal

Photo: https://pixabay.com/

Jeers and sneers ensnared the airwaves. I donned my Superwoman cape and burst into the WeChat room that was engulfed in cacophony. Trying to blend into the horde, I tapped on my yellow-colored mini fist emoji and text-shouted, “Chairman Trump Will Serve the People!” ✊ The room full of Chinese Trump supporters threw up their yellow bitsy fists in ferocious delight and affirmation.

Soaking up the vigor of the crowd, I chanted, “Long Live Chairman Trump!” As the room erupted in applause, I saw my parents from afar, clapping wildly with a spellbound gaze affixed to a photo of their airbrushed leader. I paused and wondered if I should tell them that I was refashioning Mao Zedong’s political slogans. Such mockery should have jolted this group who had suffered under Mao’s regime. In fact, “in service of the people” — 为人民服务; pinyin: wèi rénmín fúwù — is the unofficial motto of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since my parents did not detect the stench of the slogan from the government they so detested, and were now chanting the same for their preferred authoritarian leader, I knew that I had lost them to the wreckage of democratic ideals.

Not seeing anyone else I could save with logic and reason, I aimed for the exit. As I soared from across the room, my red cape accidentally whiplashed an Auntie standing by the doorway reciting a pro Trump hymn. I turned around to apologize but saw that she was unfazed, pumping her fist in the air in jubilance ✊. I veered left and escaped into a room that I soon realized was gripped by a similar quasi-religious fervor.

The inhabitants of this space were armed with acronyms that sound like ‘cyclops’ and spoke in blobs of buzzwords to unpack their multitudes of identities and limitless woes in the name of social activism. They beckoned me to join them in defending the world against the archetypal villain — the White Supremacy glob monster. Or shall we call it Cyclops? Before I could react, one impassioned youth grabbed my Lasso of Truth and wielded it to extract confessions from citizens who refused to sign up for battle. Meanwhile, cheerleaders flipped and somersaulted across the room body slamming people into the ground yelling, “Yes, We Can’t!”

As I spanned the crowd, I realized these self-propagating communities emoted a very similar energy — they reeked of zeal spirit.

Not to be confused with passion, which feeds the soul, zealotry eats the soul. Zealotry is defined as “the fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals.” Zealots often pursue doctrines that purport one true solution to any problem, based on a reality of their own framing. Anyone who disagrees with their position must be doing so out of ignorance, fear, and acrimony, rather than from a stance of principle and rationality.

Since a segment of the population has lost themselves to zealotry, I offer my own curated and politically non-binary field guide to identify some of its symptoms. Although there is no easy antidote to this condition, I also offer a few tips to thwart us from descending into a zealot apocalypse.

First, the symptoms:

1. Abusing the term ‘ad hominem’

Meaning an argument that is directed against a person or their character rather than their position, zealots are very quick to use ad hominem attacks on their perceived opponents to defend their positions. However, it is the misuse of the term itself that triggers me, as it would to Aristotle who identified this logical fallacy.

Often times, zealots run into the room and yell, ‘Ad Hominem!’ and scurry away as if they made an argument. More egregiously, zealots have accused me of making ad hominem arguments when I offer perspectives that differed from their scripture, and then proceed to call me a ‘color blind apologist’ and being ‘white adjacent.’ Whereas such attacks would disqualify anyone from any academic performance, zealots create and adhere to their own codes of moral conduct that preclude any engagement based on reasoning.

2. Believing that slogans embody the solution

We all know the chants that have shaped the zeitgeist of the past few years, such as Defund the Police, Build the Wall, Drain the Swamp. These slogans have become metaphors for broader identity-focused ideologies that shut down critics and bestow esteem to those who defend it. I understand that chanting with a group of bosom buddies is often fun and life reaffirming. However, if your grown up buddy also believes that these simple phrases define the only solution to their grievances, you might have a zealot in tow.

3. Idolizing statues and symbols, or calling for their total destruction

In a past Medium post, I wrote about how my family’s pilgrimages to the Statue of Liberty replaced our understanding of foundational principles of upholding a democratic system. As proud as I am to be American, I am wary when people idolize national symbols in a way that makes any critique feel like a threat to their existence.

Conversely, purging statues and monuments that symbolize a difficult past has overtaken the other side of the zealotry spectrum. Foreign Policy offered one of the best examination and distillation of the recent war against statues that I have read by putting into context the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the lessons that that period offers us: “We cannot and should not keep everything, but we can prioritize those things that are the most valuable in terms of instruction — and opportunities for reflection and evaluation.”

Unfortunately, controversies over destroying statues often dominate public discourse instead of advancing thoughtful debate and policy discussions on addressing racial discrimination and inequity. As the Foreign Policy article states: “Erasing sculptures does not start a conversation, but it usually ends one.” Given that catalyzing progress often requires less performance art, and more targeted action, I quote Mike Chase, a criminal defense lawyer:

“Stop tearing down statues. Start tearing down statutes.”

Now that’s a pithy statement I won’t mind chanting.

4. Using memes to explain ideas and arguments

The art of the debate seems to be in drastic decline these days when people post memes to clarify their positions or as an actual rebuttal. Rather than develop their own arguments, zealots often outsource their critical thinking to others — a charismatic leader, a self-affirming community, or at their best — they merely create a caricature of the worst caricature of their perceived enemy’s position. For example, while conducting reconnaissance on the permanently outraged population, I came across the below that was circulated to ridicule the general debate around Critical Race Theory. As if bitten by zombies, no one was actually debating, but just miming each other:

Such ideation-by-meme dilutes substance (and the English language) to make it impossible for anyone outside the tribe to generate real discourse and goodwill.

5. Possessing excessive paraphernalia that signals your beliefs

I am not saying that a bumper sticker here and there is a slippery slope to the zealot asylum. However, being able to identify someone’s beliefs from across the street without ever holding a conversation may offer some clues to that person’s zealotry tendencies. Case in point: this photo.

Photo: Author’s family archive

Yet, some people may just like to play dress up and cheer for their favorite team, or favorite dictator. But if a person combines dressing in marked paraphernalia with a tendency to display at least one of the above characteristics, you may have found a zealot.

Most people care about addressing racial discrimination and promoting equality and opportunity to all. However, zealots are self seeking creatures who often promote their own interests and agitate for uplifting the livelihood of their own members over others. They are often motivated by seeing the world in adversarial terms rather than seeing each other as neighbors.

In an interview, former President Obama criticized the Defund the Police movement and advised people that it may be better to actually get something done rather than make yourself feel good among the people you already agree with. I imagine that both sides of the zealotry spectrum disagree with him, because they hold dear the adage — I feel, therefore I am. And in fact, the progressive Fantastic Four fired back disapprovingly at Mr. How-Dare-You-Be Moderate, with tweet slings, such as: “We lose people in the hands of police. It’s not a slogan but a policy demand.”

Somehow, the zealots have disposed of the idea that advocating for and working out the best policy options should take any thoughtful debate and come with some degree of humility.

So instead of allowing such fervor to metastasize in our communities, how do we stop the zeal? I propose these here tips:

  1. Actively seek different ways of looking at the world and maintaining curiosity. In the book, Scout Mindset, the Author, Julia Galef, explores the different mindsets that lead to good judgement and good decision making. Whereas the soldier mindset is “based on emotions such as defensiveness and tribalism”, a scout mindset enables one to enjoy learning new things and “see what’s there as accurately as you can, even if it’s not pleasant.
Book Cover: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/555240/the-scout-mindset-by-julia-galef/

2. Be aware that anyone can be susceptible to cognitive bias — It is useful to understand the human brain’s limitations. Cognitive biases often result from your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. Being aware of how biases work can steer people away from purporting their own truths and instead, be able to more clearly identify the important problems we face.

3. Know what social media does to your brain —Social media has the ability to both seize and divert your attention. The documentary, the Social Dilemma, provides a deep dive into how social media, by design, nurtures behavior like an addiction, manipulate people and governments, and spread conspiracy theories and disinformation. As a child of the 80s, I remember the anti-drug commercials that involved an egg being thrown into a frying pan with the refrain: This is Your Brain on Drugs. Any Questions?

At the risk of creating a meme and offending lacto-vegetarians, I imagine a similar public service announcement can be produced for:

‘This is Your Brain on Social Media. Any Likes Yet?”

4. Learn the basic principles of journalism as a civic duty. When my mother explained to me how the 2020 U.S. Presidential election was stolen by sending me a Chinese article written by someone named Bounce Frog, I knew that Connie Chung was no longer her favorite news reporter. With the democratization of news creation, perhaps revisiting the basic principles of journalism will rebuild our commitment to using evidence and bring the citizenry back to a common set of rules to understanding a shared reality.

5. Write poetry, not memes. We don’t need to strive to be laureates. Nevertheless, writing poetry nourishes the soul and can perhaps make words matter again.

Tip toeing across online communities is like watching hundreds of lucid crazy people in the NYC subway. Everyone is evangelizing in some stream of consciousness cadence that has glimmers of genius, but simmers of derangement. From watching my own real life super heroes, in the form of my parents, weave fantastical tales of Trump defeating the communists and give soliloquies on their commitment to protecting democracy, I realize that for many people, their flight from reason often started as some fight for reason.

Therefore, I believe that maintaining contact may provide these individuals a tether to the actual physical world. By at least anchoring recognition and concern for how our values and world views have fallen so far apart, we can build out circles of conversations needed to knit communities back together. The activist and Smith College Professor, Loretta J. Ross, provides us with concrete tools for such discourse in her powerful TED Talk: Don’t call people out — call them in. In this way, perhaps we can chip away at the ideological walls that have balkanized the country, and bring back a few of those teetering at the juncture of reason and passion, from undisciplined fervor.

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