by Randy Watters
I have been in the cult education field now for over 18 years, and the tools available for self-help and understanding regarding the cult phenomena only get better with time.
I recently came across a book written by John D. Goldhammer, a former member of a New Age spiritual group, entitled Under The Influence: The Destructive Effects of Group Dynamics. (Prometheus Books, 1996) It is 356 pages of truly helpful material for someone trying to sort out their life after the group experience. I will share how it has helped me.
Goldhammer refrains from using the word cult in a blanket sense, though he defines a cult thusly:
Particularly enlightening are some of the quotes in the book. The Prologue contains this gem:
The above helps answer the commonly-asked question, "Are the leaders of destructive groups really evil?" People often ask me this question about the leaders of the Watchtower and where their motivation really comes from. The Marquess was accurate in his observation: Ordinary people can often become cruel under group influence, though they are not monsters in everyday life. While there are many truly dangerous cult leaders out there who could be classed as evil or at least mentally disturbed, others are dangerous only when they act as part of their collective. Germany had to face this issue during the Nuremburg trials after World War II, when ordinary soldiers, pressured by the collective Nazi machine, became death camp operators and ordinary doctors began performing experiments on prisoners using torture and sexual abuse.1
Most of us belong to one kind of organization or another, whether it be political, church-related, or even the local PTA. Each organization has a goal, and a plan to reach or maintain that goal. Each group has the potential for harm to its members or to outsiders, and that is where there must be checks and balances on the use of collective power and authority. For any group to force its members to go against their conscience for the sake of the group is an abuse of power. Even military service during wartime has its escape hatch in many countries, namely civilian service or conscientious objector status.
Groups, like individuals, have both light and dark sides and therefore have the innate destructive potential to compromise individual integrity. (back cover slip)
Groups classified as cults, however, generally allow no dissent, and objectors are shunned, stripped of their dignity or perhaps even killed. In military organizations such dissent is called treason; in religious organizations it is called apostasy. The prospect of such radical treatment as well as the fear of being cast out often leads to a compromise of ones own ethics.2 This may result in a sense of deep personal guilt, and the pain of that guilt is subsequently dulled by renewed devotion to the collective. Time to work harder. The collective is the new god. The devotee may not be shouting Heil Hitler!, but just ask him what is the single most important thing in his life, and it will always be the collective, the organization.
In this information age, it is becoming vital to portray the patterns of destructive groups in a factual and accurate manner. The "cult-basher" who demonizes such groups may succeed in scaring people away from a destructive cult, but at what price? Shall we follow the same pattern as do the leaders of destructive groups and vilify them as the enemy? Or do we trust that factual information, personal care and family preparation will win out in the end? Such is the lesson I learned in working with Steven Hassan, a personal friend and exit-counselor. Kindness and maturity are vital if we are ever going to be an attractive signpost to those lost in destructive groups. They already feel we are persecuting them, so anger and vituperance on our part will only drive them further away. A smile and sense of vulnerability may just save them in the end.
It is my personal opinion, which has been bolstered by years of experience in counseling people out of destructive cults, that most join (a) because they feel powerless in their lives (due to any number of personal circumstances) and/or (b) because they are overpowered by a sense of guilt or self-hatred, causing them to seek life through another person or personality. They are thus able to escape their own "prison," much in the same way alcoholics or drug addicts might use substances to feel better about themselves, bypassing their own personal misery. A power-oriented group has the added "advantage" of creating a sense of self-righteousness, which is often pleasurable to the devotee. (Such initial "primal forces" may not apply to those born or raised early-on in such groups, but they are indeed trained to utilize such shortcuts to mental well-being.)
Psychological shortcuts to feeling good about yourself have a down side just as do the chemical shortcuts. In order to feel good about yourself in a group dynamic, you ultimately have to die to your old ways and personality, constructing a new one which is either a clone of a group leaders mindset or a new construct entirely, a foreign one:
Groups have a dark side that destroys individual freedom and autonomy, aborting the individual's quest for meaning, integration, and fulfillment. Even the slightest contact can expose one to these destructive dynamics. Gradually we start classifying people: there are those in our group, those outside our group, and those who could be in our group. And there are always those inner-core people who cluster around the leader. They become our role models as we slip down the icy slope of self-deception, ego-inflation and collective adaptation. Before you know it, we're feeling superior and exclusivebetter than the unenlightened masses. If only everyone knew what we knew. P.16
One of the greatest rewards of the group dynamic is the sense of camaraderie one enjoys. It is easier to get along with the members because you all think the same, everything is homogenous. Your beliefs are the same, your quirks are often the same, your goals and ethics are identical in the end. Assuming you are able to tow the line, so to speak, you are rewarded with a rich sense of belonging and selflessness. In essence it is true, you are their offspring. Yet you are the offspring of a family with destructive tendencies. Not satisfied with destroying the person you once were, they will use you to destroy the individuality and family bonds of others, all for the sake of conformity and power. You feed the machine, so to speak. In the end you are left with nothing but an empty shell, riddled with guilt and often suicidal tendencies, much as with an addict whose drugs no longer fill the void.
Just as an addict ceases to relate well to others around him (except among his own kind), members of destructive groups, whether they be religious, political or even street gangs, are no longer connected to society at large. Yet the much-touted camaraderie fails here in the end as well, since deep personal and emotional needs are not met and never will be in the group. One must keep up the appearance of the new personality. The old is dead as far as the group is concerned. Efforts to be honest and vulnerable are met with anger and contempt for showing signs of "weakness." Backsliders are not tolerated, rather they are shunned or perhaps even killed.
Through a group-perpetuated one-sidedness, people lose their sense of relationship, and consequently are unable to relate to others, to their environment, or to themselves. p. 16
One thing is always for sure, the new "drone" personality will be less complex, more opinionated and more immune to reflective logical thought. For the collective to work in destructive groups, the needs of one must be sacrificed for the needs of many as a survival technique. It is actually a devolution of the individual, the opposite of growth and maturity. All individuality and beauty that graces the personality of the new devotee is eventually ground down in the cogs of the machine. Independence is not tolerated.
Goldhammer reflects on how it worked out in his own life:
Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality and intelligence of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity. - Carl Jung
I guess I have been to over a hundred of these wonderful evenings. Beautiful people. Soft. Gentle. Spiritual. Visionary. Fascinating. But underlying all of this beauty lurks a darkness, only thinly veiled by beatific platitudes of sweetness. I call this beast New Age Fundamentalism, a belief that I am right and everyone else is wrong, stupid or evil; a belief that I represent the forces of light and goodness, while everyone else is duped by the forces of evil. - John Babbs
To ripen a person for self-sacrifice, he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness.... The most drastic way to achieve this end is by the complete assimilation of the individual into a collective body. The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings. - Eric Hoffer
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