Cults: Taking the self out of self-help

It is striking how heavily cults rely on the goodness in us. First generation cults are all about self-improvement and/or improving the world – and on the surface it looks like an innocent thing.

But is it?

NXIVM, the self-help cult recently busted in the US promised an “optimization of the human experience and the human condition”. Its guru even submitted a patent application that supposedly cracked the code of human experience and aspired to fix us – called ‘the technology’. Through his hypnotic practices and increasingly creepy teachings he promised to deliver the best version of yourself (another old cliché) while also creating a better, more ethical world as they put it.

‘Ethical’ is also the thing scientology claims to be after. Its founder also submitted his own ‘technology’ for approval – in his case to the American Psychological Association – and was told that it is cute but still just his own opinion. (The hilarious putdown later provoked the founder’s ire who pitted his followers against the institution of psychiatry, in a stark about face from seeking their approval.) They don’t just promise to clean up the world in a cringey quest for purity, they even promise to give followers literal superpowers. In a hilarious episode of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath the former members describe how during their climb on the self-advancement tree members are expected to gain actual psychic powers and report about them. And they do. Not least because they have to keep repeating one particular level (and keep paying for it) until they report performing at least one miracle. So one of them claimed to have moved a car with his mind and another claimed to communicate telepathically whit his cat. Which is a dead giveaway. Anyone who has ever met a cat knows that the cat would not corroborate these claims.

The most hilarious form of self-improvement and the boldest promise out there is of course full-blown apotheosis. Founders of the suicide cult Heaven’s Gate rode the spirit of the times and co-opted the aliens-R-us meme by 70s bestseller writer Erich von Daniken when they made claims that their followers would physically metamorphose into alien/gods is only they followed a million strict and odd rules. Surviving ex-members are still not sure if they were right and the ones who committed suicide actually accomplished that feat – demonstrating the superior indoctrination power of attractive afterlife promises.

The earnest drive of cult members to improve themselves and the world seems innocent enough. But as we can see with older cults, traditional churches and ideological belief systems, it is also always a front for incredible evils committed in the world in the name of righteousness. Religious wars, persecution of the other religions, tribalism, dogmatic roadblocks erected in the path of rational thinking, indoctrination taking the place of education – just to name a few. There wasn’t a single genocide that wasn’t committed in the name of these supposedly noble, world-improving ideas, and by people who did their best to become good.

One could argue that the underlying ideas are good – it is just the righteous execution that sidetracks these noble intentions. But the problem may lie right at the core: in the improvement drive and its specifics.

Self-help without the self

Many of these groups operate on the promise of self-improvement, self-optimization, or making oneself into the most ethical, virtuous, moral creature for which there will be a reward in afterlife. (It is funny how priests write blank checks on behalf of the afterlife.) The odd thing is how none of this self-help involves doing it yourself. And believing someone who claims to know how it’s done just means that you pass the burden of figuring it out. And thus you become vulnerable to self-serving gurus who rewire you for their own benefit. After all, why would anyone bother to talk to you that much if not for some reward for himself?

Learning from others who came before us is crucial for the development of human civilization. But it is a double-edged sword.

Where teachings come in, wrong teachings can also come in. If the guru was wrong, or if he only found a solution that helped him but wouldn’t suit you, you are screwed. Ask anyone who had clueless parents exactly how much useful knowledge they passed on to their children. There will be lessons learned, but the wrong ones. And the victims of the teachings of idiots will be extraordinarily helpless even when they realized their teacher/parent/opinion leader was wrong.

Because every time you learn from someone else, you don’t ascertain things for yourself. If you are taught too many things with too much certainty and too little space to figure things out for yourself, you will eventually lose the ability to ascertain thins for yourself. But it is hard to see, be definition. And even if you do, even if your guru turns out to be a monster like NXIVM’s guru, who only ever benefited himself and not his followers, you will be left with nothing to take the place of his teachings. Not even the ability to ascertain things for yourself for a change. Indeed, cult victims only ever leave for another cult. Or another group that supplies opinions where their own opinions should be.

One of the greatest damage done by authoritarian control is the inability to conduct yourself without instructions. It is a less visible problem than having had the wrong instructions, but all the more vicious for that. Even if you come out of the tunnel and decide to do it yourself, you will be riddled with the puzzle ‘How do I know?’ and the only answer out there will be other opinion systems who don’t actually answer just tell you to follow them instead.

Seeking out gurus to tell you how to see the world, how to sort things in the world, what to think about things in the world is of course intellectual laziness. And that laziness is exploited because it is a huge industry. In exchange for your resources the self-appointed teachers will give you the wrong answers. They give you odd definitions that end up turning you inside out. They give you the wrong rules of thumb for telling right from wrong and make you miserable and fighting against yourself.

It appears that even in spiritual matters there is no free lunch – and those who ask for payment in cash are the least dishonest providers of answers. Every other form of payment by seekers for wisdom is more vicious than mere cash.

Improving the world: who and how? 

There is a rule in politics that should also apply here: Don’t evaluate a proposal based on its lofty ambitions – evaluate it based on the incentives it creates.

Whom does it empower? How can that power be abused? Did we even empower the entity that could bring forth a solution or did we just skip over that question entirely? What is the solution, anyway?

The overwhelming desire to change/improve the world falls right under the central planning fallacy. The belief that one entity can know everything and provide the solution for everything – even without defining what the problem was in the first place. God, guru, AI, or the more analog version thereof: the central planning dudes of communism. Monstrous power wielded with monstrous hubris at the detriment of everyone who was caught up in the avalanche of micromanagement by entities far removed from the actual world.

Decisions should be left as close to the individual as possible. Not necessarily because they make the best decision but because they stand the consequences. (And consequences should stay with the individual that made the choice – if we are to discuss ethics.) It is not always possible but that is never an excuse to not even try to get better. Those central planning dudes are not smarter than the ones on the ground and their data is not more useful than real-life knowledge. Stop mentally hovering above the world and imagine people like yourself as pawns on a chessboard. Occupy your own point of view for a change or you will always be a pawn to opinionated dudes who are not more knowledgeable than you but confidently yammer on about how the world should be changed in their own, little opinion.

When a belief system – be it an ideology or a religion or even a super-ethical group – suggests to change the world, the first question should definitely be: Who does the changing? Can that entity even accomplish it? And what is the “it” you mean to accomplish? 

The second question is how much power should be given to the entity who enforces that one-right-way-to-live? The one right way to think? The only right opinion to have? Is that entity incorruptible? Not just according to you but objectively? Did that entity receive monstrously strong incentives to just use that power to gain even more power? If you give that much power to one entity to achieve one noble purpose, what should happen after that purposes reached? And if it is never reached, what should we do with the all-powerful entity that remains on our neck forever? Whether it is your super-ethical self-help religion or a state ideology.

It is unforgivable hubris to believe that only you (your guru, your ideology, your religion) know the best way to live and that others should be made to think what you think. Who do you think you are when you do that? Who does your guru think he is? He is just a dude with strong opinions. And the less you know about the actual world the stronger your opinions are.

Of course, the question of who should decide what the good world is and who should have the power to enforce it only matter if the group’s goal is to actually improve the world – not just to rip off its members in the name of changing the world. But no authoritarian group victim ever thinks he is being ripped off and the noble goals are not even meant to be reached, so I had to elaborate on the dodgy nature of wanting to change other people’s lives because you think you know better.

Ultimately, neither giving up your own thinking in favor of learning, nor wanting to change the world for them is an innocent desire. And that is not changed by the guru telling you to think for yourself (or do your own research, as QAnon put it) because that is just part of the method making you internalize the dogma harder. By making you think you also came to that conclusion. Neither is the problem of changing the world solved by convincing everyone in the world to want what you want. It is still unforgivable hubris to suggest such a thing. May be the hubris of your guru but that just makes you pawn without dignity.

In the end, the group doesn’t even have to promise making tings better

Naturally, the above dynamic only applies to first generation cults. When a new group is formed, it tends to be about self-improvement and world-improvement. But every product life cycle starts with promising good service – and ends up as pure extortion. It is more comfy, easier and cheaper to maintain than constant satisfaction that is not attainable anyway.

In an authoritarian control group’s case: You arrive for the rosy promises of self- and world-improvement and you stay because you would lose to much if you’ve left. They may even continue paying some lip service to the good stuff for continued recruitment, but once you are dependent, even if only for your opinion, you are hooked. It would cost too much to leave: friends, family, money, lawsuits, end of career, sometimes even death.

Traditional groups don’t have to pay that much lip service to goodness. They still do when they are justifying themselves, but in recruitment and member retention they heavily rely on the menacing impact of insider-outsider dynamics where membership appears the only safe and comfortable place for victims and the ideological appeal of the group doesn’t have to be that chiseled and righteous anymore.

Cults from the second generation onward can count on the devastatingly powerful parental influence to indoctrinate new members and to keep them in fold. While first generation churches have to face resistance from victims’ families, second generation ones (and up) can take advantage of family ties keeping members in, rather than pulling them out. It doesn’t even have to be a policy, members of a religion may kill their own family members voluntarily as a punishment for leaving. Everything they learn points them into that direction and they have long lost (if they ever had) that individual point of view that would keep the aspirational power of the group and its leader in check.

That was the point all along in all churches, ideologies, cults, MLM programs: to lose that self that could get in the way of controlling you and using you to do the group’s bidding.

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