Signs You Might Be in a Cult
Posted on February 16th, 2007 by Tariq Nelson
After looking at some of the comments here, I felt compelled to post a few signs of a cult that I have found in various places. Keep in mind that a cult does not have to be the type that lives in a compound. It is a state of mind. I took a few of them for you all to judge in light of some Muslim movements here in the US and their relationship to other Muslims and the society in general:
Isolation from society:
Like I said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to be living on a compound with all other sect members and waiting for the end of the world. However, one of the defining marks of a cult is to control the surroundings of the members. This makes it easier to control their minds. They are constantly warned of the dangers of being away from the other sect members at all possible times. (Note: This is different from keeping good company)
They absolutely cannot be friends with or have contact with a person outside of the sect unless they are recruiting that person into the sect and are endlessly told of the dangers of doing such a thing.
They are warned of the dangers of getting a secular education (lest they be corrupted) told to avoid critical thinking, and to embrace groupthink. Any books, lectures, etc outside of those specifically approved by the movement leadership must be avoided at all costs. This way, information can be spoon fed to the members very carefully.
The world is presented in stark black and white terms and there are no shades of gray. There is no compromise. Members are made to feel guilty for doing things that any other normal human being would do, such as mixing with people that are not in their cult. So the constant goal becomes to spend as much time around other members as possible. Even if one has to quit a job to do so.
Everyone in the sect is good. Everyone else is evil. There is no in-between. Complex issues are made into very simple ones. Because they have been trained to see only in black and white, members of cults are very hard to reason with since they have trouble understanding complex real life issues.
All people and things outside of their bubble are evil - and thus avoided - while the sect, its members and everything associated with it is good. The more one can immerse themselves into the cult the more righteous the person is in the eyes of the other cult members.
The use of thought-terminating cliches, catch phrases or words that are designed to end a conversation or controversy. Some of the more popular ones where Muslims are concerned are “Khalifah”, “the ulamaa”, “the haqq”, “Islam is the answer”, “Qur’an and Sunnah” etc. Phrases that when invoked can’t be questioned. It is sad sometimes because even ayat and hadith have been misused in this manner. People in cults speak almost entirely in these kind of cliches
Thought I’d never see this amongst Muslims, but one particular cult made it their hallmark to make their members do a form of what can be called “confession” in front of the other members in order to express their loyalty to the cult and disavowal to everything else.
I knew that members of cults other religions were known to use this tactic and make their members confess their sins before each other, but I was surprised when I saw it appear amongst a Muslim sect that I can only say now was a cult. This creates an environment of fear and leads to more control over the members. They can also be berated with the thought terminating cliches
Cults tend to engage in religious hairsplitting. There is no room for disagreement even on small issues where noone is necessarily wrong. Typically small issues are lifted into sacredness and can not be called into question. Also an exaggerated reverence for the leadership is demanded. This makes name droppers raise in status within the cult.
I mentioned this earlier, and there is some overlap with Isolationism, but I wanted to add that common sense is thrown out the window and seen as hostile to the cult. One’s personality must be purged and made to conform to a group template that is usually pretentious. All forms of individuality must be de-emphasized
Former members of cults often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
Denial of Problems
Because they associate perfection with their cult, there cannot possibly be any mistakes or bad advice given, so they deny and/or bury the problems at all costs. Remember, cult members are trained to see only in black and white terms and getting them to admit to problems is like pulling teeth
If you see these signs, you just might be in a cult
Filed under: Muslim Isolation, The Culture of Denial and Pretense
- "Isolation from society"
This is easy pickings on the internet. I do not really know any other life, at this point, and I feel I am not alone in this -- today our society *is* the digital one, to a huge degree. While work life has intruded I have always felt that my 'true' society is the global one, the one over IRC and XMPP, expressed over a text console. Perhaps with a detour or two into the agora. But as people flow in and out of spending a lot of time being social in this way, it is easy to be left as one of the only ones awake in 100 square km.
When you put down the robot, everything gets eerily quiet. Cults prey on this silence.
- "one of the defining marks of a cult is to control the surroundings of the members. This makes it easier to control their minds. They are constantly warned of the dangers of being away from the other sect members at all possible times...All people and things outside of their bubble are evil - and thus avoided"
This is where the great internet filter bubble comes in. Cults don't even have to do this anymore -- Google will do it for them. Even without search engines, just selecting for common surroundings seems to do the trick. There is a scam for pumping stocks where you send an email to 1 million people claiming a stock will go up, 1 million that a stock will go down. Half the time you get it wrong, but that's OK. You make a prediction to the people you got the prediction 'right' in a similar fashion, and recurse until you have successfully made 20 odd correct predictions to 1 person, and then give them another prediction which would require a great deal of trust, which you have appearingly gained, given you 'successfully' predicted 20 market moves in a row, which is the hook for a scam move. Simmilarly -- you can have a great deal of control by merely selecting for people, in a world of 7 billion, almost by default. Especially where people do not have a lot of control to start with in their life, where financial and other insecurity is common, the appearance of stability can be attractive.
The dangers outside of the KULT were certainly highlighted. Dystopic views of the future[ie the present] may have been justified by recent history, but the view of danger had the side effect of casting other things outside of the group, and its promise, in a light that made them look spooky.
- "They absolutely cannot be friends with or have contact with a person outside of the sect unless they are recruiting that person into the sect and are endlessly told of the dangers of doing such a thing."
I think this is a lot easier to fall into, if the group reaches anything close to the dunbar number of people. It's not even that you would have to choose -- just that conveniently, all of a sudden everyone around you is part of the same clique. I am unfollowing/unfriending 10 people a week just to keep my online social life in some semblance of control. No matter how good your tools are -- sooner or later you will find you have to choose who to associate with. If your group insulates itself, by nature of this choice, from the rest of humanity, no matter how intelligent or interesting you are as individuals, you will suffocate.
- "They are warned of the dangers of getting a secular education (lest they be corrupted) told to avoid critical thinking, and to embrace groupthink"
I think 'avoid critical thinking' is a hard one to not cultivate. Thinking is hard, math is takes patience and effort, critical thinking is not trivial. Unless you specifically reward people, with status or smiles, for being critical, affective death spirals can happen. It doesn't help that there is a great deal of abuse and turmoil in education systems. I gave up on the system myself and had it not been for bitcoin I wouldn't have recommended education very far at all. Bitcoin complicates things, but I am very bitter at education for what I feel to be good reasons -- the only problem is that there are few alternatives and netsweating may not always produce optimal outcomes.
As far as groupthink goes, shared illusions do arise in cults. Cached thoughts are one, reasoning from authority is another. You can try to be critical and still fall into it.
- "Any books, lectures, etc outside of those specifically approved by the movement leadership must be avoided at all costs. This way, information can be spoon fed to the members very carefully."
...and books, lectures, etc that are encountered can be digested within the cult's paradigm. There are graduations of control, and especially when group interests are at stake, a group with a model of itself might very well increase the level of that control, either planned or unplanned.
- "So the constant goal becomes to spend as much time around other members as possible. Even if one has to quit a job to do so."
If you are rewarded for participating in a group, and the rest of your life involves suffering, it's not hard at all to see how this would happen. In the case of the KULT, having a group where socially rejected people congregate, almost any amount of social reward will be sufficient. And in a world where people are increasingly digitally connected, being rejected need not even be unlikely. It might just be a consequence of scarcity of available attention.
- "Everyone in the sect is good. Everyone else is evil. There is no in-between. "
More specifically -- all you need is the first part to get this ball started. A presumption that everyone in the tribe is good will start this off. There exists evil in the world, and once you notice this, and if you 'know' that your tribe isn't included in that, and you 'know' you yourself do not have an evil side, it can be a matter of risk preference how much of the rest of the world you are willing to interact with, or perhaps even so much as let live[why let evil survive?], balanced only against your will to do evil harm and your means to do evil harm, the risk aversion of the group, and the perception of the group on the evil involved with violence and its ability to taint members.
- "Absolutism/Literalism ...Complex issues are made into very simple ones. Because they have been trained to see only in black and white, members of cults are very hard to reason with since they have trouble understanding complex real life issues."
Going into new social situations where you have no social currency is very stressful. It gets worse the more excluded and different you are. One of the things some cults and cliques have going for them is that they are open to new members, and are pleasant to people enough to give a Halo effect.
- "The more one can immerse themselves into the cult the more righteous the person is in the eyes of the other cult members."
I think it was in the Rise and Fall of Western Civilization that they talked about this in detail(I wonder if my memory is serving me here?) -- it is common in underground communities, once they get big enough, for there to be people who specialize in expressing the ideal of the respective culture. They may not hold jobs, but they'll be held up as an 'ideal' that others strive towards as they are able to dedicate their time to cultural activities and because they are not as restricted as the rest of the group by outside social conventions, they can more fully focus on expressing, either by look, dress, actions or thought, or even other means, in a way that people that have to survive in other social circles are incapable. This goes up to and including permanent disfigurement and 'peacock tail' like self-nerfing. This can be tied to productive activity, too -- in work settings, the person who puts in 14 hour days is seen as more righteous, and can be rewarded beyond mere monetary compensation, in terms of status, and we don't see anything wrong, in and of itself, in that. It is a sign of a meritocratic group, and by itself this trait isn't necessarily harmful. It's only in the context of everything else listed here that it is a dangerous one.
- "The use of thought-terminating cliches, catch phrases or words that are designed to end a conversation or controversy. ...Phrases that when invoked can’t be questioned...People in cults speak almost entirely in these kind of cliches"
These problems are the staple of George Orwell's works. Doublethink and language simplification happen when powerful entities get big enough to warp how we see language. "Sean Kennedy is the Fucking Man", "Don't hate the media, become the media", "Microsoft is Evil", "To the moon!". These kinds of meme shorthands are ubiquitous online. Reddit has some tools for monitoring the use of cliches in groups as large as a few million, but really, this is probably the easiest to catch yourself. There are tools you can use to create word clouds. If you could extend them to make phrase clouds, and you find a cliche or two popping up...its time to turn up th critical thinking knob.
- "Confession...This creates an environment of fear and leads to more control over the members. They can also be berated with the thought terminating cliches"
I think the root problem here is actually the loss of privacy. While the loss of privacy for powerful people is no doubt one good way to keep those at the levers of power honest and not deceitful or malicious, privacy does protect against this fear.
One way this can start is by openness, which is slowly required to be increased as the group becomes increasingly rigid and paranoid. Openness which startus free anonymous disclosure. Unfortunately, the more information is revealed in this fashion, the less privacy you have left. There has been speculation that sooner or later, we are going to know who Satoshi is. Even just by discussing abstract technical matters, the idiosyncracies in his written text will identify him.
Both by the safety of anonymity(from IRC or even just the lack of logging), and out of pure boredom, we share. Once this process of sharing begins within a group, it can become expected, and the levels of sharing required escallate until it reaches the point where it is a feared activity, and used by the group for compliance, rather than information exchange and social bonding.
- "Exaggerated claims"
I think this is a feature of memory -- with time memories degrade and fish tales escallate. Fish tales that give the teller, or those he associates with status could very well be selected for in an environment shielded from verification, which the cult might provide. I think in stories, to some extent, and notice that the longer ago a story dates from, the more incredulous it seems to uninterested bystanders
- "Cults tend to engage in religious hairsplitting. There is no room for disagreement even on small issues where noone is necessarily wrong. Typically small issues are lifted into sacredness and can not be called into question. Also an exaggerated reverence for the leadership is demanded. This makes name droppers raise in status within the cult."
Name management seems to be one of the more tractable ways of assigning status. It's not the only one, but for organizations with increasingly fragile information processing capability, it is understandable that they will rely on easier to verify without permission of the group methods, and methods that are 'safe' such as relying on authorities within the group.
- "I mentioned this earlier, and there is some overlap with Isolationism, but I wanted to add that common sense is thrown out the window and seen as hostile to the cult."
I think we can rerphase this. Without access to evidence or the commonsense priors of other groups, even rational people are going to slowly accumulate very strange and seemingly maladjusted priors. Similar to how genes in a species that is not subject to a certain selection pressure will not be kept as much as genes which are over time, even deep seated ideas will slowly degrade when confronted with an environment with enough social emphasis on other ones.
- "One’s personality must be purged and made to conform to a group template that is usually pretentious. All forms of individuality must be de-emphasized"
Another example of something that we kind of take for granted in meatspace -- the acceptability of individuality, and the capacity or ability to express it, is not always available online. Myspace provided a fairly standard lens to view people, facebook seems in some ways to have narrowed that lens further. Smaller social ladders might be more tractable to understand, relative to complex entities like corporations with their own inner politics and factions, and subfactions within them.
- "Abuse...Former members of cults often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances."
Abuse happens for a lot of reasons but in groups that have cultlike features there are patterns of abuse that can be shielded and protected from outsiders and from being resolved internally. This allows them to continue to iterate, even if you personally are able to keep yourself from being victimized. When you deny problems and view things in black and white, everything shy of outright evil is permitted, and significant suffering at the hands of sadistic and sociopathic elements can be swept under the carpet and away from public view.
- "Denial of Problems"
I think this can be expanded upon. I've gone as far as to list 'intractable problems' as an interest on some social networking platforms. But there's more to it than that. Problems where your social status is at stake are fear inducing. Problems where materials necessary for survival also. In the case of cults, if your social status is tied up with the status of the group, attacks on the group are fear inducing also. Like nostalgic memories, if you can abstract away these connotations, problem solving can be enjoyable and rewarding, if stressful and difficult, but with these factors, it can sometimes be easier to just try to ignore and deny the problems exist.
In short, the KULT with its semblance of promoting of critical thinking, learning and individuality did not exhibit the worst of some of these traits. But I recognize all of them. There may be some confirmation bias colouring my vision here, but I would be surprised if the future doesn't look recognizable as containing what we would call 'cults', with features as described above.