Sunday, May 09, 2004

Everyday Zealotry and Cultural Cults

What are the human institutions that we would consider most cult like? Most people would say it is the ultra right wing religious extremist. Some staunch conservatives would argue that many liberal groups like the anti-globalism crowd fit the bill. But what is it that makes a group or institution a cult? Previous discussion mentioned the fact that it may just be exceptional people joining a group that re-enforces specific extremes. However, don’t most groups encourage group defined behavioural expectations?

For instance, lets take a group of colorful university art students. Most are proud of their individuality and the freedom they feel to express themselves. Many like to express this freedom and individuality through particularly “artst” clothes, accessories, and behaviours. Belonging to this group usually requires similar expressions of “freedom”. Like many other science students, I found the irony in the position rather amusing. Of course many art students also found the behavioral code of the science majors equally as amusing. Stereotypes whether people want to admit it or not, usually develop for a reason. Useful ones also tend to apply to a sizeable portion of the group they assess.

Groups need something around which to coalesce. Often behavioural codes and attitudes reflect this coalescence. As these groups solidify, something within them seems to generate behavioural expectations, common mannerisms, similar world outlooks, language nuances, etc. The degree to which this happens, is of course a matter of opinion and study. Perhaps an example from the other night will help to illustrate this. Stupid Mormon games. Whether we are proud or ashamed to admit it or not, most members have at one time or another participate in this phenomenon.

For me, it was last demonstrated at a mormon party – a ubiquitous ceremony more mysterious than any temple rites could possibly be. Out of a group of 20 people, I knew the girl hosting the party and one other. The host’s roomate got everyone together to play a game. I could feel the dread creeping over me like a polyester sacrament sheet sliding over a pressboard altar. Some eyes darted around with a nervous twitch. For some, YSA family home evenings had foreshadowed what was about to unfold. Others were placid, still chewing their cheesecake cud. “Everyone hold out 10 fingers”. I attributed the growing excitement of the group to the naked fingers that were now exposed, erect and devoid of any matrimonial bands.

Instructions continued with a well rehearsed enthusiasm trained to motivate the most recalcitrant pubescent math student. “You need to say something that you have never done that other people have. If they have done it, they need to put down a finger, you then get to keep yours up”. While thoughts of the Jennifer Garner movie (30 going on 13) danced through my head, I knew a decision was at hand. This was not just a subtle interrogation technique designed to separate the outgoing or rebellious from the arrogant or timid. It was a test of my theories of cult behaviour. Either I somehow made a good show to keep my standing with the host I was vainly trying to date, or I would have to leave, sequestering myself in a prison of non-comformity and eternal celibacy.

To me the irony of the game was the only interesting thing. “10 fingers” or its equivalent social constructs are based on an open ended, informal way of judging social norms. They let people turn a group into a live version of the movie “The singles ward”. If you are wild we still accept you. You just fit the jack mormon side of our group. If you are uptight, you are still accepted, you just fit the molly side of the group. However, deviation gets accepted on one condition– people can figure out a reason for it. In other words, people know that you understand the unspoken rules of the game.

I could have said something like “I have played 10 fingers and never enjoyed it”. The resulting condrum people would have faced deciding if they too agreed with this statement would have expressed my disdain for mormon culture and secured my place in the group. Whether or not my response was kosher is beside the point. By participating I was expressing an understanding of the hidden cultural rules. I was giving others the chance to understand me. No matter how rebellious the answer, one would still be conforming. Anything is OK as long as you play by the group rules. The group can encourage everyone to take part, by accepting most any behaviour. All that is required is awareness of the unspoken rules. Basically it is “Do what you want, as long as we can understand it”. In broader terms it amounts to “anything is acceptable, as long as we can see that you are using the same memes that we are”. To me, this is the key point in everyday zealotry or cultural cults. (by definition memes are an unconscious way of looking at things. They are the “how could it ever be any different” type of thoughts. For liberals it may be things like “genocide is bad”, for conservatives it may be things like “liberals are short sighted” :)

Society is based on cults. It is the only way it can function. Society must be able to tolerate large differences between individuals, yet still have a glue that lets one treat their neighbours as them self. This can happen as long as we can see the motivations or reasons behind another’s actions. For instance when a serious crime is committed we somehow feel more at ease knowing why it was done. A murder in a neighbourhood isn’t nearly as disturbing if it is “solved”. If we know the underlying rules people play by, we can assume that behaviours within these bounds will be rational. Unexpected things won’t happen. In evolutionary terms, knowing that a neighbour won’t suddenly attack us out of the blue, lets us feel at ease with their presence. The more defined and consistently applied the underlying rules get, the more at stable we feel within that group. Now, I am not saying that behaviours have to be the same, only that the rules from which they arise have to be highly intelligible (again not necessarily in a conscious way).

So what are examples of these “societal cults” and institutions? From the 10 fingers example, I would say that there are a variety of levels. The smallest would be the nuclear family. Some people think that frequent arguments are a normal means of discussion. Telling someone off doesn’t really mean you want them gone, it is just a vehicle to express emotion. On the other side, a disapproving look by a parent may be all that is needed to send a child to their room crying. Unless the rules or memes are understood, you can’t function as a part of the family. Because memes are based on non-overt thinking patterns, it is very hard for outsiders to fit in. Because individuals are rarely aware of them, memes are difficult to teach. To become part of a family like this, you have to accept the underlying ground rules. Because this group is so small, the rules are usually fairly numerous and specific. Because so many memes are available from which to interpret action, a wide range of divergent behaviours can be accepted without loosing status as a member of the group. Here I would say that divergence is based on a standard deviation from the group (ie take the average distribution of all members and see how much an individual compares)

Peer groups also fit into the “societal cult mode. There is an underlying way of seeing the world that is usually common to a peer group. Members may have various ways of expressing this, but there is always some common basis for the group. Often members can be seen fitting into a normal distribution ala “The Singles Ward”. Members still have to be able to interpret your actions in a way that makes sense to their world view. In other words superficial things like wearing black, lots of makeup, and enjoying piercings, would still mean rejection from a Goth group if you could fundamentally not see anything wrong with the current hegemony and thought student body president or cheer leader was a noble aspiration.

As we move into larger social groups it seems like specific behaviours are used as a way to try and quickly judge what memes others are playing by. I don’t think behaviour is necessarily the trump card that determines whether or not one fits in. Instead I think it is what causes the behaviour that makes this determination. What this means is that cults are judged not on some arbitrary measure of “normalcy”, but instead on a level of rationality – rationality based on our memes and our world view. I would argue that any behaviour is rational from the frame of reference of the individual doing it. In fact I remember reading an interesting book that analyzed numerous “random” acts of violence to see why they were committed. Each had quite clear, though not immediately apparent motivations. Perhaps this is why some fundamentalist christians still consider mormons cultists. From their biblical inerrant frame of reference, the things mormons come up with may not be logical. We may look like we have the same values, morals and behaviours, but to them, our underlying rule book is incomprehensible. It may be like a Jesuit missionary trying to figure out blackfoot tribal religion. It just doesn’t make sense.

So how does this discussion of cults matter? If societal norms are cultish, and all cults are bad, then their influence on us is probably just a matter of degree. But how do we figure out the degree? I don’t think looking at the behaviours encouraged is very efficient. They may not reflect the memes underlying them. I also don’t think looking for perceived levels of conformity is very good. What may seem like conformity may just be an amalgamation of similar minded people. I think the degree of cultish influence in our lives is determined by how willing we are to go with the flow - in what ever venue or group this may be. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean how likely we are to go along with superficial behaviours. Instead, it probably is how likely we are to conform our world views, our memes, to any given group. If playing “10 fingers” at a mormon party is incomprehensible to me, doing so to fit in is as cultish as donning an orange harri-krishna robe and shaving what is left of my hair.

Following this line of thinking through, perhaps the most important thing to be aware of with cults, is how much of my world view originates from them. If this is the case, the most powerful cults in the world are the ones that deal with our day to day lives. It is the social protocols and cultural biases we inherit from our society that are the most cult like. These create outlooks that we could never imagine being different. They are so fundamental to our way of being that we can barely identify what they are. They are so fundamental and important that there is no real way of escaping from their influence. They have as much, if not more, effect on our lives than the lunatic that believes their nose is a space alien giving them instructions as they sneeze.

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