Why are leftist groups and scenes spontaneously cultish and authoritarian?

Ex post facto, post hoc, after the fact, retroactive.

These are all synonyms for the general idea of, maybe you didn’t do something for the nice, defensible reasons you’re saying, and liking to think you did it.  Maybe you did something for some other reason.  Maybe it was a selfish or foolish reason.

Or maybe you just weren’t thinking at all, and you just thoughtlessly did something, and now you’re stuck with it.

And then you start making up justifications, after the fact.

Justifications, ex post facto.  Post hoc.  Retroactively.


Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the theory that the inconsistency between people’s actions and attitudes creates an emotional discomfort which they will then try to relieve, by either sincerely confronting the contradiction, or by insincerely avoiding it.

Wikipedia lists the responses to cognitive dissonance as:

  1. Change the behavior or the cognition (“I’ll eat no more of this doughnut.”)
  2. Justify the behavior or the cognition, by changing the conflicting cognition (“I’m allowed to cheat my diet every once in a while.”)
  3. Justify the behavior or the cognition by adding new cognitions (“I’ll spend thirty extra minutes at the gymnasium to work off the doughnut.”)
  4. Ignore or deny information that conflicts with existing beliefs (“This doughnut is not a high-sugar food.”)


Social Network Theory: Group Belonging and Central Figure Influence

This link introduces the basics of social network theory.

The basic idea, however, is that people stick with political groups less because of a clear identification or knowledgeability of the group’s ideas, and more because of the amount of people they know in the group, and a social sense of belonging.

social network theory

These can then lead to the very obvious psychological effects of people retroactively editing their ideas, not because of having actual justifications.  This is a cognitive bias arising out of the need for social belonging.  Combine that with two more classical cognitive biases, the tendency to agree with an idea because a lot of other people do (bandwagon effect) and the tendency to agree with things that confirm opinions you already hold (group confirmation bias), and you’ve got a whole cocktail of defense mechanisms.

It may be that a person changes their ideas upon contact with a group instead because the group exposes them to legitimate new ideas and information.  Possibly it’s a mixture.

A lot of call-out culture is an expression of this need for group identity belonging.  Call-outs and trashing are a performative ritual, participation in which confirms one’s status and self-image as a proper member of activism/the Left/progressivism/Leftbook/a certain organization/a certain scene/whatever.

However it gets worse than merely group belonging.  There is a spontaneous tendency in most groups for them to be structured in such a way that for most people, their primary connection to the group is not a connection to their peers, but a connection to the leaders.

star network vs mesh network

Creating mesh networks often requires intention and effort.  Star networks are the spontaneous culture and structure under capitalism and possibly in general.  People literally gravitate toward their superiors instead of their equals.  Star networks are simple and reflect the asymmetric arrangements that arise under chaos.  Uneven centers of gravity form: stars and planets accumulate disproportionately more matter than the random dust of space (the marginalized), wealthy people and corporations accumulate disproportionately more money (financial centers of gravity), people who are already known accumulate disproportionately more connections (social capital).

If you ask most people in the group whom they primarily know, they don’t really know that many people of their same standing.  The peers are disconnected from each other, isolated in their ability to form a united front or opposition against the leadership.

But everyone knows the leaders, are thus structurally dependent on them.

Let’s say a Facebook group for example.  Everyone tends to know the admins.  Know each other, not as much.  Your relationship with the group is often unevenly, even unfairly defined by your relationship with the admins.  Same goes with an in-person group and its leaders.

(A healthier culture has more participation, more peer-to-peer connection, taken to its fullest extreme to the point that the rank-and-file membership can circumvent, exist without, disagree with, and replace and/or overthrow the leaders.)

saturn t-shirt

Again, social network theory suggests that people’s ideas are primarily influenced by the people they are connected to.  This means that the ideas of people in a group are being determined not just by groupthink, but actually primarily by the influence of the leaders.  People’s beliefs about general ideas, how they interpret an event or a disagreement, or a whole range of things will be disproportionately determined by the opinion of central figures, because central figures and leaders are most members’ lifeline connection to their identity as even belonging to the group, people are highly dependent on group identity, and people’s ideas are highly determined by group identity.

Groups themselves, also, can act as centers for stray random individuals, becoming centers of gravity and influencers of thought on the surrounding community beyond the group itself.  In this way, the group acts as the center node of a star network for the individuals outside the group.


Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance in a Group Setting

If we apply this to social network theory, and the idea that people are altering their ideas to fit in with a group or their superiors, we could approach it a few different ways.

Instead of altering their beliefs to fit in, people could:

  1. Assert their right to disagree while still maintaining positive social relations with the other group members/leaders, and see if other group members/leaders accept this right, possibly risking rejection, but possibly being accepted
  2. Disaffiliate from a group that may, or may not, accept them based on their beliefs

There are various levels of “disagreeing” within a group.

  1. You can disagree privately, ie you think your own thoughts but keep them to yourself.
  2. You can disagree in closed circles, in one-on-one communication, but keep it relatively hushed.
  3. You can disagree publicly, in the group’s open forums.
  4. You can contend for change, and attempt to alter the group’s culture by persuading others to change their beliefs or opinion.
  5. You can even attempt to change the group’s practices and possibly run for leadership positions within the group.

The higher you escalate in asserting your right to disagree, the more rejection and backlash you risk.

If we discuss these stages of escalation openly, and assert people’s right to enact them without retaliation, we can reduce the need for people to submit to inauthentic retroactive dishonest justifications in order to relieve cognitive dissonance; we can let people think what they really think and live it out loud.

Again, it also helps to create group cultures and structures that circumvent the leadership and create peer-to-peer relationships and connections.


Different Selves in Different Environments: Online, Offline, Private, Public

Social media has created a situation where people say things, straight from their fingertips, that they would not say in person, a sort of second personality, that is vastly different, and often far more outspoken and confrontational, than their in-person selves.

These statements may be performative/demonstrative, or they may just be thoughtless and impulsive.

personality split

They then feel like they have to back it up their online statements by performing them in person, retroactively repressing and editing their true feelings to themselves for consistency’s sake.

All sorts of different environments lead to people expressing different sides of themselves.

  • social media
  • mass assemblies/large meetings
  • smaller groups
  • one-on-one communication
  • private group environments

These different settings bring out extremely varying sides of a person.

In reality, people’s inward feelings about an issue are often very balanced, complex, nuanced, and conflicted.  But depending on the environment, they will only express one side of this.

Then, depending on in which environments their expressions are actually held accountable, they will begin internalizing the side they have outwardly expressed, and hypocritically repress the full complexity of their inward feelings.

In other cases they may express two different opinions in two different environments and end up in an embarrassing situation of being held to both of them and end up in a conflicted state of not knowing which they really think.

This explains a lot of call-out culture, a lot of the mass pile-ons you see online, Twitter storms, etc.

leftbook drama ban

Once it begins, it’s easier to jump on to the pile, than it is to stand against it.  Defenders, outnumbered, stay silent, only expressing themselves in private.

After all, hypocrisy and cowardice are commonplace on the Left, with people one day socializing and associating and singing the praises of an individual, and the next day turning 180 degrees on them should they be subjected to a call-out, expressing things like “I was beginning to have doubts about their character” (something anyone could retroactively say about anyone else) despite this being completely contradictory to their previous public or private expressions.

Once again, people are inwardly conflicted, but only one side is publicly encouraged to be expressed, and the expressed side becomes the side they then rationalize and commit to, out of discomfort and cognitive dissonance.

We have two models: one is that people are expressing two different sides of the same dishonest or contradictory self.  Another model is that they actually have multiple selves in conflict, which are given expression by different environments, and these selves are only crystallized into solid form by people actually being held to account for their expressions.

Whether their statements are false, or they are literally conflicted, the point is that they are being incoherent.  Mental incoherence is the deepest affliction of the Left at this stage of time.

What do we do with this?  All we can do is be aware that sometimes other people are incoherent, and try to be less incoherent ourselves.


Leftist groups and scenes are spontaneously cultish and authoritarian because their spontaneous structure revolves around central figures, human beings have a need for social belonging, and human cognition is deeply influenced by social context.  Taken together, this creates a situation where people are not only dependent on groups for their very thoughts, but even dependent on central figures in the group.

Solution are to create a culture of self-awareness, independence of thought, and pluralistic friendliness between people of different opinions, to intentionally build peer-to-peer relationships independent of central figures as a conscious, even formal organizational practice, as well as to try to reduce the tension and moral outrage in our dialogue by decreasing confusion and miscommunication by clarifying common concepts and vocabularies.

It’s still okay to believe in something.  It’s still okay to be part of groups, too, though sometimes affiliations need to change also.  Maybe you do have some right reasons for thinking what you think, maybe part of your instincts are correct.  But self-examination is required as well.  Questioning yourself doesn’t mean you have to believe in nothing.  It just means you have to check yourself and make sure you’re believing in good things for good reasons.  Maybe what’s needed is not wholesale rejection, but adjustment.

And you definitely need the courage to establish boundaries, insist on your intellectual independence, require friends to have their disagreements with you amicably, and realize they really aren’t your friends if they can’t do that.


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