When the whole world feels like a cult
Date: June 28, 2020 07:04AM
Ex-members are often shocked by discovering how similar cultic groups are to one another, even when the belief systems are very different. But in reality, it's quite simple: we aren't harmed by the belief system, we are harmed by systems of control (although, of course, specific beliefs can be traumatic too). Many destructive groups have a positive reason for existence, such as claiming to solve some social problem or convey some deep spiritual message. Even hate groups justify their hate in twisted ways. Idealistic people get drawn to these groups because we want to make the world a better place. When we are met with constant rage and disapproval, we blame the existence of our private imperfections. The ideal cult member is one who will sacrifice everything in their life in order to become pure, whilst still being susceptible to being called `selfish.' If you work 18 hours a day for free, and the leader wants you to work 20, and you physically can't, then you get called lazy and selfish. The ideal recruit is someone who responds to endless criticism with: `yes, I know, I'm sorry, I will try harder,' and then joins in a long confession session about the deep-seated causes of their lazy selfishness straight after a 20 hour shift.
But idealism and commitment are not weaknesses, they are beautiful human qualities. It is very, very difficult to commit to being a good person and also to become aware that you are being abused. Our own guilt and desires to improve become weaponised, especially when we fully believe in, and can see the reality of, the cause. Unfortunately, the ``solutions'' and the problems are often woefully misaligned: being emotionally belittled into working 20 hours a day on one organic fruit farm will absolutely not reduce climate change even a little, yet when we're in that environment it feels like the only truth in the world, and to even consider saying no to impossible demands means becoming someone soulless, someone who is causing problems rather than fixing them. Our compliance feels like life or death, not for us but for the safety and future of the entire world.
Cultic practises and emotional abuse are everywhere now. There is so much genuine harm in the world that the language of totalism is seeping into movies, TV shows, classrooms, organisations. And the same techniques -- of ridicule, dehumanisation, us-vs-them attitudes, milieu control, loaded language -- exist on every side of a debate. Where inequality exists, some wannabe cult leader seeking admiration and control will pop up to exploit the social problem for their own purposes, whilst pretending to be selfless and committed only to solving the problem at hand.
Cults never tackle the world's problems on a scale that makes a difference. They skip over layers of regional governance that actually harm our lives and go straight to either the top or bottom of their imagined social strata, or both. Fighting bureaucracy is too boring for wannabe cult leaders: it's either full apocalyptic revolution or nothing. Systems change by enough people within the system committing to change the system; cultic people despise this because they need to believe they are the only one who has any control. So the commandment is always to smash, overthrow, destroy. There's always a threat that a movement will reach a critical mass and take society by force; we are expected to live under the fear that non-compliance will mean our heads will be the first one on the block, as soon as the movement has gained enough power.
But almost every movement kinda behaves in the same way. Language escalates to become more and more emotive and extreme. `Enemies' become framed as increasingly threatening, even when they've done nothing at all except theoretically exist. Cults amplify the threat caused by neutral bystanders until the whole world is assumed to be polarised into two extremes: the good people who side with the cult, and the terrible evil inhuman monsters who need to be destroyed! Being a `terrible inhuman monster' might consist of something like blinking once at the wrong time five years ago during an entirely neutral conversation. Cults exacerbate mental health problems in their members by amplifying cognitive distortions: yes, truth is black-and-white; yes, we are all-knowing and can read everyone perfectly at all times (and so know that they are all bad). Yes, our hate and fear is accurate just because we feel it, and therefore we have a right to act against whatever seems to threaten us.
Any group, from anywhere on the socio-political spectrum, can behave like this. And, right now, many are. The message is irrelevant; the hatred and control is not. This isn't intended as a political fight -- it is so routine now for someone to say, ``yes, the people I hate do such things but the group I belong to never would! If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem!!'' Right now it seems like one person in five seems to be using coercive control techniques de facto whilst genuinely believing they are not, regardless of what they claim to stand for. Just like in my cult, where nobody could see themselves as anything less than perfect, or doing anything other than fulfilling a sanctioned mandate to improve the world by any means necessary. They just don't seem aware of how big the world is, how small their own reach really is, or how harmful the constant rage and emotional violence is to the people who also occupy that real sphere (as opposed to existing conceptually somewhere outside of it).
Being part of the world right now can be so psychologically draining and complex. No-one has a language to discuss coercive control or define what intra-community harm even looks like, so any criticism of any ideologically-driven behaviour (no matter what it is or what is driving it) is immediately taken as tacit acceptance of some enemy ideology. This so often results in immediate shunning, which is extremely damaging to those on the receiving end. Sometimes it seems like we are supposed to put our community membership above our own personal moral compasses now, regardless of what that community happens to be.
I had to do that growing up in my cult. Group membership was everything. Individuality didn't exist. There was us (members), and there was them (everyone else). We were good, they were bad. We had to prove, every second of every day, that we were indeed on the right side.
Personally I still struggle when I witness coercive techniques in belief systems I agree with. So much easier to simply pretend that destructiveness isn't there, and that everything I stand for is perfect just because I stand for it. But sometimes it looks like abusiveness has seeped into everything, and it's not like there's an outside world to escape to this time.
Edited 6 time(s). Last edit at 06/28/2020 07:21AM by Jupiter.