Have you ever had a discussion with a cult member? I used to be one myself so I have more experience of talking to fellow cult members than I care to think about. Many Christian and other cult members are often intelligent people who have adopted an over-intellectualised world-view based on fairly thin but carefully hidden presumptions. Once in the cult, one’s natural instincts become so suppressed that it becomes very hard to notice, let alone analyse, these presumptions. Their intelligence is then channelled into an ever-greater understanding and development of the cult world-view so as to maintain the cult’s existence and unconsciously justify one’s emotional and intellectual attachments to the cult.
It was only after I escaped from the cult that I was able to marshal my thoughts sufficiently well so as to critique its foundational ideas and articulate them. On the occasions that I was able to express them to people who were still in the cult, the conversation either did not progress much further or ended with being slapped down angrily. The honourable notion of agreeing to disagree went out of the window if a foundational idea was challenged directly.
The world-view expressed by the British political identity has come under major attack during the Scottish referendum campaign. Its proponents are to be found in the Conservative and Labour parties (where have the Lib Dems gone?), the media and the Better Together campaign. Like the Christian cult I knew so well, its responses have been either to slope off at the first sign of challenge, or if challenge is unavoidable, to fight for its life with all that it has got. If that includes, threats and scaremongering, then so be it.
So what are these foundational ideas that they are fighting so hard to defend? I would say that they include the following:
Britain is great.
Britain is powerful.
Britain has prestige.
Britain is united.
Britain will last forever.
As with all cultish foundational ideas, these ideas defy any further analysis by the cult member. They are axiomatic. Objectively, it would be ridiculous to accept them at face-value, which is why British nationalists won’t respond well to their foundational ideas being exposed or challenged. I can imagine that these ideas look more obviously ridiculous the further north from London one travels. So in Scotland, I imagine that it would take exceptional loyalty to hold on to them once they are exposed.
The trouble with challenging these ideas is that the process often ends up as a kind of intellectual humiliation of the cult member, and in this category, I am including the British nationalist. And people who are humiliated are not generally humble enough and willing to admit to the error of their ways. On the contrary, they will be quick to pick up and focus on any emotional content to the challenge they receive. When I was in the cult, we would “Christianise” our reactions and display signs of pity or sorrow that our opponents could be so misguided. Whatever the approach, the cult member would usually go on to dismiss criticisms as emotional and so not worth responding to.
But the fact remains that criticisms of cultish beliefs do have an emotional content. I was in touch with my anger at being manipulated by the cult for so long – and part of that anger would have been at myself. Cult members I knew could see it in me. Likewise, opponents of British nationalism – wherever they come from – are rightfully angry at its heinous manifestations, ranging from the possession of nuclear weapons, to invading Iraq, colonisation, huge economic inequality, and generally condescension and arrogance that undermines the democratic process and alienates their own people from it.
Dealing with cult members is a delicate process. One approach is just to ignore them. If you are too angry with the actions of the cult, it is better to stay well away. Your opposition will just entrench them in their holes and it will take them longer to emerge. Most people emerge from cults in their own time. It can be heart-rending for families and friends to watch the decline but sometimes people need to reach rock-bottom before they find the energy to ask for help and get out.
The other approach is love. If you can feel genuine love and empathy for the cult member, and get behind the wall of intellectual sophistry, then this love may eventually sink in. This love can then provide the cult member with the freedom to undo their intellectual knots and find their own way out, usually with help. This love must be unconditional. Obviously, you would want the other to leave the cult, but like a parent, you will still love them anyway. Cult members experience only conditional love from each other and so it needs a higher quality of love to find a way through.
Translating these thoughts back into the referendum debate, those of us on the “Yes” side could examine our words and actions to see if the way in which we oppose British nationalism will actually help or hinder our own cause. If we engage with our opponents with even a trace of anger or sarcasm, this could slow down their “conversion” process and we may be better off staying out of the fray. On the other hand, if we are able to keep our cool and show genuine empathy, then the clarity of our position will, in time, sink in. We have to trust the process.