What is a Cult?

What is a Cult?

Some axiomatic principles taken from Matthew Remski

Cults aren’t defined by their content (political, religious, psychedelic), they are defined by their element of control. Another term for a ‘cult’ is a high demand group.

High demand groups can be very appealing from the outside, no one signs up for the rape, torture, or manipulative experiences that happen inside of a cult. And the after effects from high demand group life can be extreme, such as PTSD, inability to form romantic relationships, etc.

1)No one joins a cult

No one joins a cult. People delay leaving organizations that misrepresented themselves.” — Cathleen Mann, personal interview

  • In two sentences, this profound statement deconstructs the most harmful narrative around cult recruitment we have: that adults freely choose to be indoctrinated and exploited. No one chooses this. And if they appear to, they’ve been coercively influenced.
  • The most pertinent comparison we can look at to drive this home is the question of why people stay in domestic violence situations. They’re not choosing it. Over time, they are groomed into confusing abuse with love, while losing outside perspective and resources. Those losses can be gradual or instantaneous

2) Few clear predictors for recruitment

There are few clear predictors for who is recruited to a group or stays in a group beyond “situational vulnerability.”

  • This comprises normal transitional life tensions: sickness, divorce, death in the family, unemployment. Or a pandemic.
  • Researchers have inconclusively speculated on vulnerable psychological profiles, or how addiction disorders might predict recruitment. Besides being weak, these correlations tend to bend the conversation towards victim-blaming, ignoring the techniques and strategies of domination that can overcome literally anyone.
  • This is a particularly important point with regard to limiting ableism in the discourse – the false premise that psychological or psychiatric illness is a causal factor in cultic recruitment. This is as harmful as claiming that psychiatric conditions are predictive of criminal activity.
  • This is also important as we watch the social, racial, and economic diversity of QAnon emerge. It’s less about where you come from than what you are subjected to.

3) The content of the Cult isn’t the point

Cults can be political, spiritual, economic, military, therapeutic, self-help. Focusing on the content distracts from the mechanisms. Also if deception is the gateway, the group is never really about what it says it’s about.

Examples:  Sogyal Rinpoche wasn’t really teaching Buddhism. He wanted to eat steaks and      sexually abuse women. Buddhism was the cover. Same thing with Bikram Choudhury.  Lyndon LaRouche wasn’t seriously running for president. He was running a high-demand group as a personal vanity project. Was Harvey Weinstein a movie producer or a serial assaulter who exploited the movie world?

4) Leaders don’t get psychological evaluation

We don’t really know what’s going on for leaders, because they never submit themselves to psychological evaluation.

  • Some leaders may be diagnosable with forms of bipolar disorder, NPD, sociopathy, or what Daniel Shaw calls “Traumatic Narcissism,” but we often just don’t know.
  • In general, leaders have something about them we can call “charisma,” which is not so much a property of them personally, so much as a product of the social feedback loops of reward and amplification they generate. It’s not about the personality.

5) Cultic organizations hide behind public-facing fronts.

This is crucial to the process of deception. The front organization shields the public from what the cult is really doing. It also shields cult members from how the real world thinks and operates. The front allows the cult members to interface with the public in a controlled fashion.

  • Scientology offers personality tests, QAnon boosts #Savethechildren, One cult I was recruited into ran restaurants, bakeries, and construction companies. The other ran corporate personal development workshops, Shambhala International offers secularized mindfulness meditation.

Here’s where Hannah Arendt is still so helpful:

The proper image of totalitarian rule and organization seems to me to be the structure of the onion, in whose centre, in a kind of empty space, the leader is located; whatever he does: whether he integrates the body politic as in an authoritarian hierarchy, or oppresses his subjects like a tyrant, he does it from within, and not from without or above. All the extraordinarily manifold parts of the movement: the front organizations, the various professional societies, the party-membership, the party hierarchy, the elite formations and police groups, are related in such a way that each forms the facade in one direction and the centre in the other, that is, plays the role of normal outside world for one layer and the role of radical extremism for another.

— Hannah Arendt. The Review of Politics, Vol. 18, № 4 (Oct., 1956), pp. 403–417.

6) Cultic dynamics exploit the most tender parts of human relationships.

  • They exploit the best parts of you as a human – your altruism, yearning, hope.
  • On the whole, everyone recruited into a cult is defrauded of time and energy, often during periods in life where they would be otherwise doing crucial development.  Cults break up families and marriages to reassign investment to the leader alone.

7) Cult involvement damage

Cult involvement can be traumatizing and can cause significant psychological and cognitive impairments.

  • In more severe cases, the group works members into illness and destitution. I watched two people die in one of the cults I was in. Neither received adequate social or medical care. In one group, a young man I once knew had his mental health issues exacerbated by the cultic pressures and was eventually thrown out into the desert, and died there of exposure. In the worst cases, members are ordered to murder opponents, or are murdered themselves.

8) Leaving Factors

Leaving depends on personal realization plus social support. Recovery is relational. Stein suggests that the three groups that are most helpful for a cult survivor are:

  • Those who left the group before,
  • Those who have left similar groups, and
  • Those who knew the survivor before they were indoctrinated, and can therefore reflect back to the survivor a more grounded version of themselves