The Tapescrew Letters (part 2)

January 8, 2016

The Bodgers Centre

Newcastle

12 February 2009

 

Dear Woodworm,

Your last letter is a source of serious concern. Her brother is visiting for a week, you say. Bad news indeed. And not just because our patient will be reminded of positive features of her old life, her old habits, her old ways of thinking.

The brother is clearly aware that we’re up to something. He is not a religious man. And he has been asking questions, you say. Questions rather more direct and to the point than we usually get.

This man clearly fails to pay the kind of respect that’s usually accorded any sort of “spiritual belief.” The impertinence. This is a critical time for us. Even now the patient could escape our clutches. The arrival on the scene of someone our patient clearly likes and respects, someone who treats our teaching as if it were just a set of beliefs like any other, could wreak havoc.

The brother must be disarmed. You say you have been invited round for dinner to meet him? Here is your opportunity.

As that first glass of wine is poured, he will probably say, ever so innocently, something like this: “So, you are the person that has introduced my sister to these new beliefs she has been telling me such about?” If you are not forthcoming with any details, he will eventually follow this up with a series of simple, straightforward questions, apparently expecting straightforward answers.

Do not, under any circumstances, give them. Our patient is not yet so caught up in our mindset that she will be entirely immune to the patent absurdity that a succinct and unvarnished statement of our teaching is likely to reveal. Yes, we have cast our spell over her, but the magic has not yet fully set.

I suggest you employ the strategy that our Leader calls Moving the Semantic Goalposts. Turn to the Handbook and reread that section with care. Whenever the brother matter-of-factly asks, “So you believe so-and-so, do you?” Suggest, slightly condescendingly, that he has misunderstood our teaching. For example, you might say, “Oh dear! You appear to have taken us literally. That’s not what we mean.” Do not, however, edify him. Do not tell him clearly and succinctly what we do mean. That’s for us to know, and him to find out!

If he tries yet again, just continue to move the goalposts around some more, “Ah, I see you have again misunderstood.” Perhaps add, “Of course, you must remember we are using the language of metaphor and analogy—it’s rather foolish to take such language at face value, you know.”

If he asks exactly what the analogy is, waffle. Use words like “spiritual,” “transcendent” and “ultimate” a lot. Wave your arms around in a vague way and look up, as if you are have some profound insight, and searching for just the right words to convey it, but can’t quite succeed.

In this way, you can endlessly give the brother the run around. True, in some contexts, that you are employing such a sleight of hand with words would quickly become clear. However, some things really are difficult to express properly, aren’t they? Our subjective experiences, for example, can be difficult to articulate. How we feel about something can often only communicated to others in a rather fumbling and imprecise way, which allows much scope for misunderstanding. There’s no denying that saying, “Ah, but that’s not quite what I meant,” is sometimes an entirely reasonable response to a criticism.

Use this to your advantage. Your patient believes she has had an experience of the transcendent, of the “other.” You must stress that our access to what lies beyond is inevitably restricted. We can at best catch only glimpses. It’s all very much “through a glass darkly.” Admit that it’s hard to capture using our everyday vocabulary. And of course, because what she had was a feeling, it very probably is very hard for her to put into words! So your excuse will look plausible.

If any picture you paint of what lies “beyond” is inevitably vague and impressionistic, then it will inevitably be vulnerable to misinterpretation. But then any criticism of what we teach about what lies beyond can conveniently be put down to some misunderstanding on the part of our opponents.

Indeed, try saying this: “You see, what we ultimately believe is ineffable, is beyond the ability of language to express.”

Trust me—this works. I have applied this same wheeze over an extended period of time without it ever dawning on my opponents what I was really up to. Do the same!

A little character assassination can enhance the effectiveness of Moving the Semantic Goalposts. Remember to imply at every opportunity that her brother is being terribly crude and unsophisticated in his ham-fisted attempts to characterize and criticize what we believe. Notice I said, “imply”! Your patient no doubt loves her brother and may not respond well to a direct accusation. So never explicitly accuse her brother of being an unsophisticated, unspiritual twit. Rather, adopt an air of calm intellectual and spiritual superiority. Be just a little bit condescending. But—and here’s the key—even while adopting that air of superiority, it’s important to keep reminding them both how terribly humble you are. Admit that you cannot articulate the essence of that in which you believe, that you are struggling vainly to express in mere human language what you nevertheless know in your heart to be true.

Your humility will be sure to impress the patient, and the contrast between your calmness and the brother’s mounting anger and frustration as you endlessly shift the goalposts about will become more and more obvious to her. You will seem humble and open minded. The brother will increasingly appear dogmatic, unspiritual and, I very much hope, aggressive.

This exercise in character assassination will be nicely rounded off with a suggestion of arrogance—get the patient thinking that her brother is being arrogantly dismissive of things that he doesn’t even properly understand. Remind them both that there are “more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamed of in his philosophy. Shouldn’t her brother be showing a little humility? Notice the delightful switcheroo we pull here. We are the ones claiming certainty, yet we end up appearing humble while he is portrayed as the arrogant know-it-all! You’ll enjoy the delicious irony! But remember—don’t be caught savouring it.

There is a second strategy that will also prove invaluable in dealing with the brother—the Way of Questions. Look it up in the Handbook and study it well. Don’t let the brother be your interrogator. You must become his. For every question he asks you, ask him three back. Get him on the back foot.

Of course you must not come across as inquisitorial. Pretend your questions are merely for “clarification”—you just want to understand more clearly where the brother is coming from, so you can properly address his concerns. But here’s what you actually do: hit him with a series of thorny philosophical puzzles with which he’ll inevitably struggle. I recommend two in particular:

1. Ask him why he supposes the universe exists. Why there is something rather than nothing.

2. Ask him how he is able to know right from wrong. How is he in a position to say that something truly heinous, such as slavery, is wrong? Or, better still, the Holocaust?

If the brother is an atheist, or agnostic, he’s not going to have pat answers to these Big Questions. As you will know from that training in moral and religious philosophy we gave you, they are awfully deep and difficult questions to which there are no simple, easy answers (one of the reasons we provided that training is precisely so you can use it to tie people like this irksome brother up in knots).

The fact is, we don’t have good answers to these questions either. But we pretend we do. We say, Glub is the explanation for why there is anything at all. We say, Glub provides us with our moral compass in this otherwise treacherously uncertain and increasingly morally depraved world.

Our patient will be impressed by the fact that, while her brother struggles with such tricky moral and metaphysical questions, we do not. We offer quiet, calm, simple, certainty. As your patient looks back and forth between—on the one hand—your serene, wise and confident expression and—on the other hand—the look of exasperation creeping across her brother’s face as he struggles and fails to provide an adequate justification for condemning the Holocaust, your job will be more than half done. Indeed, the thought might even cross your patient’s mind that her brother is morally rudderless!

Even if the brother manages to deal successfully with your first round of questions (which, he almost certainly won’t) you can just ask another “clarificatory” question, and then another: “Ah, I see. But then let me ask you this. . . .” “Hmm, that’s interesting, but what do you mean by. . . .” This will tie him up in knots, very probably leaving your patient with the impression that you are the winner in this little intellectual exchange. The truth, of course, is that you never dealt with his penetrating questions. But the chances are your patient won’t even notice this, or even remember what his questions were, after half an hour or so of the Way of Questions!

At the very least, if you combine these two techniques, the patient will be left with the impression that the debate between you and her brother is all square—that neither side can be said to have achieved a decisive victory. And that is all the space we need in which to operate.

Your affectionate aunt,

Tapescrew

 


 

The Bodgers Centre

Newcastle

28 June 2009

 

Dear Woodworm,

I have not heard from you for a while. Gibbons tells me (yes, I have my spies in Oxford) that you haven’t been into our Oxford centre much over the last few weeks. I very much hope that is because you are beavering away with your patient, whose brother, I anticipate, has now been dispatched?

Let us hope so. If you suspect the patient is having doubts, and if the other techniques I recommended are not proving effective enough to allay them, then let me share with some further thoughts passed on to a select group of us Seniors at one of our Leader’s training sessions held in the South of France last week.

First of all, our Leader says he wants us to focus attention more on morality. He believes we have been missing a trick there. We must get our patients thinking, first of all, that morality depends on religion. That’s to say, get them thinking people won’t be good without religion, that religion provides us with our only moral compass. Take that compass away, and society will eventually slide into moral degeneracy.

Of course, that morality depends on religion is something your patient probably believes already. That is because the mainstream religions hijacked morality long ago. They created the myth that morality is their invention. They took the basic universal prohibitions against stealing, lying, murder and so on, rigidly codified them, added a few idiosyncratic prohibitions of their own (typically concerning sexual practices and foodstuffs) and said “Voila! Religion has created morality! Without us, there is no morality!

Never mind that there’s growing scientific evidence that our morality is in large part a product of our evolutionary history. Never mind that the least religious Western democracies—Sweden, for example—are in many respects the most socially and morally healthy. Never mind that in traditional Chinese society—in which the dominant cultural force was not religion but a secular ethical doctrine, Confucianism—levels of ordinary morality have been much the same as in parts of the world dominated by transcendental religion. Because “morality depends on religion” has been endlessly repeated by religious folk—it is the one mantra they all share—it has, in many corners of the world, become a factoid, an unquestioned part of the cultural landscape. No one really thinks about it. They just accept it. Even many atheists (some of whom, while not religious, nevertheless suppose religious belief is therefore desirable in others—especially those lower down the socioeconomic ladder, who might otherwise burgle their house).

Take advantage of this widespread myth. Say, “Yes, morality does indeed depend on religion.” Then add, “But of course, it has to be the right religion, doesn’t it?”

As I endlessly repeat to you—the key to recruitment is not reason but emotion. However, the fact is that the emotions on which we rely change. As I have already mentioned, we seduce new recruits with joy, but, as they begin to mature into seasoned Followers, we must increasingly come to rely on fear. Fear of loss of friends. Fear of loss of meaning and purpose. Now our Leader wants us to add another fear to the mix—fear of moral oblivion. Get our Followers holding tightly onto nurse, for fear of finding something worse. Our Leader wants our movement to achieve official status. He wants the state to recognise it as an important moral beacon—providing moral guidance to young people who might otherwise fall into degeneracy and sin. This way, we may even receive government funds. Certainly, there will no longer be any official resistance to our starting our own schools.

At the conference (which, I must say, was lavishly catered for—never have I tasted such smoked salmon) our Leader spoke of something else too. What we ultimately want, he forcefully and inspiringly reminded us, is what he calls the Vision Thing.

The vision of which our Leader spoke, is not, of course, a vision—of heaven, or a religious figure descending, or anything like that. No, no. Not that there’s anything wrong with our Followers having that sort of vision, of course. Sometimes they do. But our Leader meant something much less trivial. He was speaking of the all-encompassing mindset. He gave us various examples.

Sometimes a conspiracy theorist will become so enmeshed in their theory that they can just “see” that it is true. Wherever they look, they find their theory fits. Of course, what they are really doing is finding a way to make it fit. They interpret whatever they experience in such a way that it “makes sense” on their world-view. They also develop no end of moves to explain away anything that might look like a rational threat to their belief system. Anything that might seem not to fit—that the conspiracy theorist can’t fully make sense of—is put down to the powerful and sometimes mysterious and inscrutable forces and plans of the conspirators. The conspiracy theorist supposes that he is the one whose eyes have been opened to what the rest of us cannot see. He turns on his TV of an evening, and discovers that each news item only further confirms his worst fears about the spread of the Conspiracy. He looks out of the window and sees agents of evil spying on him from that parked car across the street. Eventually, the Conspiracy becomes so obvious to him that he is astonished the rest of us can’t “see it” too, especially after he has pointed it out to us in some detail. So he supposes that we must be part of the Conspiracy. Either that, or our minds have been “got to” somehow. By them.

The Vision Thing is not uncommon in the political sphere, of course. Witness the Marxist who, wherever he looks, finds that Marx’s theories account for what happens. It all fits. It all makes sense. So obvious does it become to our Marxist, in the end, that she’s astonished we cannot see what’s going on in front of our eyes. Have we somehow been blinded by the forces of capitalism? Perhaps our senses have been dulled by the opiate of the masses?

The religious person too, can achieve such an all-encompassing vision. Indeed, people often say that religious faith is something like a perspective on the world, a way of viewing it. We fling open our curtains in the morning and see sunlight. They fling open their curtains and see the glory of God flooding into their room. It’s so obvious to them, they wonder why we can’t see it too. They suppose we must be defective. “Perhaps,” they think, “it is because they have been corrupted by sin? Or led astray by devils?”

The Vision Thing can be produced in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it is a product of long immersion in a political ideology, or some internet-based conspiracy theory mindset. Sometimes it is a result of drug abuse. Sometimes it is caused by a mental illness. Sometimes it happens quite spontaneously. Occasionally, people look at the world and suddenly, apparently for no reason at all, just “see” that it is imbued with a kind of cosmic radiance.

Of course, others look and are suddenly consumed by a very different vision—a vision, say, of the world as the product of some awful cosmic malignancy. Those who have the latter sort of experience—and they are more common than you might imagine—tend to be put on medication. Those who have the former sort of experience tend to put on a dog collar. Had we the advantage of being one of the established, mainstream religions, many of those spontaneously having the first sort of experience would walk in through our doors, already converts!

What we are after with every patient is, our Leader helpfully reminded us, the Vision Thing. Our patients must come to see—with their hearts, if not their eyes—that our teaching is the Truth—that it accords in every last detail with everything they have ever experienced. They must find that it ultimately makes sense of everything.

I am concerned by the lack of communication, Woodworm. Get in touch. Now.

Your aunt,

Tapescrew


 

The Bodgers Centre

Newcastle

14 September 2009

 

Woodworm,

Finally, a missive from you. But I would rather not have received it. The brother, it turns out, is a skeptic – someone who insists on subjecting claims of a supernatural or extraordinary nature to close critical scrutiny before accepting them? And the patient shows signs of becoming one too? She has even signed up for a class in critical thinking? How could you have let this happen, you oaf? Now we discover why you have been so quiet of late. You have failed catastrophically.

Had I been forewarned that the brother is a skeptic, well, we could have made plans. We could have at least prepared to Go Nuclear. But now it is too late.

Remember, at the end of the day, all we have got is a collection of extraordinary claims for which we can provide scarcely a shred of evidence. Other than that we say they are true. That’s it!

Of course, all other cults and religions are in the same boat, yet that has not stopped them from flourishing, sometimes spectacularly so. How do they achieve such extraordinary success? Rule Number One is this: They manage, by one means or another, to obscure the fact that the evidence for what they believe is simply that they say it’s true. Either that, or they succeed in neutralizing this fact by making it seem unimportant. They insist that the truth of what they say is known, not on the basis of evidence, oh no, but in some other, deeper way—“with the heart,” or some other codswallop with which they fob off their respective followers.

Ultimately, you had one simple, basic job to do: to deal with the otherwise obvious thought that the only real reason our patient has got to believe any of this twaddle is that we say it is true. Which is hardly much of a reason, is it? That, Woodworm, is the one thought that, above all, you should have suppressed or neutralized. Yet that is the one thought you have allowed to pop—nay, explode—in the patient’s head, and with devastating consequences!

You say she is now doubting even the “experience” we worked so carefully to cultivate at the Retreat? You say she thinks we have been playing with her mind? She supposes she may merely have felt certain powerful emotions that she mistook to be some sort of revelation? Good grief. We are sunk.

How on earth is our cult to expand if it has to rely on gurus as incompetent as yourself? The consequences of such an error will be serious, my boy. Our Leader does not forgive failure. You were warned.

Your bitterly disappointed aunt,

Tapescrew

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