Beyond tribalism and into cultism

The term “cult” is a loaded one. The moment that the word is uttered, it conjures pictures in ones mind of either Jonestown-type commune, or in its most milquetoast incarnation, a Scientology temple. Participation in cults are seldom considered good, healthy pastimes, so it comes to no surprise to me that – in our never ending ability to police others’ behaviours – I have seen the term thrown about.

Typically it’s employed to tarnish the extreme views and behaviours of “The Other Side”. Instead of debating points in an honest way, it is far easier to simply brand an opponent as a narrow-minded devotee.

I find this somewhat infuriating, as someone with experience and knowledge in cults. Quite often I have seen those who accuse others of being in a cult are actually those who are guilty of being in one themselves.

But rather than identify what I see today as being a “cult”, I feel it would be far more constructive to point out the telltale signs of a cult. In my experience, you cannot simply tell someone that they’re participating in a cult. People who are in a cult are fervent believers in the group. The group is what they have attached a great amount of their identity, and to suggest that the group is insidious in nature, or exploiting them, is tantamount to an insult. The best method, I feel, is to highlight the abusive behaviours that a cult performs, and their inherent hypocrisies.

I admit that finding a strict definition of a cult can be difficult, and that there are legitimate community groups that could also be considered as having cultish behaviour. However, I do feel that when seeking to identify a cult, it will ultimately come down to “Who is the beneficiary?” Cults serve only themselves, whereas community groups do tend to have a tangible benefit outside the group.

However, when talking about politics, there can be an illusion that a group benefits the community at large, when in actual fact the triumphs of the group are thin and have only served senior figures of the cult.

So, let’s start with some of the signs:

  • The group paints the world largely as an evil place, and the group is the only protection against the bad in the world.
  • The group requires utmost devotion, often requiring members to volunteer their time and expertise for no recompense.
  • The group always requires members to purchase items (ie books or “special classes”) in order to attain a higher understanding or ranking. There is also no finish to these classes, and there is always more things to purchase.
  • The group will threaten that leaving the group can result in harm to the individual, or death.
  • Former members of the group are ridiculed, considered “not worthy”, or are accused of even criminal acts. They are discredited and group members are instructed to avoid them.
  • The group sometimes asks people to sacrifice their existing personal relationships, or at least prioritise the group before all others.
  • The group widely perceives itself as more enlightened than regular people in society.
  • Any new information presented to the group needs to be filtered through the group’s own lens and standards – typically to be discredited.
  • The group tells you that there is no other answer to the world’s problems. Theirs is the only answer.
  • The group has slogans, catch cries and labels for which it can quickly categorise any outsiders.
  • The group ridicules any other group that doesn’t align 100% with their philosophy.

There are other aspects to cults, such as the demands for members to confess personal sins to senior members, or in some cases rituals and initiations, however with the nature of the Internet, this kind of criteria is difficult to fulfil. I might flesh out some of these items in later posts, and maybe even highlight my observations in modern “debate”.

But remember, it’s not that a cult needs to meet all these criteria in order to be a “cult”. It must be determined the level of harm a cult is bringing, I feel.

Cults are easy to slip into, though. We shouldn’t criticise people for falling into one, but rather understand that they need to make the realisation on their own. More can be read in Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, for sale on Amazon. (Disclaimer: I am not receiving any affiliated kickbacks for this link).

Quote from the book:

The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.