From Canadian news, “Republicans face backlash for speaking out against Trump ahead of impeachment trial.” This report made me realize something about cults. Something I’ve been struggling with ever since I was shunned from my old religious community.

You see, we didn’t have an explicit shunning policy. But I was shunned anyhow. I was shunned for sticking up for abortion rights and for healthy sex-positivity and for sticking up for GSRM people and—I suspect—ultimately for rumors that I might be poly. In the span of a week, I lost my entire religious community and my entire social-support network along with it. That last part isn’t actually true: I had the prescience to begin building a new support network just a couple months before. Somehow, I intuitively knew that this shit show was coming. That’s probably what made it possible for me to leave, possible for me to escape.

Shunning is a cult enforcement behavior. Some cults have explicit shunning policies, such as Scientology or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Others shun unofficially, but for the same reason: They’re based on dogma, unable to modify their beliefs to comport with the truth. So anyone who speaks the truth cannot be considered, engaged, and validated in a healthy way. Rather, they are traitors. They are the enemy.

Members of high-control groups need to respond this way in order to manage the cognitive dissonance of coming face to face with evidence that proves that the dearly held beliefs that form their very identity are, simply, false. This is the case whether it’s a belief that Trump won the 2020 election or that gay people are perverts or that Noah’s Ark was a real boat or that the world is flat. If your entire religious community believes that the Bible is literally true (properly interpreted, of course) and that God loves you and grants your prayers but will send you to hell for “believing in evolution,” then yeah, that’s a heavy cognitive burden to carry in a world in which a 15-second Google search can prove that your entire world view is not only complete bullshit but toxic and harmful. So if anyone in your community begins even to seriously consider these facts, you have to push them as far away as possible, for your own protection.

High-control groups don’t need an explicit shunning policy, although if they can actually admit to shunning respectful dissenters, that may be an even bigger red flag. The very fact that we shunned dissenters itself caused cognitive dissonance. So we had to deny that we shunned dissenters, in order to feel like we were good people, in order to feel like we were not a cult. That’s why we didn’t have an explicit shunning policy. But the end result was much the same.

Groups that do have such a policy have somehow made the leap from denial to repackaging. They no longer have to deny that they shun dissenters. Instead, they can actually be proud of it. Persecution is repackaged as justice.