Sombreros: Campus Censorship vs. Free Speech

Pedro'sFriday 9 October 2015

Just over a fortnight ago, on 24 September, the latest in a long list of bizarre incidents occurred at my alma mater, the University of East Anglia. Several representatives from the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS) confiscated sombreros which were being given out by Pedro’s, a local Tex-Mex restaurant, to potential customers at a fair for local businesses held on campus during Fresher’s Week. The Union reps said that the sombreros were a form of ‘cultural appropriation’ and were, therefore, ‘racist’. The story was first reported by a student newspaper, The Tab, before being seized upon by the national press.

The Union reps did not claim that they themselves were offended, instead they decided that someone else might consider the sombreros offensive. Let that sink in for a second. They did not receive a single complaint about the sombreros (why the hell would they?). Instead they took it upon themselves to highlight what another person might consider to be offensive and then proceeded to ban it on their behalf. Why? Well, in the words of the Union’s Campaigns and Democracy Officer, Chris Jarvis: ‘we want all members to feel safe and accepted’. If there is a better example of doublespeak then I am yet to come across it.

I can’t say that ‘sombrero-gate’, as it has been named, came as a complete surprise. Throughout the United Kingdom students’ unions are embroiled in a push for political correctness (PC), led by the regressive Left who dominate student politics. They desire a utopia where nobody causes offence and they think that enforcing PC will achieve it. To them PC is appreciating and acting upon the knowledge that all people are different and thus see things in different ways. They believe that offence is the ultimate taboo and, even if it is taken inadvertently or retroactively, one must apologise profusely until they are forgiven. Special consideration is given to the feelings of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, people who identify as a different sexuality or gender, and those who call themselves religious; therefore one must factor in how one’s speech, writing, clothing or action could be interpreted by one of these groups and act accordingly so as to avoid causing offence. The job of the regressive Left is to be the enforcer and make sure that we all cooperate. If we refuse then we risk being censored and blacklisted. Blacklisting, known as the policy of ‘no platform’, means that you are refused all opportunities to speak publicly on campus with or without a union official present.

The regressive Left believe that what they are doing is for the greater good. If they can prevent people from taking offence while, at the same time, opening the eyes of the privileged to the suffering of the dispossessed and the marginalised then they feel that curtailing free speech in pursuit of this goal is a necessary evil. As always, humans are all too ready to sacrifice liberty for security, not realising that they end up with neither. Offence is always taken, never given. If people want to consider something they have seen or heard offensive then no one can stop them, but what they do about it is more important. Do they debate with the party who caused offence, which could improve the understanding of both themselves and the offending party? Or do they act like a child: claim offence, complain, and wail until the offending party leaves or is forced out? The regressive Left favour the latter. To them offence is painful and causes psychological trauma which leaves lasting damage; hence, offending someone’s sensibilities is akin to abusing them. This is why they so strongly believe offence must be avoided at all costs. To do so they sacrifice the liberty of free speech for a heightened feeling of security. But that is all it is: a feeling of security.

I believe that offence – both being offended and causing offence – is necessary. It expands debate, offers ideas up to criticism, and improves or betters one’s intellectual position. In the past I have written in favour of Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists being able to express their ideas, explaining how their freedom of expression should not be diminished because said ideas might be considered unpalatable. They might behave like inconsiderate bigots – David Irving taking a group of Holocaust deniers to Auschwitz, for example, or 9/11 Truthers marching to Ground Zero – but free speech trumps offence every single time. For this reason their arguments must be given more protection than those holding mainstream views. The mainstream often finds it easier, and is ready, to shut down debate because it believes itself to own the final copy of the truth. I hate to sound like a broken record on this subject but ‘sombrero-gate’ and other incidents make me feel that I must repeat myself.

Freedom of expression must be free and must include the right to offend or it is not freedom of expression. I’ve quoted Salman Rushdie before so forgive me as I do so again: ‘you can’t slice it [freedom] up otherwise it ceases to be freedom.’ Let me also quote my soon-to-be step-father-in-law: “if you don’t like it, turn it off.” That’s not censorship. That’s not using a position of authority to order a decree of cease and desist. It is being a consumer in a capitalist market. I don’t like X; so I shall buy Y instead. I don’t agree with the views of Z, so I shall not read/watch them anymore. It really is that simple. When was the last time that someone forced you to read a Katie Hopkins article? You probably know that she writes some rather odious things for a living, yet you avoid her. She hasn’t been censored. She has the right to express herself and her newspaper, the Daily Mail, has the right to publish her. I defend Katie Hopkins’ freedom of expression. I defend Peter Hitchens’ freedom to express his belief that ‘addiction’ is a con and thus the concept of an ‘addictive personality’ is unfounded. I defend Brendan O’Neill’s freedom to express that transsexualism is a fad. These may be unpopular opinions, but the simple fact that they are unpopular does not mean that they don’t deserve the same protection as their mainstream counterparts. Freedom of expression protects the freedom of people you agree with and the freedom of those with whom you wholeheartedly disagree with every fibre in your body. That is how it works.

Unsurprisingly, the sombrero incident wasn’t the only time that the Union of UEA Students decided to censor freedom of expression.  In October 2013 the Union passed a boycott on the Sun newspaper, preventing it from being sold on campus.  People were, however, still allowed to read their own copy on campus. (In February earlier this year the Union voted to extend this boycott to include the Daily Star.) In November 2013, the Union put forth a motion to ban the Robin Thicke song ‘Blurred Lines’ from being played. Luckily, this was forced to a referendum (unlike those over the Sun and the Daily Star) and was comprehensively rejected by the student body (75.21 per cent voted against the ban). As part of the referendum the Union had to explain how the ban would work, even including protocol on what to do if a non-UEA radio station was being listened to on campus and the DJ chose to play the song: ‘immediately change the station,’ it said, without a hint of tongue in cheek. Each of these examples have similar approaches: make people ‘safe’ by stifling debate. So it was insulting when the Union’s Ethnic Minorities Officer, Hassam Hussein, put out an unctuous press release saying that the Union are ‘glad we’re having the debate’ about the sombreros, as if a debate consists of immediately shutting down the opposition. ‘We are just asking you to be aware of the possibility of mocking a culture, perhaps unknowingly’, Hussein wrote, not recognising the parallels with totalitarianism which keeps its populations docile through its ability to indict a group of people for a new crime which had not been a crime until they said so.

The most credulous aspect of UUEAS’s clamping down on free speech is that the reps seem to believe that the student body are easily brainwashed and cannot think for themselves. The Union imagines that exposure to the Sun, the Daily Star or Robin Thicke is like feeding a mogwai after midnight: men instantly metamorphose into rapists who hunt the vulnerable women reduced to tears after hearing the chorus of ‘Blurred Lines’ or seeing  why ‘Kate, 20, from Birmingham’ sometimes has back ache. Surely, if that were the case, rape on campus would have dropped since the boycott of the newspapers or spiked because Thicke’s song wasn’t banned. I’m sure it won’t surprise you that humans are not robots brainwashed by the media and that they can actually think for themselves, which is why no statistics have been published anywhere to reinforce the Union’s stance.

This surrendering of critical faculties is not solely the domain of those students clinging to power in the union of my alma mater. It is a problem with the regressive Left and is only most obvious in universities because they have managed to achieve power there. Pick another university, any university, and you will find an example. At Warwick University, last week, the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists’ Society invited Maryam Namazie to speak at one of their meetings. Namazie is a human-rights activist who fled Iran with her family during Khomeini’s Islamist revolution; she subsequently renounced Islam and now works for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and several other secular organisations. Unsurprisingly, the students’ union at Warwick banned her on the grounds that her appearance would ‘incite hatred’ of the university’s Muslim students. The union only backtracked after Namazie found support in the media and on Twitter. They said she could attend pending a review, and shortly afterward said no review was necessary. Namazie proved that small victories can be won, but they will remain small because of the opposition’s desire to curb free speech for PC.

On 26 September, in Copenhagen, Denmark, just a few days before ‘sombrero-gate’ flared up, there was a conference to commemorate 10 years since the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. Douglas Murray, a journalist and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, a bi-partisan think-tank based in London, made a speech which he concluded by saying

Freedom never was a very popular idea. If you look back at history, at almost any phase – not just the mid-20th century which is all anyone seems to know about these days – but almost any period in history: most people weren’t bothered particularly about freedom. They wanted security, and they wanted safety, and they wanted a comfortable and an easy life, and they wanted to be cosy. Freedom of speech was only ever defended by a few people. Just as freedom in general was only ever defended by a few people, but maybe it only ever needed a few people.

Maybe it did, but it could always do with a few more. The Union at UEA are not the most prolific censors in the UK, but as they stand against free speech they should be opposed. A few days before the sombreros were confiscated, the T-Shirt Party, another Union event, was held. Each student was given a t-shirt to decorate in their own time however they liked. A few had written ‘YES MEANS ANAL AND NO MEANS YES’ on theirs, so Union officials forced them to change before they could enter. Making them change was wrong, and I defend the students’ right to express themselves. Nobody should feel ashamed because of what they decided to wear. Sound familiar? It should do, as this is what is said – rightly – in riposte when bigots complain about women wearing almost anything, from nothing to a niqab. The right to wear a t-shirt with crass slogans on it is as fundamental to freedom of expression as the right to wear a bikini. Defend both. If you need another example: defend the right of a Jew to wear a yarmulke, but also defend the right of a neo-Nazi to wear a swastika. The regressive-Left don’t understand that freedom of speech is universal. They want to choose who gets to have it and who does not. But if it isn’t universal it ceases to be freedom. I’ve chosen to sound like a broken record on this subject because so many people don’t get it. Being one of the few is an honour.

Charlie Hebdo, Binary, and Freedom of Expression


Friday 16 January 2015

James [Fenton] was unable to forget the embarrassment of an undergraduate dinner with [George] Steiner, in which he had overdone his own insouciance and had too languidly said that there were no great unifying causes left anymore: no grand subject of the sort that had sent Auden to Spain or China. Steiner had snapped at this Fentonian display of the blasé and told him to take a hard look at what seemed to be happening in Vietnam.

– Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir

Having studied the 1960s I have often wondered what it was like to be involved in an honourable struggle like the discussion over the morally corrupt Vietnam War. The quote – which describes a dinner in the late 1960s (probably ‘67 or ‘68) – highlights that everyone is liable to nostalgic tendencies, even as great a poet as James Fenton. Current events are difficult to string into a coherent narrative, they move by at the pace of life. We get drawn into idolising the past and we cannot see the wood from the trees. It has only been in the week after the attacks in France that I’ve come to understand what has been staring me in the face since my mother asked me to turn over to CNN on 11 September 2001. The major ideological battle of our age is the one concerning militant Islamofascism. The irony is that we – the West – are not one of the prizefighters in the ring, we have a ringside seat and sometimes the fight spills over and continues on our lap.

I’ve been a critic of religion for a while and an atheist for longer, but it’s only in the last year or so when I have started to consider the psychological aspect of faith. Human beings want to think in binary. By this I mean that in an attempt to understand events and their root causes we love to think that someone is certainly, or certainly not, something – an idea, a belief, a reason. That person is either a racist, or they are not. The Columbine massacre happened because of video games, or it had nothing to do with video games. The Kouachis butchered the staff of Charlie Hebdo because they are Muslims, or their faith had nothing to do with it. It was to do with immigration, or it was not. It was the West’s foreign policy, or France’s history of colonialism, or because they were crazy. Expecting one simple answer to be one hundred per cent correct is an elementary mistake and one of which we need to rid ourselves. Sometimes A happened because of B, but more often than not A happened because of a mix of parts of B, C, D, and E. To some this may be a truism, but from the last week of coverage vast swathes of our media and many of the most important politicians think otherwise.

Protest At Ground ZeroThe ‘à la carte’ nature of modern religion is an example of this. Christianity has a central core of beliefs which are followed by all variants of the faith (e.g. that Jesus Christ was the son of God). Outside of the core there is the Bible, Christianity’s holy text, which contains some beautifully written sections, but it also has depraved lines, passages and books. To name but a few: homosexuality is an abomination, slavery is common place, rape is a way to pick a wife, genocide is divinely mandated, and women are fundamentally inferior to men. Must one give credence to all of these concepts to be a Christian? No, mainstream Christianity has moved away from the majority of these repugnant ideas. If a man in holy orders were to state that God hates homosexuals, however, they would be correct because the Bible says God hates homosexuals. Any argument against this statement would not come from the Christian faith. This passage has not been struck out, but it is routinely ignored. Who’s to say that the liberal Christian is more of a Christian than the literal homosexual hating Christian? Both are Christians and neither speaks for the whole of their religious faith. One interpretation has more subscribers than the other, but both represent separate sides of a pretty serious division within their religion. Biblical literalism is an ongoing problem. Personally, I could not be more in favour of loose readings of holy books (so loose, in fact, that they aren’t even open).

In the aftermath of the attacks in France we have heard both extremes of a binary story. We have been told that these men do not speak for Islam, that they have damaged the religion, and that they were not Muslims in any sense of the word. Others have said that they are typical Muslims, that this was the true face of evil Islam, the fifth column inside Europe waiting to destroy our civilisation. To take either of these positions is to misunderstand Islam. Like Christianity, there are a core set of beliefs and practices which all Muslims hold dear. And, like Christianity, there are liberals and there are puritanical literalists who believe that some parts of the Koran and certain Hadith are more important than others. Both are Islam. Undoubtedly Saïd Kouachi, Chérif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly were all Muslims. They spoke for a subsection of Islam – Jihadism. To listen to those who say that they were not true Muslims is akin to stating that Catholics are not really Christians.

2014-08-18 11.58.15
A visualisation by Information is Beautiful attempting to explain the various branches of Islam.

Islam has two major branches (the Sunni and the Shia), and those branches split into schools, which in turn can divide into movements. Jihadism is a movement out of Salafism, a subsection of the Hanbali school which has its origins in Sunni Islam. Jihadism is not a peaceful movement. I wish I didn’t have to type that, but I feel I have to because “Islam is a religion of peace” is being repeated again and again by those in power. This subdivision of Islam is not peaceful. Let me repeat that so that I am wholly understood: Jihadism is not peaceful. Islam has extremists, conservatives, moderates and liberals, like every other religion. Jihadism stands ululating at the violent extreme of the scale. Now, once again, to amplify what I am saying and what I am not: Islam is not a religion of peace; it is also not a religion of war as some English Defence League bigots would have us believe. The majority of Islam is peaceful, certain subsections are not. While these violent elements continue it is not possible to call Islam a religion of peace.

Nobody speaks for the whole of Islam, just their chosen interpretation. That goes for everybody: extremist, conservative, moderate and liberal. Furthermore, the actions of the Kouachis and Coulibaly were a direct result of the teachings of Salafi Jihadist Islam. Not in the name of, but as a direct result of the preaching of a very extreme and absolutist subsection of Islam. In the same way as some of those who voted against same-sex marriage did so because of a fealty to their version of Christianity, these men carried out these attacks in part because they believed themselves to be doing the work of God. As the Nobel Prize winning American physicist Steven Weinberg said:

Many people do simply awful things out of sincere religious belief… because they believe that this is what God wants them to do, going all the way back to Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac because God told him to do that. Putting God ahead of humanity is a terrible thing.

Devotion to Salafi Jihadist Islam will be in large part the reason why these men decided to kill those who they believed had insulted their Prophet. It will not have been religion one hundred per cent, to believe so is to capitulate to binary thought and would not explain why it was these men and not other Salafi Jihadists, but to deny that it played a role and claim that they were really lashing out because of, say, Western imperialism is akin to burying ones head in the sand. Radicalisation is an ongoing problem in both French and British society. We need to address what faces young Muslims and why some are being radicalised. I’ll go into this in greater detail next time, for now bear in mind that there is an ongoing ideological war within Islam between extremists and moderates. Terrorist attacks which take place in the West are mostly an attempt by extremists to attract other Muslims to their side. For us in the self-centred West it is difficult to understand this. As I said, I will explain further in my next entry, but for the rest of this piece I wish to address the discussion held by the media about freedom of expression over the last week.

Some have posited that, in some way, the fate of the staff of Charlie Hebdo was inevitable because their caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were racist. Asghar Bukhari, a founding member of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), took a similar line during a debate on Sky News the day after the shootings. Bukhari opened by saying that “the images that they are actually drawing of Muslims and of the Prophet himself are racist. It’s like drawing a black person as a zoo animal or a Jew as an evil banker.” A week later Catherine Heseltine, another MPACUK member and former CEO, appeared on Channel 4 News and said “This magazine was pedalling a racism against the Muslim community, dehumanising a powerless and discriminated against group in a way that stokes the Islamophobia and the violence, in turn, that Muslims are suffering.”

Simply put there is only one race: the human race. Humanity is not subdivided into different races. There are different ethnicities, but not different races. Whatever your ethnicity, you and I are both human underneath. (Incidentally, this is why I dislike ‘racism’ as a term – it leads to people using the word ‘race’ to describe different ethnicities.) I actually think that the definition of a racist is someone who believes humanity is partitioned into different races. Regardless of what I think, in modern parlance racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” In the media there appears to be some confusion over whether Islam is a race. My favourite, ludicrous, example is from Big Think where David Ropeik, who also thinks religion had nothing to do with the attacks, wrote:

It was not being German that led Adolph Hitler (born in Austria) to form the National Socialist German Workers Party and in the name of a national tribe commit some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity the species has ever suffered.

Well, quite. However, Hitler did not form the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Anton Drexler did, and the comparison is nonsensical. Islam is not an ethnicity/race because converting to or leaving Islam is a choice. One cannot choose to change their ethnicity, but they can choose to change their religion. The caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were not racist because they were a critique of an idea, not an assault upon a people. Here is one of the cartoons in question:

The speech bubble says "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter!"
The speech bubble says “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”

See? Not racist. Islam has followers on all the major continents who all share the same core beliefs of Islam and they are not all of the same ethnicity. Once again, it is a belief, not an ethnicity. It goes without saying, therefore, that the asinine comparison between the caricatures and antisemitic or racist cartoons is spurious. One is racial prejudice; the other is criticism of a belief system. No belief system is above criticism and, in fact, all should welcome it because it is always a good idea to question why one believes something and to re-establish first principles. The axiomatic insecurity of religion is highlighted by the need to refuse questions about its foundations. (Strangely enough the prohibition of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad was a good idea initially because it rejected idolatry. However, as time has worn on, the prohibition has itself become a form of idolisation. One can name a person Muhammad – Atta, for example – without uproar, but drawing a picture of the Prophet is condemned.)

Similar to the concept that these cartoons were racist is the question along the lines of “why are cartoonists allowed to draw the Prophet Muhammad, but not a picture questioning the Holocaust?” (see Channel 4 News, Al Jazeera) This is, also, asinine as it is an idea played up against a historical fact. Simply put, the Holocaust is verifiable and provable; that Muhammad had the Koran dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel is not. The implication is that if probing the Holocaust is not legal, then the Prophet should not be allowed to be questioned either. There are two points here:

  1. Laws banning the questioning of the veracity of the Holocaust oppose the freedom of expression. The French law – the 1990 Gayssot Act – is wrong and should be repealed.
  2. It should be plain with the evidence we have that Muhammad is technically on the side of the Holocaust deniers. That is to say, there is as much evidence pointing towards him having heard those voices as there is that Auschwitz was a Jewish holiday camp.

People actually spend their lives trying to prove the conspiracy theory that the Holocaust never happened, which is an improvement upon taking it as read that Muhammad was a prophet. Also, there is not a single country in which one would be killed for saying that the Holocaust never happened, but there are still countries where if you leave Islam – commit the alleged sin of apostasy – you will be executed. The comparison between questioning the Holocaust and caricaturing Muhammad is a poor one – six million dead human beings played off against, maybe, a blunt pencil.

18nz6sfmyw4aapngWhen neither of these two approaches have been chosen, the line becomes: while it is okay to caricaturise the Prophet because of free speech, Charlie Hebdo was a rather nasty magazine which created racist cartoons and gave fuel to the French far-right (see Irvine Welsh on Channel 4 News, Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman). I plead a Wittgensteinian defence on my knowledge of French culture, however I have read articles by people who know far more about France than I do who say that Charlie Hebdo mock racist attitudes, rather than incite them. To me, that sounds plausible when one considers that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing magazine. If one knew nothing about American culture, or did not share the cultural similarities with the United States that we do, then upon viewing South Park for the first time one could infer that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are bigoted racists. The show draws and plays upon existing prejudices in an overt manner which to the uninitiated would appear incriminating. Until proven otherwise, I feel that I should give Charlie Hebdo the benefit of the doubt that I would want others to give South Park.

Nonetheless, let us play devil’s advocate for a moment: imagine that it has been proved conclusively that Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine, does it matter? Not in the slightest, even if it is a racist publication it still has the right to publish. As per Salman Rushdie: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” People have the right to place their thoughts into the public sphere and everyone else has the right to test their own arguments against them. The late Carl Sagan wrote that “the cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.” Freedom of expression gives people the right to learn and investigate for themselves. Democratic societies need freedom of expression, otherwise the society is neither democratic nor free. Taking offense does not equate to the need to censor.

The final chosen path of argument was one of self-censorship. Both Sky News and al Jazeera said they would not show the cartoons because they did not want to offend anyone. If that is true, then it’s sad. I would prefer to think that both were afraid of inciting a lynch mob. The pinnacle was on Channel 4 News when The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and novelist Will Self discussed self-censorship. Rowson, who had appeared on numerous networks discussing the tragedy, admitted that he does occasionally self-censor because the publications he works for will not print certain images. Furthermore, he said that during the controversy over cartoons depicting Muhammad in the centre-right Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 he did publish a cartoon depicting the prophet.

Will Self then put forward his view that “free speech comes with responsibilities… [the notion that] freedom of speech is some absolute right… is exactly the same as a religious point of view, interestingly. It places the ethics – human ethics – outside of human society… and that’s not the case. All rights have to be counted with responsibilities.” He also said that satire has to target the powerful and that Islamic terrorists “are not in power in our society”. While I disagree with him about his unspoken undertone, he has a right to say it and I am glad that he did not censor himself. Self-censorship is fine, I have no disagreement with the concept, just so long as people do not mind saying that they are censoring themselves because they are afraid of the consequences. Also, applying self-censorship does not mean that others should do the same. Will Self is correct: free speech comes with responsibilities, the greatest of which is to make sure it is unimpeded. Free speech has to be absolute and it must – must – include the right to offend. To, again, quote Rushdie – he has some experience of people trying to kill him for writing a novel, so I think quoting him twice is acceptable – “Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is, ‘Freedom is indivisible,’… You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo… But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.” I cannot finish on a higher note than that.

Conversion and Cults

Church of Scientology building in Los Angeles, Fountain Avenue

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Whenever I hear the word ‘cult’, Heaven’s Gate and the Peoples Temple spring to mind. These groups were involved in two of the most infamous mass suicides of recent times. In March 1997, not too far from San Diego, the leader of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Applewhite, convinced all 39 members – aged between 26 and 72 – to ingest a deadly mixture of phenobarbital and apple sauce, wash it down with vodka, and wrap plastic bags around their heads. This was, he claimed, “the only way to evacuate this Earth” and earn their souls passage on the spacecraft which was in the tail of the passing Hale-Bopp comet. The event orchestrated by Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple, occurred in Guyana at the eponymous Jonestown in 1978. It was facilitated by a large metal tub of grape juice flavoured with a deadly mix of four drugs (including cyanide), and took the lives of 920 people.

When tragic incidents like these take place the response is usually one of disbelief. Why did it happen? Could anything have been done to prevent it? This search for answers is then forsaken, and, so, in an attempt to reassure ourselves, the media labels the group as crackpot and unreachable. They tell us there was nothing we could have done. I consider this to be too simple. In this piece I wish to answer the following question: if somebody holds an extreme view can they be persuaded to change their mind? Ultimately, the answer is an overwhelming “yes, but” because it is both difficult and exceptional for an outsider to be the catalyst. More often than not, people change their own minds.

Cults continue to exist and be feared because they are easier to join than they are to leave. It goes without saying that they are not all death cults, not least because this would make their recruitment department’s job a bit fiddly. They have to give new recruits something tangible or the illusion of something tangible which the recruit feels they are missing. Creating this dependency gives people enough of a reason to stay. Scientology is no different in this regard.

John Sweeney
John Sweeney famously snapped during the filming of ‘Scientology and Me’ at Tommy Davis of the Church of Scientology. (Click for a Church condoned video.)

Started in the early 1950s by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology calls itself ‘a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being.’ If this was all there was to it then it would not be too dissimilar to mainstream religion. The Church, however, has had more than its fair share of criticism. This includes – but is not limited to – defrauding its members, brainwashing, splitting up families, and an overzealous desire to attack its critics. The attacks come in many ways, such as litigation, character assassination, and psychological abuse. For example, during the filming of the 2007 BBC Panorama documentary ‘Scientology and Me’, journalist John Sweeney was continually followed and harassed by members of the Church. The same practice was again used during the making of Sweeney’s 2010 follow-up. A quote from Richard Behar’s 1991 Time magazine article nicely sums the Church of Scientology up: it is ‘a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.’

Also like the Mafia, people defect from the Church every now and then. Even some of the most convinced believers alter their convictions and depart. For Tory Christman it was the Church’s insistence on curbing free speech that tipped her over the edge. Christman had worked in a subsection of the Church’s hierarchy called the Office of Special Affairs (OSA) since the late 1970s. In 1999, the mandatory Scientology censorship software on her home computer was removed by OSA agents so that she could monitor online material critical of the Church. Christman ran multiple accounts on several online forums and tried to quell debate about the Church by attacking its critics. In July 2000, the owner of one website reached out to her and explained his opposition, shortly afterwards Christman left the Church of Scientology. She is now a vocal critic of the organisation.

Tory Christman
Tory Christman

Tory Christman’s conversion is what is sometimes called a Pyrrhic conversion. In effect, this is where the goal which one is striving for is considered too costly even if it is achievable. When she was tasked with censoring online criticism two strongly held beliefs came into conflict, so she had to decide between them. This is as clear a case of cognitive dissonance as one is able to find. Simply put, cognitive dissonance is where humans hold two contradictory ideas or positions at one time and, as a direct result, experience mental distress which forces them to solve the issue. Most of the time when we end up in this situation we confabulate an explanation as to how two or more conflicting ideas can coexist together in our mind, or we suppress and ignore the problem. On occasion though we end up picking our side and this comes at the end of a long process of inner, mostly subconscious, reflection on a subject. For Christman it came down to free speech or Scientology. Seeing as they are contradictory, she had to decide between the two and came to the conclusion that she favoured free speech, and thus left the Church. This explains how she quickly came to be a critic: because it went against what she believed in, what she holds close as a part of her narrative.

Christman was certainly not the first person to have this dilemma. In leaving, however, she is probably in the minority. The power of cults lies in their ability to provide their members with agency. Most members claim to have been searching for something before finding it in their cult. This can be as simple as a sense of security or constancy. Pulling out ones roots and disassociating oneself from the group which has meant so much is not easily done. “The 9th and lowest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors,” wrote Dante in The Inferno. The thought of being considered a traitor by those that were once ideological (if not actual) brothers and sisters can be enough to make one believe their actions to be Pyrrhic.

Renouncing a belief does not happen on a whim and is rarely the result of a snap decision, whether made internally or at the behest of an external force. Changing ones conviction, especially extreme convictions, is a lengthy process of inner reflection, meditation and promotion of disillusion with the belief. People do not perform instantaneous volte-face because the tendency of our personal narrative to defend our core beliefs is paramount by necessity. If you are trying to convince someone that their strongly held belief is mistaken, then the person you are talking to has to be open to criticism in the first place for you to make the slightest bit of difference. For this they probably have to be in a good mood and they must have done some prior personal reflection. If they haven’t then they will go into a defensive state which will only strengthen their conviction, quashing any progress previously made towards a conversion.

We are an incredibly stubborn species. How often have you tried to do things your own way, only to find that the person who was giving you the guidance you ignored was correct and that you could have saved yourself a lot of time had you just listened to them? Nobody likes admitting that they were wrong. Holding an extreme belief, such as being a member of a cult, is one of the most hardened positions one can take. Our in-group/out-group mentality gives us the belief that we know what is going on, but others – the idiots, the other – do not. A Scientologist sees non-Scientologists as sadly deluded. ingroup-outgroupImagine realising that, in actual fact, you have been the sadly deluded one. Facing this and admitting that you were mistaken is mentally analogous with submission. Solving cognitive dissonance in favour of the predating belief saves face for our personal narrative. It is easier to stick with the initial story, the cult’s story. It is easier to leave your thinking to other people and to invest total faith in a belief system which does all the thinking for you. It is the quest for a feeling of security; however, if it is attained by sacrificing freedom, then one ends up with neither.

Can racists be convinced of equality? Can a homophobe support gay marriage? Yes and yes. The lingering ‘but’ is that they need to have done a lot of the work themselves such that they are open to change. The grievance which led them to their current position, therefore, needs to have been resolved in some way such that they are strong enough to abandon the oddly comforting extreme belief. This leads to another question: how could the members of Heaven’s Gate and the Peoples Temple have solved their problem outside of the cult? These groups created a family unit: they lived on the same plot of land, they dined together, and they very rarely interacted with people who were not members. They did everything as an isolated unit. Nobody who wasn’t a member knew that they were going to kill themselves. A similarity they have with Scientology is that the latter uses isolation as a tool to bolster their membership. This is the difference between cults and everyday racists, sexists, homophobes and conspiracy theorists who are chiefly assimilated into society; hence, they may be easier to reach. Regardless, one still needs to have entertained the contradictory notion for a difference to be made.

(Dedicated to Inders. 02/12 – 12/14.)