A Cult-Based Framework for Understanding Social-Justice Dogma

One of my favourite podcasts is Dear Franklin Jones, a seven-episode 2018 production that detailed the narrator’s immersion into, and gradual estrangement from, an American cult led by Franklin Albert Jones (1939-2008)—aka Bubba Free John, aka Da Free John, aka Da Love-Ananda, aka Adi Da Love-Ananda Samraj. As a boy growing up in California, Jonathan Hirsch would listen to recordings of Jones’s speeches, and become mesmerized by his rambling, self-glorifying claims about human destiny. It was only when Hirsch got older that he suspected Jones was just another manipulative narcissist with a gift for exploiting the confused and vulnerable.

The podcast includes snippets from Jones’s recorded sermons. As a listener, you cannot believe that anyone would take his vapid exhortations as the basis for an all-encompassing system of belief. Here’s a small sample, taken from one of the dozens of cassettes that Hirsch found in his family’s storage locker:

Give me your attention. At any moment, you will receive this grace. It is always pouring through this body-mind. Which is no longer a person, you see? There’s nobody here. No Franklin Jones. Nobody like you, you see? It’s not here any more. Totally absent…This is the moment of happiness. And every future moment after death. On this world and other worlds. Higher worlds. Afterworlds. No worlds. It is all the moment of infinite delight.

It’s all a circle of gibberish, with Jones using one ludicrous claim to justify the next. Yet the narrator, clearly an intelligent, self-aware person, confesses to having been utterly convinced that Jones was a modern-day prophet. To listen to Dear Franklin Jones is to understand that even the best among us can be indoctrinated into cultish ideas. On a more practical level, the podcast also shows how cults impose discipline on wavering members. Hirsch’s mother was Jones’ personal acupuncturist. And her clients, many of them Jones’s followers, abandoned her as soon as she lost Jones’s favour.

One of the most memorable portions of the podcast comes toward the end of the second episode, in which a former cultist named Tanya explains how she finally came to understand the fraudulent nature of Jones’s teachings. Working with another cult member, Tanya had been tasked with translating Jones’s sermons into French. “We’d read [the translations] back to each other, and we’d say ‘What in the world does that mean?’ And, little by little, we realized it was nonsense.” The notion of stress-testing cultish ideas through the act of translation stuck with me, for I think it’s a technique with broad applicability.

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The words “cult” and “cultish” often are used loosely to describe not only literal cults such as the one created by Jones, but also militant political movements, and even the fanatical followers of entertainers and sports teams. Yet I do think that the cult concept is precise enough to serve as a useful framework for modern forms of ideological tribalism.

In this regard, I would define a cultish movement as one that (1) purports to offer adherents a complete system of judging human worth on the basis of stated beliefs whose meaning is unstable, and which cannot be explained coherently outside the movement’s own self-reinforcing linguistic subculture; and (2) maintains both internally applied disciplinary mechanisms and externally applied rhetorical strategies as a means to categorize any critique of the cult as a manifestation of the critic’s own personal defects. Prominent examples include Scientologists’ efforts to brand critics as “Suppressive Persons” who must be silenced or punished, and social-justice extremists’ description of pushback against claims of racism as “white fragility.”

Cult doctrines are, by their nature, unfalsifiable. And so a milieu that becomes infected with cult-think always will be hostile to rational discourse. As the United States shows, multiple cult-like movements can dominate different sectors simultaneously. In the realm of politics, it is now seen as normal everyday news for Donald Trump and his minions to utter obvious lies about everything from Ukraine to the predicted path of a hurricane, and to expect followers and sympathetic media to parrot those claims. In the realm of academia, meanwhile, many students are expected to accede to the claim that sexual dimorphism is a myth, and that biology itself is a colonial construct.

These movements come and go in cycles. Both populist fanaticism on the Right and social-justice fanaticism on the Left eventually will fall away. But in the meantime, it’s useful to find ways to inoculate ourselves. And the experience of Tanya, the aforementioned Franklin Jones ex-disciple, shows us a possible strategy: When presented with cult-speak, imagine the task of translating it into another language, or simply into plain English.

By way of illustration, consider this recent blog entry on the website of the American Mathematical Society, entitled Can Mathematics Be Antiracist? Here is a representative passage, which I challenge readers to translate comprehensibly:

Attempts to shoehorn social justice into mathematics curricula perhaps say more about the political leanings of the teacher than anything else. At the same time, we must be wary of diversity initiatives in mathematics which simply reproduce a different class of scientists that perpetuate structures of domination and oppression, in place of work to dismantle the whiteness which mathematics operates as, and to truly equip students for a world of growing inequality.

What are “structures of domination and oppression”? They’re structures controlled by whiteness. What is “whiteness”? It’s the creed of institutionalized racial inequality. How do we define inequality? It’s something that perpetuates structures of domination and oppression.

Of course, it is technically possible to translate isolated phrases such as “structures of domination and oppression” into other languages, or into a form of English that is nominally accessible to ordinary people. But to do so in any meaningful way requires an investigation into the text as a whole, whose only real purpose is to signify the author’s allegiance to a certain system of thought. (In true cultish fashion, the author added a postscript to the original article, confessing to a minor source-attribution mistake that apparently furthered “the erasure and antiblack racism perpetuated consciously and unconsciously by nonblack people such as myself, including in science and math, profiting off the work and labour of black people.”) Ultimately, this is a patchwork of propaganda jargon—what Orwell once described as “prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set.”

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Franklin Jones was disgraced in the mid-1980s, after numerous former followers revealed details of his sexual abuse and brainwashing. Indeed, cults generally went into decline during this period. In part, this was because society began to take the issue of sexual and child abuse more seriously, and so the most notorious communes were raided (including, disastrously, the Waco Siege of 1993). Moreover, the emergence of the world wide web in the 1990s meant that many of the same people who were otherwise vulnerable to cult indoctrination could find communities, and get their marching orders from would-be prophets, without leaving their homes or selling off their possessions.

One result is that cultism now has increasingly blurred into mainstream web-mediated subcultures, including politics and academia. Another is that cultish ideas can spread more quickly. The above-quoted tract about racism and mathematics, written by a visiting professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, may appeal to only a small portion of the American population. But because the author channels a jargon that’s been adopted by at least some academics and activists in every English-speaking country, the potential audience is substantial. Thanks to the Internet, all cultish movements can spread their ideas (and punish heretics) on a global scale, subject only to the boundaries imposed by language.

Cults can never be organized in any kind of democratic way because there is always some anointed class (often consisting of just one person) that monopolizes access to a critical body of revealed truths. And in this aspect, intersectionality is well-suited to a cult paradigm because its adherents presume that the “lived experience” that typifies every sub-group is fundamentally unknowable except to members of that sub-group. The conceit of secret knowledge confers an aura of mysticism on followers, especially in regard to the issue of gender identity, which is cast as an internally experienced secular rapture.

On one hand, this means that discussions within social-justice circles tend to be tortured and unproductive, as no one is allowed to presume a truth-telling power that extends beyond the narrow confines of one’s own intersectional constituency. On the other hand, this system of balkanized information monopolies helps protect intersectional dogmas from outside criticism, as no argument may contradict the internally experienced pain, trauma or perception of bigotry expressed by an acolyte who identifies as a member of an oppressed group. In this regard, social-justice cults diverge significantly from the interwar ideological cults that formed around various interpretations of Marxism (with which social-justice cultism is sometimes compared), as these older movements tended toward universalism in their underlying epistemological approach.

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My own country, Canada, provides an interesting case study in the propagation of social-justice cultism, as it has two official languages—English and French. And while English-speaking colleges and universities have largely fallen into line with the “structures of domination and oppression” narrative, the situation in French-speaking Quebec is still in flux. One reason for this, I believe, is that social-justice dogmas still strike many Francophones as a translated Anglo import whose mantras don’t quite ring true in the local tongue. Moreover, the racial and gender-based hierarchy presented by intersectionality runs at odds with Quebecers’ own historical conception of themselves as a culturally isolated and vulnerable people within English-speaking North America.

On January 30, a group of students and artists published an open letter in Le Devoir, a venerable Quebec newspaper, titled Manifeste contre le dogmatisme universitaire (Manifesto against university dogmatism). The article denounces those Quebec intellectuals who have become captivated by “les luttes victimistes propulsées par les campus américains” (victimhood campaigns emitting from American campuses), including American academics’ fixation on Islamophobia, transphobia, decolonization and gender ideology.

The authors skewer these “professeurs de la gauche postmoderne” with arguments that many Quillette readers will find familiar. (“Véritables apôtres de la tolérance, ces enseignants ont ironiquement du mal à tolérer toute forme de pensée contraire à la leur”/ True apostles of tolerance, these professors ironically find it difficult to tolerate any opinion that contradicts their own.) But there is also something new here: The authors note that this imported “anglo-saxonne” victimhood cult completely ignores the marginalized status of French-speaking Quebecers themselves, and instead just presents the Quebec people as another branch office of white American-led imperialism: “Le Québécois est réduit à l’état d’homme blanc privilégié, piétinant un territoire autochtone.” (“The Quebecer is reduced to the status of privileged white man, occupying indigenous land.”)

Quebec has its own highly distinct political culture, one typified by a more full-throated brand of nationalism than that of English-speaking Canada. And sometimes, cultural protectionists really do go too far, such as they did with a 2018 law that bans many public servants from wearing Muslim head scarves (as well as other religious symbols) in the name of “the laicity of the State.” But when it comes to “l’intersectionnalité,” these student signatories are largely correct to cast these translated cultish creeds as part of a hégémonique Anglo academic movement that now is imposing itself on others in an ironic reprise of old colonial patterns. And so it will be interesting to see whether the language barrier (and its associated cultural divide) is enough to inoculate Quebec’s intellectual class from the sort of cultism that has taken over Smith College and a thousand other Anglo ashrams besides.

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of 
Quillette, and Tweets at @jonkay.  

Featured image: Adi Da Samraj, born Franklin Jones, on November 3, 2008.