One thing I see a lot in discussions of cults and radicalization and high demand groups is people saying things like “Yeah, be careful, and remember, if it feels wrong, trust your gut!”
And like, I know they mean well, and it’s not always bad advice, but like,
Don’t rely on your gut.
Your gut is gonna think these people are safety and your gut is gonna tell you that leaving is scary.
Sure, you might be picking up on something suspicious. Or! You might be experiencing cognitive dissonance when confronted with the truth, in which case you actually need to lean into and examine the bad feelings to see if they make sense.
The whole way cults operate is by making themselves the primary source of your good feelings and sense of security and correctness. By making everything else feel unsafe and scary.
Yes, you need to be aware of your emotional reactions to things, but not in a trust your gut way.
When TERFs are transphobic, they are trusting their instincts. Their instincts, whether born of trauma related to sexual violence or just born of living in a cisnormative society, tells them men are scary, men are inherently predatory, and women and men are different on a fundamental incompatible level. Their gut is a fucking liar. Having that initial reaction when learning about new people or new ideas is normal, but you have to push back against it - instead TERFs tell people something that feels good, that they want to hear. Their first feeling was right. They should never be asked to question it. They are special for knowing the truth about men and trans people. When TERFs spread the shit that reinforces their world view? It feels good. It feels right. When people present meaningful evidence that they are causing harm, and don’t know what they’re talking about? That feels bad.
If they trust their gut, they’ll keep doing what they’re doing forever.
Being Mormon felt good. Hearing things that made being Mormon feel special and seem right? Felt good! Leaving Mormonism? Felt bad! Felt confusing and disorienting! There was grief in what I was losing, and uncertainty about who I even was or what world I lived in. When I was Mormon coffee was frightening to me, and normal happy people outside the church living normal moral lives while not following its rules was upsetting to examine, and being at a youth service felt good and safe and right.
One of the most important ways to avoid cults, conspiracies, high demand groups, radicalization, and even just spreading false political memes online, is to question your gut. These things live and breathe on manipulating your initial instinctive reaction to them - to feel validation, righteous anger, superiority, safety, certainty.
Question your initial reaction. If something immediately gives you a hit of “so true”, or “a perfect example” or “see???” or makes you feel self satisfied or vindicated? Step back and ask if it was specifically designed to get you to feel that way - and if it was, was it actually right?
If something makes you feel accepted, safe, a sanctuary- what is it keeping you safe from? Is it actually a threat? Do you have other places or people elsewhere that also make you feel safe?
If something makes you feel scared, isolated, misunderstood, threatened, angry, uncomfortable, ashamed - Step back and ask if it actually should, if the feeling is based in fact, if it’s actually proportional to the threat, how common or trivial the trigger is. This makes you scared or uncomfortable, but should it? Are you making enemies out of the benign? Are you vilifying normality? Even if it’s genuinely something bad, is your reaction proportional?This made you so angry you wanted to share it immediately- was it designed to make you angry? Is it a fair representation? Does it have an agenda?
Every single religion in the world, regular or cult, makes people feel good. That’s why the people are there. Every single conspiracy manipulates people’s fears, making normalcy and reason feel bad. Every single high demand group and radicalized group and predatory group does what it does specifically by targeting your feelings.
Don’t listen to your gut unexamined. This applies to cults, but honestly? Also to forming opinions, forging relationships, and more. Abusers know how to play with your emotions, while simultaneously your trauma can lie to you. You have been raised in a bigoted society that might poison you against kind people and allies. Politicians play on your fears and your insecurities to get votes.
You need to develop the emotional intelligence to recognize when your emotions are being manipulated specifically to influence and control you. Since that’s the primary method of spreading misinformation, you actually should constantly be questioning your instincts. Follow the data, the primary sources, the science, and real logical argumentation. Understand how people control you. Understand you are biased and probably wrong about some things. Learn not to be scared of being wrong. Don’t ever tie your identity inextricably to something other people control the definition of. And find peace in uncertainty and nuance. It takes practice, and that means messing up on the way. It’s okay to mess up. You’ve got this.
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Dear Heart of Many Colours,
There are roses that bloom in the desert.
There are pelicans that survive oil spills.
There is vegetation where there has been desolation.
There is a feeling no tragedy can conquer.
From every tide that rises to challenge hope
Every angle that hurts the human condition
There is nothing stronger
Than the spirit that lives in the energy of love
Love survives when all appears to work against it
Love overcomes endings
Love makes them a shadow
Love is the true soul
Love is the savior
Love is for all no matter how it seems
The universe will keep you safe
Even on the darkest days.
With much love and hope,
Written many many full moons ago, but thinking of today - I am trying to remember to walk out of the cave of death, alive - to celebrate the many colours of existence and the re-birth of Spring.
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