Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is It Okay to Say the "C-Word" Here?

I'm talking about the word "cult." That C-word. Let's talk about that for a moment, since the word seems to have fallen out of fashion in the current vernacular. The finger I've got on the pulse of pop says that most people associate the word "cult" with Hare Krishnas and various other hippie-dippie weirdnesses and probably figure that the fashion died out around the same time as disco fell off the charts.

Not so. As the very perceptive Southern Beale says:
Removing individuals from their support structure -- family and friends -- and replacing that support with a new one; separating the world into those who have privileged access to an exclusive truth and those who do not; placing a group’s doctrine over and above an individual’s experience; use of overly-simplified, cliche-ridden language and slogans; use of “sacred science” -- the idea that if something works for so many in the group it has the authority of “science”; and a cult of confession where one’s testimony is told so often it becomes a well-rehearsed script outlining how lost and sinful the individual was before finding salvation in the group: these are all classic hallmarks of a cult.

There are lots of cults operating these days; they've just mostly gone under the radar to a certain degree, in that modern cults don't usually sell flowers in airports or beg for converts on city streets. These days, they shut their followers up in remote locations, and/or operate as single autonomous units, communicating over the internet.

Southern Beale documents the ways in which the Quiverfull movement operates as a cult, bolstered by quotations from an article by a former movement leader. We can find similar experiences within movements like the FLDS, which famously locate their settlements far from mainstream society (so they can operate their multigenerational women- and child-abuse schemes undisturbed by uncoopted law enforcement), the Satmar Hasidim as they exist in places like Kiryas Joel, an all-Satmar intentional community in New York (where 2/3 of the town's population is below the poverty line and 40% on food assistance due to the Satmars'...interesting ideas on work), or the proposed Ave Maria, Florida, whose founder, a hard-line Catholic, said that he wished to ban abortions, pornography, and contraceptives inside city limits. We've seen this before, with everything from the Heaven's Gate suicides to the events at Waco.

Other cults still exerting a disproportionate influence on the popular culture include the everpresent Unification Church (Sun Myung Moon), which publishes the Washington Times, famously owns much Washington DC real estate, and sponsors various political events, including one at which a Democratic politician crowned Sun Myung Moon, and Scientology, which owns and controls a substantial portion of Clearwater, Florida. (I was there in the early '80s, before Scientology took it over. Too bad; it used to be a nice town.)

With incidents like the ones chronicled here, the UU Church shootings (where the shooter left a manifesto proclaiming his hatred of all things liberal), Glenn Beck's latest assertion that liberalism is driving people to commit mass shootings, and all the various other eliminationist, tribalist, and authoritarian rhetoric we've been hearing of late, the cultic mentality is in full swing, and looking like it's going to ratchet up even further. As Southern Beale says, "It's time we got comfortable with the words "cult" and "thought control" again. We live in a mass-media age, and the tools of exploitation have expanded beyond anyone's wildest dreams." We can't address this problem without effective ways of talking about it. Let's call a cult a cult and not cut off our vocabulary's nose to spite its face.


Blogger Eamon Knight said...

The problem with "cult" is that it got debased, as it was generally used to refer to any religious movement which the speaker found personally threatening or creepy. Which doesn't mean the term shouldn't be salvaged, but there has to be some discipline in the way it is applied. Like Nazi comparisons, it's just too damned tempting.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

[Misogynist troll deleted by blog administrator.]

Sorry, asshole, you don't get to walk into my living room and crap on the Kashan. Bye!

11:01 AM  
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