Thursday, 28 November 2013

Acknowledging the Cult in Culture or “Understanding Ourselves”

They’re forming an orderly line, waiting to tell the reporter or the BBC researcher how these Maoist cults are like religious cults; how much far left and far right politics takes this form. Phew. I’m sure glad I never joined one of these groups then.

But doesn’t this all strike you as just a little too easy? It does me. Don’t you find parallels between what you hear the experts telling you about cults and what you know about certain cultures, including your own? If this stuff is a source of horror and shock for us, then should we not try to see how similar forms of control and indoctrination exist in our wider culture. Aren’t we failing in some way if all we do is point in shock at the cult, while telling ourselves a story about how odd were the 1970s. Wouldn’t we stand to learn from reflecting on aspects of our own culture that seem to be similar, while telling  a story about life in 2013.

The words cult and and culture give us a clue here. Being a member of a culture, like British culture, Western culture, Global culture is not about buying a membership card, and joining a club, it is about being enculturated, as we learn a language (or languages), are exposed to stories, to symbols, as we witness the behaviour and patterns of behaviour of others, respond and react to others, and witness how others respond and react to us and to other people; how they proceed to justify these ways of interacting and reacting. We mature, following schooling and immersion in various media, as judgement-forming, possibility-identifying, beings. In some ways our culture, our enculturation, serves us well: it affords us the ability to communicate clearly with other members of our culture, it gives rise to life-enhancing modes of entertainment which can often draw on cultural resources which exist at a high-level of cultural specificity. When it works really well it instils in us reflexivity and makes us well-equipped to interact with and learn from people with different cultural resources. When it works badly it makes us fear those who have not shared our specific mode of enculturation or it makes us blind to the many cultural tributaries that have fed that which we take to be our own culture. When it works badly, it limits us in our ideas about what is possible and our ideas about what we owe to others.

Even if one has not before heard the word enculturation—and if so, I apologise now for inserting this particularly inelegant word in to your lexicon—you likely already know of this aspect of us. We talk of things being “second nature” and thereby implicitly invoke the philosopher Aristotle. Our first nature is the nature bestowed upon us by our biology, by our nature as an evolved species. Our second nature is comprised of the habits, the constraints and enabling conditions, the prejudices and the kindnesses that are learned as we are initiated into a vast and complex array of social practices and norms that comprise our culture. Aristotle, like his contemporaries, explored how we might cultivate (see the pattern emerging here?) our second nature in a manner that would make us more fulfilled creatures, that would lead to our flourishing, to us living the good life, to realising our species-essence. 

Cultures can be skewed, perverted. They can normalise cruelty, inequality and violence. They can condition us to accept suffering. As an enculturated being, you might become aware of some aspects of your culture that just seem plain wrong, incoherent or fundamentally evil. You might well want to change these. How do you do that? How do you persuade others to do that? Their enculturation mitigates against them seeing the perversions, seeing these practices as cruel, recognising these inequalities as immoral and in and through their existence as cancelling-out the claims to promote liberty that your culture claims as its own. Their enculturation stops them from seeing what you see: the violence all around us, permeating our second nature. Indeed, you see precisely how that perverse culture normalises violence by claiming it to be an essential aspect of our first nature. You see through this. Others don’t. What to do?

Encourage others to join you, to engage in a deconstruction of their given second nature, followed by a rebirth. That’s a cult, right?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, and the film adaptation of the same name, explores these themes, and it does so to the extent that it exposes the cult in culture. The unsettling thing about the novel and film is the extent to which they both maintain the tension for the reader/viewer between finding the story thoroughly believable and a disbelief that the characters would accept their fate in the way Ishiguro depicts them as doing. One feels a strong desire to shout at the characters to run, to rebel, to do anything but calmly accept their fate. They don’t. The closest they get to rebellion is apprehending their fate from a perspective which is located outside the second nature bestowed upon them by the society that had enslaved them. They come to recognise the injustice perpetrated upon them, but accept it as their reality. It is interesting to compare the film Never Let Me Go (NLMG) with its contemporary, Martha Marcy May Marlene. The latter is about being a member of a cult and the psychological fallout from this. It is executed very effectively. But there is something more insightful (without necessarily being critical of Martha Marcy May Marlene) about NLMG, and it is this: NLMG manages to be about a cult and about culture in general: it thereby serves to highlight the overlooked cult-like aspects of a culture that might normalise gross exploitation and violence. It serves to highlight the cult in culture.

Those who understand Peter Winch’s minor philosophical classic, The Idea of a Social Science, have tried to draw attention to an aspect of that book, and Winch’s subsequent discussion of his aims in writing the book, that is often missed, while in fact being its essence: the essentially moral dimension of the practice of social studies. Put another way, one must be prepared and honest enough to do the hard work of reflecting on one’s own assumptions, prejudices and irrational biases if one is to have any chance of genuinely understanding another being, another culture or a cult.

What cults do to people, how they employ various methods of psychological manipulation so as to exercise control, so as to create cult-dopes, cannot be understood if you deny, are not honest with yourself, about that aspect of your culture that might serve the same, or similar, ends. That aspect of your culture that psychologically manipulates you so as to take control and produce cultural dopes.

Our capacity as animals that affords us a sophisticated and complex second nature is enabling: it enables our freedom, our agency, our ability to co-operate on complex tasks. But it can also be manipulated to exercise control over us, to, in extreme cases, render us cultural dopes. This is one reason why the form of our society and our politics is so important. In the wrong hands we are bloody dangerous. Cults have their sources in our nature as social—enculturated—beings, in our very natures. They don’t spring into existence in political movements of the extreme left or right, in millennial or fundamentalist doctrine. It is, I guess, comforting and self-serving to assume they do. Those marginal social forms are parasitic on that all pervasive aspect of our nature as a species: our capacity for rational thought and complex forms of social organisation on which we have the capacity to reflect and evaluate. If we are honest and prepared to face this, we should acknowledge the extent of our own assumptions, prejudices and biases, and how these aspects of ourselves are part of our enculturated second nature and all too often render us as dopes. When we do so, we might see that our spontaneous thoughts about cults tell us something about aspects of our selves and our cultures. How the normalisation of inequalities, suffering and violence is not exclusive to cults, but is part of our own culture. How focussing upon the crimes of others plays a role in enabling us to ignore the crimes of our own group. As I have commented before in a different context, it is convenient and somewhat self-serving to identify cults or cultural groups, think of them as hermetically sealed, and then identify problems within those demarcated cults or cultural groups as problems that are not ours, for which we bear little or no responsibility and which do not reflect on, or are not reflections of, our own existence at all.


  1. Doesn't your assumption that there is a good to be found that stands outside of the particular culture within which each of us stands when judging what is good lose sight of the fact that even such assumptions of goodness are culture bound? You write: ". . . to highlight the overlooked cult-like aspects of a culture that might normalise gross exploitation and violence." But on what basis can we presume something to be "gross exploitation" or, even "violence" (in a pejorative sense as you seem to mean it here) if we have no cultural standpoint from which to judge it? Can such judgments ever be made extra-culturally? But if they can't, how are we to navigate between competing cultural standards and norms, particularly in a world like ours where cultures are constantly clashing with one another, bleeding into one another, etc.? Where can we find standards for making moral judgments at all?

    1. Hi Stuart, I had replied yesterday but the reply is not appearing here. So, I'll do so again.
      The problem you pose for me is only a problem if I am cultural relativist, or am committed to cultural relativism. I am not and I don't think there is any reason to attribute cultural relativism to me based on what I write here. (Winch was not a cultural relativist, by the way. Though he is often assumed to have been). I don't think there is, therefore, any insurmountable problem with the use of good or bad, right or wrong, or evaluative language in general outside of one's 'own culture'. One needs to be careful, honest with oneself, and make serious efforts to understand before forming a judgement, but this holds for evaluative judgements in any context. On some occasions it is harder than others. The thought that there is a problem with extra-cultural notions of good, bad, right, wrong, or evaluative language in general is, I believe, based on confused assumptions about culture and cultures, such that cultures are container-like, we are in one culture-container and they over there are in another. But this is to be led astray by our way of talking hereabouts, by the conceptual metaphors that we often employ, not by any analysis of culture, enculturation and so on. Such an assumption also feeds into your remark that: "in a world like ours where cultures are constantly clashing with one another". I just don't think this correct. I don't think cultures are constantly clashing, at all! I think neither that our world is correctly characterised by by "clashes", nor that when clashes do occur that this is between cultures. I think people, and groups of people clash, occasionally, and sometimes they or analysts appeal to culture in an attempt to explain or justify, but, the burden of my piece above is to show that this move is often self-serving and lazy, maybe sometimes cynical.

    2. How can we determine what's good, right, etc., outside of some standard and, if standards are finally cultural (prescriptive artifacts of particular groups of persons), outside of some culture? Can there be a transcultural basis then or perhaps only macro vs. micro cultural bases? If the latter, doesn't the same problem obtain?

      I take it you want to argue that standards aren't culturally grounded but it seems to me that that IS the thrust of your larger argument, i.e., that one cannot condemn, judge or praise the actions of others just because the norms they express aren't found in (supported by) one's own enculturated viewpoint.

      You say that cultures don't actually clash, only individuals, but isn't that just a way of speaking? Of course cultures clash whenever individuals adhering to one set of cultural standards challenge, dissent from, oppose or seek to alter the standards held by other individuals which reflect their own cultures or cultural perspectives. For instance in Afghanistan there is a cultural prejudice against educating women or granting them full rights. This looks wrong to us but if we had been raised there and taken on the belief system(s) prevalent there, would it still look wrong? If it wouldn't then we have either a situation in which one viewpoint is morally preferable to another OR cultural relativism. What I'm not clear on, from what you have written so far, is where you come down in this.

      It's obvious to me that you hold firm moral beliefs about what's right and what isn't and yet you want to say that we should not judge others (and their beliefs and/or actions) in terms of our own particular, and presumably culturally inculcated, standards. But what other basis is there? You are either advocating some trans-cultural standard (in which case you have to say why it transcends the judgments within particular cultures) or a macro cultural standard (in which case you have to say why it is better than particular micro cultural standards or some alternative macro cultural standard).

      The only other possibility must be that all standards are equally illusory and what we choose is just a function of chance (as in where we're born and bred and what we've been taught) or finally without any compelling moral claim on us at all which leaves only a kind of nihilism.

      As you can see, I share your interest in this sort of issue though I'm not sure we have come to the same conclusions.

    3. Thanks Stuart,
      Again, I'd just want to say that you seem here to be operating in the grip of an underlying picture of 'cultures as containers', whereby a number of discrete (container-like) cultures together comprise the lifeworld. Put another way, it seems to me like you are trapped by a conceptual metaphor: "culture is a container". I do not believe there is _any_ need or even good reason to think of cultures as discrete entities of some sort, where belonging to culture "a" means that you do not belong to culture "b" or "c" and so on. I am part of British culture, part of European culture and part of global culture, but it is foolish to think that this means I am part of three discrete cultures. I am a member of my family, but this doesn't mean I am not part of my group of friends. My second nature has drawn on these various cultural resources to various extents, but undergoes perpetual revision and change as I interact with others and continue to make sense of the world around me, as I am challenged by new experiences. In addition to new experiences, I come to see familiar aspects of the world under new aspects, because of things I've learned. The form of my second nature has also, as it stands now, been influenced by those I have had close relationships with, either in having taken on some of their values, or reacting against them. So that is one point.

      Second, I don't see why my second nature being formed, by and large, by certain cultural resources precludes me from being able to understand, engage rationally, and deliberate on evaluative matters with people with second natures formed by different cultural resources. That's akin to assuming that learning language through exposure to a number of instances of language use precludes you from then using the linguistic terms their learned in new contexts which are different to those in which the language was learned (rule-following). We know this is not the case with language, we know we can 'go on' beyond the specific cases in which we learned the language (hence the thought that there is a potential paradox here), so why assume that in the case of our second nature/enculturation that its usefulness must disappear beyond the context in which it emerged?

      Finally, there is a clue here. Aside from the two points above, we also share with other humans our first, biological, nature. We all need to eat, sleep and so on. This has to have some bearing. No doubt the bearing it has is sometimes overstated by sociobiologists, but it does have some impact. We also share some of our nature with other animals, even...

    4. A word like "culture" doesn't have to be taken as designating a discrete thing to be understandable and useful to us. You have found it s useful signifier in your initial post and so do I. Anyway it seems to me that you want to take a transcultural view here, unlimited by any peculiar cultural locus or set of standards but still you think it important to make moral judgments. My question was to what extent can we do that without some cultural bedrock on which to stand and that, if we imagine a deeper or broader bedrock, based on wider cultural influences, aren't there still constraints and, being that, how are they any different from the narrower perspectives afforded by more tightly defined cultures? Anyway, I found your comments thoughtful and interesting, even if they don't, to my way of thinking, solve the problem you rightly point to.

  2. By the way, I came to your blog by way of Duncan Richter's LanguageGoesOnHolidayblog. You can find some of my own writings (on the same sort of issue you are addressing here) at this site: