Cult-Like Ideation & Social Media

Today, a friend of mine posted a cartoon. It advocated that men should transform themselves to be more like Steve Irwin, Carl Sagan, Bob Ross, and Fred Rogers. It’s a modified image I’ve seen before, though the initial image contained a reference to John Denver and not Sagan. I made a comment and soon had several people calling me ugly names and questioning my courage (Ha!) in an effort to silence me. I blocked them, but the experience needs to be shared. Here’s why….

Every one of the people in the cartoon was a real-life flesh-and-blood human being. Every man depicted was a TV celebrity. Every man depicted, despite what we saw on the screen, had serious problems.

Steve Irwin — The Crocodile Hunter — Alienated more than a few people by handling dangerous and endangered animals in a reckless way. His behavior off-screen alarmed some of the people who cared about him and his personal safety. He took risks, and we applaud him for that on one level, but he also took needless risks and one such risk ultimately cost him his life.

Carl Sagan — celebrity astronomer — Alienated the children from his first marriage and many of his friends. He alienated Lester Grinspoon, the famous physician, over what amounted to a difference of opinion.

Bob Ross — famed painter, maker of “happy trees” — Ross alienated his mentor, William Alexander, and many of the people who loved him. Alexander once bitterly said of Ross, “He stabbed me in the back!”

Fred Rogers — Mister Rogers — Made it impossible for gay employees working on his show to come out or otherwise advocate for gay rights or face losing their jobs.

(John Denver — American singer / songwriter — Beat his wife. This is why he was changed to Sagan because the initial meme was orchestrated by an angry online feminist group that felt it needed to show men the way…without knowing which way they were going in the first place).

Does this detract from what these men did on TV? No. But it also tells us that what we saw of them on TV wasn’t the whole picture. What we saw on TV was a one-dimensional portrayal of each man and nothing more. Their lives were more complex than their television personas.

People–all people–yes, even men–are complex beings and come with positive traits and negative traits. None of the men depicted in the cartoon was perfect, despite the admonition that, if we just behave like them, we’ll make the world a better place. That’s an example of “folk psychology” and it ignores the depth and validity of the bad qualities of people; it is an argument devoid of an understanding of systems theory in the social sciences and favors a “you can choose” approach to afect, behavior, cognition, and personality. It just ain’t that simple, folks.

Now, the meat and potatoes of this piece were the responses made to my observations. One person accused me of ruining her childhood. Another person said I was angry. Another said I was just trying to make other people feel dumb by showing off my “vast stores of knowledge.” It was a dog-pile, a multi-person ad hominem assault via social media intended to make me feel bad. (For the record, when I see dogpiles, I just start blocking people. I was then told I was a “coward” for daring to “block women.” Someone sure wanted to center his straightness in my life, it seems). It’s the technique of people who have no argument, just emotion, when their worldview is challenged. Interestingly, they were all neopagans.

I mention that the people responsible were neopagans because it’s intriguing; it’s a common thread between the individuals who engaged in the dogpile. This common perspective, and their willingness to engage in ad hominem attacks instead of looking into the veracity of my claims, reveals the extent to which believers are willing to go in order to protect a belief–no matter how questionable that belief may be.

Here we are back to ingroup / outgroup dichotomy. As noted here, here, here, and here, cults and extremist organizations rely on this dichotomy to indoctrinate, retain, and abuse their members. But, most significant of all, the dichotomy serves to create “the other”–that guy who doesn’t agree with the ingroup and so must be wrong. “The other” is the black in the Jim Crow south, the Jew in Nazi-controlled Europe, and the AIDS patient in the early 1980s. “The other” is bad, wrong, subhuman, stupid, foolish, sly, crafty, sneaky, deceitful, immoral, animalistic, perverted, and predatory. Who cares what becomes of “the other” so long as he is kept in line and knows his place! That’s the cult mentality.

What fascinates me about this is that most neopagans would denounce Jim Crow, Naziism, and prejudice toward the sick and dying. But there’s a genuine lack of introspection within this particular community. The outgroup of Christianity–for all of its blunder and massively epic screw-ups over the past 2,000 years–is often held up as the example of what neopagans don’t want to be. But at the same time, without having a positive direction toward some abstract ideal, the tendency to be a hateful mob remains ever-present. Why? Because being a hateful mob isn’t a trait of one particular religion or another, it’s a trait of humanity when people place one dimension of their life above all others and above all “the others.”

Shriek into the Void...

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