On cults.. and cult leaders

The Irish Times has an excellent article by Dennis Tourish, co-author of On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, in which he, [perhaps] ostensibly, asks, “How could such [seemingly ordinary] people have callously bombed dozens of their fellow citizens into oblivion?”.. and his answer – “The surprise, really, is that we can be so easily surprised.”

He, firstly, addresses the impression that psychological disorder might be a factor [all emphasis is added] –

In truth, throughout history ordinary people have believed and done extraordinary things. The key to understanding why is to recall that they do so when driven by two things – intense commitment to a powerful ideology and when they join a high control group environment whose every ritual is designed to reinforce their ideological commitment. Groups of this kind are generally known as cults.

Most people assume that, since what cults do is mad, the members must be mad to join. But in fact researchers have found no correlation between cult membership and psychological disorder.

Counterintuitively, most cult members are of at least average intelligence and have perfectly normal personality profiles. It is this which makes them valuable to the cult’s leaders – those who are certifiable would be useless at recruiting others, raising money or successfully engaging in terrorism. Consistent with this, a recent analysis of 500 al-Qaeda members found that the majority of them had been in further education and were from relatively affluent families.

And the role, and certainty, of the cult leader is deliberately emphasised and exaggerated –

Cults promote a message which claims certainty about issues which are objectively uncertain. Despite this logical flaw, the message is alluring. Most of us want to believe that the world is more orderly than it is, and that some authority figure has compelling answers to all life’s problems. An individual who claims to have “The Truth” is more convincing than someone who announces “I don’t know”.

We should never underestimate the power of ideology. Cult leaders know this. They invest their ideology with extraordinary power by exaggerating the extent to which they are confident in its precepts. Conviction becomes faith.

Since we can’t see into their heads, we take their public performance of certainty as more authentic than it probably is. And by virtue of their skill as interpreters and purveyors of the chosen ideology, the leader also becomes a powerful authority figure, whose pronouncements are taken very seriously by his or her followers, however strange they seem to outsiders.

More on the role of the cult leader, and the reinforcing of ideology –

Cults, whether secular or religious, generally go to great pains to project their leaders in a semi-divine light, blessed with uncommon insight, charisma and dedication to the cause. Convincing messages from such sources, cloaked in the language of ideology, have a powerful effect.

The ideology is therefore critical, and cults are adept at reinforcing its power. Members spend more and more time talking only to each other. They engage in rituals designed to reinforce the dominant belief system. Language degenerates into a series of thought-stifling clichés which encourages other actions that are consistent with the ideology of the cult.

The world becomes divided into the absolutely good and the absolute evil, a black and white universe in which there is only ever the one right way to think, feel and behave. Members are immunised against doubt – a mental state in which any behaviour is possible, providing it is ordained by a leader to whom they have entrusted their now blunted moral sensibilities.

And he makes some important points on dissent and ridicule –

Ridicule is a powerful social force. It strengthens people’s faith in their belief system. Rather than risk becoming marginalised, most of us wish to affiliate even more closely with those groups that we have come to regard as important.

Secondly, when no one is openly critical we tend to imagine, wrongly, that those around us are more certain of their views than they are. The absence of obvious doubt from anyone else quells any reservations that we ourselves may be harbouring, and tempts us into ever more enthusiastic expressions of agreement with the prevailing orthodoxy.

His concluding paragraph offers some important advice.. and you can draw your own [local] parallels at this point –

We must become suspicious of those who claim certainty, we must challenge all authority figures and we must cherish dissent: it is these responses that diminish the leaders of cults, rather than the society in which we live.