On malleable boundaries and the cultish logic of neoliberal identitarianism
Neoliberal identitarianism may not be a formalized cult, but the enforcement of its doctrine through the accountability spectacle certainly is cult-like.
In October I started my podcast, Out of the Woods, to showcase stories of people who were once believers in something they now deem cult-ish. Most interviewees were devoted followers who eventually had a crisis of faith upon realizing what they believed in was dangerous to themselves or others, and thus decided to leave. The premise of the podcast is that people can experience cult-like dynamics even if they are not in what we would formally categorize as a cult, and that having such an experience can result in similar psychological distress as those leaving a cult might undergo. I am particularly interested in the phenomenon of cult-ish experiences because I suspect that this increasingly common in the a world where our social, political, and spiritual lives take place online, where we can become fully immersed in an echo chamber or belief system psychologically without any physical engagement.
In my first episode, I gesture to what I now consider one of the most defining features of indoctrination into a cult-ish dynamic: self-subjugation, the submitting of one’s individual sense of reality, self and autonomy to the authority of another person, group or belief system. This results in a loss of one’s own boundaries and moral compass, as their values and behaviors become overtaken or dictated by those of the leader, group or ideology. Ultimately I think it is irrelevant if one “consents” to this type of submission initially, as the outcome can result in a cult-like dynamic regardless.
I share about my own experience:
I am so tired of subscribing to false gods. A false god meaning a false ultimate truth. Not even thinking that I have found the answer, but that someone else has found that answer and knows better than me and I must submit to that truth, because there is something deficient in me that prevents me from seeing clearly. And this person is saying, oh well, you have to listen to me, because it is only by listening to me and following what I say that you will actually be able to act in alignment with the value that you purport to hold. That right there was—in my experience—where the cultishness and deindividuation happened.
My interviewees have illuminated these dynamics in their own stories. In my recent episode with Poplar Rose, who talks about their brutal fall out with social justice after being called out, they explain how early on in their social justice work they gave up yoga. As a teenager they discovered yoga and used it as as a tool to help regulate their mental health after being assaulted. After getting more entangled with what they called social justice—I’d refer to it more specifically as neoliberal identitarianism—they stopped teaching and practicing yoga in 2014 because to do so as a white person was misaligned with their social justice values. They reflect now:
That worldview was so profoundly important to me that I was willing to give up a lot of the things that made me me in order to be in alignment with it, because that is what I thought was the truth. […] A system that feels like it gives you the answer, and people who agree with the answer, we can give up a lot to belong to that. And that’s what I did.
This process of putting a doctrine or group above one’s individual needs, boundaries or autonomy is what creates an opening for a cult-like dynamic to thrive. Giving up yoga is not necessarily evidence of one being entangled in a cult-like belief system, of course. However, the ideology for which Poplar made this concession has become inseparable from an authoritarian impulse fixated on “accountability,” which is what I argue moves neoliberal identitarianism from a mere political belief to a cult-like ideology.
In this essay, I am not arguing that this ideology is strictly a full-blown cult. I am arguing that we can observe cult-ish logic and relational dynamics within the ideology. I do so from the position of a person who has witnessed and experienced firsthand how psychologically torturous being involved in and leaving it behind can be.
Defining neoliberal identitarianism
Neoliberalism broadly refers to an approach to the capitalist economy that, among many things, has led us to deregulation, privatization of public institutions and corporate governance. Under it, our lives are increasingly controlled by corporations as they control the flow of capital and governance. Basically, the market rules, and corporations rule the market. Neoliberalism is the political and economic context that we live in.
Jay from Fucking Cancelled has succinctly defined identitarianism as “the political impulse to see the world in terms of ascriptive groups.” They define an ascriptive group as “a categorization that is assigned to you based on heredity, phenotype or essence.” As Jay further explains, identitarianism typically fights for a certain group’s ability to have “influence” or “representation.”
When I refer to neoliberal identitarianism, I am referring to identitarianism that exists on the “left” in the context of neoliberalism. I call it the “left,” as it is not strictly the left; it appears that way because the intention of neoliberal identitarianism is to create a society that is more equitable, which adherents argue can only be achieved by “centering the most marginalized” identities; i.e. giving such individuals more representation and influence. The marginalized identities are categorized into “privileged” and “oppressed” along lines of race/gender/sexuality/(dis)ability/religious/neurodivergence.
Neoliberal identitarianism in practice seeks to achieve its end goal by enforcing individual changes to language, belief, and behavior, with the occasional gesture of a demand for material change. It is primarily concerned with individual, relational issues of privilege, prejudice and discrimination. To achieve changes on the psychological and interpersonal levels that they are primarily concerned with, neoliberal identitarians preach a moral doctrine which incorporates smatterings of different, oftentimes competing, theories including but not limited to: standpoint feminism, intersectionality theory, critical race theory, queer theory, post-structural feminism, and postcolonial theory. Generally, it is the language of these theories that has been absorbed and translated into the ideology, rather than the core of the theory itself.
Given its individualized focus, this ideology has in practice extended beyond political life or organizing; it has become an entire worldview. This ideology has taken on a quality of fundamentalism in how consuming its doctrines can be for its believers and how rigidly they are enforced within communities. Below, I want to provide a perspective on where the foundational ideas create an opening for a cult-like ideology, and an example of how people become conditioned to think its rituals of abuse are acceptable.
The cult-like qualities of neoliberal identitarianism
What I see as the most obvious entry point for cult-ishness in this ideology is its (mis)application of standpoint theory. Those belonging to identity groups categorized as oppressed are considered to have an infallible understanding of reality or truth when it comes to issues of justice and morality. The ideology necessitates from the get-go that one must abdicate trust in their capacity to accurately discern reality in certain contexts. If one occupies a position of social privilege they must subjugate their perspective to that of a person who is comparatively categorized as oppressed, especially in in matters relating to privilege and what to do with it. This follows from the particular real-world application of standpoint theory called epistemic deference. Epistemic deference is what, in my view, gives this ideology its cult-like potential. What fulfills that potential is the highly authoritarian rituals of compliance the ideology’s adherents have popularized, most notably the accountability spectacle (also known as a call out or cancellation).
I’ve written about what the accountability spectacle looks like before, but I will give a rough breakdown in this paragraph, highlighting relevant terminology. In the case of accusations of “harm,” this ideology requires submission to those who are considered more oppressed than the accused, as their perception of reality supersedes the other’s. The accused challenging these accusations is further condemned as “gaslighting,” “manipulative,” “abusive,” or “evading accountability.” Anyone else who doubts their claims or retaliatory demands is considered “complicit” in the “oppression” of the relevant identity category, assuming the accusations are rooted in an issue of abuse of privilege, which they usually are. Frequently, in the time following the call out, the cancelled is assigned epithets such as a “known transphobe,” even after they have publicly apologized and tried atoning, which follow them indefinitely. Unfortunately, in this ideology, there is no true path for redemption. Weeks, months, years of continued harassment and repetition of the addressed or dispelled claims are considered “the consequences of one’s actions,” and something one must accept because one’s “ego” matters less than “justice,” which demands “a lifetime of doing the work.”
There is no explicit, shared, or consistent understanding of what constitutes correct behavior in any given scenario in this ideology. It is always changing, and adherents generally take as objective fact all claims that “harm” has been done so long as the right language is used and the identity markers fit the script. Initiation of the accountability spectacle does not require hard evidence, only vocabulary. Like in an abuse scenario, the goalposts are always moving for what language or behavior is deemed correct, and it is unpredictable what one might deem egregious enough for which to punish another person. In effect, one must be willing to prostrate oneself and reject one’s own psychological limits for the “good” of the “collective.”
The accountability spectacle has become a means of public punishment that maintains compliance to the ideology. Even if that is not the intention of those who initiate or participate in the spectacle, that is the effect it has on people who witness it. Perhaps the most important thing I want to emphasize about the spectacle is not only the undue violence it inflicts on its target, but the authoritarian culture of fear, surveillance, suspicion, and hostility it creates. One realizes that if this happened to someone else, it could conceivably happen to them—especially when they retain insight into the reality that what a person was accused of was either untrue, misrepresented, or simply not egregious enough to withstand public shaming, disposal and harassment. However, given that the person who recognizes this has abdicated trust in their moral compass, and because people in this ideology have become close friends or colleagues, the ideology overrides their hesitation. Note that all of this is what I refer to when I refer to “cancel culture.”
A case study in the erosion of boundaries & indoctrination
I recently saw a series of posts on an Instagram page with around 20k followers assert directly that “crossing one’s own boundaries" is necessary in order to hold oneself accountable to one’s “community.” They further argued that relinquishing one’s boundaries to the will of “the collective” (their Instagram audience?) is actually not a practice of giving up one’s autonomy.
On the one hand it seems rational and intuitive to suggest that we must occasionally make sacrifices to care for people in our lives. At times, this happens. This is why it is imperative to fully contextualize their statement, else it is easy to dismiss. The author advocates for and actively participates in the accountability spectacle, and in fact their post was a direct response to writing that rejects the spectacle. They are a neoliberal identitarian. When the “accountability” one must “cross our own boundaries” for is ritualistic public humiliation, this is a chilling example of cult logic dressed in Canva floral.
Unfortunately, the post was not simply an assertion of their own personal beliefs, but a moral dictate; not simply I but we must cross our own boundaries to be accountable, if we want to actually live in accordance with the value of social justice. In effect, this influencer is calling for their followers’ submission to the accountability spectacle in order to demonstrate compliance and conformity to the ideology, even if doing so pushes them past their limits.
Worst of all, the post was a lead generator. This is a common tactic in the self help x social justice industry: promote cult-like thinking in as a means of marketing one’s work. In their image macros, they tell their audience it is necessary to cross their boundaries if they value social justice. In the caption, they advertise a free workbook that will help people live out their values. Posturing as a model and teacher for how one can live one’s life in alignment with one’s values, while encouraging their audience to renounce their boundaries in service to an ideology, is an excellent way to get an audience dependent on one’s moral dictate. This type of post, from a seeming moral authority figure, is exactly what prepares people to accept and participate in the accountability spectacle.
The doublethink of this ideology is evident in their second argument, that crossing a personal boundary in order to be accountable to a community is not a practice of forgoing autonomy. The two contrasted concepts in this statement are completely contradictory, yet the statement is presented as if they are compatible. Autonomy requires a firm hold on and respect for one’s personal boundaries, as well as a respect for other people’s. It requires the freedom to make decisions without coercion. Crossing one’s boundaries to please someone(s) else fundamentally requires that one gives up their autonomy so the other can dictate what one ought to be doing, even if that something pushes them past their psychological or material limits. In the context of the accountability spectacle, autonomous decision-making becomes nearly impossible aside from abandoning the ideology entirely—no small feat. These two ideas are irreconcilable, yet they are held as if they can both be true simultaneously. The cognitive dissonance of 1) recognizing the need for autonomy and 2) the feeling of obligation to meet the cult-like ideology’s expectation of on-demand subjugation and punishment, is resolved in their post by rationalizing that these two concepts are not contradictory at all. This type of rationalization keeps people devoted to the ideology. It is psychologically less costly to rationalize through doublethink than it is to begin the process of deconstructing the inconsistencies of one’s worldview—a process which I know first hand can be extraordinarily painful.
(As an aside: frankly, I wouldn’t be resistant to the idea that ideological image macros like this one might be a practice of crafting and employing thought-terminating clichés to resolve the cognitive dissonance of cult logic. Which, if true, most definitely makes me yet again reconsider the usefulness of Instagram for either staying sober from cultishness or for disseminating my ideas.)
It was unsurprising to see the same individual who posted about the necessity of personal subjugation to “community” also share that, after weighing in on the cancel culture discourse, they feared being “punished” with DMs and comments from the followers of those who reject cancel culture. Never mind the fact that it seems highly unlikely that people who take a hard stance against punishment would go to any length to harass them; it is my opinion that this fear response is inflamed by neoliberal identitarianism’s accountability spectacle itself. The “community accountability” that they themself promote makes punishment a legitimate, ever-looming threat.
Ironically, that need for hypervigilance is precisely what my friends and fellow writers who speak out against this cultish ideology and its resulting “cancel culture” are looking to get rid of. We recognize that such a fear of punishment is the result not only of early experiences with trauma, but a culture that normalizes a punitive, authoritarian approach to enforcing an ideology via self-surveillance, surveillance of others, condemnation, public harassment—all of which requires the boundary crossing this same person commands as necessary. The cultural ritual of the accountability spectacle perpetuates relational insecurity and the resultant psychological distress.
When public humiliation and harassment is considered an acceptable model for accountability, there is no way to overcome fear of punishment or community abandonment, because that fear is not irrational. It can happen to anyone, at any time, regardless of whether the accusations are true, and there is currently no recourse when it does happen. The fall out of that can be psychologically and materially devastating, especially in a culture where public reputation is so critical to maintaining employment—which in the US is tied to healthcare—and social safety nets are meager. This ritual is not something that can be avoided by dutifully “showing up” for community. Even when one follows all the rules, they can be targeted and people will shake their heads and say “They shouldn’t have done it in the first place.” I have experienced a fake call out myself and so have some of my friends—one of whom, who just shared their story in-depth on my podcast, went so far as to deplatform and send money to their accuser. Yet, the call out still occurred, with devastating results.
If we refused to engage in authoritarian, cult-like dynamics of (inter)personal surveillance and punishment, we would not be in this mess. If the foundation of our ideology did not require we subjugate our own hold on reality to others, we would not so effortlessly fall prey to cult-like dynamics. We would also, hopefully, not indoctrinate others into the same thing (something I realized I was doing in 2017).
It is my hope that all of those who are engaging in this dynamic will eventually recognize it as the destructive, dead end it is and make the choice to reject it fully, and contribute to the effort of forging a new path forward.
Note that what I refer to as neoliberal identitarianism, others might refer to simply as “woke” or “identity politics.” I call it neoliberal identitarianism because I think it is far more precise and less pejorative. I also distinguish identity politics from identitarianism, and believe identity politics as a recognition of and advocacy for different material needs along lines of social difference is important. Similarly, I think standpoint is important but epistemic deference is not a useful application of standpoint theory. But, maybe this is just the residual impact of my former ideological fundamentalism speaking, hyper-fixated on language!