I'm not particularly interested in the news today. Yes, there was another horrific shooting, but I have nothing to say about that matter that you don't already know. So this will be a non-political post. (Normally, this blog prints that kind of trivia only on the weekends.)
For quite a few days, I've been working though some personal matters. Unpleasant memories. After a certain age, one spends a lot of time looking back, often with regret. In my case, I wasted much of the 1990s in the company of people who were...well, in a word, toxic
. Let's stretch that out to three words: Add infuriating
And yet some of these people were also helpful, wonderful, and caring. That's the problem. Sometimes, wonderful and caring people can become deeply invested in very dubious beliefs, and they will associate only with those who share those beliefs. Thus, in order not to lose my friends, I held my tongue and nodded my head while people around me spewed a lot of hooey.
(If this story sounds far too cryptic, apologies. Specificity would cause many problems.)
As the 1990s drew to a close, it became clear that the only way I could write as I please -- to think
as I please -- was to break off all associations (aside from my ladyfriend and a couple of family members -- and, of course, the dog). In the terminology used by the Jehovah's Witnesses, I was "disfellowshipped." More accurately, I self-disfellowshipped. Friends are not as necessary as many think, and may actually be a hindrance. This blog was born in the peace of solitude and the productivity of loneliness.
So here we are, more than fifteen years later. When one's life has much more past than future, one must deal with the past. Truth is, I feel like a former cult member who still suffers from PTSD.
Why the hell did I let so many unreasonable people in my life? Why did I waste years dealing with nonsense? Why am I wasting so much time now
thinking about the time I wasted then
I've been telling myself that it is ridiculous to use a word like "cult" to describe the oddballs and eccentrics of my former social network. Lay off the hyperbole
, I chided myself.
Then came the epiphanic thought: What if all
social networks are, in fact, cults?
The pip is not the orange, and the orange is not the tree -- yet all three are, in a sense, the same organism. The seed, the fruit and the tree all partake of "orange-ness." Similarly, all friendships, networks and social groups partake of "cult-ness." The group of friends depicted on The Big Bang Theory
may seem utterly unlike the Scientologists, yet there is less distance between the two than may be apparent.
Cults are hierarchies. So are friendships -- all of them, or nearly all. Reflect upon the friendships you formed in childhood, and upon the patterns that inevitably arose within every social network -- formal or informal, trivial or non-trivial -- you have ever joined. Friendships devolve into a "Batman and Robin" pattern, never a "Batman and Batman" pattern. Two Batmen will inevitably become rivals. Enemies.
If one wishes neither to lead nor to follow, one must walk alone.
In both cults and major religions, the ultimate weapon of psychological control is ostracism -- the threat that one may be denied the comforts of camaraderie. As noted above, the JWs use the term "disfellowship." Scientologists declare former members to be "suppressive persons." Mormons are discouraged from association with apostates, although there is no official policy forbidding contact. Christian fundamentalists shun backsliders, who are undoubtedly possessed by demons. All good Bahais detest the nāqeżīn
. The Islamic fundamentalist hates the murtadd
(who, in several countries, may face the death penalty). Jewish fundamentalists can employ that wonderful old term kofer
, although nowadays they prefer the labels "self-hating Jew" and "anti-Semitic Jew." (That'll
keep 'em in line.) The NOI says that all blacks who oppose separatism have a slave mentality. Wiccans sneer at the mundanes and Subgeniuses sneer at the Pinks. Crowleyites just sneer.
It all comes to the same thing: Think as I tell you to think or I'll call you a bad name. And then you'll be all alone
The accusation of bad faith is a formidable tool of control. In a political cult, dissenters always run the risk of being called informers or agents. "How much are they paying you?" is just another way of saying "Death to infidels!"
Leninists expelled members (and even leaders) who stood accused of "factionalism." Anyone who joins the Uhuru movement fears being labelled "bourgeois." The LaRouchies may accuse a troublesome member of being a spy for Her Majesty. The Alex Jonesians see apostates as the minions of freemasonry or the Vatican. A libertarian cult will use the bogeyman of creeping socialism as a way of enforcing approved thought patterns. The Ayn Randroids had an index of impermissible literature; those caught reading a forbidden work would be forever denied the grace of Her Holiness. Tea partiers are paranoid about infiltrators
even as they practice the infiltration of competing groups. The John Birchers (the movement that gifted us with the Koch brothers) would see the dark hand of Moscow -- or, worse, Fabianism -- whenever anyone questioned their sick weltanschauung.
As I've said before: All isms are prisons; all movements are bowel movements. All beliefs are false. Even your belief or disbelief in the previous sentence is false.
I think we've all encountered groups which, even if they are not usually considered cult-like, nevertheless have some of the traits associated with cults. Everyone is constantly questioned, constantly judged, constantly scrutinized. Anyone capable of independent thought must defend himself on a 24/7 basis. Anyone with secrets is a probable infiltrator; thus, any insistence on having a private life (or more than one set of friends or interests) is considered grounds for suspicion.
Hell, I've been accused of "hiding something" when I balked at letting someone borrow an expensive book.
If any of my old "friends" were in the room right now, I know precisely what they would say:
"So. I see you've got headphones on. Uh-HUH. What are you listening to, Cannon? Bruckner? Hm. Why Bruckner?
I think you should spend the next thirty minutes mounting a defense of your decision to listen to Bruckner -- and it had better be good, Cannon. Remember: I am over YOU. You must defend your listening tastes to me, while I never have to defend my music choices to you. Hey...wait a minute. Bruckner was that Catholic
guy, right? I see
. It's all clear now. How long have you been paid by the Jesuits, Cannon?"
Even though those people have been out of my life for ages, I can still hear their voices. (In my imagination, not literally. I haven't gone that
far round the bend.) Lo, they are with me always: "Defend yourself, Cannon. Every decision you make, however trivial, is ours to judge. You're eating Fig Newtons? Why?
An academic named Dennis Tourish wrote an article about a left-wing political cult. Although the article itself seems to be offline, this blogger
quotes a few insightful paragraphs which describe the attributes of that organization:
1. A rigid belief system. In the case of left wing political cults this suggests that all social, natural, scientific, political, economic, historical and philosophical issues can only be analysed correctly from within the group’s theoretical paradigm – one which therefore claims a privileged and all-embracing insight. The view that the group’s belief system explains everything eliminates the need for fresh or independent thought, precludes the possibility of critically appraising past practice or acknowledging mistakes, and removes the need to seek intellectual sustenance outside the group’s own ideological fortress. All such thinking is dismissed as contaminated by the impure ideology of bourgeois society.
2. The group’s beliefs are immune to falsification. No test can be devised or suggested which might have the effect of inducing a reappraisal. The all-embracing quality of the dominant ideology precludes re-evaluation, since it implies both omniscience and infallibility. Methods of analysis which set themselves more modest explanatory goals are viewed as intrinsically inferior. Those who question any aspect of the group’s analysis are branded as deviationists bending to the ‘pressures of capitalism’, and are driven from the ranks as heretics.
"Immune to falsification." Just so.
We've seen this process at work in less-formal movements, as when one of the makers of the infamous documentary Loose Change
proudly announced that his shoddy 9/11 research was non-falsifiable
. If this clown managed to reach adulthood without understanding the concept of falsifiability in science, then he is too ill-educated to tell me anything about politics.
We've all met people who think that Obama is a Muslim. No amount of documentation or argumentation will persuade such people that the president is not secretly devoted to Islam.
I've had dealings with people who think that Alternative Three
is real. When I told them that I've spoken to the author of the book, and that Leslie Watkins assured me that the whole thing really was just a hoax, the Believer would persist in his belief. Maybe the Conspiracy got to Leslie Watkins. Maybe I
am one of the conspirators.
The same predictable drama played out every time I tried to argue with those who insist that the Torbitt Document (a bizarre piece of early-70s political samizdat) contains All The Answers. There are still fruitcakes who think that a UFO crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. You will never win an argument with the jackasses who insist that the Vatican ordered the murder of Abraham Lincoln.
I can cite many further examples. So can you.
Regular readers know how I feel about philosophy professor Jim Fetzer, the most buffoonish of the JFK assassination researchers. As I've said on a previous occasion, Fetzer would probably believe you if you told him that Oreo cookies are imported from Mars. Yet, to be honest, even the sane-and-sensible researchers are prone to fits of Fetzerian weirdness -- and so are the "lone nut" believers. (Are John McAdams and Jim Fetzer the same person? They're both professors, they're both kind of goofy, and I've never seen them in the same place at the same time...)
When someone has a fixed idea, no amount of proof will dislodge that notion. A document? Documents lie. A book? Books lie. If you have become convinced by, say, a certain blog post about the Bush family that was published nine years ago, you would never believe the author himself if he were to tell you: "Hey, it was just an April Fools prank." Obviously, someone paid
that writer to say that.
(Maybe Neil threatened his family. An intimidating guy, Neil is...)
Back to Tourish:
There is an intense level of activism, precluding outside interests. Social life and personal ‘friendships’ revolve exclusively around the group, although such friendships are conditional on the maintenance of uncritical enthusiasm for the party line. Members acquire a specialised vocabulary (e.g. they call each other ‘comrade’), which reinforces a sense of distance and difference from those outside their ranks. The group becomes central to the personal identity of members, who find it more and more difficult if not impossible to imagine a life outside their organization.
Back in the bad old days when I still socialized with people, a friend asked me about the novel I had started to write. I told him. He didn't like what he heard: "What's political about THAT?"
Nothing, I said. It's just a story.
He was flummoxed. Almost furious. Why would anyone write "just a story"? Such foolishness was almost criminal. It was certainly grounds for suspicion. Defend yourself, Cannon...
We thus return to our main theme: Cults are simply extreme manifestations of the evils present in all
social organization. Whenever three are gathered -- even if it's just three guys gathered in a living room to drink beer and watch the game -- there will be hierarchy and control. A cult is born. It may be small and inconsequential, but it is still a kind of cult in its germinal phase.
To illustrate the point, consider the gang on The Big Bang Theory
. We may interpret the show as the chronicle of a cult.
The leader of the cult is clearly Sheldon, who forces everyone around him to tolerate his idiosyncrasies and bizarre behavior. They do so because Sheldon is a genius. And even though the others often become exasperated with Sheldon, they never puncture his defining delusion: His conviction that one day he will make a scientific breakthrough that will result in a Nobel Prize.
The secret of Sheldon is that, as brilliant as he is, he does not have it
. He lacks the kind of imagination necessary for his goal. He will never make the grand conceptual leap that will revolutionize our understanding of reality.
His friends all know this, but will never express the thought out loud. They go along with his hallucinatory presumptions of future importance. If one member of the group -- of the cult -- were to say "You will never make that breakthrough, Sheldon, and I refuse to pretend otherwise," that member would be excommunicated. Perhaps the entire group would dissipate.
Because most of us fear being alone, we all live with lies. All friendships, all societies, all relationships are cults writ small. Only the one who does not fear solitude can speak the truth.
Life is short, and beyond this life there is only Hell or obliteration. The addiction of connection makes our brief hour here as hellish as Hell itself. Hell is other people.