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The dark psychology of Extinction Rebellion

The deathly symbolism of Extinction Rebellion is designed to make us conform to extreme measures

Extinction Rebellion has decided, with Covid-19 deaths at nearly zero, that the time is right for a comeback; as Britain takes a breath, conditions are apt for the group to fear-monger their way back into our hearts. They have planned a month of disruption starting on the first of September. What better time to disturb transport systems and critique consumerism than the slide into crippling levels of unemployment and recession?

As annoying as Extinction Rebellion may be, their psychological impact may be far darker. For over two years now, the world has been bombarded with the semiotics of Extinction Rebellion. The movement’s name, symbols and ideas have come to occupy a lot of “mental real estate” in the minds of the public. But what psychic effect is this having – especially on a symbolic level?

Esotericist Manly P. Hall wrote that:

Every law and power active in universal procedure is manifested to the limited sense perceptions of man through the medium of symbols. By symbols, men have ever sought to communicate those thoughts which transcend the limitations of language. In a single figure, a symbol may both reveal and conceal; for to the wise the subject of the symbol is obvious, while to the ignorant the symbol remains inscrutable.

We intuitively understand the massive power that symbols have over us. We feel, for example, that it’s wrong to swear in front of children, and we would feel uncomfortable ripping a photo of a loved one in half.

 The symbolism of Extinction Rebellion is implanting death and anarchy in the psyche

Indeed, psychological experiments have demonstrated the power of symbols on cognition and behaviour via a principle known as priming. To give just three examples, out of many: people vote more conservatively when polling is held inside churches (Blumenthal & Turnipseed, 2011); seeing the Apple logo makes people think more creatively (Fitzsimons, Chartrand & Fitzsimons, 2008); and being shown footage of caskets, hearts and graveyards makes people more nationalistic (Nelson et al., 1997). While the replicability of some of these studies is questioned, the volume and consistency of the data is overwhelming: environmental stimuli influence how we think and act.

Extinction Rebellion protesters take part in a demonstration in Parliament Square in London, United Kingdom on September 01, 2020. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

What then is being implanted in the psyche by the symbolism of Extinction Rebellion? The answer is death and anarchy: or, as the movement itself has it, extinction and rebellion. Two specific logos communicate this: an hourglass and a bee. Both are loaded with esoteric meaning; both are also popular Masonic icons, appearing on the cover of Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.

The hourglass is primarily a symbol of the passage of time: that is, death. The hourglass – along with the scythe, another favourite symbol of the Left – were brandished by Cronus, god of time; and by his Greek counterpart Saturn, the god of harvest. We celebrate the “death” of the week on Saturday (the day of Saturn), and we celebrate the “death” of the year in the same way on Saturnalia (now called Christmas, where Saturn/Father Time has been replaced with Santa/Father Christmas). Another modern manifestation of Cronus is the Grim Reaper, the ultimate symbol of death and harvesting lives.

Cronus also came to power by killing and castrating his father – “smashing the patriarchy” in the extreme – and ushering in the Golden Age, where the down-trodden people harvested the (as they saw it) ill-gotten riches of the wealthy.

Extinction Rebellion’s hourglass is therefore a symbol of death, the end of an era, and harvesting of wealth; all ultimately revolutions along the wheel of time. The group is sending a strong message that they are bringing a close to one era and expecting to reap what they feel they are owed by the system.

My advice is not to allow Extinction Rebellion’s symbols any power over your mind.

Yet the hourglass also has another meaning. In esotericism, there are two fundamental principles underlying all forms of knowledge: active and passive, positive and negative, rational and emotional, day and night, conservative and progressive, and so on. In political terms, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1903) noted that “the two parties which divide the state, the party of conservatism and that of innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made”, and that this “irreconcilable antagonism must have a correspondent depth of seat in the human condition”. Indeed, experimental and neuroimaging research has shown that liberalism and conservatism do indeed have a neurobiological root (see Hibbing, Smith & Alford, 2014).

These opposing forces are popularly thought of as yin and yang – but they are also represented by the two overplayed triangles of the Star of David or Seal of Solomon. Extinction Rebellion’s logo is not just an “hourglass” but also a separated Star of David. The logo takes the two principles, disunites them, and positions them facing one another at a single point of conflict in the middle. It is a symbol of polarity, disunity and confrontation.

If seeing an American flag is enough to make people more likely to vote Republican (Kalmoe & Gross, 2013), what might the socio-political effects of Extinction Rebellion’s ever-present priming of anarchy, death, and conflict have been over the past year?

The secondary logo used by the group is a bee. Mythologically, the bee was a bridge between the physical world and the underworld; another harbinger of death, and of those in the “underworld” overtaking the “upper world”.

A bee can also be a drone; an unwittingly close analogy for the “useful idiots” of Extinction Rebellion. This was on full display when I talked to one of them at a makeshift stall last Summer. Admiring the art prints and branded clothing, I asked, “Who paid for all this?” She didn’t know. In fact, it was clear from her facial expressions that the question had never even crossed her mind.

The Extinction Rebellion website claims the money was mostly crowdfunded: between October 2018 and February 2019, 60% of the more than £2m raised was crowdsourced. Of course, this is no guarantee of anything: The Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists asserts that crowdfunding can be a tool for money laundering – and Steve Bannon would seem to concur. While there is some (admittedly flimsy) evidence that George Soros may be a donor, the group is open about their financial support from “progressive” groups like the Soros-backed Tides Foundation.

Whoever provided the backing, it’s clearly significant. The branding is outstanding; McDonald’s and Coca-Cola could hardly expect such consistent, professional design and such loud buzz.

In ten years working in marketing, this was one of the best launch campaigns I have ever seen

In marketing science, brand growth is believed to come from using distinct and consistent brand assets, like “I’m lovin’ it”, the Geico gecko, or the Coca-Cola red (Sharp, 2010). Memory can be conceptualised like a “spiderweb” of interconnecting nodes (e.g., “table” is connected to “chair”, which is connected to “cushion”, and so on; Anderson, 1983). When one of these nodes is activated, it ripples out to the others and influences cognition and behaviour. A brand wants to be connected to as many nodes as possible in order to increase the chances of being noticed and remembered, but also to the right ones – so that, for example, when you think of “thirst”, the activation ripples out to “Sprite” through strength of association (“Obey your thirst”), and you buy a Sprite. This is why a consistent use of appropriate distinctive assets is so important: it builds memories.

This kind of thinking is still somewhat revolutionary among a world of marketers who still believe in brand positioning and relationship building. The point is that some premium marketing experts were likely involved at some stage of Extinction Rebellion’s genesis. They have designed bold, attention-grabbing assets which are unique in design, and used consistently. The movement makes use of distinctive assets printed on high-quality posters, signs, and flags. There is even a clothing line. In ten years working in marketing, this was one of the best launch campaigns I have ever seen.

Extinction Rebellion are inculcating fear so that people will accept extreme means to bring stability to chaos

So, why is so much resource going into bombarding the public psyche with symbols of death and disorder? The answer may lie in a psychological model known as Terror Management Theory (see Burke, Martens & Faucher, 2010). People have very predictable behavioural responses when they feel threatened by chaos and destruction: as part of a hardwired survival mechanism, they cling to authority, and they become intolerant, extreme and insular; in-group bias becomes stronger and prejudice towards the out-group grows proportionately. Extinction Rebellion’s priming of death and anarchy is likely to produce these adaptive responses, in much the same way that, for example, laboratory experiments have shown that walking through a graveyard makes people more likely to conform to social norms (Gailliot et al., 2008).

Interestingly, this mass priming took place in the run up to Covid-19, which is likely to have had similarly psychological effects. In an evolutionary adaptation known as the behavioural immune system, people become more conservative, conformist, and intolerant when made to feel disgusted or think about contagion and disease (see Schaller, 2011).

This is all to say nothing of the danger of making people believe that the world is ending – which could produce Jonestown levels of insanity. It matters little if dire predictions don’t come to pass, just as they haven’t in the past (Al Gore, for example, told us the North Polar ice cap would be gone by 2013). In Leon Festinger’s gonzo investigation of cults, When Prophecies Fail, he showed how cognitive dissonance causes cult-members to become even more entrenched in their beliefs: the psychic pain of being wrong is too large to bear.

Ultimately, what Extinction Rebellion are doing is dangerous. They are inculcating fear, so that people will accept and promote increasingly extreme means to bring stability to chaos and restore peace of mind.

Fortunately, there are some ways to mitigate the effects of mortality salience – one of which is humour (Long & Greenwood, 2013). Like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, sometimes the only natural response to an insane clown world is to laugh. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.”

Next time you see an Extinction Rebellion protestor blocking the streets, my advice is not to allow their symbols any power over your mind. Rather, take a look at their interpretive dancing, red witches, and decolonised poetry slams, and do what comes naturally: laugh.

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