Saturday, April 13, 2013

Breeding cult-ish behavior in social media

Of late, television has looked to cults as a basis for plot lines in series. And not just any run-of-the-mill cults, but very high-functioning ones. CBS' series The Mentalist--now in its fifth season--actually deals with two  high-functioning cults: one surrounding the primary antagonist of the series--the serial killer Red John--and another cult somehow associated with Red John named Visualize. In the last year, two new series have appeared with such high-functioning cults: The Following on Fox and Cult on The CW.

What I mean by high-functioning is that these various cults are able to pull off all kinds of impressive actions; they have members who are more than capable in most every possible field of endeavor. The level of sophistication when it comes to computer usage for instance is close to stunning. It's superior to the skill set of the authorities almost as a matter of course. Cult members in The Following have also displayed impressive military capabilities. In the case of both it and The Mentalist--I'm less familiar with CW's Cult--cult members have infiltrated law enforcement agencies across the board, at the highest levels, and from day one.

This all can make for exciting action--or ridiculously unbelievable action, depending on your point of view--but it is just make believe. There's no all-powerful serial killer out there with a secret army of near-genius followers just waiting to do his or her bidding, even give up their lives, at the drop of  a hat. Is there?

I'm a big believer in the idea that movies and television can tell us something about the nature of society in a given period. What is popular is not only a function of good writing, good acting, and good production, but also of a cultural zeitgeist that cannot always be pinned down or even defined until it has passed.

For instance, I would argue that the popularity of The Sopranos was as much a function of the times as it was the excellence of the show itself. Debuting in 1999, the wide appeal of the show was  a consequence of it's less-than-clear protagonist/antagonist dichotomy. The unbridled economic success of the United States and the relative pax americana throughout the world since the fall of the Wall created a kind of villain-free sense of society; this was an unnatural or at least infrequent state of affairs for Americans. The Sopranos filled the void--quite unintentionally--by supplying a villain who wasn't really a villain, by providing an outlet for societal angst once directed at "the others" and at a lack of personal economic success.

But sometimes the cultural zeitgeist is more than obvious in the moment, the prime example being the explosion of monster-movies in Japan--led by Gojira (Godzilla)--as a response to the aftermath of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The monsters--huge, city-devouring ones--were stand-ins for the atomic bombs, nightmares given substance but in such a way as to allow them to be fought off and ultimately overcome. Again, it was a void to fill, a void that needed filling.

Similar arguments might be made for the hugely popular sci-fi epics of the 1970's. People looked to the stars after the success of the space program and in response to a less-than-impressive economy, a dirty President (Nixon), and an ugly war (Vietnam). And this also serves to explain why the original Star Trek series was less than successful: it appeared too early, having premiered in 1966. It's popularity grew dramatically in the seventies. Imagine how it might have been received if it first aired in 1972 or 1973. Those few short years likely made all of the difference for the mood of the nation.

Which brings us back to the current potential trend: high-functioning cults. Perhaps it's too early to pin down the cause, but I'm going to make the attempt. I think there are two things at work in this regard. First, there is the now-widespread belief in the idea of nefarious government plots, starting during the Bush Presidency and continuing into the Obama Presidency. These cults we see on television represent a counter to this, oddly enough. People believe that government agents are already engaging in such behavior and these cults are the pushback, the idea that there is a counter to government conspiracies, at least in the land of imagination.

Second and more importantly, there is a growing trend of turning causes or ideas into full-fledged cults of personality. Obviously, President Obama occupies the pinnacle here. But there have been similar movements around other national figures like Sarah Palin. And there have been attempts to create the same by opponents of the potential figurehead, like with the Koch brothers and George Soros (the cult of personality inverted leads to a kind of bogeyman character).

The means through which all of this is accomplished? Social media, by and large.The incessant sharing and liking of pictures and soundbites creates a leader-follower dynamic entered into by person after person with nary a thought of maintaining their individualism. Consider Facebook pages like "I love it when I wake up in the morning and Barack Obama is President." At different times, I'm literally barraged with shares form pages like this one, usually in the form of a poster with some kind of anti-Repub "gotcha" slogan. The "likes" and the shares of such things oftentimes run into the thousands and again establish the leader-follower (mindless follower) dynamic. That is, in my opinion, cult-like behavior. Activity on Twitter and other sites follows the same pattern.

Already, a new cult of personality is rapidly taking shape in the world of social media: that of Hillary Clinton. Look at this page, "Ready for Hillary." People are liking it and sharing it like crazy, despite the fact that the next Presidential election is still years away. This was the image shared from the above page today:

Shares--according to the link--are over 2,200. Talk about your mindless sheep. They want her why, exactly? Ask them and ten will get you twenty most don't have a clue in the least. Yet they're all ready to pledge their support--"devotion" is far more apt--to this woman.

Hillary Clinton may not want to be the head of a cult, but it's happening whether she likes it or not. And I think it's a consequence of the mindless parroting of ideas and pictures occurring in social media, by and large. People are being effectively trained to believe that such repetition can actually represent independent thought. And thus it's taken as a given that people engaging in such activity are not the sheep they really are, are capable of deep thought, critical thinking, are--in fact--high functioning citizens. Is it any wonder that they accept the premise of high functioning cults? It's a justification of their own self-image.

Cheers, all.

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