Signs and Signals of a Cultic Group


I’m reading Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear which looks and the rise of Scientology. In it Wright discussed how groups and group dynamics affect change in individuals. He noted that all groups do this to some extent;  yet we find ourselves in a quandary to note differences from the PTA and a cult (sociologically speaking). To that effect he discussed the work of Hunter and Lifton in demarcating the Marines Boot Camp from the Chinese Re-education Camps. Here are some of the signs that the re-education process is skating on cultic ice:

1) All access to the outside world is shut off. This is done so that the group can control all perception of reality. In doing this the expected patterns of behavior are established in a seemingly organic way, as well creating a picture of the authority figure as omniscient. The individual either endorses the “new reality” or has their will to resist beaten out of them.

2) The moral reality of the individual is totally controlled by the group. “Sin” and “Confession” became exercises in fealty, rather than purgative. These confessions occur with such repetition that they become performance. New ‘sins’ are always being admitted to the list keeping the confessor continually locked in the process, never being granted release or absolution.

3) The purpose of confession is to search for vulnerabilities and exploits that the leadership may use to control behavior (through blackmail, fear, intimidation, or shame). The point is not wholeness,  forgiveness or solace which would bring true freedom.

4) The dogma of the group is promoted as scientifically, philosophically,  or emotionally uncontestable. It is ‘truer’ than anything ever experienced or known.

5) Resistance to this truth, therefore, is not just illogical or unscientific;  it is immoral.

6) Dogma is atomized and reduced into highly reductive, defintive-sounding, easily learned phrases.

7) Any expressed desire to leave is taken as a crime to explored by confession,  and punished. Anyone expressing doubt has the conversation shifted to their personal faults rather than any consideration of a group fault.

Working together these policies create “the combination of enforce logic and crocheted discourse creating a kind of melodrama, and which formulated thoughts and handicapped language substitute for real emotions and complex understandings of human nature. Once inside the powerful logic of the group, wondrous further and further from the shore of common understanding.”

– Wright, 159 to 162.

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