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The eternal fascism of cults

Notes on the semiotics of cults

by Luigi Corvaglia

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`When _I_ use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,

`it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.' `The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words

mean so many different things.' `The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master –

- that's all.'

Lewis Carroll, Through the looking glass

The story goes that Alfred Korzybski was lecturing to a group of students one day and interrupted himself to take a package of cookies wrapped in white paper from his pocket. He ate one and then offered more to any student who wanted some. "Good cookies, aren't they?" said Korzybski after a few students had eaten a few. He then took out the blank sheet of paper and showed the original package, which had a dog's head and the words "dog cookies" on it. The students saw the package and were shocked. Two of them rushed out of the classroom to throw up. "See, ladies and gentlemen?" - Korzybski commented - "I've just shown that people eat not only food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often influenced by the taste of the latter." The inventor of "General Semantics" (GS) practically wanted to show that human beings cannot experience the world directly, but only through their abstractions. In a sense, then, language determines the world. This benefits those who want to redefine language and thus the perceived world, as George Orwell also aptly noted. So if, like a new Korzybski, I offered not cookies but terms like "respect for cultural identities," "defense of religious freedom," or "resistance to the censors of free choice," I'm sure many of my listeners would appreciate them. However, if I dropped the white paper from my metaphorical packet of ideas, they'd read other labels on it. For example, "Defense of Sharia Law" or "Yes to Infibulation." Another possibility is that the unvailed label would reveal the words "cult apology," which is the term for defending those totalitarian-led groups that the general public knows as "cults." Certainly, some would reject the ideas that were accepted a short time before. In fact, people judge not only ideas but also words, and the meaning of the former is often influenced by the meaning of the latter. Thus, while it's tempting to defend the identity of cultures, it's far less tempting to learn that this may also mean endorsing the subordination of women in some cultural identities or the abuse in some spiritual groups. Indeed, there are a number of scholars and an even larger number of activists who work hard to defend controversial organizations, such as Scientology, to name the best known, but also hundreds of other groups that have made headlines over the years for the subordination of their followers, their exploitation, and sometimes their abuse. These apostles of any cult use to label opponents of such practices as enemies of religious freedom and free choice, and thus as unliberals. The reference to "fascism" isn't even too veiled [1].

In such a reconstructed world, or rather, with this "map" of the world,as Korzybski would have said, the defenders of civil rights guaranteed by the "open society" would be those who defend cultures and cults that some call abusive, while the enemies of democratic freedoms would be those who oppose their actions and influence. But, as the Polish semiologist said, "the map isn't the territory".

Cults as an expression of eternal fascism

"The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day." "It must come sometimes to 'jam to-day', " Alice objected. "No, it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every other day:

to-day isn't any other day, you know."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Another semiologist, Umberto Eco, gave a lecture at Columbia University in 1995 [2]. In this famous text, the Italian intellectual proposed a description of the archetypal and constituent elements of what he called eternal fascism or Ur- fascism. Starting from the premise that this is founded in an absolute ethical state according to the late Hegelian model, he proposed a series of points for defining this prototype of perpetual totalitarianism, not all of which are necessary at the same time. These include:

- Cult of tradition, often interpreted as syncretism of various cultural contributions;

- Irrationalism with the resulting contempt for culture;

- Rejection of the critical spirit;

- Elitism, i.e., the idea of being the chosen group;

- Fear of diversity, leading to distrust of the outside world, i.e., the outgroup;

- Obsession with conspiracies, possibly international, because "followers must feel besieged."

- Neo-language, characterized by elementary syntax aimed at cognitive simplification that prevents the development of critical thinking.

This last point not only brings us back to Korzybski's Generative Grammar, from which we started, but these elements are, in whole or in part, the same ones that various scholars consider constitutive of "high control", that's, totalitarian and abusive groups. And so, after the sheet of paper that concealed it's fallen, one can clearly read the label "fascism" on the package that contains what its proponents neutrally call New Religious Movements. Having made clear that not all NRMs are abusive cults, and that many abusive cults are neither new nor religious (creating terminological confusion through the use of misleading labels is also a useful form of neo-language), it must be said that the map describing the defenders of these non-territorial dictatorships as champions of civil liberties and their enemies as illiberals now proves impossible to present. I propose a more accurate map. In this new map, of course, the defenders of closed societies are far from representing the universalist demands of human rights, i.e., of the open society of which Popper spoke. On the contrary, they're quite identical with the advocates of cultural differentialism, the political concept that's the proudest and bitterest enemy of universal rights. Indeed, behind the liberal proclamations about respect for non-indigenous cultures, this concept aims at recovering and defending individual cultures so that they become a counterweight to the globalist ideology; that's, precisely to the universalism of human rights. In other words, the differentialist believes that "foreigners" should be preserved as such, living "among themselves" and maintaining their own cultural references and values because they are "different" and must remain so. The differentialist defends their "right to be different" precisely to prevent other cultures from mixing or merging with his own. Just as it's not surprising that the defenders of differentialism are representatives of the political far right who coin their own incongruent version of "multiculturalism," it's also not surprising that the defenders of the "right to difference" of the "cults" are often representatives of visions that are anything but ecumenical and propose their own incongruent version of "ecumenism." These, in fact, propose a "multicultism" that's the miniature version of the New Right's multiculturalism, but looks more like pax mafiosa (a term used in Italy for the interested peace between mafia gangs). In fact, non-war between cults and cultures usually implies the protection of one's own 'culture" and one's own 'cult" in particular. How else can it be explained that in the associations for the defense of religious freedom, which proclaim the most liberal and ecumenical proclamations, there are also members of the most illiberal and mutually incompatible visions? High-ranking members of Scientology, traditionalist clerics, Satanists, followers of religions who believe that those who do not follow their faith are eternally damned, and tantric sex gurus, all passionately united against those who denounce exploitation in cults. In the name of the open society!

In light of this map, it's clear that the controversy over "mind manipulation" on which the conflict between "cult apologists" and the "anti-cult movement" has focused for decades is about pointing fingers and not looking at the moon. This isn't to say that the issue isn't important, for it's precisely from the supposed "free choice" of the adherent that the apologists of closed societies derive their legitimacy - and it's on this issue that I myself have presented my theoretical contribution [3] - but the real issue, which few seem to grasp and many wish to conceal, is a different one. It's the central dilemma of the open society, which is confronted daily with closed subcultures that claim hospitality for themselves. In other words, it's the problem of Western democracies that must come to terms with cultural islands hostile to democracy and choose between one multiculturalism that universalizes freedoms and rights and another that seals off and protects these islands. Mature democracies will therefore sooner or later have to confront the question of how to deal with closed sodalities that paradoxically demand protection for their totalitarianism in the name of liberal principles of open society. In practice, this is the question of how modernity, which invokes the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the 18th century, should deal with its counterpart, perpetual fascism.


[1] Since I am one of those who oppose the promotion of cults, I have not been spared the labeling. See, for example, the text published on the website of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB): (in Italian)

[2] Eco, U., Il fascismo eterno, La nave di Teseo, Milan, 2018.

[3] For example, in the following publications:

Corvaglia, L., A model of persuasion in totalitarian cults, Psychofenia, Volume XXIII, issue 41-42 (2020)

Corvaglia, L., Submission as Preference Shift, forthcoming

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