I am not a clinician and I am not a counsellor. However, I’ve done a fair amount of research work in the mental health field, and used to manage the research services of a big mental health think tank. As a result, I have a cursory familiarity with some of the theory in the field.
Lately, I’ve noticed an increased prevalence in people proudly declaring their participation in various self-help movements, courses and organizations, none of which I will list in this post because (a) my criticism will offend people I know who have participated in these things; and (b) the organizations in question may sue my ass. I’ve noticed mention of these movements/courses/organizations/companies on friends’ Facebook pages, tweets, and even on people’s online dating profiles.
Point (b) is a real possibility, since one of the organizations/courses/movements/companies I’m referring to has a history of suing anyone who points out their cult-like behaviour. (And it’s not the one you might be thinking of.)
And there I’ve said it. The “c” word. These movements/courses/organizations/companies behave like cults. And those in their thrall dispute this vociferously, but then again so do all cultists. When I bring up these characteristics to those who’ve participated, I usually get angry responses, typically resembling the “this has changed my life! You have no idea what you’re missing! Yadda yadda…” variety.
Okay, so-called positive change is good, I suppose. If that’s what it really is. Whatever. With this blog post, all I want to do is to introduce one of the litmus tests for cultishness, as plucked from the mental health literature. It’s Robert Lifton‘s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, reproduced below from the aforelinked Wikipedia page:
- Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
- Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences.
- Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
- Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
- Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
- Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.
- Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
- Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.
So go forth and apply these criteria to whatever movement or self-help course you or a loved one are part of, then draw your own conclusions.