Defining a cult: I know it when I see it

Arguably, every effort to define something starts with “I know it when I see it”. Then we proceed to draft a definition that includes what we want included but excludes what we don’t.

People are always aggressively pushing against the idea of classifying their preferred belief systems or groups as cults. They don’t want to mention political movements they belong to or older churches they are associated with on the same page as NXIVM and scientology.

But the uncomfortable truth is that authoritarian control works the same way whether it is something dear to us or something we deem harmful. It works at home and in school, in politics and in religion, in a marriage and in the military. Authoritarian control can develop at a workplace or in a seemingly harmless self-help group.

The systems of control are the same across many realms of society, only the degree of control differs. Many cults have a large number of loose followers who may be completely oblivious to the existence of a high-control group at the core of their church. NXIVM, for instance, had some 15 thousand people involved in some form, yet only a few dozen were aggressively roped in to serve the cult leader’s personal pleasure. For those 15 thousand the last couple of months have been an embarrassment they have not deserved. (Okay, maybe a little. NXIVM was corny in its public operation and they could see that perfectly.)

Following a political party or being born into a traditional church may feel like it has very little impact on one’s life – but then again, so did almost 15 thousand members of NXIVM feel about the cult. They were only active on its periphery, they only attended a few of its programs, camps, or trainings. The inner hell was exclusively maintained for NXIVM’s core members. Other control groups also have members at their core who are alienated from their families (religious monks, Q), whose lives are saturated with cult-related obligations and whose minds are literally rendered into a tool to further and project the cult leader’s goals (which they regard as the group’s goals).

They are not made to do it – they are made to want to do it.

When discussing cults, experts try to specify that they only mean ‘destructive’ cults, for instance, admitting that the same forms of mind control (worshipping, exploitation) is present in so many other groups – but they are not all bad. If a mind control group keeps its members happy, let it be – so the argument goes. If it is august and revered, don’t attack it. Old churches are more dangerous, they fight back and destroy their attackers and the PR for those who go against them is terrible. In this sense they are exactly like their younger competitors, NXIVM and scientology.

In chapter 4 of his 2014 book, Cults Inside Out, Rick Alan Ross, a much-quoted cult expert, gathers plenty of prominent professional definitions of a cult. In these numerous definition attempts the most spectacular thing is how various experts tried to keep certain authoritarian control groups out of their definition. One tried to exempt older churches by adding to his definition that a cult must have a living leader of worship. So scientology must also not be a cult, being under the second generation of leadership.

The motivation is easy to understand. Just as we recognize porn on the I-know-it-when-I-see-it basis, we want to include in our definition everything we deem a cult – a pejorative term – but exclude things that are sacred or dear to us. In a way, that is what all definitions do. But our intentions are always colored by our ignorance and our personal biases. Namely that we don’t know enough about certain groups, and sometimes we know too much because we are in them and don’t want our authoritarian control group to be called a pejorative name.

Many recovering cult members cry out that “nobody joins a cult“. Indeed, it is a recurring sentence in many cult documentaries, not just about NXIVM, but scientology, and the People’s Temple of Jim Jones. What they mean is that when they joined the group, they didn’t deem it a cult. A cult is a pejorative term. If someone asks you “Do you want to join my cult”, you say no. And that is why no one sells their cult as a cult. They invite you into their religion (and that is deemed respectable for some reason), their self-help group, their political movement, their MLM business, their yoga movement, or their intentional living community. That’s how they want to think about it.

The same happens to cult experts, trying to keep “traditional churches” or “old religions” out of their definitions. Also, political organizations, militant groups, MLM-schemes, abusive relationships, etc. – anything they are not specialized in. The mechanism of control may be the same, but we really, really don’t want them to be a bad thing. So we neuter and over-specify our definitions until our darlings are safely out of it.

In the end, Ross drops definitions that are based on the nature of the belief a cult practices. He focuses on behavior instead and adds the adjective ‘destructive’ cults to clarify where he sees the problem: when the destructive practices of the cult are intrinsic to its operation because they stem from its dogma or its canon, and when membership in the group harms the individuals.

Someone can exert extreme influence over another person or group of people, but when that is not too destructive, when it is not too much against the victim’s interests, or when it is not illegal, we don’t talk about a cult – yet all the tools are there.

The problem with putting the emphasis on harming the victim’s interest is immediately obvious: What exactly is against the victim’s interests? And even if it is, what do you do when the victim claims she wants to sacrifice those things for the cult? That she is there voluntarily?

After all, cults don’t make you do their bidding – they make you want to do it. That is the essence of mind control. So when do we call influence “brainwashing”, just to justify ignoring the victim’s express desire to stay in the cult and keep handing over her resources to the group?

It is often families who go after victims and the reason is simple: because they have a pre-existing claim on the victim’s resources, her time, her affections, her money, her attention, her heritage. If they can’t get the amount of time, attention and other resources out of the cult victim, they get frustrated – but not necessarily for the right reasons.

It is not always a heart-warming tale when a family goes out to rescue a member who joined a cult. Sometimes it is just two sets of competing authoritarian claims over the victim and her resources: her family vs. her cult.

It also highlights the similarities between family units and cults. But more interestingly, it explains why virtually every authoritarian control group calls itself a ‘family’ at some point: because they claim unquestioned and unconditional access to the members’ resources – just like families do. Cults want to get under the same consideration as families because humans are disarmed against family claims on their resources. Which seems perfectly innocent as long as the family is an actual loving, supportive group that benefits its members. The process only comes under sharp scrutiny when the family is damaging to one of its members – and yet it claims her resources. (And when your soulless corporation makes you sing songs about being a family.)

It is inexplicable when a domestic violence victim refuses help and stays in the family that is hurting him/her. It is equally startling when a cult victim claims that he wants to keep giving all his money and his house and his life to the cult leader, even when he is tortured in the cult. But the mental process behind the two situations is very much the same.

The two most important factors about cults are: 1) What they do to their victims and 2) how they achieve it. And the answers to those questions are – in a nutshell – 1) they harvest the victims’ resources 2) by making them want to do it. The first part is the ‘authoritarian’ part, the second is the mind control.

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