Image from The Conversation.
Years after the Jonestown suicide and the siege at Waco, rhetoric surrounding cults and “brainwashing” has entered the common discourse. Issues with brainwashing started around the Cold War, following rising concerns about the Chinese government using mind control to maintain and spread Communism (check out this article from The Smithsonian for more context). While non-traditional religious groups, commonly referred to as “cults,” have existed long before the term brainwashing came to be, there seems to be an implicit association between cults and brainwashing. The idea that a dangerous, perverse group could manipulate innocent people into joining their warped cause is a source of worry, but is this a legitimate concern?
What even is brainwashing?
It should be noted that the term “brainwashing” and its validity are disputed in academia. Most psychologists and sociologists who study cults don’t consider it a legitimate process, mainly because it’s not directly observable and cannot be definitively proven. But scholars such as the late Margaret Singer and deprogrammers such as Rick Alan Ross argue that the effects of brainwashing, namely the involuntary loss of autonomy and free-thinking, should be cause for concern. Theories such as the “Pre-Existing Condition” Theory state that cult members are mentally ill, susceptible individuals who have been manipulated into joining cults and staying.
Additionally, organizations such as Freedom of Mind (founded by former cult member Steven Hassan) and the recently-bankrupted Cult Awareness Network (CAN) aim to spread awareness about the lurking threat cults pose to susceptible individuals. However, many partner with cult deprogrammers such as Rick Ross to promote their cult-deprogramming services and make a profit. Deprogrammers and cult-watch organizations purposefully spread fear and prejudice against emerging non-traditional religions and groups and make monetary gains off that fear.
Of course we have to talk about cults
Blaming events such as the Waco tragedy on brainwashed members of dangerous groups is a deflection of guilt and responsibility from society to victims. It assumes that those in cults have lost their freedom to a manipulative, narcissist leader when in reality, most “cult” members are there of their own volition and have a pretty low member-retention rate (check out this article by Charlotte Allen for more background). Even using the term “cult” leads to dangerous prejudice. Groups that do not fit the traditional category of “religion” are immediately labeled as cults, a term that brings negative associations and aims to discredit the group’s beliefs. For example, the events at Waco escalated in part because the FBI and the ATF refused to listen to David Koresh’s message of an impending attack that would bring forth the apocalypse, opting instead for tactical force that only confirmed Koresh’s message in his and his followers’ eyes.
This lack of knowledge and lack of an attempt at understanding the groups is what has led to the anti-cult hegemony present in today’s society, especially in the U.S. where freedom and democracy are highly valued. The efforts of private organizations to discredit cults and deprogram members are typically taken as part of an honest battle against totalitarianism and brainwashing, when in reality they are tactics that play on the public’s preconceived notions about cults. This prejudice and perpetuation of stereotypes are more brainwashing than the preachings of David Koresh.
That brings forth an important question: if “cults” don’t actually brainwash their members, how do they keep people in despite their toxicity? Well, there are many reasons why people join cults, but the main one is a search for belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose, or BIMP (a term used by Theologian and Religious Studies scholar Dr. Lauve Steenhuisen). Many people derive BIMP from their everyday lives, be it through social groups, one’s career, etc. Non-traditional groups often offer this opportunity for fulfillment, making them particularly attractive to people in transitional periods of their lives, idealists, and college students. Truth is, anyone could be recruited given the right circumstances.
Anyone who is in search of a deeper meaning, who seeks a spiritual revelation, who wants a different ideology to subscribe to, could potentially join a group. While some of these non-traditional groups have toxic people at their core—such as Charles Manson and Jim Jones—often the outer circle, those who recently joined or have not grown close to the leader, don’t experience this toxicity. For instance, Buddhafield, a group that lasted over 20 years despite ongoing sexual abuse, survived for so long because most members were unaware of this abuse and only experienced the spiritual rewards the leader offered (check out Holy Hell on Netflix to learn more about this group).
So who’s at fault, you or society?
People join alternative groups because they’re not content or fulfilled with their larger, socially acceptable, equally manipulating group: society. Though we may not notice, everything we believe, everything we know, is taught to us by the society we grew up in. Our beliefs and knowledge may seem logical and natural, but as we’re discovering now with the unveiling of the depth of systemic racism in the United States, they don’t occur in a vacuum. Years of established hegemony and dominant discourse perpetuated by the ruling groups at any given time lead to a naturalized, desensitized complacency. People don’t stray far from the status quo because it’s all they know and have known, and because society teaches its members that those who stray (e.g. people who join cults), have it wrong.
One could say we’re all brainwashed. If you believe something, anything, chances are it wasn’t your conscious doing. To have learning, you have to have teaching, and the danger comes when one isn’t aware of who’s doing the teaching. In this sense, people who join non-traditional groups or “cults” are braver than most, because they consciously decided to renounce the dominant discourse in favor of an alternate one. Now, I’m not telling you to go join a cult, but what I hope you take away from this article is a conscious critical eye and ear, an unrelenting questioning of your tightly-held beliefs, an awareness of the seemingly natural teaching society does. Don’t take information at face value, but think about who wants you to receive that information and what they stand to gain from your acceptance. Be wary, be critical, but most of all, don’t be ignorant.
Do you believe in brainwashing?