I don’t have any grandchildren yet. But if I ever do, I want them to understand what it is we went through during this time in history, and even more, to understand how it is that we got here. So this is for them:
I first learned about “cults” when I was 13, the age my son is now. I watched with fascination as the horrific events of the Jonestown mass suicide/murder were revealed to the world. I paid close attention to the story, clipped all the newspaper articles about it, and imagined scenarios in which I would find a way to hide until everyone was dead or gone, and save myself–and my family, if they were there too–had I been there.
What didn’t occur to me at the time was that, had I been there–had I uprooted my life to go and join this group of people in the jungles of Guyana, had I been in the frame of mind to go along with everything they did leading up to the events of November 18, 1978 (including practice runs for the mass suicide)–then chances are, I would have willingly stood in a circle with my friends and drunk the cyaninde-laden Kool-Aid as so many others did.
And that is what is so puzzling, and so fascinating, about cults. From the outside, we can’t imagine why those people would have done those things. What could possibly drive otherwise normal people to act in ways that seem not only insane, but counter to their own interests–in the case of Jonestown, counter to their most fundamental instinct for self preservation?
What could get someone to be willing to sacrifice their own life, and the lives of the people they love?
I hope to provide some insight into this question, as I find myself now, at the end of the year 2020, living in the midst of what I can only describe as a massive, dangerous, and self-destructive cult.
SO WHAT IS A CULT?
Teri Buford O’Shea escaped from Jonestown only a few weeks before the mass suicide and murder. She defines a cult this way:
“A cult is when you aren’t allowed to see your friends or family…I’m talking about total isolation – someone takes all your money and brings you to a place where there’s no communication, or if there is you aren’t allowed to use it.”
Cult deprogrammer Steven Hassan created the BITE model to explain some of the key elements that cults employ to control their members:
Behavior Control: An individual’s associations, living arrangements, food, clothing, sleeping habits, finances, etc., are strictly controlled.
Information Control: Cult leaders deliberately withhold or distort information, lie, propagandize, and limit access to other sources of information.
Thought Control: Cult leaders use loaded words and language, discourage critical thinking, bar any speech critical of cult leaders or policies, and teach an “us vs. them” doctrine.
Emotional Control: Leaders manipulate their followers via fear (including the fear of losing salvation, fear of shunning, etc.), guilt, and indoctrination.
Reading both O’Shea’s definition, and Hassan’s BITE components in 2020, it is striking to me the extent to which all of these things have been inflicted upon Americans over the past eight months:
Isolation and the intimate control of our activities and relationships, in the form of forced social distancing, the closing of businesses and schools, and most cruelly, the isolation of the elderly and others in care homes; taking money, or in our case, destroying the source of income and livelihood for millions of people in this country;control of communication and information, through what has now become overtcensorship, with hints that some forms of communication may be shut down entirely; emotional manipulation through the shaming of those who do not go along with the diktat of the day, and other tactics; and an authoritarian thought-control regime, where critical thinking on the part of individuals is ridiculed, views that contradict those of the leaders are actively censored, and intellectual debate is replaced by “us vs. them” tribal warfare.
It is this last part that gets to the heart of it. To me, the essence of a “cult” is that it provides an external replacement, a substitute, for one’s own power of reasoning and moral judgement. It demands blind obedience to this substitute, and punishes harshly anyone who dissents from its pronouncements.
Read the rest here.