You must understand racism and admit that you cannot understand racism. You must admit to your complicity in racism and pledge to do better knowing that it is impossible to do better. You must be an ally but accept that you will always do your allyship wrong. The Cult Dynamic of Wokeness.
Before I got involved in studying Critical Social Justice like I do now, I mostly studied the psychology of religion. I took particular interest in the more authoritarian and cultish elements that can spring up within otherwise more reasonable faith traditions. Cult indoctrinations, in particular, tend to follow very predictable stages. First, there is initiation; then there is indoctrination; and then there is reprogramming. These three phases are distinct and must be understood on their own terms.
I. Cult Initiation
One thing I learned through all that study is that most fundamentalist religious (in the colloquial, not technical sense) and cult conversions, especially in adults, occur by using doctrine to resolve some core emotional vulnerability. That is, cult doctrine, and I include extreme fundamentalist interpretations of religious doctrines as cultish, exists to resolve a particularly powerful emotional vulnerability in an unhealthy way (this adds another layer of defense for responsible faith, which does so in a healthy way to the degree that it does the same things).
The question is where that emotional vulnerability comes from because with cults it is always exploited. Sometimes, the underlying emotional vulnerability is there for personal reasons, or as a result of life events. People turn to various doctrines to explain and contextualize the major events in their lives or to understand who they are. Again, this can be healthy or unhealthy. Vulnerability is also often deliberately inflamed or manufactured for the purpose of doing a cult initiation, however, especially in unhealthy cases. Would-be indoctrinators ask manipulative questions and try to catch people on the spot in a feeling of discomfort that is usually rooted in their morality and sense of being a good or adequate person.
With religions in general obviously, many of these vulnerabilities are evoked by asking about one’s fears of death. These leave much room for manipulations by more cultish sects. With religious cults, as I’m using the term, however, they can also center directly on making their mark feel morally deficient or unacceptable. “Did you know you’re a sinner?” is an example, when a lot of emotional pressure is added about how bad that makes you as a person or in the sight of God. “Did you know you’re complicit in racist systems?” is another obvious example.
Once this vulnerability has been successfully manufactured in the mark (or identified and inflamed, if already present), cult doctrine is given as a potential resolution to the emotional distress. “Christ died for your sins, so you can be forgiven” is a Christian example, and “Be an antiracist. Help us dismantle the system and build a better world” is an “antiracist” example. One will note that this can occur in a healthy context or an unhealthy one, and that these can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another. The cult application will always be unhealthy in the end, and it can be known by the further manipulations it uses. It must be understood that this is merely the initiation either to a religious or moral conversion or to a cult, in which case the word “initiation” resonates more strongly.
Once the doctrine is initially accepted by the cult’s mark, the next step is to make the mark feel (morally) welcome and good. The goal is to give them resolution to the vulnerable and dissonant emotional state that was utilized previously. The mark will be made to feel like they’re now doing the right thing where they were doing the wrong thing before. This can still be done in healthy ways, and almost all genuine interventions proceed in this manner. Cults don’t diverge from religions and other moral systems at the outset, or they’d never get any marks to convert. For examples of the relevant kind of language, however, consider: “You can be one of the saved and be forgiven for your sin” and “You’re on the right side of history.”
Once the person feels morally welcome and the feeling of vulnerability gets its first hit of calming resolution through the doctrine, the cult indoctrinator will start to increase the depth of the doctrine, usually a little at a time. With a cult, this will involve beginning to teach the “quieter” parts of the cult worldview that would scare off potential new recruits. And this is where we can find the first clear sign that we’re dealing with a cult rather than something healthier, though there is still much overlap and some ambiguity. They will deepen the doctrine while informing their mark that they’ll be surrounded by temptation, especially from broader society. This gets us to the surest first sign that a cult initiation is taking place, though. It is when this warning starts being applied to friends and family who will be described as failing to understand the depth and value of the cult’s doctrine and, in fact, the mark themselves.
Another clear sign that one is dealing with a cult indoctrination rather than something healthier is making the mark live up to contradictory demands. You must understand racism and admit that you cannot understand racism. You must admit to your complicity in racism and pledge to do better knowing that it is impossible to do better. You must be an ally but accept that you will always do your allyship wrong. Impossible demands would scare off a potential cult initiate at the beginning, but once a sufficient level of commitment to the cause has taken place, the effect is the opposite. Rather than making the mark reject the cult, these impossible and paradoxical demands dramatically deepen commitment to the cult. They do this by re-invoking and massively inflaming the feeling of vulnerability at the core, making the mark burn with a desire to “do better” to resolve the emotional dissonance and white-hot feeling of inadequacy (as judged against the cult’s impossible standards). Outsiders see through this emotionally abusive tactic immediately. Cult initiates see it as a kind of ritual hazing and demand to prove the faith, very much like an abused child or spouse always trying to do better to live up to the unmet demands of their abuser.
The concept of “white fragility” in the antiracist Woke cult is exactly this sort of emotional shakedown. White fragility separates white people and their “adjacencies” into exactly two types: racists (who admit it) and racists (who are too emotionally fragile to admit it). It is obvious which side the cult doctrine favors. In fact, the cult doctrine in this case is that every white (and white adjacent) person is a racist by default, and there are only those with the moral and emotional fortitude to face that (which is good, according to doctrine) and those who lack the necessary moral fiber. Every reaction to a person accused of racism or white fragility itself is proof of this moral failure and a need to “do better” unless it is a full-on assent to the cult doctrine, including a promise to consume more of it, change yourself accordingly, do the work it demands, and to “do better” anyway. White fragility as a concept is explicitly a cult indoctrination technique into the “antiracist” cult.
Speaking more generally, this is all a process that evolves over time, and when dealing with a cult, it is a largely willful move to bring the mark further into the cult while separating them from other social, emotional, and personal ties. Depending on the degree of vulnerability generated at the outset, this process can go quite quickly, taking only weeks, though months is more common. The process is summarized as such: lead the mark to take a step further in, coach them into rationalizing why that step was good, and then repeat with a further step. Every step in means more investment in the cult and a harder path back out. Meanwhile, separating the mark from trust in outside influences becomes increasingly necessary. Those might cause the mark to doubt their new faith position while it is still shaky, which would prevent their submission to the cult ideology. At this early phase in cult indoctrination, where initiation is effectively complete but indoctrination hasn’t fully begun, the mark hasn’t devoted enough of themselves to the cause to be fully committed yet.
II. Cult Indoctrination
Thus, the next step in cult indoctrination is to get people more fully committed. This is actually rather easy, as we tend to commit to new groups fairly quickly under certain well-known conditions. Usual cult-deepening methods include public pronouncements of faith before the in-group community, which bonds the mark to them socially and emotionally. This will often involve rituals such as group prayers, singing, or outright initiation rituals, which dramatically deepen commitment to a group very quickly. There will also be requests to make costly personal sacrifices to be considered a full part of the new group.
This can also include requests for money, cutting ties with relations, making pledges, doing “the work,” and more (including, in many cults of personality, allowing the cult leader to have sex with the marks of the desired sexes). Making sacrifices and working on behalf of a group, including a cult, creates deep ties of commitment to the group, its mission, and its community, and it evokes the “sunk-cost fallacy” mechanism, which prevents people from leaving. This fallacy is a reasoning error that basically says, “I’ve invested so much already that it must be worth it, so I’ll keep going.” It keeps people committed to failing projects, failing relationships, and, as it happens, cults long after they should have abandoned them.
So we hit a particular and important point here. When people like the “critical whiteness educator” Robin DiAngelo tell us things like that “antiracism is a lifelong commitment to an ongoing process of self-reflection, self-critique, and social activism,” she is providing a mid-level cult indoctrination path. The demand is to change yourself for life in alignment with the cult’s doctrine, including how you think, how you see yourself, and how you operate in the world, and make that change a permanent part of who you are. Notice that it also demands you do the work on behalf of the cult and its objectives, which ties you more tightly to it.
This process progresses over time, usually months, demanding more costly sacrifices, costly signals, and doing work for the cult and its doctrinal mission. Costly sacrifices and signals are particularly powerful displays of commitment, and when the mark rationalizes these objectively bad decisions and the cognitive dissonance that doing them causes, they nearly always rationalize themselves much further into the cult. These demands must be made fairly slowly and carefully, and they are meant to increase emotional investment and commitment. One thing the Woke cult is doing wrong is suddenly demanding too much too fast, partly because it can and partly because it’s trying to do so universally rather than in personal one-on-one settings. This push is breaking the spell for many people who would otherwise have been going along and being seduced further into the cult. This may result in its downfall.
At this point, cult indoctrination can begin in earnest, and the mark will be urged to consume more doctrine, possibly in immersive quantities. It will be expected to be consumed uncritically, looking only for areas of agreement and assent, which will be reaffirmed in the mark by other members of the cult and its leadership. With the Woke cult, the immense and widespread push to get people reading “antiracist” and other Woke literature in mass quantities right now is consistent with this step. (These include the following currently bestselling books, among many others: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.) When the mark is sufficiently committed to begin uncritically consuming massive quantities of the cult’s doctrine, they are well into the indoctrination phase.
Simultaneously, to prevent critical interpretations of the cult doctrine and to ensure full affective immersion in the cult community, marks will be urged to cut more ties with outside voices of reason and dissenting opinions. Broader society itself will be construed as bad, evil, complicit, depraved, and any number of other terrible things that the cult’s doctrine is adamantly against (systemically racist, anybody?). The mark will thus be encouraged to segregate from broader society as much as possible, even possibly becoming hostile to its potential intrusions. This will eventually include encouraging cutting ties with family and friends outside of the cult, which is fairly easy to achieve because the indoctrinated cult convert is almost insufferable to be around by that point anyway. Before long, the cultist will convince the mark that every voice that disagrees w/ the cult is somehow “demonic” and out to pull the mark away from the cult. This is relatively hard during the cult initiation phase, during which the increasing sunk cost of participation is mostly what keep marks in, but it becomes very easy once the mark is taught to “see it” (meaning the way outsiders try to get them away from the cult for “bad” reasons, as the cult defines them), at which point they lose all trust in outsiders.
Once the cultists start to turn on outsiders as though they are bad influences only trying to pull people out of the cult, it is extremely difficult to get them to change course. They’re more or less indoctrinated by that point completely and very stuck. Then the project changes completely. With indoctrination complete, the cult reprogramming phase begins in earnest. (Note: Of course, these phases have much overlap and are fuzzy, but the descriptions and progression largely hold.)
III. Cult Reprogramming
Once the mark is properly indoctrinated, the objective becomes to reprogram the mark to get them to think differently. The goal is no longer to indoctrinate on what is “rightthink” and “wrongthink.” It is to make the mark’s thinking be completely in line with the view of the world described by the cult doctrine This will let the mark see the “truth” of the doctrine for themselves everywhere in the world. That’s being “Woke.”
In the case of Woke cult programming, there is an older and more formal name for that view of the world, which is having a “critical consciousness.” Having a critical consciousness occurs when one is able to see the “problematics” in everything, where “problematics” are any deviation or potential for deviation from the cult doctrine anywhere in any aspect of society. This includes in speech, writing, institutions, thoughts, people, systems, knowledge, history, one’s past, and society itself.
I know this part gets a little heady, but it’s important. Critical consciousness is, formally, the cult mentality of Karl Marx’s conflict theory. Conflict theory, in briefest explanation, is the idea that society is broken into different groups or classes (for Marx, they were economic classes, and for the Woke, they are social group-identity classes) that are oppressive on one side, oppressed on the other, and in conflict over this. That is, conflict theory is the belief that different social groups in society are always in conflict with one another for power and dominance, and that rather than working together in complex, dynamical ways that can be mutually beneficial, they are at war. A critical consciousness means realizing this and that you are somehow personally complicit in creating the material conditions for that war and need to “do better,” either by renouncing your dominance (if dominant) or by agitating for a full-on revolution (if oppressed).
Critical consciousness is therefore a very cartoonish, us-versus-them reading of the world. This mentality, of course, tweaks various psychological and social impulses in people as described in social identity theory, for example, and dramatically increases what’s called “parochial altrusim.” This means strongly favoring the in-group (here, the cult) and forgiving it for every excess and abuse while becoming overtly hostile to the out-group (here, everyone else in society and society itself) and reading everything it does in the worst light possible. This is obviously core to the present sociological dynamic! It also dramatically increases cult commitment, adding an overtly warlike tenor to the us-against-them mentality, which in critical cults like Wokeness is us-against-the-world.
IV. The Cult Mentality
It’s very important to stress just how difficult it is to break someone free from a cult mindset once they have adopted the relevant cult consciousness. Once reprogrammed, they will think the way the cult doctrine views the world. They will have put on the cult-colored glasses of whatever cult they have joined, and they will see everything in the world through that lens. Everything will be construable as supportive of the cult’s doctrinal claims about the world, including where the cult doctrine gets things right and also where it identifies the evils in the world that would challenge its existence. People who have been reprogrammed into a cult mentality will perceive all attempts to free them from the cult as malicious attempts to drag them away from their community and, crucially, back to the Bad Emotional Place that they have come to strongly associate with that awful feeling of vulnerability that was used to initiate them into the cult in the first place. The doctrine is the opium that dulls their emotional pain, one might say with, given the context of the present discussion, a bit of tongue in one’s cheek.
In this sense, anyone trying to talk sense to a fully reprogrammed cult member or trying to pull them out of the cult will be, in a very real sense, interpreted as trying to do harm to them. This is because the cult doctrine is the proffered resolution to the pain and emotional dissonance that lives at the point of deep emotional vulnerability that led them to be indoctrinated and reprogrammed in the first place. And you must appreciate just how much that vulnerability has been inflamed by the cult initiation, indoctrination, and reprogramming process by the point that the mark has become a full-fledged cultist. They have been forced to fixate on that vulnerability under profoundly psychological abusive conditions in juxtaposition to the cult’s doctrine while making costly sacrifices to the cult and cutting most ties to the outside world. Removing them from the cult is therefore going to be perceived as an attempt to take them back to that awful vulnerability while at the same time taking them off their opium and ripping them away from the only community they have, while forcing them to face up to the embarrassment of having been indoctrinated and having sunk so many costs into something so toxic. This will not go easily. In fact, it will be met with remarkable hostility in most cases.
More than that, attempts to remove someone from a cult will also be framed in terms of “not understanding” the cult. This is actually a means of resolving the cognitive dissonance around the cult’s doctrine, and it deepens and solidifies commitment in almost every case. The problem isn’t that the doctrine is bad; it’s that you, outsider, don’t understand why it’s good. You don’t get it, and if you learned to see it the way the cultist sees it (here: with a critical consciousness), you’d understand and agree and wouldn’t threaten them with this pain. This is, of course, tautologically obvious and utterly boring: “if you saw things the way I saw them, you’d agree with them.” The cultist cannot see this, though, because the result of reprogramming is to have only the cult’s lens available for viewing everything in the world. The whole point of cult programming is to make it so one’s inner pain and pathology can only be understood in terms of the cult doctrine. The doctrine is the resolution to the vulnerability and has been very deeply established as such.
More or less all of the Critical Social Justice literature on how we know and understand the world (epistemology) and education over the last decade, including White Fragility, makes this case explicitly. Scholar after scholar makes the case that disagreement with Critical Social Justice (Woke) doctrine is only possible by having failed to engage with it properly. DiAngelo makes this case; Barbara Applebaum insists that the only legitimate disagreement with Woke doctrine is to clarify one’s understanding; Alison Bailey says all disagreement is an attempt to preserve one’s privilege. Scholars of religious fundamentalism call this way of thinking “intratextuality,” for those interested, and they consider it a defining hallmark of religious fundamentalism. In the cult’s sense, it is only being able to interpret everything, including disagreement with the cult’s doctrine, from the perspective of the cult’s doctrine. Of course, one can immediately appreciate how this makes the same demand on the cultist that indoctrinated and reprogrammed them in the first place: keep reading it and read it right; you’ll know you read it right when you agree with it entirely; if you fail, you didn’t understand because you’re not good enough in some way (smart enough, moral enough, humble enough, willing enough to do the work, etc.) and you need to “do better.”
V. Cult Deprogramming
The only ways I know of to effect a deprogramming of this are these three: (1) striking right to the heart of the point of vulnerability in a completely different and more healthy way; (2) the introduction of a severe shock (death of a family member) that creates too much dissonance against the cult doctrines to bear; and (3) finding an emotionally intolerable contradiction inside the cult doctrine.
None of this is easy. In fact, it’s all usually very difficult, as highly evolved cult doctrines have fixed these incongruities sufficiently to prevent the cultist from seeing them (that is, every objection and contradiction has a kind of “resolution” in the cult doctrine). Though best, (1) almost never works except in therapy. Usually, (2) has to induce (3), or it won’t happen.
I don’t have much to say about cult deprogramming because it is hard and usually so deeply personal and individual that general prescriptions don’t apply. One thing that can be said in general is that cult deprogramming almost always proceeds from an initial doubt that spirals out of control, getting the cultist to start questioning everything they were taught in the cult in something of an avalanche of angry skepticism. The deprogramming ex-cultist (apostate) will then usually become very angry at the cult and vent that anger at it for an extended period of time that I sometimes call “throwing rocks at the cathedral.” These will be the cult’s most vicious and ruthless critics.
Still, regarding the third case, Wokeness in specific has a few gaping holes in it in which this kind of observation sometimes occurs. One that sometimes works within Wokeness is that the abysmal treatment of women and homosexuals under fundamentalist Islam is both intolerable and absolutely defended at the same time under different, incompatible aspects of the Theory. Feminism is completely opposed to these abuses, of course, at a profound moral level, but postcolonial and critical race Theory approaches utterly prevent criticizing the moral standards of a predominantly non-white and non-Western culture. Usually, the accusations of racism and colonialism win out and prevent any criticism over the systemic and institutional abuses of women because, generally speaking, racism and colonialism are seen in Wokeness as more harmful. Nevertheless, the contradiction is there, and it sometimes crosses their eyes and gets them to start asking questions. Drawing this out for people only works on a small fraction.
This also can work by exposing ways the cult’s doctrine harms its charges in general. For example, Woke cult doctrine speaks over and for minority voices and often arranges failing systems that hurt them most. We have recently been introduced to the idea that being “racially black” and being “politically Black” are very different things, and have seen struggle sessions initiated against racially black people who are not correctly politically Black. Though people haven’t generally known this about the Woke cult, this limiting and inherently political take on identity is a central pillar of Woke cult doctrine. We have also seen devastation in communities that mostly served black and other minority races and also disabled people in the Social Justice Riots of 2020.
Still, case three can be very hard to induce. It often follows from the shock of a tragedy as described in the second case. Obviously, these events cannot be manufactured or discussed into being, though they do happen. I won’t say much about them, but I have seen them happen a few times with genuine religious cultists whose parents or children died in a sudden accident, which is very upsetting. Their thoughts rapidly shifted to “God is supposed to be everywhere, but he wasn’t there that day,” and the whole architecture unraveled quite rapidly while they grieved.
I’ll say even less about the first case, because although this sometimes happens in interpersonal interventions, it usually happens in the context of professional therapy settings and is well beyond my scope to comment upon. (It is worth mentioning, however, that the Woke cult is not this responsible. They explicitly use techniques and concepts stolen from clinical therapeutic settings in uncontrolled mass settings like classrooms, workshops, and mass broadcast, and they let amateurs, not adequately trained professionals, do them. This is consistent with the cult programming endeavor, though, because it allows an attempted evocation of the right kind of vulnerability in many people at once, and the ones who show outward signs of it can then be followed up with individually and properly indoctrinated. This happens on college campuses as a matter of officially encouraged procedure now, including in classrooms.)
VI. Leaving a Cult
If someone begins to deprogram from a cult, it is very important that they are welcomed and not shamed for their past participation in it, no matter how bad it was or how cruel they were under its programming. If you understand that they got there in the first place because of an incredibly inflamed point of vulnerability and were then psychologically abused into accepting the cult doctrine above all else, it makes sense why they would have been so hostile. In a practical sense, however, at the point where they first start to break free, they will still have very low trust for outsiders due to their reprogramming and will still see the world largely as they were programmed to see it. Hostility back at them can push them back into the cult or into a different cult that promises to manage that vulnerability for them (and thus, we have former Wokesters that go alt-right).
In general, we want to help people leave the cult and avoid radicalizing in another direction as they go. It does none of us any good to turn rabid antiracists into open white supremacists. There is a very broad, very sane middle way here that holds all the moral high ground and the keys to a properly better future in society. It’s our job to invite people to see it that way. We shouldn’t scare them off from it.
To summarize, then, Wokeness is a cult. It might even be, in its broadest functions, a proper religion at this point with a describable and fanatic cult element within it and protected by the relative reasonability of the broader faith. Antiracism, in particular, under its auspices is explicitly framed religiously and with clear patterns of cult initiation written all over it. This is what we’re up against.
Postscript: In 2018, the “whiteness educator” Robin DiAngelo published a bestselling book called White Fragility. This book is intended to teach white people about their own racism. You can learn more about how manipulative white fragility, as a concept (and book) is here, by reading this slightly modified real chapter from the book. It just turns the manipulation up a little to make it more visible.