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Beware of political cults at university

This autumn, thousands of students across the country will be starting their lives at university. It is a jolt out of the warm familiarity of home that they have enjoyed all their lives. For the first time, they will be striking out on their own in the atomised world of the university campus. The task of building a support system will not be easy, and in their loneliness and isolation, there will be sinister forces wishing to exploit their situation. It is a well-known fact that university campuses are frequented by all manner of cults, whether political or religious. My own experience with a political cult at university is one which only too many students have gone through.

We are living in a time of intense political polarisation, in which all sorts of groups and sects are convinced that they alone have the solution to the world’s problems. Young people, who are naturally idealistic and seeking answers to difficult questions, are naturally attracted to exciting proposals that promise to put an immediate end to the problems plaguing humanity. In their 2000 book, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth discuss the threat to liberal democracy posed by political cults, which promise totalist solutions to complex political problems. These groups claim that only they can make the revolution, avert the apocalypse, prevent the decline of the white race, or whatever cause it is to which they are committed. They are ‘mini-totalitarian societies’, in which the intellectual curiosity of members is repressed, and they are made to adhere to a set of unchallengeable dogmas.

My own experience with a political cult at university is one which only too many students have gone through

Cults, including political cults, prey on vulnerable, lonely people like university students, seeking to recruit them to their depraved causes. They promise a false friendship and companionship, an entry into a community of true believers, a brotherhood of the faithful. The truth is that such relationships are entirely dependent on uncritical agreement with the cult’s doctrine. Tourish and Wohlforth used the Militant Tendency of the 1980s as one such example of a cult that existed on the far-left.

A common tactic used by such organisations is lovebombing – making the potential recruit feel incredibly special and gifted. They are made to think that they are far superior to those ordinary mortals who have not seen the truth of the cult’s teachings, and are told that only the cult can help them develop their full potential, both personally and politically. They are invited to the cult’s events, at which they meet other true believers and are introduced to the group’s doctrine. Every good cult has information for outsiders and information for those ‘in-the-know’. The cult’s events are presented as something innocuous, i.e. a friendly discussion and debate on some political question or other. In fact, it is often little more than a means for the cult to present its line on this or that question, with any discussion stage-managed to ensure that people come to the correct conclusions. 

A common tactic used by such organisations is lovebombing – making the potential recruit feel incredibly special and gifted

Upon joining, a new member will be bombarded with the cult’s literature. In this way, a new member, deprived of the time to read anything else, ends up uncritically absorbing the new doctrine. Since cult members are kept busy doing all sorts of other activities and spend much of their free time with other people in the cult, they are very unlikely to question the group’s teachings, such is the sense of urgency and commitment, which serves to suppress any feelings of doubt. Cult members will also have internal meetings to discuss recruitment and fund-raising. The line on this or that question is discussed and drilled into every member’s mind. A process is underway whereby the old worldview of the convert is gradually replaced with the cult’s gospel, which claims that it can explain everything. Fired up with this new knowledge, the newly recruited cult member goes out and recruits others. These recruiting efforts involve not merely holding events but leafleting and paper sales on college campuses.

The damage cults do to the psyche of the individuals involved is immense. Not only do they pose a threat to society if they become influential enough, but they do great harm to their adherents. Ex-members find that they have lost precious time, energy, and resources on the cult, and that their minds have been warped by a foul doctrine. It can take years for some people to recover. The culling of mental health services because of financial retrenchment threatens to rob ex-cultists the chance to recover from their traumatic experiences. It is important to alert both parents and students as to the nature of such organisations, to ensure that they entrap as few students as possible. 

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