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Disagreement in a debate can be healthy – one definition of politics is how civilised society makes decisions when members disagree. But the online debate is often poisonous, and there are genuine and well-founded concerns about the polarisation of societies; in the UK generally, specifically here in Scotland, in the USA or elsewhere. There is no doubt Nationalism has divided Scottish society. It has divided communities, divided friends and even divided families with harsh words that aren’t being forgiven and even when you believe there is more that unites us than divides us, it still feels like divisions run deep.
Personally, in 2014 I was dismayed. I found friends who I had respected and thought had similar liberal, sensible worldviews to myself to suddenly seemed to have been captured by an ideology conned by claims I could see through – and for them to get so angry when we disagreed. It was like coming into the office one day to suddenly realise half of your co-workers are flat earthers who are fully prepared to burn Copernicus as a heretic.
But …they are still our friends, family, colleagues, and compatriots. It is still possible to have an engaging and convincing discussion challenging their beliefs without it necessarily needing to become acrimonious. Using research on the psychology of cult deprogramming and techniques to counter misinformation, I’ve outlined a potential approach below that could work.
The heart of the matter
Nationalism is not policy-based politics; it is an identity-based philosophy. That’s critical. If you try to debate just on rational policies, the nationalist can always pivot. Because it is emotional identity-based politics, the nationalist supporter has made the belief in independence an intrinsic part of their personality. For many, independence at any cost has been taken on as a core value, a tenet of faith.
A Chimaera of contradictions
Policy Contradictions are a feature, not a bug. The nationalist case is a chimaera of contradictions. An economic case can be made with talks of a second oil boom one week pivoting to a new green revolution the next. A Scottish government paper can have its only tax policy be a right-wing cut in corporation tax for businesses. At the same time, its authors use rhetoric about redistribution to court younger left-wing voters. The same party can talk about taking back sovereignty and control on one podium while espousing European Unionism and pooling powers on the next stage. They can take two small islands and call for a border to be removed on one, and introduced on the other: all in the name of Nationalism.
Taking it personally
When you disagree with them on policy or present a fact or evidence that contradicts them, you are not having a rational policy discussion – you are attacking their very identity. People who feel under attack are not open to be won over by logic and reason. We can see this in the 2015 British social attitudes survey. Supporters of different parties were asked if they agreed with the statement, “When people criticise my party, it feels like a personal insult.” Not only were SNP supporters more likely to take the criticism personally, but they were the only party where the MAJORITY took it personally.
Being right isn’t enough. Having better policies isn’t enough. Someone who feels an emotional reaction that you are fundamentally attacking who they are is not open to being convinced, no matter the evidence. When they say they believe in Scotland, they BELIEVE in Scotland. Faith over facts. This can take us into a cycle where disagreement is taken as a personal insult, which leads to both animosity and a refusal to engage or even the blowback effect – where in the form of mental self-defence, people hold onto attacked beliefs even stronger.
As much as they will hate and deny the comparison. ( maybe even *because* they will have a strong emotional reaction to the comparison) It’s genuinely helpful to analyse the yes movement and members through the psychology of cults and cult interventions to deprogram. You only need to look at the signs of cult membership for parallels to become apparent.
Being in a cult can have many short-term and long-term psychological effects. Some common psychological effects of being in a cult include:
Loss of individual identity
Cult members are often expected to conform entirely to the group’s beliefs and practices, which can lead to a loss of individual identity and autonomy. They may be gagged not to contradict group policy. Cult sayings and ideas replace individual thought.
Dependence on the cult leader
Cult leaders often exert high control over their followers, who may depend on the leader for guidance and direction. Advancement in the group may be predicated on loyalty to the leader over competence or merit. It’s no secret that in Holyrood, loyalty to Sturgeon, and by extension her husband and party CEO Peter Murrell, has been a key requirement for advancement, and that it was only complete loyalty to Sturgeon that kept Ian Blackford in post as group leader in Westminster.
Cults use emotional manipulation and manipulation of information to control their members. This can result in feelings of confusion, anxiety, and fear. This can be done by scapegoating heretics or saying they are looking to attack or destroy members way of life.
Cult members may be discouraged from maintaining relationships with non-cult members, leading to social isolation and a lack of support from friends and family. This may be done overtly, or it may be done covertly by demonising non-believers.
Loss of critical thinking skills
Cult members may be required to accept the group’s beliefs without question, which can lead to a loss of critical thinking skills and an inability to evaluate information objectively. SNP members are required to maintain extensive cognitive dissonance by holding mutually exclusive beliefs – which they are asked to both believe and defend – for example in 2014 they were asked to simultaneously believe that an independent Scotland would be in a currency union AND have full control of economic levers. Now they are asked to believe that a harder border between Dover and Calais is so negative it is a justification for Scottish independence, but that a harder border between Carlisle and Gretna will have little or no negative impact.
Trauma and threat of expulsion
Cult members may experience emotional trauma triggered by heightened stress: being kept on a knife edge and constantly being told you are under threat can have long-term harmful psychological effects. People who leave the group may be ostracised and attacked – this can both bond those who remain and act as a deterrent from dissenting.
Overall, being part of a movement can profoundly impact a person’s mental health. People may feel benefits from finding a sense of meaning or belonging, they may get social contact within the group, and they may feel part of the inside crowd ‘in the know’ but can also be isolated, manipulated and gradually encouraged to have ever more extreme and divisive views.
How to deprogram a Nationalist.
It is essential to approach the situation with sensitivity and understanding. SNP politicians may be complicit, but many SNP voters and members may be better considered victims. Cult members often have a deep emotional attachment to a group and its beliefs and will resist leaving.
“I cannot teach a man what he thinks he already knows” – Epictetus
It’s challenging to convince someone of the truth when they have a deeply held emotional belief, as emotions can be powerful motivators. In these situations, it is essential to approach the person with empathy and understanding and to try to engage with them in a respectful and non-confrontational way. Listen to the person’s perspective and understand where they are coming from. Ask open-ended questions and avoid judging or criticising them. This will help build trust and make the person more open to hearing your perspective.
Build a relationship
Build on your relationship with the person and establish trust. This can be difficult, a huge amount of SNP propaganda for 15 years has been to tell Scots to distrust anyone who doesn’t support independence: but it is essential for the deprogramming process. Spend time with them, try to be open-minded, and listen to their concerns and beliefs without judging or criticising them.
Use The Socratic Method
You can build on these questions by using the powerful Socratic method. The Socratic method is a method of inquiry used to explore ideas and evaluate beliefs by asking questions. It is named after the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who developed this method of inquiry.
To use the Socratic method to change someone’s mind, you would follow these steps:
- Start by identifying the person’s beliefs or opinions on a particular subject.
- Ask open-ended questions encouraging the person to reflect on their beliefs and consider alternative perspectives. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, and are designed to encourage the person to share their thoughts and feelings. Here are a few examples of open-ended questions that you could ask a cult member to gain their trust:
- Can you tell me more about your experiences in the Yes movement?
- What led you to join the yes movement in the first place?
- What do you enjoy most about being a part of the SNP?
- How do you feel when you are around other members of the SNP?
- What challenges have you faced supporting independence?
- What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
These questions can open up a dialogue and give you a better understanding of their perspective and experiences.
- Listen actively to the person’s responses and ask follow-up questions to clarify their thoughts and understand their reasoning.
- Avoid arguing or expressing your own opinions, and instead focus on helping the person explore the implications of their beliefs and consider alternative viewpoints.
- As the conversation progresses, ask questions that help the person examine the assumptions and logical connections underlying their beliefs.
- Encourage the person to critically evaluate their beliefs in light of the evidence and reasoning discussed during the conversation.
- If the person’s beliefs change due to the conversation, help them explore the implications of their new perspective and consider how it might affect their behaviour or decision-making.
Overall, the goal of the Socratic method is to help people think more critically and carefully about their beliefs and to encourage them to consider alternative perspectives and evaluate their beliefs in light of evidence and reasoning. By using this method, you can help someone change their mind and develop more informed and reasoned opinions on a particular subject.By listening actively and showing empathy, you can help to build trust and create a safe space for the person to share their thoughts and feelings.
How to change their perspective
Help the person see the movement from a different perspective. Challenge their beliefs and get them to find for themself evidence that contradicts the movement’s teachings. Show them that there is another way of thinking and living outside, that people live perfectly happily within the UK. This step is where most conversations might fall if we just swap competing ‘facts’ or rely on tropes. Use facts and evidence to support your arguments. If the person’s belief is based on misinformation or lack of information, presenting them with reliable sources can help to change their perspective. Avoid getting into a heated debate or argument. This can escalate the situation and make the person more entrenched in their belief. Instead, try to have a calm and rational discussion and focus on finding common ground.
When you have two conflicting pieces of information, instead of just telling each other you are wrong, work to fact-check and sense-check them together. Introduce the SIFT methodology. If they are confident in their facts, they should be confident to check them.
SIFT for the Truth
The SIFT methodology is a five-step process for evaluating the credibility of information and determining whether it is potentially misleading or false.
- Stop and think: Take a moment to pause and consider the information you have come across before automatically accepting it as true.
- Investigate the source: Look into the source of the information to determine its credibility and reliability. Consider the author’s credentials and the publication’s track record.
- Find supporting evidence: Look for other sources that support or contradict the information. Check to see if reputable sources have verified the information.
- Trace the claims: Trace the claims made in the information back to their original source. This can help you determine whether the claims are based on factual evidence or not, or if they have been quoted out of context.
By following these steps together or having them follow them themselves, you are not telling them they are wrong – they are finding it out under their own agency.
Appeal to their emotions, but don’t try to manipulate or guilt-trip them. Instead, try to show them how the truth aligns with their values and beliefs. For example, if the person values fairness and justice, you could discuss how the truth is the fairest and just perspective. If a person believes in good funding of public services, look together at the evidence, from the ScotGov themselves, of how higher funding is maintained within the UK.
Expand their horizons
Encourage the person to seek outside help, such as therapy, support groups, or connect with other ex-nationalists. This can provide them with a safe space to process their thoughts and emotions and to learn new coping skills.
Support them outside the movement
Support the person as they adjust to life outside of the movement. Depending on how deeply they have been involved, and how large a part of their life it has been, this can be a complex and emotional process, and the person may need ongoing support and guidance. Be patient and understanding, and remind them that they are not alone.
What isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee
Empathy is important. It’s perfectly human to be taken in by misinformation. We can’t just think of someone as a bad person because they disagree with us – that drives division. We need to have these types of non-confrontational conversations to build and maintain on the counter-nationalist majority. It won’t be easy. It won’t work first time, or even most of the time – but we can show them that there is a different way of thinking and living outside of the Yes movement.
Challenging someone’s beliefs can be difficult, especially if you care about them, as it can be tempting to become confrontational and argumentative. However, it is important to approach the situation in a respectful and non-confrontational way, to avoid escalating the situation and making the person more entrenched in their beliefs. Avoid attacking the person’s character or belittling their beliefs. This will only make them defensive and less likely to consider your perspective. Instead, focus on the facts and evidence, and let them come to their own conclusions.