Are our societies cult-like?

Given my interest in analyzing cults and how they brainwash people, I suppose it would be natural that I would want to apply that same understanding to society as a whole. After all, our societies are totalizing groups, like cults. Everything we do and think is either a consequence or a reaction to all the socialization and indoctrination we have received. Pledging allegiance to a cult means foregoing allegiance to the society. Does that mean, therefore, that society is just a bigger cult?

We designate certain groups as cults, and other groups as quasi-cults, cultish, or not cults at all, based on their separation from the larger society they inhabit: separation of language, segregation of information, separating friends and families, shifting value systems and allegiances. Therefore, judging any society’s level of cultism is, strictly speaking, impossible, because we have no greater society to compare it to.

However, in another sense, we already do judge societies on the basis of our own. For example, we can say North Korea is a cult because of its political system. We can do this by talking about a section of it, the political system, and comparing it with other political systems. Of course there is a degree of self-indulgence in this. What we’re saying is, “look how much more cult-like North Korea is compared to us.” This does not prove that our societies are not cult-like, merely that one is more cult-like than the other. This evaluation is therefore inherently relative.

While we cannot evaluate societies literally on the same criteria as cults, we can still reason by analogy. Let me list the main criteria for identifying cults:

1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.

3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. (Lifton, 1989)

Again, I am saying we need to reason by analogy, not literally. Society is not a group with a clear and definite structure, a charismatic leader, and a set of doctrines that are clearly laid out to the initiate. Society encompasses vast and numerous groups which interact in complex and often vague ways, many leaders with various qualities, and doctrines which are either “common sense,” technical knowledge, historical or social myths, religious doctrines which vary wildly from group to group, scientific principles, beliefs disguised as science, positions that are part of political worldviews, and so on. This list narrows down quite a bit if we give a more precise definition of the word “doctrine.”

What is a society formally delimited by? It is delimited by its border (a society exists within a country or territory), by its government (monopoly of control over a country or territory), by its economy and currency (who you can trade with, who you can work with), and more vaguely by its culture (the way things are done). There are, of course, other structures that are extremely important within a society (such as the family structure or the gender hierarchy), but these are the particular structures that separate societies from each other.

What are the ideas and beliefs that separate societies? Well, obviously, allegiance to a country, a government, an economy, and a culture. But there are also more general principles, such as us versus them (or more generally, manichean thinking), racism, neo-liberalism (which sets economies against each other), war and a history of war, religious hatred, and so on.

Based on this reasoning, what can we use an analogy to these criteria?

Milieu Control: Information is controlled within society by the capitalist media, and particularly by the capitalist media’s dependence on the government’s favor for access to important people and information. While this has been especially noted in the case of the United States (e.g. see Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent), people in all societies are artificially limited in their access to information and communication by the constraints of capitalism. Only certain groups are allowed to use the mass media, and only in certain ways. The Internet, of course, represents a significant attack against those limitations (in the same way that the Internet has been very bad for cults in general).

Mystical Manipulation: Because it is impossible to manipulate the direct experiences of the people of an entire society, this is not a possible means of control. What can be manipulated is access to information and how to interpret that information, the former which I’ve already covered.

Demand for Purity: Most of the ideas and beliefs I listed above are examples of black and white thinking, and we are constantly exhorted to conform to them (be on the “right” side). We are also encouraged, through the belief in positive thinking, to purify our minds. There is no general idea of “perfection” in our societies, only success, so that doesn’t really apply here.

Confession: Again, because of the size of any society, there is no way for this to be a working principle. But the principle of confession applies to various areas of society, including parenting (confessing your disobedience), justice (confessing your crimes), and religion (confessing your sins).

Sacred Science: This principle is taken literally by cultural relativists (culture is always right), authoritarians and right-wingers (power is always right), and others. But as a more general analogy, the belief in one’s society as the “good” side, and in your culture as the “right” culture, is beyond questioning or doubt (and anyone who questions them is considered a traitor, a secret “them”). We do not consider our leaders infallible, but we do consider them to be representatives of the society, and therefore people who are necessarily on the “good” side.

Loading the Language: The way words are manipulated, in politics for example, is well understood. We use plenty of thought-terminating cliches, even in normal language.

Doctrine over person: All groups affirm the superiority of their agreed-upon beliefs against the personal disagreements of their members. Any group that did not do this would not remain a group for long. Societies are no different. Experiences which lead people to deny some socially mandated belief (e.g. the superiority of “our” way of life compared to others) are denied or reinterpreted.

This is an extremely cursory examination of the issue, and I am not claiming otherwise. And again, I am not literally saying societies are cults (because such an evaluation is impossible). What I am saying is that by reasoning in analogies we can see ways in which societies sometimes operate in a similar manner to cults.

This is not to say that society is evil. Actually not all cults are evil, and some are rather benign (although they tend to be the exception rather than the rule). The reason why we are against cults is because they are the perfect sort of environment for a leader to brainwash people. And we don’t like brainwashing because it negates the native value system of the individual in favor of some imposed value system, a value system which benefits someone who is not the individual holding it.

Well, of course we have that in our societies also, just not in the same extreme form. Take religious brainwashing, for instance. It is a well known phenomenon that people who deconvert from a religion generally and suddenly drop all the other positions that came along with it (like political positions or ethical positions). This is because most people are indoctrinated as children into a religion, which includes the value system imposed by that religion on the believer. That value system overrides the native value system of the individual. Once they leave the religion, they also drop that imposed value system. The same thing is true of people who leave cults. Other ideologies, like political ideologies, philosophical ideologies, child-raising ideologies, racist or sexist ideologies, and so on, can warp people’s value system to some larger or smaller extent, making certain things acceptable which otherwise would not be, and making certain things unacceptable when natively the person would have nothing against it.

With brainwashing and indoctrination in general comes its opposite mechanism, cognitive dissonance. If you don’t know what that is, cognitive dissonance is the mental tension generated by acquiring a belief which contradicts one of our other held beliefs. For example, if you believe that your friend Peter is an upstanding individual who would do no wrong, and then you observe him punching a person you believe is innocent, you would experience cognitive dissonance because you both believe that Peter is an upstanding individual and that Peter punched an innocent person, which is a contradiction. If you want to no longer experience the discomfort, you would have to resolve the contradiction by rejecting one of the two beliefs. People who change their minds about something they used to believe strongly usually do so because of cognitive dissonance.

In cults, people often experience cognitive dissonance by observing things happening within the group that contradicts what they were told about the group (e.g. “the group is a paragon of virtue” vs “the group kicked Peter out even though he did something praiseworthy”). Likewise, we experience plenty of cognitive dissonance between commonly accepted beliefs in our societies and what we observe or read about. Belief in the rightness of the country or government may be challenged by what the government actually does or has done in the past. Belief in the inferiority of certain classes or races may be challenged by meeting and living with such people. Religious and political beliefs may be challenged by a wide variety of events, including reading about scientific or empirical counter-evidence, being unable to satisfactorily answer contrary arguments, and so on.

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