Another Whiskey, Barkeep!
Barlish - The Language of The Bar
Stories like this one about a Washington right-wing group are disturbing but also intriguing, at least I think so. I call the group-think that seems to pervade organizations like this, a cult mentality. No, that's not a unique idea, but I think it's worth exploring.
The word 'cult' has negative connotations and not without good reason given how some 'cults' have behaved, but I think of the word on a different level than simply a bunch of crazies drinking goat blood or whatever. I view a cult mentality as being a group of like-minded individuals, not necessarily zombies, who have seized on a particular point of view in life and really don't want to learn anything more. Their adopted philosophy makes them comfortable and that is where they want to stay without having to think any more.
The origin of the word cult appears to be: "cult (n.)1610s, "worship, homage" (a sense now obsolete); 1670s, "a particular form or system of worship;" from French cult (17c.), from Latin cultus "care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence," originally "tended, cultivated," past participle of colere "to till" (see colony)." This is from Online Entomology Dictionary.
As an adjective, cult can simply refer to a group of people who pursue a particular line of thinking or even enjoy a specific if sometimes unusual activity. Using that definition, we could say that, naturally, adherence to one particular religion while refusing to consider the tenets of another is a cult mentality. Being almost obsessed with a sports team, a make of automobile, or a favorite type of music or band are all variations on cultism. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to look at cultism that way, as likes and dislikes, as opposed to something weird and horrible, although it can be that as well.
The focus of this in my mind is trying to understand how this like-mindedness comes about. Fabiola, a friend of mine once said, as we were discussing people, that we all run little movies in our minds. We hear something or see an image and that energizes our imaginations which in turn begins to produce a little movie in our brain. Using our experiences, what we have been taught, and that wild card that is our unique imagination, we begin to flesh out that movie in order to arrive at a conclusion about whatever it was that we heard or saw. We might decided it is good or bad, cool or gross, and if we like the notion at all. Once the movie is complete, it becomes part of our thought process.
That begs the question of how a group of people can listen to, read, or look at the same thing and come away with such diverse ideas about what is represented. I think that is a combination of things, but to give it a term, it's how our brain is organized. That organization has to be the result of genetics, early learning, both through teaching and personal experiences and perhaps finding a group of people who accept you into their cult thinking circles. Acceptance by a group is a prerequisite for a cult, and who doesn't want to be accepted?
We must derive some of how we think and view the world through genetics; our personalities are defined to a degree by that of our parents, and perhaps reaches back several generations back for DNA. We certainly learn for our parents. As we grow up in our first five years we are almost totally dependent on our parents to explain good and bad, right and wrong, happy and sad or angry. Our brains are making connections based on all that our parents hand us.
As an example, if our parents are angry people who rail about our government and about society in general, that is what we will learn in those first formative years. If, on the other hand, they talk about everyday life in terms of acceptance, tolerance, and going with the flow, we will learn to deal with the world that way.
Once we leave home to go to school, we are suddenly confronted with a bunch of other kids who grew up in very different homes with different values and will often have an entirely new point of view on life from what we have learned. We have to process this new information and decide how, where, or if it even fits with what we thought we knew.
And finally, it is our personal experiences that help to inform us and shape how our brain is organized and will see the world around us. If we came from a home of understanding and forgiveness and our first experiences in school are with bullies and violent or out of control children, chances are that will effect our minds, and how we perceive the world. Our brains are making and revising the logic connections that will drive our ideas, how we think, and how we make decisions in life.
Back to our friends in that NPR story about militias, above, and other fringe organizations that often seem driven by an extreme ideology. It is my belief that many of the people driven toward these fringe groups grew up in a world of distrust and fear. Whether they inherited those tendencies from their parents or whether they learned to distrust the government and other entities by listening as children to the adults around them, they formed a series of connections in the mind that become a filter for all they see and hear.
We humans are programmed to learn fear. It was a critical part of our survival as a species. A few hundred thousand years ago, we had to fear a lot of things, wild animals, natural events such as lightning and floods, eating the wrong plants; our world was dominated by fear and we honed our skills to pick up on fear and make that a part of our daily thinking.
This brings me to something I've talked about before. I listened to a psychologist many years ago - I think it was a program on PBS - who talked about how our experiences and learning affect our outlook on life. He used the analogy of everyone holding a lens through which we view the world around us. Our lens is initially shaped by the genetics, as I mentioned, but then it is being continuously ground by what we are taught and by our personal experiences as we move through life. In the end, we all have a unique curvature to our lens because none of us have exactly the same experiences in life. Since no two people have the exact same experiences, each of our lenses, and how we see events, is unique to each of us. Where we have the same experiences, what we individually perceive and interpret is warped by the unique lens through which we are viewing life.
What conclusions can we draw from this? First, those first years of life, probably the first ten years are critical to who we will become as adults. Our lens will take on a distinct shape that will become harder and harder to reshape as we age because the lens hardens with age. The mind of a child is infinitely malleable as they learn new things. As adults, the logic paths that were laid down as children are very hard to change. And, once we have committed to a particular philosophy, be it religious, political, or social, we are not easily reprogrammed to think differently and in all likelihood, we don't want new information coming in to confuse the situation.
What does this mean as a society? Let's use religion as an example. We all know how much anger, violence, and intolerance can exist between religions and those who embrace one belief or another. Humans have been struggling for several thousand years in an effort to recognize, respect, and honor all religions. Most religions try to teach tolerance and love, yet within their writings you find examples of intolerance and anger. Conflict, sometimes violent conflict has a long history in religion. The challenge is to find a way to accommodate the many religions while finding where the boundaries of acceptable behavior are across all religions.
This is just as true with politics and social values, part of which rely on those religious beliefs. Topics like same-sex marriage and abortion can turn otherwise loving people into and angry mob calling for the heads of others. Our brains are formed and organized by both genetics and our education as children. If we are to find true peace in the world, it will be through the minds of our children.
But waiting for the next generation to make things better is not an answer for today. We do need to teach the next generation if we truly want a more peaceful world in the future, and that means the adults alive today need to model the behavior they want from the next generation.
This won't be easy as we have all settled into some form of cultism in terms of what we believe, religiously, socially, and politically. If we consider ourselves to be "hard-core" anything, we will have to lower the wall of thought and let in new information. Whether we're talking about racism, sexism, education, military spending
and purpose, abortion, same-sex marriage, any of the burning issues of the day, we have to listen to opposing views to see if we can find a way forward that will reduce the emotions that go with being in a closed-mind cult.
In the 21st century, we have to understand our tendency to form cults. There are good and bad cults. Being part of a cult that supports a sports team, the company you work for, or a hobby can work to the advantage of the group ascribing to that cult. But, if the cult is based on discrimination, hate, and intolerance, we have to break the bonds of those cults in order to have a more perfect union.