Us And Them

I’ve been very interested in cults and high-control groups for a couple decades now. One thing people don’t understand about cults is that for the most part they aren’t started by someone who says ‘Hey! It’d be great to start a cult!’ and then they study how cults operate and create their own high control group from the ground up. Cults tend to just start organically because of a combination of narcissistic people who want to lead and control others, and people who are looking for love, acceptance and (easy) answers. Abusive relationships are 1:1 cults. There is always something appealing about the cult or its leader at the start. It may provide the potential follower with answers to questions they didn’t really know they had. It may make them feel understood. It may give them confidence. It may make them feel like they have found a home. It may make them feel like they have found their true calling. It may make them feel loved. It may provide them with a loving (lovebombing) group of friends that they’ve never really had before. It may give them an Us when they’ve always felt like an Other.

I made a decision a very long time ago that I never wanted to belong to a group. If you belong to the group, you must go along with that group 100% of the time otherwise you can no longer be part of that group. You either lose yourself or the group. So, if the group you belong to is a group that defines itself by its love of the colour Red, you absolutely will not be able to say that you actually enjoy the colour Blue sometimes, too… Obviously, most groups are not high control environments nor are they cults, but I think it’s important to understand how you fit into these group dynamics and how you are being “forced” to think differently in order to fit in.

It doesn’t matter what the group is, it can even be a group of people who are self-professed skeptics who don’t believe in ‘beliefs’, they will still have rules and shibboleths and us and them thinking. Yes, even the skeptic types who are interested in cults! :)

This is because the roots of ‘cult-thinking’ are based in normal, human social interaction and organising…

The thing is, we all want to be loved. We all want to be accepted. We all want to feel like we belong. We all want to be told ‘Life, love, EVERYTHING is so confusing and complex and it makes you feel crazy and afraid, just really, really afraid sometimes… and… It’s all going to be OK.’ And it’s appealing when a group provides you with those things. I get it.

I also get that you need to THINK every step of the way. You need to QUESTION yourself and others around you. You need to BE AWARE when you put your identification with the group ahead of yourself (ie are you doing or saying things for the group that ‘aren’t you’?). If you or others around you are repeating ‘mantras’ or ‘loaded language‘ or if you or others around you have ‘black and white thinking’ (eg you and your group are ALL GOOD and ‘the other group’ is ALL BAD) or if you or others around you feel the need to attack or destroy people from ‘the other group’ or even people in your group who ‘step out of line’, you may find it useful to read up on cults and totalist-thinking. I’m not saying you are in a high control group. I’m just saying that it is very important to notice these things and to avoid them. No good comes of this stuff. Never. Ever.

It’s EASY to look at other groups and see their faulty thinking, but you must always always always look at yourself and your group, too. You aren’t immune to it. You’re human.

Anyway… last year my BA dissertation was a piece of science fiction about the real/digital divide, alienation, cult-thinking and high-control/totalist groups. I wrote a lot of stuff in order to get my thoughts clear before I started constructing a story around it. I’ve re-jigged some of that to post here…

Over the past three decades, the World Wide Web has forced us to conceive of ourselves as often existing outside of our bodies somehow. We know we just have ‘brains’ and yet we live as if we are our ‘minds’. We know we are material beings, but we live as if we are ‘virtual’ and able to shapeshift at will. We know that time ticks ahead at one second per second and yet we live as if we have been stuck in time for the past 30 years. We know that religion is dead and yet we live as if we are spiritual. We know that none of this makes us happy and yet we live as if we are living our best life.

The web is a non-physical space that we exist in/on. We differentiate between online and irl. There are (at least) two of “me”. There is the Material Me. There is Online Me – both different. Online Me can be an immaterial extension of Material Me and/or it can be something entirely different. I can choose exactly who I want to be online and live as if I am that Me. I have my online life and my online friends. I have my irl life and my irl friends. Both of Me are living two different lives. Which is ‘the real me’? Who are my ‘real friends’? Do I need to have seen someone’s face to consider them a friend? If people only see my face filtered online, can they really know me? Is there anywhere I can be where I am Whole Me – Material Me and Online Me combined? How can I feel whole when important parts of Me are necessarily discarded in different situations?

This duality is causing widespread cultural cognitive dissonance. We need something, anything, but especially ourselves to feel real. We are now seeing the rise of political ‘cults’ based entirely around the boxes we are shoving ourselves into because no one else is doing that for us anymore. These groups tend to be self-obsessed, focusing entirely on ‘the self’ and each individual’s own feelings of self-worth and their own personal place in the world rather than a larger ‘group identity’. These groups form not because of a wider view of ‘how humans can exist’, but because each individual’s ‘I want to live in this particular, special way in a world that is set up exactly how I want it to be‘ is vaguely similar to someone else’s ideas of how they – personally – want to live. Basically, these are mass movements made up of people who believe they are all unique in exactly the same way. They often bind themselves together based on an ill-defined word or a phrase which has subtly or entirely different meanings to each person (eg ‘Brexit’ or ‘gender’ or ‘Q’ or ‘feminism’ etc). This is also why you can get two groups fighting for or against “the same thing” who are fierce enemies. Their definitions are different.

Both Eric Hoffer’s and Robert J Lifton’s work on the psychology of mass movements and totalistic environments were written in the wake of World War 2. They explain in minute detail how ‘normal people’ can fall into a mass movement such as Nazi Germany or Communist USSR or how an American prisoner of war can be made to publicly pledge allegiance to the government of Communist China. Their work can also be used to explain how one can be indoctrinated by new religious movements and other mass movements that have sprung up since the 1950s.

While both touch on the concept of ‘alienation’, Eric Hoffer in particular talks about ‘a separation from the self’. Hoffer describes it as a kind of process that starts with frustration with one’s position in life or level of ‘success’ (however that is personally defined); they look to the outside world for the cause of their frustration (rather than looking at themselves) they see ‘the present’ as spoiled and meaningless, they descend into hating the present; “We do not usually look for allies when we love. […] But we always look for allies when we hate.“; they favour radical change of the present world (rather than look to change themselves to ‘fit in’) – so they have both a fundamental resistance to change and an ardent-to-fanatical desire for it – and either look to an idealised past (reactionary) or future (radical) for a blueprint for this change; they look to find ‘salvation’ in surrendering themselves as an individual into the ‘compact collectivity of a mass movement’.

These new mass movements are made up of people who feel deeply that they are not only special and a true ‘individual’, deserving of exclusive treatment, but also that they belong to a wider group of people who are similarly unique and that uniqueness mustn’t simply be acknowledged, but it should be revered (and, in some instances, feared).

This obsession with finding ‘the self’ is based entirely on the idea that our ‘unique authentic selves’ are hidden and if only they can be revealed and venerated the entire world will be ‘saved’ (the flip side, of course, is that if their ‘authentic selves’ are not venerated, the world ends…). This has resulted in huge numbers of people tying their entire personal identity to different internet-facilitated mass movements such as Flat Earthers, anti-vax, alt-right, antifa, #MeToo, Brexit, Remain, transgender rights, BLM, white supremacy, Q, Corbynism, Bernie-ism, Trumpism, liberal/radical feminism, anti-antisemitism, Covid conspiracy theorists, Forever Maskers, etc… (did you see yourself in there?)… Sometimes these groups tick off every box in Robert J. Lifton’s eight criteria of thought reform and the most fanatical followers can be easily recognised within Eric Hoffer’s writing on mass movements.

“Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. The fanatics of various hues eye each other with suspicion and are ready to fly at each other’s throat. But they are neighbors and almost of one family. They hate each other with the hatred of brothers… And it is easier for a fanatic Communist to be converted to fascism, chauvinism or Catholicism than to become a sober liberal.” – Eric Hoffer

Where might these contemporary mass movements end up? We can look back to mass movements from previous eras to get a glimpse of the future. Pre-World War II alienation from society created nationalistic movements obsessed with creating their own ‘new society’ with the aim of converting the entire planet into a new world. Post-war alienation from ourselves created religious movements obsessed with ‘finding ourselves’ and capturing converts so that the entire population could find personal salvation. Following this pattern we can look at 21st century alienation which has created social mass movements obsessed with expressing their Authentic Selves. The desire to convert isn’t to force people to express their own authentic selves, but to force everyone to recognise, respect and/or revere every individual’s authentic self (however that is defined) irrespective of whether you belong to their particular group or not, or whether their ‘authentic self’ is based in logical or material reality or not. They also want to enforce certain words, definitions, ideas, thoughts and behaviours under threat of punishment- both social and legal.

This is not an achievable goal. And mass movements without immediately achievable goals create the most fervent fanatics, who have lost faith in themselves and attach their fervent hope for a better future to their ‘holy cause’. Their enthusiastic, yet unfulfilled hope turns to hatred and intolerance. Their beliefs MUST be culturally accepted, then sanctioned, then supported, then legalised. This is what mass movements want.

The first thing is that their beliefs must be culturally accepted… they do this by making sure that opposing views are crushed, destroyed, hidden so that outsiders see only one position. Theirs.

Censorship is already here… and it’s not governments doing it. Everyone from a few officers in local police departments to school boards to libraries to private companies to groups with enough people willing to send emails are doing it and they aren’t just supporting the groups you like either… so… you know, if you don’t join in… your group will disappear… It’s a kind of nuclear war mediated by the web.

If you’re serious about learning about this stuff, Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism is the first thing you should read.

If you want an easier read initially, try Eric Hoffer’s True Believers.

Are you in a high control group or a cult? Find out here.