Monday, August 01, 2016

Nick Cohen on the Age of Cult Politics

I cannot think of a way to make it happen, but it would be a very good thing if everyone who aspires to political office or even to be highly involved as a political activist was required, preferably in their youth, to attend a conference or rally where 90% of the people have strongly held views which are radically at variance with his or hers.

I had this experience when elected as a Tory to attend the National Union of Students conference: I'm often surprised by how many members of other parties I see representing various organisations at Conservative party conference and I'm always polite to them in the hope that they may learn the same lesson that I did at NUS conference.

Anyone who has attended a political or religious rally has probably experienced just how powerful an experience it is when you have hundreds or even thousands of people cheering the same vision, and this can apply whether that vision is inclusive or exclusive, right or left, religious or secular. We humans are social animals and our instinctive wish to belong means that we can easily be caught up in the power of collective emotions.

However, it is a very healthy corrective to find yourself in the middle of a couple of thousand people passionately cheering for something you are totally convinced is mistaken.

Probably one of the most chilling experiences of my life was to be one of fewer than a hundred, mostly Tory and SDP, students who were definitely not CND supporters at NUS conferences where we were outnumbered twenty-to-one by those who equally definitely were, when speakers from the unilateralist perspective such as the veteran disarmer Manny Shinwell were invited to address the conference. This was in the eighties when opposition to nuclear weapons was the number one moral crusade on the left and inspired real passion among millions.

It isn't pleasant to be surrounded by thousands of people cheering at the top of their voices and applauding with all their might a position you strongly disagree with and think is disastrous for your country.

But it is a valuable learning experience in driving home the message that not everyone has the same views and provides a certain degree of immunity to the "Nuremberg rally syndrome" next time you are at a meeting with thousands of people you DO agree with.

Barry Wood, one of my Conservative student contemporaries who attended some of the same NUS conferences - used to whisper "meanwhile, back at Nuremberg" at Conservative conferences during moments when those conferences were ecstatically cheering some Tory speaker, to those of us who had seen such bursts of enthusiasm from the other perspective.

I do so much wish that in today's 21st century world there was some way to give a similar experience to all the people who get their information and opinions from forms of Social Media where they can easily block any opinions they do not want to hear.

There is a very good article by Nick Cohen in STANDPOINT about the way cult-like mentalities which sees anyone who disagrees or provides a rival source of information as not just mistaken but evil are becoming increasingly common and increasingly dangerous right across the political spectrum.

It is called "The Age of Cult Politics" and you can read it here.

I don't for an instant imagine that all SNP supporters, all Brexit supporters, or all Corbynistas think the way described in his article.

Nor that all of those who fall prey to this kind of group-think are on those sides of these respective arguments.

But I absolutely think that Nick has a point that far too many people are closing their minds to anyone or any source of information which might tell them something they do not want to hear.

To give you a taster, here are the first four paragraphs:

"The decline of formal religion has done nothing to weaken the religious impulse. At its best, it allows Europe to welcome refugees. At its worst, it fosters a sectarianism that damns rational argument as the blasphemies of scheming heretics.

"Public service broadcasters ought to study the large and often impressive academic literature on how sects manipulate and control believers. For they are under attack from three of the most potent and most cultish forces in British society: Scottish nationalism, Euroscepticism and the far-Left — or as we must now call it, Her Majesty’s Opposition.

"The political faithful dream of a glorious future: a Scotland free of English tutelage, an England free of the domination of Brussels, a Britain free of greed and poverty.  Like the great religious dreams of the past, these causes take over lives. But all present formidable difficulties. In political as in religious cults, believers must be insulated against doubts. The most effective method is to blacken the outside world, and make alternative sources of information appear like the Devil’s seductions that tempt the godly into darkness. As Professors Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth put it in their study of political sectarianism: “There is only one truth — that espoused by the cult. Competing explanations are not merely inaccurate but degenerate”.

"The initiated can never see sceptics as just foolish or misguided, let alone as reasonable people asking legitimate questions. To maintain the unity of the faithful they must be damned as malicious. The outside world is no longer a place where sensible people test their theories. It is a contaminated space, a land full of traps, set by enemies, who mean you only harm. Paranoia and hypersensitivity follow. You can see them everywhere."

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