Life Intelligence: Cults vs. Intellectual Honesty

The siege on the Capitol shocked most of us and left in its wake fear, uncertainty, and more division. While most of the media took stands and sides, a few independent thinkers out there, resisting the knee-jerk politicized narratives, call for a deeper understanding of our society and the forces at play that led to the unthinkable. I consider myself an independent thinker committed to intellectual honesty. As such, I believe that the devil hides in the details, and right now, the brush strokes have become so broad that they obscure what matters. Condemning and name-calling have displaced conversing and asking questions. Pointing fingers at grotesque differences neglect significant similarities. People fear what they don’t know. Then they hate it.

The 81 million who voted for Biden cannot understand how 75 million voted for evil itself. Simultaneously, the 75 million who voted for Trump feel robbed and even more committed to destroying the Deep State. Truth is either blue or red, conservative or liberal, and harder to locate. Families stand divided. People avoid their neighbors. Trumpism is a thing. Antifa is another thing. Snowflakes and rednecks despise each other. Media outlets claim moral superiority and spew carefully crafted emotional narratives designed to capture and retain as many eyeballs as possible. Politicians deliver spectacle and bread, keeping people pinned against each other gladiator style, fighting over which lives matter.

Here’s the thing, if we want to survive, prosper, and assure that our children have a chance to live their dreams, we must stop, look, and listen, or we risk getting run over by the train of chaos and hatred.

Stop and ask yourself if you belong to a cult? Cults are groups overly devoted to their leaders, glorifying them while vilifying everyone else. This fosters an “us” vs. “them” attitude, the insiders who know more, feel special, support each other vs. the clearly clueless outsiders, stupid, and delusional. Questioning the ideology, creed, and dogma will lend you on the outside, criticized, shamed, and labeled a traitor. Peer pressure assures that everyone subscribes to and disseminates the same storyline.  Cult members devote a massive amount of time searching for information supporting their belief system and then proselytizing it while carefully avoiding contradictory evidence as untrustworthy. Cult members catastrophize consequences for alternative possibilities while glorifying the results of their own chosen paths. Cults are pre-occupied with raising money and recruiting new members. Cult leaders enjoy no accountability for their transgressions while demanding harsh justice for the same actions taken by the non-believers.

Look around you. If 99% of your friends look and sound just like you, you may want to diversify your portfolio of acquaintances and diet of information. You can’t call yourself open-minded if your mind is only open to what you already believe.

Listen. If hearing something from a different point of view raises your blood pressure, and you reach for your bag of unflattering adjectives to attack the individual instead of addressing the ideas put forward, you are not a thinker; you are a reactor.

Intellectual honesty asks us to stop, look, and listen for our own biases. It requires that we commit to investigating, searching, deliberately exposing ourselves to different perspectives, identifying a common ground from which to start conversations with those we don’t understand and those we disagree with, looking at facts and data, instead of consuming the interpretations of our favorite talk-show hosts, and asking uncomfortable questions potentially triggering our own vulnerabilities and misunderstandings.

Those who breached the Capitol were labeled stupid, violent, and egregious – a mass of people representing an ideology of confusion, conspiracy theories, and recklessness, uneducated, misinformed, manipulated, and bloodthirsty white supremacists. What if there is more to the story? How would you feel if you found out that most of these people, just like you, feel disempowered, marginalized, with no way out of poverty, struggling for acceptance, suffering through bad relationships, insecure, and frightened? Would you look at them differently if you found out that many of them organized deliberately by studying the tactics employed by Atifa and the BLM protests over the summer and thus showed up without weapons of mass destruction? Did you know that “Grandmothers for Trump” is a thing, and these old ladies made it inside the Capitol, took selfies, gave each other hi-fives, and asked for help getting back out? What do you make of watching some of the rioters beating up on cops, calling them traitors, while others shook hands with the police and thank them for their service? Doesn’t it strike you as peculiar that the Q-shaman, grazing on an organic diet from his mom’s couch, shared the stage with a trained air force veteran in full military gear and sporting zip-ties? That the “camp Auschwitz” Nazi participates in the same uprising with black Trump enthusiasts?  What does a two-time Olympic gold medalist have in common with the Proud Boys? Surely, they come from different life experiences.

Does it pique your curiosity that white anarchists for Trump attempted to destroy the symbol of the very institutions that Antifa and BLM blame for systemic racism?

Yes, a mob of rioters assaulting the People’s House and wanting to “hang Mike Pence” is a horrific sight and terribly wrong. Also, yes, neglecting to look at the details and disregarding the similarities with the BLM protests will only lead to more misunderstanding, more hatred, and more fights between people who, at the core, may want the same things, feel the same way for the same reasons, but differ in their strategies for fulfilling their needs.

The truth is that when folks feel vulnerable, down on their luck, unfairly treated, unimportant, inconsequential, and useless, they latch on to those who give them hope and speak to their needs. Religions have used this to their advantage for thousands of years, recruiting people to the “family.” Politicians do the same. The media plays along, telling people what they want to hear and towing a deeply partisan line.

If this picture seems grim, it’s because it is. We can’t build and rebuild a country together if we can’t agree on a set of truths that depicts a common reality even as we have the same needs and the same aspirations. We are going nowhere until we commit to intellectual honesty, each one of us, and demand that our politicians and our media do the same so that we can be informed and not manipulated. Your annoying Trump flag-flying neighbors love their children too. Your liberal-left friends struggle to pay their bills in the middle of the same pandemic as you.  

Seriously people, we can do this. We HAVE to do this. Or else, this society is over. Done with. And we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

Here’s what I do with people who rub me the wrong way. First, I avoid them. Then I feel bad for avoiding them, so I talk to them. I ask things such as, “what’s on your mind?” I start with a common ground, as usually what’s on their mind is on my mind – the pandemic, financial challenges, health, uncertainty, confusion. I ask what they know and how do they know it. Sometimes, I play the “what if” game. “What if you find out….” how would you feel then? I seek to understand, not to prove them wrong. After all, what if I am wrong? I try to hold a rational space with as little judgment as possible. Sometimes, I lose it, and the fight is on.  We are all human. You will find it hard to forgive others if you can’t forgive yourself. If I have to, I drop the conversation altogether, and we coalesce around other topics. Life is full of opportunities to enjoy each other, even though we disagree on particular things. I never mistake the individual for the ideas they may have because good people could have bad ideas, or half-baked ones, or no ideas at all…

The First Ammendment protects our idea space. Only when bad ideas turn into bad actions, someone gets hurt, and we call the police. Let’s play in the idea space and help each other not end up hurt or in jail.

We have a country to rebuild.

Valentina Petrova has been helping people with life, health, relationships, financial, career, professional, and business challenges since 2015. She has a Master’s in Psychology and is a certified life coach and certified mediator. You can reach her at She does not take insurance.


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