The social-justice activism that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s killing has taken on a religious-cult atmosphere but boasts numbers far larger than those of a mere cult.
Thousands of Black Lives Matter allies in Bethesda, Maryland, raise their hands toward the sky and repeat in monotone the solemn pledges called out by their leader. At a similar gathering in Cary, North Carolina, white BLM devotees take to their knees and wash the feet of the event’s black organizers. A social-justice expert gets on CNN and announces that white children “don’t deserve innocence.” And, lest we forget the rest of the family, an op-ed in the New York Times suggests texting “your relatives and loved ones telling them you will not be visiting them or answering phone calls until they take significant action in supporting black lives either through protest or financial contributions.”
Every day, we wake up to more evidence that we’ve passed through a cosmic wormhole into a social-justice North Korea. How has this happened? Why?
Here’s why: Because just as in the movies, a global pandemic created an army of zombies. Four-hundred years of mistreating black people is a horror well worth serious protest. But 100 days of depleting every known truth in peoples’ lives ensured that the protest would look like a national Raëlian conversion.
The Covid-19 pandemic removed all certainty from people’s existence and left them unsure of everything—what they do, who they should interact with, what anyone knows. The days of the week and the hours of those days lost meaning. People couldn’t even rely on the seasons changing. Not really. What was there to mark the start of spring or summer when you had to stay indoors and hear about death and despair all day?
On top of it all, any hoped-for resumption of normal life was pushed ever further into the future. In other words, millions of Americans were broken, psychologically deprogrammed, and made into ideal potential cult recruits. (And it didn’t help that they were denied physically attendance at actual religious services the whole time). Emptied of the things they had previously relied on to know who they were—including the presumed soundness of the American system in which they participated—people took to the protests like it was the only real thing in the world. It brought purpose, structure, moral focus, and a new true north to millions of shapeless lives.
“When you feel your identity isn’t stable, or you’re not really sure of who you are, then a cult makes it simple,” says the psychologist Perpetua Neo. Even more to the point, according to the late psychologist and renowned cult expert Margaret Singer, cults thrive “during breakdowns in the structure and rules of the prevailing society.” We’re only now beginning to emerge from a societal breakdown the likes of which we’ve never before witnessed.
All this accounts for why this moment of protest feels so different from others in our recent past. It’s why previously sober people are now saying crazy things. It’s why some Americans are kneeling before others. It’s why family bonds are being deprioritized in favor of group aims. And it’s why the noble cause of civil rights is transforming into an authoritarian and obscurantist theology before our eyes.