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A thing I’ve become aware of since living in Melbourne (and going to university and then working) is the existence of people who live in a world similar to ours but with bizarre perceptions or explanations of reality that don’t bear much relationship with the world we actually live in.

I speak not of the mentally ill, but rather of other seemingly nice, normal people who believe in strange things.

I divide these people into two categories: leaders and followers. Generally speaking these movements will have some sort of “saviour” or ” truth teller” (John Howard being one of the more mainstream examples) who provide a simultaneously comforting and scary version of reality. These cult-like leaders have their own hidden agendas such as political power or money and operate in a totalitarian fashion by spreading propaganda and misinformation, suppressing and censoring dissent, leading a personality cult and engaging in destructive (but media friendly) smear campaigns against their detractors.

The followers are a more heterogeneous group. Their susceptibility to the leaders has several components. They want to believe whatever it is that the leaders say- examples include women who don’t like hospitals so advocate for home birth, Liberal Party voters who are anti-refugee because they don’t like other races or don’t want job competition, people who are scared of AIDS so prefer to believe that HIV is a conspiracy. They can also be vulnerable to manipulation for other reasons, such as being at a low point in their lives.

Then there are enablers and useful idiots. Enablers are people like the media who benefit from fake controversy (eg climate change). Useful idiots are experts and celebrities who become supporters and sympathisers to the cause without actually running it. Jenny McCarthy is a prime example.

The things these people believe in often defy basic logic, science, common sense or psychology. In a similar way to how people reason from basic ideas to create a coherent belief system (1+1=2 leads to 2+1=3), these bizarre ideas work backwards and destroy the fundamental ideas that normal people work from.

If refugees throw their children overboard, it implies that there are lots of people out there (especially in other countries) who are not psychopaths yet are still horrible selfish and evil. If doctors who are meant to heal people are refusing to hear or understand about the harm from vaccines, who knows what else they’re hiding. If people are allowed to shoot or kill people trespassing on their property, it implies that your house is your castle and you should be allowed to do whatever you like behind closed doors, and interfering in any way (eg by calling the police) is wrong. If Indian people are intrinsically dirty, rude, sleazy, non-English speaking foreigners who flash around a lot of gadgets and are doing dodgy degrees to get permanent residency and sponge off the dole then it’s entirely fair that people would mug them. If home birth is the best thing for childbirth it implies that doing things “naturally” at home is always best despite the risks.

The world becomes a scary place full of quacks, evil foreigners, interfering neighbours, psychos and liars.

And who better to help you than your benevolent leader?

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