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If you suspect someone is becoming dogmatic, fundamentalist, authoritarian, or absolutist, here’s an informal test to see whether your hunch is on the mark. The more items on this list that pertain to them, the more likely it is that they have crossed the line into rigid, brittle cultishness.
- I’m not dogmatic.
- The world’s problems are simpler than people think.
- Most people are not realistic.
- I’m more realistic than most people.
- If people just decided to be good our problems would be solved.
- We need to get people aligned with reality.
- There’s a higher truth that most people just don’t get.
- Some people think too much. They get confused when it’s really quite simple.
- When I finally realized the truth, I was overwhelmed with joy. I’ll never forget.
- I was so skeptical before I got it. That’s how I know it’s true.
- Realizing the truth turned my whole life around.
- I’ve never felt so happy, grounded, confident and proud.
- I realized that I deserve more respect.
- This one thinker absolutely gets it. I’ve been following his/her teaching ever since.
- People who hear the truth and reject it are haters, downers or dummies.
- The jerks who challenge me only confirm that I’m right.
- The world is full of people trying to put me down.
- I’d be proud to be a martyr for the cause. I’m willing to be a victim of persecution.
- I know I’ve found truth because these people agree with me.
- We’re the loving ones. It’s obvious from the way we love each other and hate the enemy.
- If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
- I’m part of the solution, not the problem.
- I’m very tolerant and open-minded.
- A lot of people just don’t see the whole picture.
- Sure, I question it. I just remember that you’ve got to have faith.
- Some people who claim they get it are just posers. Not authentic.
- Do I always live up to my beliefs? No, but I never said I was perfect.
- I’d do anything to realize my vision of a better world!
- Compromising is selling out. I won’t.
- Sure, I bend the rules, but it’s for a higher purpose.
- Look at all the rule-bending others do. That proves they’re immoral.
- It’s not my opinion, it’s fact. People just need to open their eyes!
- I visualize victory and the harmony it will ultimately bring.
- Once the truth prevails, people will realize their errors and just get on board.
- I’m engaged in the ultimate struggle between good and bad.
- This is a time of crisis. The bad guys are taking over. We have to stop them once and for all.
- Sure, other people talk like this, but their causes are bad.
- It’s easy to tell who is on the side of right and who is on the side of wrong.
- This is a fight to the death between us and the forces of evil.
- If you’re not with us, you’re with them.
People usually define cults (dogmas, ideologies, fundamentalisms, absolutisms, authoritarians—here, I’ll generalize) by example at arm’s length, for example saying, “A cult is any group like those guys who have strong strange beliefs, beliefs that are way different from mine.”
That’s not just inaccurate, it’s dangerous. Cult members are quick to say, “We’re not a cult because we’re not like our enemies.” As a result, the world suffers a lot of cult-on-cult battles, each cult denying that they’re a cult by accusing their opponents of being one.
Why are cults always so up in arms about the enemy at the gates? Because that’s their competition for total domination.
What one believes does not determine whether one is moving toward cultishness. Communism became a cult, but so did its mortal enemy libertarianism. Islamicized militarism is a cult but anarchy and new-age spirituality can become a cult too.
It’s not what you believe but how you clutch and strut it. Cultishness is a product of the personal use one makes of a belief, the way it enables a person to feign invincible authority and exceptional license by aligning with a belief, any belief. It’s basically a power grab.
The beliefs are secondary. The real draw is safety and freedom, protection from doubt and liberty to do whatever in the name of the cause. They breed blind hypocrisy with pretzel logic like, “Because I’m saintly, it’s fine for me to do sinful things.”
One dead giveaway for cultishness is authoritative self-reporting, or what I call talkiswalkism, speaking as though one is an authority on one’s virtues, as though one’s talk about oneself is accurate objective reporting.
“I’m honest, generous, open-minded, realistic, not into game-playing and not cultish. Other people aren’t like me, but I hate that, so it can’t be true of me.”
I call that exempt by contempt: “Since I have great contempt for that trait in others, I must not have that trait.”
Which is nonsense. After all, no one likes being played for someone else’s advantage, but it’s hard to resist playing others for our advantage. The fact that we don’t like other people’s game-playing says nothing about whether we are disciplined enough to prevent ourselves from game-playing with others.
Walkistalkism is a symptom of pseudo-objectivity, the false sense that one’s subjective opinion is objective truth, and about the touchiest subject of all, one’s own nature. It’s exceptionalism wrapped up in itself:
“Other people are unrealistic. Not me. I see truth and what I see in me is truth.”
Cults afford people license to indulge in such pseudo-objective exceptionalism.
More of us inch toward cultishness than realize it. So it’s useful to take the test yourself. Useful in the long run, though perhaps disappointing in the short run. After all, admitting we’re getting cultish means sacrificing all of the safety and freedom that cultishness promises. It’s a false promise anyway, so it’s worth giving up.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt (2018). How Democracies Die. NY: Random House.
Andersen, Kurt (2017). Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. NY: Random House.
FitzGerald, Frances (2017). The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. NY: Simon & Schuster.