Why you should care
Because who knew thinking could spread like an epidemic?
As a teenager in the 1970s, Diane Benscoter couldn’t see herself settling among the cornfields in her tiny hometown of York, Nebraska. While her friends’ brothers left to fight in Vietnam, she longed to create the peace that Cat Stevens and The Beatles sang about. But she didn’t find compatriots in her cause, so she replaced high school with drugs and music.
She was young and lost — making her the perfect host for infection. Not with AIDS or Ebola, but something just as contagious, even deadly, in Benscoter’s eyes today: extremist thinking.
When she was 17, Benscoter joined the Unification Church, headed by the late Sun Myung Moon, who saw himself as the Messiah and his native Korea as God’s chosen country. The church is famous for its mass wedding ceremonies, which its followers — aka “Moonies” — believe will free them and their descendants from sin. It’s been called a cult.
I understand how Hitler did what he did, how terrorists strap bombs onto their bodies.
- Diane Benscoter
Benscoter, who isn’t Korean, moved into the Moonies’ communal house in Omaha, Nebraska, and soon refused to visit her family — even when her mother had breast cancer. She was convinced Satan, by way of her parents, would “tempt” her to abandon the church.
Benscoter does this daily. She’s written a memoir about living as a Moonie and travels the world warning against extremism in interviews and lectures about her experiences.
The theory behind it all: that extremist groups spread their ideas and thought patterns, or memes — first described by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the 1970s — through slogans, catchphrases and icons. A viral memetic infection marks the successful input of a meme in a person’s mind. Infected individuals believe that if they follow their group, everything wrong with the world will be fixed. The group sees any course of action to subdue non-followers, “them,” as rational and necessary — an outlook that makes extremist groups especially dangerous.
“I understand how Hitler did what he did, how terrorists strap bombs onto their bodies,” Benscoter said.
Eventually, Benscoter hopes brain-imaging technology will detect differences between people with and without memetic infections. But there’s no clear-cut definition of “meme,” making them difficult to image. That’s far off, though. For now, it suffices to tell her story and hear others’.
On the steps of the Capitol, she fasted and prayed that Nixon wouldn’t be impeached.
Benscoter’s own coercion began when she moved to Lincoln, Nebraska after dropping out of high school. There, she began to think about journalism as a way to expose injustice. And then, one afternoon, she was handed a banana. It was wrapped in a flyer that read: “Walk for World Peace. Please join us for a 3-day walk to hear Reverend Sun Myung Moon speak in Des Moines, Iowa.”
She began by writing an article about the walk, but soon the Moonies seduced her with their idea that God could have a plan specifically for her. “It made me feel important, like my life wasn’t the mess I thought it was,” she said.
After walking all day, Benscoter and the Moonies listened to lectures about how the Rev. Moon would usher in the peace that Benscoter yearned to see in the world. Members had an explanation for everything: they pointed out patterns in the number of years between major historical events, referenced Scripture passages purportedly indicating that the Messiah “must” have been born in Korea after World War I. Entranced by the “evidence,” Benscoter joined the church.
Five years later, Benscoter’s parents, desperate, visited the center with two deprogrammers. They read aloud from a book on brainwashing in Chinese prison camps, which described “totalism” — ideologies that are sweeping and ambitious in their claims. What if Moon isn’t the Messiah? Benscoter suddenly thought. She began shaking, like a detox patient. “Oh, my God, this whole thing was a lie,” she realized. “I heard glass breaking around me. … My world was collapsing.”
But soon she swung to the other extreme, joining a national network of deprogrammers. Ironically, in 1988, police arrested Benscoter and others on her team for kidnapping; to the cops, her antidote to the cults looked like coercion. When she discovered Dawkins’ theory, it was a relief: “It was the only theory that was able to explain what happened to my brain,” she said.
Traumatized, Benscoter walked away and slowly rebuilt her life. She realized she was a lesbian and came out to her parents. Today, she lives with her partner in Portland, Oregon; they’ve adopted a daughter, now in college.
In the future, if society and science does embrace Dawkins’ theory — and if we can scan brains for memetic infection and prevent it — the world doesn’t immediately become rosy. There are a host of future concerns: for one, Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, worries about the legal implications. Unlike with the flu, people can choose not to get infected by a meme — meaning that extremists must still be held legally responsible for terrorist attacks or hate crimes, for example.
But though the theory’s imperfect, it’s given Benscoter crucial scaffolding to make sense of the world. “Because of my experience, I feel like I have some information that … could make change in the world,” she said. “Because I can, I feel I must.”
This time, she won’t need a Messiah to guide her.