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Isms and Egregores

The suffix “—ism” is a useful word ending, transmuting all kinds of words into abstract nouns—names for things we cannot experience through our five or more senses.  Think of all the isms you know or have heard of in academia, in media, in politics, in religion.

Webster’s1 offers numerous meanings for this familiar word segment, a measure of its utility.  An –ism can identify an act, practice or process, (hypnotism), or denote a kind of action or behavior that is typical of a particular person or thing, (conformism).  The suffix can be applied to specific human attributes to signal prejudice and discrimination, as in racism, sexism, classism, and so forth. 

An ism can also refer to a state, condition or property of some item, or to an abnormal or excessive expression of some trait connected to that item, as in the word alcoholism.  Finally, an ism can be attached to a doctrine, theory or cult, and refer to adherence to the principles or expectations that are involved with these.

Although all the uses of –ism have relevance to the formation of egregores, this last sense—as referring to doctrines, theories, cults and their accompanying social expectations—seems most important.  Isms of various kinds create the conditions in which these troublesome entities can emerge.  In the foreward to Mark Stavish’s book on egregores2, James Wasserman makes the point that powerful egregores can be generated by patriotism, consumerism, communications media, religion, and even bad habits.  All of these fields of human social endeavor can be the source of new or traditional isms of various kinds.

The suffix provides a linguistic means for us to name the entity, which allows us to conjure it, attend to it, and facilitate its growth.  Naming an egregore helps it emerge in a social group, and perhaps helps the social group itself to form.  The name provides a focus and a category to which devotees can belong.  It gives adherents something on which to perseverate—to pray to or worry about. 

If you replace the ‘m’ in ism with a ‘t’, you often transform the abstract noun into an individual title.  “I am a/an _______ist.” (And you are not.)   In this way the name may reduce anxiety among the egregore’s members by giving them a clearer identity and sense of self.  They are something; they are not something else.  This can be comforting.

Try on some of the isms listed below by filling in the blank above. How does it feel to be a/an ______ist?

Optimism, Collectivism, Behaviorism, Polytheism, Herbalism, Masochism, Spiritualism, Capitalism, Materialism, Conformism, Rationalism, Fundamentalism, Socialism, Evangelism, Relativism, Pessimism, Narcissism, Globalism, Pragmatism, Monotheism, Nationalism, Journalism, Pacifism, Supernaturalism…

We cannot leave out antidisestablishmentarianism3.

There are thousands more where these isms came from.

Something interesting—and troubling—occurs when a general ism becomes personified with a proper name.  For example, when the broader term “communism” morphs into Stalinism or Maoism.  Here the egregore acquires an image that empowers it, a “cult of personality”4 that ratchets up the devotion of its followers.  It seems that the personification of an ism is a metaphoric process that assigns human attributes to an abstract idea—“the father of his country”—making the egregore more relatable to its followers.

A recent example is the transformation of populism, a recurring American political movement, into Trumpism.  What are we to make of that golden Trump idol at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week?

It appears that nearly any kind of “-ism” can become an egregore, especially if one observes the emergence of ritualistic behaviors, orthodoxy, a personified figurehead, and an “us/them” perspective determining group membership. 

A lack of critical thinking, self-awareness, and shared world view helps explain divisiveness and upheaval in society right now.  We are seeing intense, at times violent competition between two or more worldviews—egregores—that have captured the minds of their respective followers.  Membership does not require critical thinking, empathy, self-awareness or even much education–only fervent belief and devotion, all that idolatry requires.

1Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, (1994).

2Egregores, The Occult Entities that Watch Over Human Destiny (2018), by Mark Stavish.

3The longest word in the English language is not found in Merriam Webster’s.

4An excellent, if over-the-top expression of “cult of personality” can be found in the 1988 song of the same name by Living Color Videos of cult of personality, song.

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Published by Sean Eaton

If you have arrived here, you may share my interest in horror, religion, dream psychology and the literature of the fantastic. This blog is a continuation of earlier work I did at The R'lyeh Tribune. I hope you will find something useful and edifying. Comments and suggestions are appreciated.

2 thoughts on “Isms and Egregores

  1. I often rail against “-isms” because people often try to change the definitions underneath to fit what they think it should mean. I’ll pick a fight before I pick a label, and this by most definitions makes me stubborn. I can agree with that, so I guess “stubborn” is one label I’m willing to accept! Is there a cult for that? The order of the pigheadedness? The meetups must be lively or does everyone just sit around and scowl?

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    1. I agree with you about isms–they seem to have very malleable definitions depending on who is using the term. An idea I was playing around with: what happens when a generic “ism” becomes associated with a particular personality? A leader, say, or a celebrity. Then it seems to change into something else. Thank you for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

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