The Extremism Gradient

Fear Of Retribution

Im going to be talking about lots of groups which are viewed as extremist. I hear similar claims from opposing sides about each other. The colloquial “SJW’s” hate “Anti-SJW’s” because they use extensive propaganda in the form of memes. They have unquestioning loyalty to a set of ideas, they reject information that’s critical of the ideology, etc. I hear the same arguments from Anti-SJW’s about SJW’s. There are common patterns running through these types of groups, and I’m going to detail them here.

This is just a way for you to recognize extreme thinking and behavior in yourself, whether or not you feel the criticisms I level toward specific groups are justified. This is not an indictment of any one group I name, or any single member within that group. It’s possible that you’re a member of one of the groups I list and you aren’t extreme. If that’s the case, great. Congratulations. You don’t have anything to think about here. Just sit back and enjoy the rest of this. If you come in here and get defensive about the things I’m saying, I suggest you take a critical look at your system of beliefs and behaviors and ask yourself why you feel this applies to you, and why it might be best to change it.

I’ve addressed these groups in the past and faced a lot of backlash for it. I’ve seen careers ended over addressing these groups. By talking about vegans, SJW’s, the Health at Every Size movement, and others, I risk ending my career, too. There’s probably an extremist out there who’s going to attack me after this, but my job is to cover cults and how they operate. I have to cover these subjects. I can’t avoid my area of study for fear it’ll upset somebody.

When I got into this line of work, I was primarily addressing Jehovahs witnesses, mormons, and scientologists. I faced minimal backlash for it, because their members are barred from listening to critical information. As I’ll explain in a minute, the cults I’m about to address aren’t barred from hearing critical information, and as such, are prepared to turn the full force of their vitriol toward me. That’s okay with me. At least I’ll go down knowing I was intellectually honest.

How Cults Differ

Steven Hassan wrote the bite model years ago, and it’s commonly used to identify groups as cults, but I’ve used the bite model to identify all kinds of groups from social groups like SJW’s, Anti-SJW’s, and Vegans to political groups like Trump supporters, Onision fans, and Bernie bros. How do those groups compare to Jehovah’s Witnesses? How do Jehovah’s Witnesses compare to a group like Heaven’s Gate? How can I equate Veganism to People’s Temple, AKA Jonestown? By saying that the Veganism movement, or even the Anti-Veganism movement is a  cult, it feels like I’m saying they’re the same as a doomsday group like Heaven’s Gate. For that reason, I’ve decided to split it up into levels. The first model I want to present is what I call “The Cult Layer Model” [3A].

The Cult Layer Model [3A]

Decentralized, non-focused extremist groups are what I call level 1 cults. Groups like Incels, different varieties of supremacists, the Health at Every Size movement, Anti-Vaxers, Essential Oils proponents, Facebook mom groups, TERFS, and Flat Earthers would fit into this category. They’re different from groups like Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, or Jehovah’s Witnesses in many ways, but for the sake of the model, the main distinction I’m going to make is the fact that they don’t have a hierarchy to reenforce their ideology and behaviors. We’ll get into the differences more in a minute.

The second category is decentralized and focused. I call these groups level 2 cults. They’re focused on a single figure which provides much of the ideology, but there still isn’t much of a hierarchy in place. This would include groups like Teal Swan, Trump supporters, Bernie Bros, and Spirit Science. Your cult of personality would fit into this category.

The third category is centralized, or hierarchical, and focused. I call these groups level 3 cults. This would be Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish, People’s Temple, and Heaven’s Gate. These are standard, colloquial cults, and you can use Steven Hassan’s BITE model to identify them.

How do level 1 cults really differ from level 3 cults? All of these groups have lots of commonalities between them, but the main distinction between them is when there is no leadership hierarchy present, members of the group build up a hierarchy organically. Which brings me to the new model: The Extremism Gradient. I have a few sections on this model. First , we’ll take a look at the model for level 1 cults [3B]. is thought control. Then I have information control. And finally, I have role model formation. Let’s take a look at the role model formation section first. 

The Extremism Gradient: Level 1 Cults [3B]

In centralized, hierarchical groups, “good examples” are defined by the leadership. In decentralized, unfocused groups, like level 1 cults, members turn to others for guidance, which leads to a kind of mock-hierarchy forming organically. In some cases, this can lead to pockets of centralized, focused extremist groups. When this happens, a level 1 cult turns into a level 2 or a level 3 cult, depending on the hierarchical structure. For example, the Alt-Right movement didn’t have much of a leadership until Richard Spencer came along. Then a good portion of the group aligned with him. He started defining the ideology for them. It transitioned into a level 2 cult. That doesn’t mean that the level 1 aspect of it completely disappeared. Some people remained as level 1 members and just use him to form out their ideology, but don’t treat him as a final authority. They just use him, Milo Yiannopoulos, and other thought leaders in the movement to form out their ideology. To be a level 2 cult, they have to treat one specific source as their final authority for information on certain subjects. That doesn’t mean they get all their information from them, it just means that if they’re contradicted in some way, they default to accepting what that one source says over anything else.

Role Formation

How does the hierarchy form organically? What moves somebody up the chain? I have 3 points under this section right now. I call the section “Role Model Formation” [3C]. These are the ways in which you raise your status within the hierarchy.

Role Model Formation [3C]
  1. Suffering or persecution reinforces and promotes status within the group
  2. Criticizing other group members promotes status within the group
  3. Personal success is linked to group acceptance

Point 1 is often called the persecution complex. People in level 1 cults have an obsession with persecution. It makes them feel validated.

On January 20, 2017, Richard Spencer was attending the inauguration of Donald Trump. As he was giving an interview, a masked man approached him and punched him in the face. Many people praised the masked figure for fighting fascism, but look at the result. He was validated; turned into a hero. People felt sympathy for him. It gave him credibility.

Another good example of this can be found in the Health at Every Size movement. For those who are unfamiliar, the Health at Every Size movement claims that the term “overweight” is propaganda. If your body is telling you that you need another jelly donut then it’s because your body needs another jelly donut. People telling you that it’s unhealthy to eat too much, or to be over a certain weight, are spreading propaganda. They categorize themselves into groups they call “small fat”, “medium fat” and “Infinifat”. The bigger you are, the more persecuted you are, and the higher your status within the group.

The Health at Every Size movement is a good example of point 2. They have Facebook and Reddit groups where they criticize each other for the language they use, or for the ideas they espouse. This kind of thing reenforces the belief system, and as the members do it, they’re defining themselves as an example for others to follow and forming out the ideology. The more extreme an individual within the group gets, the better example they are, and their status within the group rises; the more respected they are.

Point 3, personal success is linked to group acceptance, leads people to police others actions and beliefs more and more. The member wants to find acceptance within the group. They want to see group success, and that means policing others actions. These groups form into a kind of echo chamber where oppositional voices are shouted down or removed completely. The more time you spend in the group, the more radicalized the member becomes. It all seems completely normal to the member, because the people with whom they surround themselves all agree with their positions on things. Some are even more extreme than them, so they view themselves as moderate and reasonable. When the member goes to twitter, or talks to family members about the ideology, or take the thought and action policing outside of that group, they get called a cult member. The people to whom they’re presenting the ideology don’t subscribe to the social hierarchy. In fact, in many cases, they find that many of the people around them aren’t even aware that the ideology existed. When they present the ideas to friends and family, it all seems very out of left field.

The Extremism Gradient 

Anti-Vax [3D]

“Don’t vaccinate your kids period! The government bully you into vaccine! Do your research on the shit and watch the documentary vaxxed” [3D]. The person in figure [3D] is obviously buying into the propaganda presented by their group.  They think it’s common sense; they think it’s normal. They think that’s a well-reasoned thing to say, and they’re trying to reach out to the wider world to present their ideas to everybody else. But wider society sees it for what it is: completely detached from reality.

Anti-Vax [3E]

“I am not anti vax, but I understand why some parents do not want those chemicals in their children’s bodies. I think instead of chemical shots the doctors should give a small piece of the virus, so the body can build natural immunity. Like  the chicken pox playdates we had as kids” [3E]

That’s literally exactly what a vaccine is: it’s a deactivated virus. At least, it’s one method of producing vaccines. The virus is rendered harmless by truncating it. Then, the patient is injected with the virus’s DNA so that the immune system can pick it up, recognize it, and create protections against it, without risk of harm. What the individual in [3E] said made perfect sense within their group, but 

they’re completely unaware that the moment they step out of their group and spread the ideas to wider society, they sound absurd.

That’s the extremism gradient. People get radicalized within these groups through a process of role model formation, where criticism or propaganda is spread to the other group members, and  

whoever can criticize or provide the most information which is in line with the ideology has their status promoted to a higher level. The moment they try to present those ideas to wider society, they’re attacked for it. 

Anti-Vax [3F]

“Vaccination is not disease prevention. It’s a particularly nasty form of organized crime.” [3F]

This is a propagandistic meme intended to spread and form out the ideology.

“My sister’s daughter received MMR vaccine. She has big behavioral issues now. 

Anti-Vax [3G]

Screaming, not cooperating, and she also started to hit herself on the head while yelling. I’m assuming it’s a side effect but what exactly? Help me explain to my sister.” [3G]

The response from the community: brain damage. They have no way of knowing that, and no reason to think that’s the case, but every time another person hits the “like” button, it reaffirms the belief that they espoused without evidence. 

Another wrinkle to the extremism gradient is information control [3H]. Something you’ll find running through the Anti-Vax, Health at Every Size, and Alt-Right communities is extensive use of memes. The thought leaders of these communities will often recognize the extremism gradient and know that they aren’t going to reach people by busting out the craziest ideas they’ve got, so lower-status people will come out of these movements with very questionable ideas. The 

Information Control [3H]

thought leaders, on the other hand, will present more reasoned propaganda to present to the world; something that everybody can get onboard with. It works the same way with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology. They put the most extreme control tactics and information behind barriers. With Jehovah’s Witnesses, you have to spend a year or two studying and attending meetings to basically prove your dedication to the cause before they’ll allow you to be baptized and unleash the full force of their control techniques. With Scientology, they don’t even reveal their full set of beliefs until you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to reach certain levels within the group. Let’s take a look at some of the propaganda from the Health at Every Size movement. 

Health at Every Size [3I]

“A reminder that ‘Diet Culture’ is a sneaky bitch by posing as ‘wellness’. Posts about your wellness journey could be triggering, and we should be mindful of our friends who may be going through recovery with disordered eating.”

When you see the term “disordered eating”, what comes to mind? Do you think “eating disorders”, like anorexia or bulimia? You would be incorrect. Disordered eating means not eating what your body is telling you that you need. Eating one donut instead of six would be an example of disordered eating.

This next meme is a good example of how movements can start out good, and have good foundations, and have moderate, honest, charitable, constructive members, but also have an extremist branch. 

Health at Every Size [3J]

A woman wearing a shirt that says “no body left behind”, and a note that says “I stand for bodies of all sizes an ages to be free from bullying”. That’s a message we can all get behind: anti-bullying. It’s something I agree with. We shouldn’t be bullying people. However, the extremist branch of this movement says that people who try to lose weight at all is inherently bullying. I stand for trans rights. I stand for gay rights unequivocally. I am a social justice advocate, but there’s lots of propagandistic information that comes out of the SJW movement. There’s lots of propagandistic information that comes out of the Anti-SJW movement and the Health at Every size movement. People who are overweight are aware that they’re overweight. They don’t need that fact ground into their faces. I went to school for substance abuse counseling, and eating disorders fall into that category. If I went up to an addict and berated them for an hour, would it help? Would it make them change their ways? Absolutely not. It would make them feel more depressed, and send them deeper into addiction. Minds aren’t changed by berating and shaming people. Berating somebody to make them change makes sense intuitively, but statistics show that it doesn’t help, it makes things worse. No matter how much sense it makes intuitively, that’s just not how it works. The negative impact far outweighs any potential positive impact. That being said, there’s a difference between berating and shaming people, and pointing out propaganda. 

Health at Every Size [3K]

“Intentionally losing weight is anti-fat. Here’s a thought to ponder: intentionally losing weight is anti-fat. We all know it’s true: losing weight on purpose leads to fewer fats and validates the stereotype that fat bones are less desirable”. This meme seems absurd to outsiders. Losing weight is discrimination? But when you join the group looking for somebody to validate you and the way you feel, you’ll be willing to hear anything they have to say.

Loaded Language And Cliche’s 

Memes aren’t just pictures. Memes come in the form of words or cliche’s that people use to keep an idea alive. The term “health at every size” is itself a cliche, or a meme, that’s passed around by the group [3L].

Health at Every Size [3L]

Other groups use loaded language and cliches to pass their ideas around, too. They’ll talk about the animal holocaust that’s happening, and if you aren’t a Vegan then you’re a holocaust supporter. 

Veganism [3M]

“Please do your research re: the evils of carbs. This is what your brain needs to function. Do your research into diabetes and the SAD. The top 15 causes of death in the united states is caused from eating animals. They kill pigs by gassing them in chambers and get cooked from the inside out. When they realize they cannot breath- hear their screams. Cows are slaughtered and dissected while still alive. Check at the #1 reason for Amazon rainforest destruction is caused to feed cattle. What is causing dead zones currently in the oceans- fecal swamp run off. This can be stopped if we stop animal exploitation.of course other reasons that is destroying the earth but you got to start somewhere.” [3M]

Is that true? What are the top 15 causes of death in the US? Let’s take a look. These are the top ten, From the CDC website [3N].

  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Unintentional injuries, or accidents
  4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
  5. Stroke
  6. Alzheimer’s disease
  7. Diabetes
  8. Influenza and pneumonia
  9. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis
  10. Intentional self-harm

Are any of these linked to eating meat? The case could be made for some of these that not eating enough vegetables was a contributing factor, but heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injuries or accidents aren’t connected to an omnivore diet. No direct causal link has been demonstrated between eating an omnivore diet and chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, intentional self harm, or nephritis.

Not to mention the fact that pigs aren’t killed the way they described in the comment. Cows are not dissected while they’re still alive, either. But within their bubble, within their echo chamber, within their hierarchy, they raise their status by espousing views like this.

Thought Control

The next section of the model I want to cover is thought control [3O]. 

Thought Control [3O]

The example I give for “placing exaggerated importance on events or ideas” pertains to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They dont believe in celebrating Christmas. They think it’s a pagan practice and it’s wrong. Instead of celebrating it like the rest of society, they boycott the entire Christmas industry. They won’t buy Christmas themed snow globes. They won’t buy candy around the holidays. Is their boycott really affecting the industry that much? Is it doing anything other than hurting them? No, it’s not. Despite the fact that they’re 8.5 million strong, the Christmas industry is largely unaffected by Jehovah’s Witnesses boycott. Despite that fact, they’ll go to extreme lengths to show their disdain for the industry. The similarities for Jehovah’s Witnesses with Christmas and Veganism with the meat industry are stunning. Vegans will go out of their way to support industries that align with their moral system, and they’ll go out of their way to boycott industries that don’t. The line of reasoning does make sense, at face value. I don’t get all my coffee cups and keychains from the creation museum. But the level to which these groups go to modify their behavior and thinking to line up with their ideology is extreme. There are non-extreme ways to accomplish your goals. Does the end justify the means?

The next point on the model is “aligning your moral system with a larger ideology”, and “changing language to conform to the group’s moral system”. If you take a look at Steven Hassan’s influence continuum [3P],

Influence Continuum [3P]

it shows groups that are exerting destructive influence over a member will encourage them to base their moral system off of doctrine rather than their own conscience. The unique thing about level 1 cults is that they dont have a fully formed out doctrine or belief system like level 2 or level 3 cults have, because there’s no final authority to tell them “this is right”, or “this is wrong”. Their doctrine is formed out by their fellow members. The leader is the person who can be the most extreme, criticize the most people, and provide the most propaganda, bringing them to the very top of the hierarchy. As a result, when somebody joins one of these groups, they have no way of knowing where they’re going to fit in the hierarchy until they start taking part in the role model formation process. For example, somebody might join a Vegan Facebook group and reveal that they’re willing to wear leather, as long as the leather was bought secondhand so the company doesn’t profit from the sale, only to find themselves being berated and emotionally destroyed for that position, because everybody who takes part in berating and criticizing has their group status elevated as a result.

Changing Language

In many cases, these groups change the way they use common English to support their position. For example, they wont use the term “it” to refer to animals. They’ll arbitrarily assign gender to the animals to humanize them. When they talk about a cow on a farm, they’ll say “she”. In some groups famously hold the position that we shouldn’t be using gendered language at all. We should be using “they” to refer to everybody. These seem like small changes, but it’s something that you find within extremist groups, for better or worse. Changing language to match and support an underlying ideology.

The final point under this category is “distrust of general society, or opponents, with undue trust placed in fellow members”. As aforementioned, this is the us versus them mentality, and it also encompasses shunning. In decentralized, non-focused extremist groups, there’s no leadership to tell you whether or not you should shun people. Even so, people DO shun outsiders or non-believers. But this goes beyond just the shunning aspect. This gets into the level of trust that people have for non-believers. Group members commonly accept something that believers have to say without question. This is heavily linked to “unquestioning loyalty to a set of ideas” and “suppression of skepticism”. Politicians pull this trick all the time to lure in new voters. They’ll espouse an extreme position, or use a dog whistle. The most extreme members of the group will catch on and trust the person even more, while the typical voter won’t think anything of it.

Behavior Modification

There’s one more point on the model that I want to address. It’s what I consider to be the most significant point on the BITE model: behavior modification. In my opinion, this is the distinguishing factor between cults and non-cults. The famous psychologist, Pavlov, was studying operant and classical conditioning. He ran an experiment with a dog. He would ring a bell and feed the dog. The next day, he would ring a bell and feed the dog. The next day, he would do the very same thing: ring a bell and feed the dog. But one day, he rang the bell but he didn’t feed the dog. The dog started salivating at the sound of the bell. It was expecting food. Two completely unconnected events are now linked in the mind of this dog. The sound of a bell ringing, and the action of eating food. He programmed a behavior into this dog; a behavior that was completely out of the dog’s control. That’s how cults operate. That is what sets them apart from standard religions or groups. Hierarchical cults, which are level-3, enforce behavior modification to program in a cult personality through a system of rewards for the right behavior, behavior that matches up with the rules, and a system of punishments for the wrong behavior: behavior that breaks the rules. At the end of the process, an entirely new personality emerges. Jehovah’s Witnesses call it “The New Personality”, or “the christian personality”. With level 1, and sometimes with level 2 cults, there is no hierarchy to enforce the behavior modification. In level 1 cults, decentralized, unfocused extremist groups, there’s self-imposed behavior modification based on the ideology rather than having it imposed by a leadership. The group members keep each other in check by criticizing and policing each other’s actions. It starts out as a method of elevating their status within the group, but it ends in an organically formed hierarchy and a system of rewards and punishments that programs in a cult personality.

References

[3N] CDC top ten causes of death in the US: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_06-508.pdf

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