Everyone is talking about Scientology again, and why not? It's a billion-dollar cult apparently based on convincing actors they have superpowers. But there's no reason to single them out -- look around and you'll see the world is full of people who've either gotten brainwashed into doing something weird (like that co-worker who's way too into yoga) or murderous (like, you know, all those people who keep joining ISIS). You would never do something like that, of course, so what makes those people different?
Why is it so easy for evil/stupid movements to find followers -- including intelligent, well-educated ones? I'm pretty sure the future of civilization hangs on figuring this out, so here's what I've got:
5Ideas Don't Matter -- People Only Care About What "Works"
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Probably 99 percent of the people reading this think Scientology is ridiculous bullshit, so let's use that as our example. You've probably all heard the nutty mythology, about how 75 million years ago the evil ruler Xenu froze billions of victims and stashed them in Earth's volcanoes. So right away this is almost impossible to comprehend: If joining Scientology requires buying that insanity, how in the hell can Scientology have, not just tens of thousands of members, but count among them some very wealthy, successful people with no history of mental illness?
Well, let me show you how Scientology has worked wonders in my own life. Here's a video summarizing one of the online courses from the Scientology handbook:
This particular course is Scientology's advice for what to do when work/life gets overwhelming. The advice is not, "Perform the thetan-summoning ritual!" or "Find your nearest psychiatrist and take a shit in his driveway!" Instead it suggests you should lock in on one task and focus on completing it quickly and correctly, to the exclusion of all others. So instead of thinking of all the work you have to get done, only think of the one, single task you have to get done right now. Then, once completed, you'll have the confidence to proceed to the next. This is great advice; every single successful person I know does this. And none of us knew that we were really doing Scientology all along!
"But wait," you say. "Scientology didn't invent that; they probably just pulled it off of some '10 Tips to Work Better' email forward. It's just common sense!"
Right, and so is virtually everything on their course list. Their process for how to organize a group project is probably identical to one you're already using at the office, and it works great:
But here's the key: When a Scientologist (or Muslim, or Christian, or yoga enthusiast) says it works for them, this is what they're talking about. The mythology isn't important -- if these rituals have saved your life and later on a teacher says, "Yeah, this technique works because of the ancient thetans that live in your asshole," you're going to shrug and say, "Sure, sounds good." If you tell the lady in yoga class that the reason she feels better afterward is because negative spiritual energies tend to pool in the hip joints, you'll get the same reaction.
"Yoga pants contain these energies so you can attack them. That's why it's so important to visit my Etsy shop."
Then if you, as a cool, rational person, butt in and say, "Actually, yoga is just engaging the endonomic nervous system and reducing cortisol levels," all they're going to hear is you replacing a very easy-to-understand explanation with a very complicated one that sounds like gibberish. If you smirk and roll your eyes at these gullible lemmings, then go grab a mirror and smirk at yourself, partner, because you do it too.
You physically don't have room in your brain to keep track of how everything in your world works (shit, you don't even really know how your brain works) so you can feel all superior to a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution, but somewhere there's an engineer who feels superior to you for not knowing how your iPhone works (and you know "endonomic nervous system" is just a nonsense phrase I made up, right?). The reality is that you don't know how your iPhone works because knowing that wouldn't change your day-to-day use of it at all. Likewise, thinking the Earth is only 6,000 years old doesn't make it any harder to have, say, a career repairing air conditioners. But believing that self-discipline, patience, and hard work are sacred virtues from God definitely makes it easier.
"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, not for human masters.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Freon."
And if you look hard enough, you'll see that this flaw -- favoring what works to the exclusion of everything else -- encompasses everybody. The compulsive liar got to be that way because it works. So did the bully, the racist, and the greedy bastard. And every single cult, hate group, or political party has figured out that you can ensnare people by gluing the weird parts onto a bunch of common sense axioms that nobody can disagree with.
Everyone falls for this.
So why do the victims stick with it, even after members of their own group start doing repulsive shit? Well ...
4Mostly, It's About Fear
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Let me come back to my favorite example. Within the first two minutes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you're presented with a massive battle between one side that looks like this ...
New Line Pictures
They look like an actual piece of shit.
... and another side that looks like this ...
New Line Pictures
Literal golden boys.
... and you don't need to listen to the voice-over to know who you're supposed to be rooting for. If tomorrow you came upon a group of dudes in an alley fighting an orc, you'd join the dudes, without even inquiring as to the nature of their beef -- for all you know, those dudes stole that orc's bicycle. It doesn't matter -- you'd fight on the side of the humans even if the humans were neo-Nazis.
Well, most people you see standing up for a really terrible cause alongside even terribler people are doing it because they think they're fighting some enemy that is far worse. Always remember:
People primarily define themselves by what they hate.
And if you "can't stand haters," you're a perfect example.
Think about how little you've heard people on the Internet talk about their favorite band, versus how much you've heard them talk about their hatred of Nickelback. In high school, the jocks didn't care about being jocks as much as they cared about not being nerds. And that shit doesn't end in high school -- you may never figure out what you want to be when you grow up, but you sure as shit figure out what you don't want to be. Everyone you know -- regardless of how stupid or destructive you think their beliefs are -- is just trying to avoid taking the side of some villain they're sure exists. Here's the guy from Duck Dynasty talking about how he's a Christian purely because atheists want to rape and mutilate children.
So the reason that bitter guy on YouTube is screaming about "feminists" probably isn't because he hates Susan B. Anthony or women's suffrage. It's because he hates some very abrasive, dismissive woman who was rude to him on Tumblr. The average liberal hates Ann Coulter, not Adam Smith. You wind up on the left because you're running from a monster you saw on the right, but on the way you'll pass a panicked man fleeing in the opposite direction.
"Can't stop to talk. This country's falling apart!"
"Damn straight! G'bye."
Wait, wouldn't that imply that each group is actually feeding membership of the other, and that there's a weird symbiotic relationship between any two opposing "sides" that actually ensures the survival of both? Yep! Here's a whole video explaining how it works:
Anyway, this is also why we always attribute unrelated negative features to people we disagree with. It's not enough to say that anti-feminists are wrong and misguided; we have to say they're fat, sexless neckbeards (then their response is that feminists are either angry, masculine women or weak, effeminate men). Conservatives are ignorant rednecks, liberals are out-of-touch hippies, and so on -- the key is to always keep the focus on how inhuman the other side is, so that we never have to examine our own. We'll excuse anything from within our own movement, because no matter how corrupt we are, at least we're not orcs.
And this works in the other direction, too ...