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Cult Thinking and Terrorists

Looking at some of the links between cultist thinking and terrorism.

Tragic events pain us, and even more so for the failure of media to put them in the proper context. The media fails to educate, to the point they prefer to run with gossip and innuendo to purely educational content to fill dead air.

On some issues they may paint a fair picture, such as when they cover cults. Most of the time the cult harm to society comes in alienation and wasting of resources. The media seldom covers cults unless their harm grows far beyond this basic level, to mass suicide or worse.

But many events we see in the news are intimately related to the sort of cultural relativism needed to understand cults. None more so than terrorism, and the world view that allows for it.

First one should might contrast the reaction to domestic incidents with those that take place overseas. The media tends to barely report terrorist bombings in Iraq, for example. They certainly do not follow any manhunts, seek out family, neighbors, and other acquaintances to interview, and the like.

This itself shows the sort of tribal and cultist worldview. The value difference based purely on nationality or locality becomes essential to terrorism and cults in general. But that value finds itself lacing most any culture.

The feature of the media that stands out as an unanswered question (the media should both ask questions and answer or seek answers to questions): ‘how could terrorists kill the innocent (children, civilians)?’ But worse than media, this sentiment arises from elected officials (which suggests the need for a Constitutional Amendment requiring continuing education for all legislators).

The basic formula of the cult, of terrorists:

  1. The world differs from how you learned to view it (and therefore from how your teachers view it and how their group views it).
  2. There will be calamity unless either most people come to view it correctly.
  3. For peoples’ minds to change, YOU must participate in some activity that you wouldn’t do without our programming.

It’s a little more involved, especially using ego control (using emotional abuse to train the person to become dependent on the cult (and more importantly on fulfillment of their promise) for emotional health), isolation (to prevent opportunities for cognitive dissonance), and other techniques.

The belief that one’s soul hangs upon carrying out a religious/ritualistic promise to the gods, and that not continuing once promised would essentially doom one to hellfire illustrates why many single out religion as a problem. But that can be said equally of any religion that posits the existence of a hell, and pointing to the non-cultist believers as both wrong and faithful simply strengthens the belief.

To understand the act of terror one must unpack the meaning not as it appears to the asker, but to the terrorist or cultist worldview. Ultimately the prevention of terrorism relies upon this sort of thinking. Some measure of terrorist acts may be prevented through law enforcement and military operations. Most terrorism will need to be literally disarmed through cultural actions not violent actions.

But society needs this sort of understanding not just for combating terrorism, but cults, racism, and fascism of all sorts. We need to be taught to unpack our own culture from time to time and recognize the dysfunctional and functional parts. It doesn’t ruin a thing to understand it, yet it seems a part of our culture believes exactly that it does.

Different Minds Have Different Eyes

A look at differences in perception between people.

Young children are unable to determine that an equivalent volume of liquid is equivalent, even when they see it poured directly from one vessel to another.

They also cannot understand that an object concealed by the box must be behind (or under) the box.

There are other cases. Skinner tried to ascribe certain pigeon behaviors associated with random reinforcement to superstition, though others disagree about whether that fits the bill.

Tell a man he’s a guard, or a prisoner, and he will see the experimental world quite differently.

Tell a man he’s got to continue with electric shocks, he sees the world quite differently.

Bill Hicks did a bit in the wake of the trial of the LAPD police officers who were filmed hitting Rodney King Jr. He said something like:

[The officer] looks in the camera and actually says, “Oh, that Rodney King beating tape, it’s all in how you look at it.”


“All in how you look at it, officer […]?”

“That’s right, it’s how you look at the tape.”
“Well, would you care to tell the court how you’re looking at that?”

“Yeah, okay, sure. It’s how you look at it. The tape. For instance, well, if you play it backwards, you see us help King up and send him on his way.”

While Hicks was just making fun of what he saw as a completely ridiculous verdict and trial, the reality of different people looking at the same thing is often nearly this stark.

Eyewitness testimony is far less reliable than you might think.

There was a case study done in 1954, They Saw a Game, by Hasdorf and Cantril. They showed footage of a rough 1951 collegiate American football game between the Dartmouth Indians and the Princeton Tigers to psychology students of the two schools. A week later, the students filled out questionnaires about the game.

There were major discrepancies between the perceptions of the game by students of one school and the other. Effectively, they watched a different game, owing the difference entirely to their perception of the action.

The difference of perception between minds is extraordinary. It is especially relevant these days, between the ongoing anger over perceived grievances against the West, the ongoing anger over disagreements in politics, the ongoing anger over the ongoing financial crises.

You have antagonists that see opportunities in conflict. This includes religious groups that raise funds based on the urgency of religious turmoil. It includes news organizations that make a living off of feeding perception differences. It includes political organizations that feed off the fear of the different perceivers gaining power. It is important to note that they aren’t necessarily aware of their exploitation of the conflict; many honestly believe in the urgency of their cause.

You have people trying to honestly highlight the underlying causes and realities of the conflicts. These are attacked for their trouble, by the partisans who believe they are trying to undermine the cause.

And you have the majority, who are too busy with other things. They perceive conflicts as intractable, beyond understanding.