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Friday, July 17, 2015

Of cults

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 exhausting.

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.
You've got some good views here Joseph and they accurately reflect the problem of other people and shared belief systems. And you would not be alone in shaking off the legacy of negative people. We've all got views on religion/cults and belief systems. At the wrong end of life I'm wise to some facts on this that make sense to me:

(1) People use words and beliefs like rough tokens for social progress rather than as common currency to define and safeguard shared experiences with others. In other words, despite appearances you're on your own.

(2) People, and their words and ideas, are infinitely malleable because humans are organic, topsy entities like pot plants rather than rational, mechanical automatons. We all go along with the second model because it holds out the promise that we are not alone and we can control aspects of our destiny.

(3) The human mind is a sausage machine that produces what we hope are useable life answers. But it can't hope to capture all of life (and hence make us safe from our multiple fears) because we are still just pot plants. So the sausage machine runs wild with our own and society's full approval and expresses itself as religion/cults/wild ideas. That's why religion is a persistent human phenomenon that cannot be reasoned out of existence no matter how much the atheists insist. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is the real driver of religious behavior.

(4) If you want to know what we are, walk up to a person and stand 3 inches from their face. In most cases they will "drop their bundle." Their reasoning, judgement, defenses, history, intellect and "maturity" will vanish immediately. (The effect is even more pronounced if the confronter is a Bengal tiger or a Mac truck traveling at high speed).

(5) What we remember and cling to ultimately is the few people whose intimacy with us has lifted our spirit, made us feel complete, at ease or inspired us. And that is even if the ideas they present would shame a cheap tent preacher.

Moral of the story: stay away from negative people; associate with happy, kind, intelligent ones. It's pretty basic but there you go. Cheers.
...beyond this life there is only Hell or obliteration"

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Here I thought I was cynical, maybe even nihilistic, but you make me look like Pollyanna McHappygrin.

God is not petty like we talking apes can be--certain authoritarian, oligarchic misunderstandings of the Deity notwithstanding.

As for the Martian origin of Oreos--well, in the late 1980s version of the Justice League, the Martian Manhunter did love Oreos... ;)
I did not know that about the Martian Manhunter, Mr. McHappygrin. Odd coincidence that such an image should have popped into my noggin.

See you in hell....
I remember during those years, in the JL letter column, someone asked the lettercol editor why J'onn J'onzz (the Martian Manhunter) never tried the similar Hydrox cookies. The editor responded that by an unfortunate coincidence, "Hydrox" was the Martian word for "nose hairs". :D
I believe comraderie should be camaraderie, if that isn't some pun.
Thanks for the correction, Stephen. I've fixed the error.

Gad. Getting older sucks. The grey hairs are easy to live with, but when one misspells words that one used to know...
I self-disfellowshipped too. A few years ago I saw someone write on the web that I and another named self-disfellowshipper were "dregs" and "detritus".

I am pretty sure I know who this poor soul is - a former "friend". What a sad cretin, I thought.

Look at his choice of insulting words. If someone is "dregs" in relation to some undifferentiated volume of "fellows", that suggests that those fellows are capable of moving - that they did move and left the self-disfellowshipper behind.

And if someone is "detritus", that suggests that the wise and aware "fellows" threw the person out.

No, baby - I was the one who moved, who upped and left and broke off all relations. This guy's still enmired - and jealous of escapers too.

"Dregs" also suggests that the "dreggy" one is made of different material from the gloopy mass from which he has departed, so thanks for that compliment at least.

I always felt exactly that.

But at least there's some amusement value in a nano-scene of fellows whose more junior members think of the members of other nano-scenes within the same micro-scene as "nutcases". Like yeah, right. "Politics of small differences", eh? Count me out.

But the leaders often don't think that about other leaders. They respect them. For fairly obvious reasons.

As you rightly say, Joe, a person who can think for themselves must defend himself 24/7. Whereas now I only have to do it when I talk to other people :-) (Just kidding. It's not quite that bad!)
Wow Joseph, I did the same thing. I've found it incredibly freeing. Like removing a metal helmet from ones head.
One of the reasons I love your blog so much is because you ARE independent and can THINK. I don't always agree with you, but more often than not. It is the same reason I like other independent bloggers. The bloggers I like may dislike each other, but they are ALL very independent, have a personality and can THINK rather than just repeat something they heard.

Here's a great piece of independent writing that I bet you never saw. I thought the author was an idiot because i was told that since I was about 3. I decided to actually read him a few years ago and found out he was one of the best writers of the last century (whether you agree with him or not). And if you read this book review of his online you will know what I am talking about. Are you ready - don't faint (don't ban me). Online you can easily find a review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittacker Chambers.

I never could have read him years ago, it would have never entered my mind, or if it did, I would have immediately scrubbed my brain.
Just an example of how all this works.

When I hear "detritus" I always think of the troll from Discworld.

In any case, disfellowshipping implies having previously enjoyed the burdensome presence of other people.
Actually, I think Whittaker Chambers had an interesting mind. A bit like Harvey Matusow's, who got up to the same racket.

Of course, I also suspect that Jack the Ripper had an interesting mind.

One of these days, I'd like to publish a line-by-line rebuttal of Galt's Big Speech, which is an appalling exercise in unreason.

Stephen, we are social animals for obvious evolutionary reasons. But in the end, when evolution completes its task, we shall all be giant brains floating in individual glass jars, lost in the ecstasy of Pure Thought, and oblivious to presence of other giant brains. Won't that be GLORIOUS?
And who is going to polish my jar? Being a brain in a jar is a state of dependence, and therefore the opposite of avoiding other people.

Humans are only thought to be social animals because servile, socialised people control the media and the institutions. Hugging, kissing each other on the cheek, putting out their hippy propaganda.

The Discourses of Epictetus have some interesting things to say, about being sufficient unto onseself.
Stephen, at the end of history, machines -- exquisitely engineered bio-organisms -- will carry out the task of brain-jar maintenance. Or perhaps our highly-evolved superbrains will need no containers, no air, no sustenance and no sensory apparatus. We will simply fly through the void of space, creating new universes with every thought.

I've never read Epictetus. What a cool name. We should revive it.
We already are exquisitely engineered bio-organisms. So we already have a system whereby people breed to create exquisitely engineered bio-organisms to "polish their jars" when they get old and retire. I do not like transhumanism. Humans are good enough already.

If we're bringing back names I want "Grim", or possibly "Glum", which were common viking names. I could then be grim, or glum, both by name and by nature. Or Tiberius, after my hero Tiberius Gracchus, who was brutally murdered as a martyr of the Roman populares.

Epictetus is one of those Stoics, I believe. Doesn't like Epicureans or Academics, I'll tell you that for nothing.
Jack the ripper? I don't think so.

You missed my point. That's ok. And you never read his review. That's ok.

You are independent!

Ps. chambers was being had by both sides.
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