Hate Propaganda and Anti-Cult Ideology — What’s Wrong Here?

In her “Hate On The Net,” sociologist Evelyn Kallen points out that hate propaganda frequently employs “invalidation myths” meant to “dehumanize” the targets “and thus to legitimize violation of their human rights.” Such myths may present a contrarian, inversionist, or caricaturized view of the targeted persons in order to achieve the objective of vilifying them. This is true whether the target is an individual or group; or the shamed individual may then be used as a stand-in or “avatar” for the group itself.

For example, in the AutoAdmit scandal, cyber attacks on female law students focused on particular individuals, falsely portraying them as “stupid,” or “sluts,” or “lesbians.” In the minds of the male attackers, this then seemed to justify rape fantasies about the targets. More broadly, it seemed to feed into misogynist views that “all women are stupid, “no women can be lawyers,” “all women are sluts,” and “all women deserve to be raped.” In this way, targeting individuals for harassment can function as a gateway to invalidating and dehumanizing entire groups. We might use the term “travelling invalidation myths,” since once applied to the individual, such myths can then be hurled with equal venom at the group (via some twisted commutative logic on the part of the attackers).

The relation between shaming of individuals and groups is also touched on by law professor Danielle Keats Citron:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

— Danielle Keats Citron, “Cyber Civil Rights”

According to Kallen, invalidation ideologies “are spurious theories which are designed to give credibility to invalidation myths by providing purported ‘evidence’ for them. The arguments are premised on scientifically unsupportable assumptions about differences in human attributes among various populations; prejudicial assumptions which serve to inferiorize, to invalidate, particular populations and thus to provide a platform for discriminatory action against them. … [The] ‘evidence’ of minority inferiority or dangerousness is manipulated in order to justify violations of minority rights.”

Kallen considers “[h]ate propaganda [to be] probably the most malignant expression of invalidation ideology, for it not only inferiorizes target populations, but it also singles them out as dangerous and threatening to society. Not surprisingly, it follows from this premise that hate propaganda urges its audience to take steps to eliminate the purported threat. What begins as prejudice is thus translated into discrimination through hate-mongering activities which incite hate and harm against the target group.”

Moving from the general to the particular: In anti-cult ideology there is no such thing as a benign, wise, and saintly guru who is well-qualified to teach sincere students about Eastern spirituality. All such gurus are depicted as charlatans and abusers, and their students as brainwashed dupes forced into a life of slavery. This particular genre of hate propaganda adds new worlds of meaning to Mary Anne Franks’ concept of “unwilling avatars.”

Anti-cultism is largely an invalidation ideology, built on the myth that people don’t participate in spiritual movements as a reasonable means to achieve worthy goals, but rather because they’ve been subjected to “pernicious mind control” by dangerous “cult leaders.” Within this ideological framework, breaking the faith of minority adherents by coercive or propagandistic means is redefined as “rescue” or “education” — highly Orwellian inversions of language!

Breaking someone’s faith by exposing them to hate material is considered “rescuing” them from a life “wasted in the cult.” But on careful inspection, this turns out to be just another aspect of invalidation ideology. The underlying assumption is that people who devote themselves to some spiritual mission or quest don’t lead meaningful lives. Their lives may be filled with travel and meetings, friendship and activities, reading and reflection; but if their activities aren’t primarily secular, scientific, consumeristic, egoistic or pleasure-oriented, then they fall off the radar screen of anti-cultists measuring “meaningfulness.” As per Kallen, note the scientifically unsupportable assumption about what is meaningful to whom.

Note also the strong undercurrent of conformism and interventionism. If adherents find meaning in activities like spiritual reading, reflection, prayer, meditation, chanting, etc., there must be something wrong with them that needs fixing, since most secular people don’t care for these things and don’t build their lives around them. An inherent logical fallacy in anti-cult ideology is to conflate the statistically unusual with the pathological.

A neutral, common-sense reading of history and civilization — as well as any decent textbook on comparative religion — tells us that in every society there are always a few people who feel a spiritual calling which is stronger and more definite than what is felt by the general populace. These people are in the minority just as musical prodigies are in the minority, Olympic athletes are in the minority, and red-haired, green-eyed people are in the minority. None of these groups require “deprogramming” or “exit counseling” to make them more like the majority, and neither do spiritual adherents. It is, of course, unethical to take people who are peaceably pursuing their minority interests, and subject them to some sort of hatred, discrimination, or forced conversion to majoritarian values. As Danielle Citron helps us understand, real people suffer when anti-cult groups undertake such actions against minority adherents.

Anti-cult invalidation ideology frequently employs circular reasoning and a specialized vocabulary. Code words like “rescue,” “intervention,” and “education” really signify coercive deprogramming, unwanted psychological counselling, and publicity campaigns vilifying purported “cults.” A person who develops spiritual beliefs and affiliations which are disliked by another family member is to be treated as a “cult-affected loved one” whose every move must be recorded in a notebook and submitted to “cult experts” for evaluation and possible “treatment” options. The considerable profit to be made from such “treatment” then becomes an economic incentive for anti-cultists to tell atrocity stories about bona fide spiritual groups, as a type of “fear marketing” used to hawk psychological services or legal services.

The main conceit, then, of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) is to falsely equate strong spiritual faith with mental illness. This constitutes a type of pseudoscience in which faith-based phenomena are misclassified as psychological aberrations — in other words, a major category error. Such misclassification reflects not science, but rather scientism — a dogged insistence that science (where it is practised) is an authoritative worldview on all subjects, to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Again, it’s one thing to believe in and practice science, but quite another to beat persons of faith over the head with it. That’s what’s wrong.

The intuitively obvious answer is to prefer science in scientific matters, and to prefer faith in matters of faith. The implication for religious freedom is that members of minority faith groups should be able to live their lives free from vilification. This is turn implies enacting legislation which places legal limits on hate speech targeting minorities. Such legislation has already been enacted in a number of Commonwealth nations including Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.

Evelyn Kallen frames the issue as “freedom of expression versus freedom from group vilification,” arguing that freedom from group vilification is a human right. According to her, “Freedom of speech, from [the egalitarian] view, does not mean the right to vilify.”

It may be argued that the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in enacting both compassionate gun legislation and compassionate speech legislation. What do you think?

For Further Reading

Rohit Bhargava on “Fear Marketing” (brief introduction to the concept)

Tana Dineen, “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” (Special Presentation at the Harassment Law Update 1998 Conference)


3 comments on “Hate Propaganda and Anti-Cult Ideology — What’s Wrong Here?

  1. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1 | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

  3. Pingback: I Am Not Charlie | Ethics and Spirituality

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