Day by Day Daily Cartoon by Chris Muir

The Mad Scientist... Mwahahahahahahahaha

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A cult dissected

Are cults bad? Yes, they are, for the most part. It's not always what they teach, but it's the effect they have on their members, and the society at large. The problem is, they proliferate like cockroaches, because people have a need to congregate and belong to something larger than themselves. Cults are not only religious in nature; there are personality cults, for instance. It may be useful to know, generally speaking, just what a cult looks like.

Now, I'm not taking aim at any cult, but just laying out what I think the general characteristics of a cult are. Why do something like this when there are a few million other sites out there who can do the same thing (and in fact do the same thing)? Well, because I can - it's my blog, after all. But also because I think a lot of people can benefit from a mature discussion of cults and cultic behaviour. I know, I know, many atheists (especially of the strawman kind, of which there are distressingly a large number) believe all religions and belief systems are cults, but bear with me.

Contrary to popular belief, cults do not necessarily have to espouse different doctrines to mainstream religions. Heretic cults do, but not all cults. However, if you do espouse mutually antagonistic doctrines to the core doctrines of a mainstream religion, then by definition you are a heretic cult, and there are no two ways about it. For example, in Christianity, almost all denominations are in agreement that (i) the Triune God created the universe (let's not quibble over the amount of time it took, because let's face facts, time is a relative thing whether you're a YEC like myself or not); (ii) Mankind was created to be stewards over creation, but we screwed it up; (iii) Through God's plans, which included raising up a people and a nation unto Himself, the Israelites (or the Jews, as they are commonly called now), so that His Son Jesus Christ, a Jew born to Jews who is somehow both fully God and fully Man, having a dual-nature, may be born and raised in their midst, we now have the opportunity to become part of God's family, and (iv) we may become godly but not Godlike or Gods ourselves. Any group holding doctrines contrary to this and still calling themselves Christians are cults. Of course, if they
don't self-identify as such, then they may or may not be cults; not sufficient information.

A surefire way of identifying a cult is by looking at the way they treat their members. Some or all of these may apply;
  1. Their idea of obtaining new members is aggressiveness and persistence. Sometimes annoyance, but that is a subjective issue. Unfortunately, the ways and means of such expansions are hard to pinpoint; at some stage, though, it may simply become the law of the land.
  2. As you delve deeper and deeper into the inner councils of the cult, there are initiation rituals that become less and less open to the rest of the world (and even the group itself).
  3. You are encouraged very strongly to limit your social exposure to fellow cult members. Your entire life must revolve around cult activities and group interactions, so much so that even your marriage is dictated by such membership. Marriage to a non-cultist (if permitted at all) must serve to bring them inside the cult, and your children must be indoctrinated into the cult as soon as possible. In some cults, your money is sucked away from you, and you're basically guilt-tripped into this.
  4. Exiting the cult is forbidden on pains of death, or worse. What could be worse? Well, a total severance of your former relationships, even with your spouse, or children, or other family. You will be shunned, a social pariah amongst the other cultists, generally blacklisted and blackballed. In severe cases, 'interventions' may be staged which include brainwashing, social reconditioning, etc.
No matter how large or outwardly respectable any organisation is, if two or more of these apply, then you are surely dealing with a cult.

All cults look on outsiders (non-cultists) in one of two ways (and there is no third way); (i) potentially future cultists, and thus to be persistently approached, or (ii) fools and enemies of the state, either to be destroyed on sight or to be judiciously used to further cult goals before discarded and destroyed, depending on how dangerous and intelligent they are perceived to be. Outsiders are never seen as neutral; if they cannot be brought into the fold then they cannot be trusted or relied upon as friendly.

All of this, by the way, is the default, 'ideal' operational mode of a cult. That is to say, it's the theory, at any rate. In practice, it's not so simple as all that. It depends on the size of your cult, as well as its influence on the neighbourhoods and communities the cult has a presence in. It also depends on how committed the individual cultists are - as with all groups, you can have those ranging from the most fervent fundamentalists, to those who are Cultists In Name Only. Of course, the range is not as great, and by the very definition of a cult you'd have far more committed members than not.

Applying these rules of thumb, however, can help you identify a potential cult before you enter into any kind of relationship with them. By these yardsticks, JWs and Mormons are cults, Islam potentially verges on being a cult, and sadly enough, historically speaking, Roman Catholics and Protestants both have acted in rather cultish manners.

Such cultish behaviour, by the way, is only exaggerated online. Go ahead; join any Internet forum you wish; say one on, oh, Manchester United. Then say something complimentary about Barcelona, or Real Madrid, or Liverpool. Just try. I guarantee you, you will instantly see what I mean.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The nature of identity

Typically, amnesiacs on TV are shown to ask "Who am I?" as the first question out of their mouths when they come to. For any number of reasons, the show usually then revolves around them trying to rediscover their memories, so that they can recover themselves and reclaim their self-identity.

This post is not so much looking at identity as how the world sees it, or what the legal definition of it is. What I am trying to discover here is how we perceive identity - that is, how do we see ourselves?

The nature of our identity is of primary importance - if we know who we are and why we are, then we can have a better idea of where we want to go, or what needs to be done to get us to who we want to become. The question then arises: who are we, and how do we construct our identity?

It's a complex issue. The Judaeo-Christian view of Man is holistic and threefold; body, mind and soul. We are expressed in three dimensions, that is to say; physically, mentally and spiritually. None of these are more important than the other - you cannot function as a proper human being without any of the three. So naturally, one would hope that people understood and accepted their identity as holistic in nature.

Alas, this is not the case. As we know, many people make a single facet of their being an identity unto itself. Bad enough that someone else does it to you, but to do it to yourself...? An identity is not a simple thing. I am a Chinese by descent (and if I had a choice, that too), Malaysian by nationality, male by right of XY chromosomal pairs, fat by genetics and behaviour, omnisexual by impulse and heterosexual by choice, a marketer by education and trade, a Christian by God's grace, an Anglican by birth, baptism and confirmation. That does not even begin to sum up my identity, or how I see myself, not by a long shot. I have yet to describe my temperament, my likes and dislikes, my hopes, dreams, goals etc.

But here's what really gets me. I am no stranger to discrimination; you cannot be a Chinese Christian living in Malaysia and say honestly that you have never been discriminated against in a systematic, non-personal way. And indeed, by no means am I race-neutral or colour-blind or what-have-you; Chinese are the superior race and destined to conquer the world one way or the other (although espousing Anglo-Saxon values alongside Chinese ones, speaking English and spreading the Gospel by preference so I'm not saying your typical Ah Pek is going to cut it). But that isn't all of who I am, not even a quarter. Yes, it underlies me, but I am certainly not going to march up and down the streets of Putrajaya just because of it - and when I see this Feminist Pride, or Gay Pride, or Black Power stuff disgracing themselves in front of the world, it really really bugs me.

Now mind you, it's not the 'in-your-face' stuff that bugs me - the dressing, or the strident voices, or the interminably anvilicious speeches. That's all an irritation, but I can turn off the telly, no big deal. No, it's the fact that... I dunno, that it demonstrates a certain degree of shallowness to the people who turn out in these things. It's one thing to take pride in an achievement, you see, so if you're in a parade because you're part of the police force, or the Navy, or the fire brigade, then march proudly, because you have made a conscious choice to serve in a particular capacity. The Scottish bagpipers can take pride in their mastery of that... unique musical instrument, shall we say.

But no, these jokers are going in the various X Pride parades and marches for something they (supposedly) have no control or choice over. Worse; they define themselves, and derive their identity, from a single facet of a single dimension of their being. And to such people, I would like to pose this question: W. T. F?!

Seriously, think about it. In the same way that racists react negatively to you because you are a Negro, you are the flip side of the coin, but you still accept other people's definition of you as a Negro, or a Latino, or a homosexual. You buy into their perception, only that you're saying it's a good thing, not a bad thing. You derive your self-worth and your self-identity from being part of a group largely defined not by actions or ideals, but by a singular characteristic (physical in many cases).

Isn't there more to you than that? Aren't you worth more than just your genitals, or your skin colour, or your prurient thoughts? Wouldn't it be better if you could say that you are proud, not because you are a woman, but because you are the Mayor of Tokyo? Or not because you are gay, but because you are a faithful husband and biological father of three? Or not because you are black, but because you are the CEO of AGL?

As stated earlier, identity is complex. There is no doubt that our physical selves are fundamental and core to the way we see ourselves. And of course, we shouldn't be defining ourselves solely on our achievements either. ALl I am saying is, we shouldn't accept other people's stereotypes of ourselves and adopt that as our identity; there needs to be more than that.

Sadly, I cannot see these people coming out in full force during Asian-American Appreciation Week as demonstrating any kind of depth to their character and showcasing the fullness of their identities. But then again, I'm tired and it's near bed time. Quite possibly my own brans have shut down by now.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

And now, for something completely different

I have been saving up my leave, and will continue to do so for the rest of the year, so that I can go back to Australia for a visit. My siblings are there, after all.

One of the things I miss about Down Under is the food. Even though Malaysia truly has an outstanding selection of food choices, nevertheless there are certain economic peculiarities about Australia that make for a gourmand's paradise.

Some examples; in South Australia, where I spend most of my years, chicken breasts were muchly prized (presumably because they were lean meat) and hence most of the restaurants and hawker outlets cooked with chicken thighs, drumsticks and wings. Another thing is that Malaysian restaurants, especially the non-German and non-Chinese ones, are predominantly pork-free, this being a nod to economic reality with a Muslim-majority population. I miss my pork ribs and bacon, what can I say?

But the one thing I miss the most, which is available only in two North Adelaide shops AFAIK, is the AB. Usually bowdlerised as Atomic Bomb (because you'll feel like you'd explore after eating it), it's actually short for abortion, and it's as messy as the word implies. With a base of Aussie chips (sort of short, fat fries), yiros meat (chicken, lamb or both), garlic sauce (and lots of it), chilli and BBQ sauces, it is truly heart attack food. And oh boy, is it ever tasty...

Yes, it's silly to spend a few grand just to have some food. but oh, so satisfying.

Friday, May 15, 2009

TVTropes introduction

I have been spending the past 3 months or so rummaging through the most fascinating little site known as TVTropes. It is a listing of, well... let's explain a bit of terminology as used by the site first. The term trope, in context, is a kind of mnemonic shortcut based on a cultural understanding which allows storytellers (it says TV, but really storytellers in any medium) to tell their story without explicitly setting everything up. To give you an example, if I wanted to tell a fairytale, all I need to do is add a princess, a handsome price, maybe an evil stepmother, and a good witch. Once I have all these elements, the story practically writes itself! Each element (trope) carries a certain expectation with it, and tells the audience what to expect. Its usefulness, therefore, is limited to the viewer having seen (or at least possess some familiarity to) this kind of setup before; for example, if you have never seen Mythbusters or Top Gear (Braniacs, Smash Lab etc etc etc) before, then you might not understand why there is such a thing as Education Through Pyrotechnics.

It is an immensely time-consuming site, which is why I haven't resumed my old habits of dropping by my usual blog haunts. Not to mention, incredibly addictive. The worst thing is, you can now see all of these 'tropes' in real life; when I see two girls chumming up, immediately I'm thinking LesYay. Remembering my old schoolmate, who was a HotLibrarian as well as a Meganekko, whose voice never went above a whisper except that one time when it created an EarthShatteringKaboom, I am reminded that you really need to BewareTheNiceOnes.

Have no idea what I'm talking about? Go to the site and search the terms, one of the most fun things to do.

TVTropes is fun, don't doubt it. There is a seriousness behind it, though, in the sense that mostly, these tropes come about because there is a common body of knowledge and cultural osmosis, so to speak, that enables the storytellers to draw upon shared experiences that most people will be able to grasp. Because of this, there is a certain amount of realism in these tropes, which can be looked at in a deeper sense - and that is what I will be thinking about for the next few posts. Assuming I can tear myself away long enough to post, of course.