Welcome to an #NJRR Live Special Report!
Good evening, everyone! It’s time for a special report here on the Revolution Radio network. What is a cult? What are their members like? And what does all of this have to do with politics? On tonight’s Special Report, we are going to be answering all of these questions with Brian Powers, Christian Perez, and Dr. La’Tesha Sampson.
Dr. La’Tesha Sampson has been on our show before for a Special Report on mental health in activism. She is a jack of all human trades: a certified social worker, a professor, an activist (her and Brian met during a protest), and a therapist with her own practice. Her practice is called Great Joy Counseling & Consulting Services and she works out of Westfield, NJ. As a mental health professional, Dr. Sampson is able to bring an especially valuable perspective to the table.
Christian Perez is a professor and activist who runs a podcast called Modernity and Absurdity. You can find it on Stitcher and Apple Podcasts as well as Youtube. Christian’s area of expertise in his professing is political science with a concentration in conspiracy theories. He has been asked to speak at several conferences. He is also a host on the Idavox Report with Daryle Lamont-Jenkins. Christian is an Editorial Board member who regularly contributes ideas to our network.
The Conspiracy Theorist Target Audience
Brian begins by asking La’Tesha what the target audience for a lead conspiracy theorist is. Dr. Sampson begins by acknowledging that people who fall into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories are often no different than the rest of us. They just happen to be particularly vulnerable to being manipulated by ideas, often ones that they are passionate about. Usually, these people are targeted when their guards are down.
People have an innate desire to be a part of something. They want to be loved and feel like they belong. They want approval. Since childhood, we have been given grades on our performance in life. When people get involved with conspiracy theories, they very rarely realize that what they’re doing might not be right.
Predators Vs. Prey
On the other hand, the leaders of these conspiracy theories are often predatory people. Dr. Sampson describes them as being charming on the outside, yet often narcissistic or borderline in personality type. If you are a person with emotional wounds and/or vulnerabilities, you may be especially susceptible to the influence of such a person. Christian points out a propensity among modern Americans to seek a hero. This country is sorely lacking in solid leadership and people so desperately want a good person to look up to that they might tend to be blind to faults.
Brian reiterates that those who fall victim to conspiracy theories are often no more stupid than the rest of us, nor are they inherently mentally weak. Many of them were simply going through the wrong set of circumstances in life at the wrong time: for example, Christian provides, perhaps they had just experienced a loss and felt they were missing something. Leaders of culty conspiracy theories target these people in specific.
The Political Cult
Brian asks Christian about what makes a conspiracy theory a cult and what makes it political. The Oxford dictionary defines a cult as a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. Christian cites examples from history: Roman emperors, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler. Christian tells us that what defines a cult as political, in most cases, is party propaganda. Some cults are religious, some sexual, some health-related/new age.
If you watch carefully, there might be certain warning signs that someone in your life is falling prey to a predatory organization or even a cult. La’Tesha comments that if you are at the top of an organization, you have probably already done some nasty things to other people already in order to get there. In Dr. Sampson’s experience, if someone is high up in society like that, they are more prone to be the type of person who might have a personality disorder. Therefore, she advises that our audience be wary of those who appear successful.
Notice The Signs
Dr. Sampson also points out that there are many patterns of behavior that we as a society generally know are harmful and selfish that we suddenly praise as soon as they translate over to the corporate world. Some examples would be pushing others down to boost yourself up, influencing other people, and getting others to follow you.
Brian asks Christian what patterns one might notice in an organization to let you know that they might be going down a path of conspiracy or other destructive nature. Christian breaks it down to two main aspects. First, what kind of propaganda is this group putting out? Is it positive or is it downright manipulative? Second, how do they respond to naysayers? Are they violent? Defensive? Closed-minded? Is there cognitive dissonance? These are all big red flags.
For an example of the type of propaganda that should raise an eyebrow, one needs look no further than the website of Bob Avakian, leader of the arguably cult-like Revolutionary Communist Party, whose website says in the header that he has “built a whole new framework for human emancipation.” The panel agrees that this is not the type of thing that could have been done single-handedly, but rather, would have required some degree of collaboration.
Falling Through On Promises
Brian has noticed that when it comes to doomsday cults, there’s always some calamity that never happens, and when it comes to political cults, it’s a revolution that never happens. However, even though their promises fall through, as Dr. Sampson points out, things are not always as straightforward from there as one might think.
The leaders of these cults do not necessarily fall from favor. They might lose some followers, but most often, the fantasy merely changes rather than falling apart. Those who fall away from the movement are regarded by those who stick with it as weak-minded. For example, Christian brings up QAnon. Many of the QAnon claims did not come true, and as a result, some fell away from the movement. However, that enabled those who kept engaging to think of themselves as true believers with unwavering faith.
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Christian warns that these people are not going to pack up and go away on their own. We need education and developed political networks to combat the disinformation spread by conspiracy groups and political cults. Christian enjoys teaching about politics in college because he sees a need for critical thinkers in this country and wants to help fill it.
Due to the capitalist nature of our country, people are encouraged to consume and accept rather than to think critically. People get comfortable in their bubbles, whether they be political, ideological, ritual, et cetera. Psychologically, people crave that safety zone. Dr. Sampson reminds us how important it is that our minds develop in a healthy way from childhood such that thinking on our own is encouraged.
We need to be utilizing mental healthcare and educational services in this country. Misinformation is the biggest tool of those institutions that seek to mislead you. People tend to seek out information that confirms their already existing beliefs. It is not uncommon for them to fall into an echo chamber.
So, where do we go from here? Who can regulate social media to help stop the spread of misinformation? It cannot be the government because they have their own corrupt narratives that they push. It should not be a corporate solution, either. Christian suggests a decentralized board for the task, one consisting of diverse minds from various fields of practice. La’Tesha reminds that we should take a step back and realize that social media is not everything. For example, in the world of politics, a phone call often suffices to communicate a message.
Distraction From Reality
A cult is a distraction from the real world. When you’re paying attention to aliens and lizard people, you’re not paying attention to the real issues like racism and systemic poverty. In extreme cases, people can get so sucked into conspiracies that they lose or cut ties to their old lives and become a different type of person.
Christian remembers a friend of his who went down this very path with a group called the Cassiopeians. The leader of the Cassiopeians claims to, among other things, use a Ouiji board to talk to otherworldly beings which instruct her.
Before we go, the panel emphasizes one last thing in unison: if you notice a friend going down the path of consuming conspiracy theories, reach out and offer support. Otherwise, it may be too late.
-Leah Giannantonio, for the Revolution Radio Network