Vantage Points
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Vantage Points

Breaking Away

Become a Renegade from the Current Cults

In modern English, a cult is a social group, defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. This sense of the term is controversial, having divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia, and has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across different fields of study.

An older sense of the word cult involves a set of religious devotional practices that are conventional within their culture, are related to a particular figure, and are often associated with a particular place. References to the “cult” of a particular saint or imperial cult of ancient Rome, for example, use this sense of the word.

While the literal and original sense of the word remains in use in the English language, a derived sense of “excessive devotion” arose in the 19th century. Beginning in the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior.

One of the primary characteristics of cults is the opposition of any critical thinking. Critical thinkers are rejected, shunned, or simply ignored. And for a long time, now, and with a disturbing increase over the past two years, critical thinkers have been attacked, rejected, shunned, and ignored. Ironically, cults engage in this type of behavior — first and foremost — out of fear.

In late December, 2021, America is perhaps more than ever resembling a group of intellectual cults. Cultish behavior is at an all-time high. Whether it’s a political cult, a social media cult, a sports cult, or some other type of cult, no matter where you turn, no matter where you go, you will eventually run into someone who — within a short period of time — will reveal themselves as being part of some larger group you want to avoid — because the “groupthink” within that group operates much like a cult.

The Cult of Fear

People live in fear these days. They’re afraid of each other. They’re afraid of political parties. They’re afraid of presidents. They’re afraid of their neighbors. They’re afraid of the police. They’re afraid of their elected leaders. They’re afraid of people who aren’t like them. They’re afraid of people who don’t speak their language. They’re afraid of people who have different political beliefs. They’re afraid of people who disagree with them.

So many people these days seem to be motivated by fear. And they project their fears on others, expecting them to be afraid too. Much of this stems from too much attention to the media. People get their reality from looking at a television, a laptop, or a news app. And they usually follow those platforms and outlets that feed their appetites and tell them what they want to hear. It’s a reinforcing echo chamber. The media feeds the fear, and the fear fuels the “news.”

Disconnect.

It’s time to stop being afraid. Aren’t you tired of being afraid of everything? What positive benefit does fear provide?

Live outside the culture of fear, and you will find happier days, an absence of drama, and peace and contentment.

Turn off the false narratives. Stop feasting on “news” that makes you angry and fearful. Leave that group of people who operate like an echo chamber where you feed off each other’s angst.

How do you do that? See below.

Break away from the cult of fear.

The Cult of Social Media

Social Media operates like a cult. Despite what the platforms tell you, the sad truth is we are not as connected on our personal pages as Facebook would have us believe; I post, and you don’t see it; you post, and I don’t see it. Facebook decides what we get to see from our “friends” and what they get to see from us. Yet, we all see the things Facebook wants us to see. And personal pages have also become cluttered with unwanted ads and solicitations.

Twitter, on the other hand, in addition to censoring or silencing people, is literally a window into the minds of the deranged and unhinged. I closed my account over a year ago and escaped that very strange platform and its weird tendency to make the masses think they’re on the same level with presidents, leaders, veterans, professional athletes, and other people of accomplishment and public service.

This, in my view, is all strangely Orwellian.

But the stuff we do see tends to fall into a finite set of categories with similar groupthink. The social media “cults” generally fall into the following groups.

  1. The Political Posters. Break away and avoid those ever-present political or social posts by “friends” who don’t share your political views. (Or even those who do — since they are just as annoying most of the time.) For instance, for the better part of two years now, we have been acutely reminded of this as “friends” have cluttered our feed with patronizing and self-righteous posts about what we need to do or where we need to stand during the coronavirus outbreak or the prior or current presidential administrations. Either way, no matter who they are or where they fall out along the spectrum, admit it; their constant posts about politics and social issues are trite, vapid, patronizing, and above all, tiresome. And the most ironic thing about these folks? They never engage in this behavior when you see them face to face. They have created a social media persona they know is not going to play well in the old fashioned world of the real world. It’s very telling.
  2. The Self-Affirmers. Break away and get beyond those other people who constantly use social media for self-affirmation. The “like” function is maybe the worst thing social media platforms ever created. At one point in the distant past, when Facebook was fresh and new, people just put themselves out there. They posted. Without any expectation. No one sought a like, a thumbs-up, or some type of response. The “like” function opened a can of worms, indeed, it unleashed a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle. The people seeking self-affirmation are now blatantly and — at times — embarrassingly obvious. And although they are still likable at times, sometimes you just want to grab them in a headlock and give them a noogie like you did to your little brother when you were kids: “Come here ya little knucklehead! I love ya! You don’t need to post 27 times a day for me to be your buddy!”
  3. The One-Uppers. Escape those people who feel the need to one-up or impress their “friends” by posting every time they eat at a swanky restaurant or go on yet another trip at totally random times of the year to that same place they go to every time they take a trip at that random time of year. “Holy shit. Does he/she actually do anything else,” you find yourself asking as you shake your head. Again. You know these folks; they’re also the ones who — when you post a picture of your family at Grand Teton National Park, for instance — feel compelled to comment and tell you where you need to have dinner in nearby Jackson Hole, or which trail to hike, since they’ve already been there and done that, etc.
  4. The Oppositional “Friend” Who’s Really Just a Troll. Avoid the random, snarky comments made by “friends” who have nothing better to offer. Sometimes people are just oppositional or they’re going to feel the need to make stupid, non-sequitur, editorial comments. You say the ocean looks blue and the friend says it’s aqua. No matter what you say, the “friend” argues. Like that guy who every time you post a photo you snapped with your iPhone of say, the Blue Ridge Mountains at sunset, feels the need to ask, “Did you really take this picture or did you get it off the internet? Because my iPhone doesn’t take pictures this cool.” Yeah. That guy.

Escape the cult of social media and you will begin to notice a few things. First, you won’t spend so much of your time reaching for your phone to check the app to see what’s going on with your “friends.” How many times a day do you do this? Come on, be honest now. Take count one day and you will shock yourself at how much time you waste doing this.

You will read more. (If you like to read. Or if you once liked to read before you got on social media.) Think about it again. Since you got on social media, how many books have you actually read? Count them up. There’s absolutely no way you have read close to as many books as you used to read before you got on social media. Why? Because you don’t have any time to read books anymore because you are constantly on social media. (Scary, isn’t it?) Social media is dumbing you down; way down.

You will be happier. You will generally be happier because you will no longer be seeing the garbage that people spew on social media. See above. Social media is like television “news” these days. They only put the most negative, controversial crap on your “feed” in an effort to get people all riled up. You don’t believe me? Turn on MSNBC, ABC, FOX, CBS, NBC, or CNN. All they do for the entire 24-hour “news” cycle is talk about why Republicans or Democrats suck and are evil people. Facebook is no different; they feed you unsolicited “news” nuggets based on how they have you pegged politically (from gathering your personal posting and clicking history). Get off Facebook and you will be happier, and you won’t be mad at Republicans/Democrats/(political group you don’t agree with, etc.) every day.

You will have a better attitude. In the vacuum created by breaking away from social media, you will actually have time to look at other people and maybe even speak to them. You will be shocked at how normal and nice people are in person, and you don’t even know what their political beliefs are. You will arrive home at night and think to yourself, “Damn! Today was pretty neat. I actually came in contact with some people I don’t know and they were NICE!” Then you will smile. Then you will have a better attitude the next day. And this cycle will continue. Before you even realize it, you might have an improved outlook on life and people in general.

Break away from the cult of social media.

The Cult of Group Identity

Group identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular group. At its core, the concept describes social influence within a group. This influence may be based on some social category or on interpersonal interaction among group members. Consider universities and their athletic teams. In practical application, a student-athlete at a university that plays on the football or basketball team, for instance, may identity with his or her team during contests with rival schools. The players are actually part of a formal group that represents that university. They don’t have to identify with their university; they are their university on the court; the jersey they wear proclaims it.

Now, move outside the actual team to the fans and followers. They are no more part of the team than a resident of the Canary Islands, yet they feel the need to identify with the team. The team is the team, and they aren’t part of it, so they form a group that has as its main unifying characteristic identifying themselves with the team. This is one example of group identity.

The problem with group identity is it often devolves into a sort of tribalism in which people engage in cult-like beliefs and behavior. This, in turn, leads to conflict with people outside the group. What is it about the team that makes people want to become part of the group? The answer is that some people find part of their identity in that group and they attach emotionally to and even defend the “honor” of that group, even though it has nothing to do with them in reality.

Acting as a member of a certain group leads people to adopt that group’s priorities and motivations. So can we ever overcome group identity to change someone’s mind? Yes, but with logic and reason as opposed to emotion or fear. For example, studies have shown that when people in one political group were asked about opposing political opinions, many of them had increased activity in the region of the brain that processes emotion and fear. (See Cult #1, above).

The dark side of the cult of group identify comes when groupthink and subtle coercion or manipulation are used to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations may start to deteriorate. These nuanced forces keep people from leaving the group. It can also lead to pressure and criticism when a member of the group is unwilling to conform to the established doctrine and expected behaviors within the group.

Break away from the cult of group identity.

The bottom line is it doesn’t take some sort of difficult, concerted action to break away from the cults of fear, social media, and group identity.

Sometimes you just stop engaging in certain behaviors and actions. Through deemphasizing and to an extent abandoning the old habits, myths, and cultish behaviors, while simultaneously emphasizing and taking up newer and more healthy pursuits, and taking a new and different intellectual perspective, one can move forward and bring about change.

But breaking away requires a change in perspectives, abandoning long-held beliefs and habits, and leaving the cultish behavior and expectations behind.

In 2022, break away and become your better self.

Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.

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