“How many more Jonestowns and Wacos will have to occur before we realize how vulnerable all humans are to influence?” That is the key question of cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer’s excellent book, “Cults in our Midst.” Her work serves to prevent the tragedy of people being psychologically manipulated into blind obedience that harms and even kills. It should be required reading for everybody, because too many people are ill-prepared to resist undue influence and coercive persuasion.
In my retrospective of the Jonestown Massacre, I noted that Americans don’t seem to have seriously contemplated the harsh reality and consequences of coercive thought reform. It can easily destroy lives and rob people of the capacity for independent thought if we are not vigilant about how it works. Yet many are loath to admit that brainwashing is an actual reality to which we are all vulnerable.
Forty years ago, the world was shocked by the deaths of more than 900 people, a third of them children, at the Peoples Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. The charismatic and deranged leader of that cult, Jim Jones, orchestrated a mass murder in the guise of “revolutionary suicide” by urging them to drink cyanide-laced punch, and to have the children drink it first.
But you don’t have to be a part of a death cult to experience various means of exploitative persuasion designed to modify your speech, behavior, attitudes, thoughts, and relationships. So why not study such things to build up your defenses?
The Cult of Political Correctness
Consider for a moment today’s culture, which is saturated with the constant agitation of political correctness. It rarely allows for any real discussion or debate without automatic vilification of those deemed politically incorrect. Sadly, this is especially true in the very place where there is a tradition of people expecting to engage in real debate: the college campus.
We can’t deny that political correctness has a lot of disruptive effects on discourse, such as inducing self-censorship that can cause us to feel socially and mentally isolated; manipulation of our basic fear of ostracism through the threat of smears; promotion of mob rule; and an authoritarian nature that promotes the power elites who use it.
Wait, those features are all rather cult-like, no? This acceptance of the anti-thought nature of political correctness is pretty much everywhere: 95 percent of the mass media promote it, 95 percent of celebrity culture promotes it, and obviously, on college campuses, the academics are 95 percent in compliance with political correctness.
You can’t deny that cult-like tribunals against “wrongthink” are pretty much everywhere––in the media, in celebrity culture, in our legislatures, among judges, in human resource departments all over the corporate world, and most obviously, on college campuses, where youth are scared to death of being ostracized for expressing a politically incorrect thought.
Consider also how many Americans mindlessly parrot the perceived popular opinion along with its empty talking points that are never up for debate. In fact, there’s very little debate happening today. When real debate happens, it gets shouted down or pushed into a corner of the internet dubbed the “intellectual dark web.” Increasingly, our minds seem to be operating in a dangerous state of isolation, especially with increasing censorship and control over our conversations by mass media and tech titans. How is such constant censorship not cult-like?
What should most shock us is how often Americans seem to increasingly mimic many of the behaviors of cult recruits: self-censorship, peer-modeled behaviors, emotions ruling their sense of reason, obedience to the mob, and adulation of politically correct idols and celebrities. All of these behaviors are exhibited in the Jonestown death tape, as Jones rationalized “revolutionary suicide” and his followers obeyed.
Obviously, the magnitude of what happened there is far, far greater, but the path we’re on as a society is eerily similar if you stop to think it through. Just as cultists check their brains at the door, too many Americans have likewise ceded their right to free speech on the thin promise of freedom from ostracism. That is a bad and dangerous deal that never ends well.
Thought Reform Is Not Going to Go Away
There was a lot of cult activity in the 1960s and ‘70s that got worldwide attention. It included the Manson “family” slayings and the Patty Hearst kidnapping, as well as the Jonestown massacre. In the wake of all of that, the American Psychological Association (APA) asked cult expert Singer to head a task force to come up with a report that would help expose cult methods and tactics. It could therefore serve as a resource to help average Americans keep their minds free of exploitative and coercive thought reform. It would also build awareness of the tactics of cult leaders.
But did the APA allow the American public to receive this resource? No. The APA Task Force report on “Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control” (DIMPAC) was completed in 1986, but a couple of outside experts testified that report wasn’t scientific and its findings were “skewed,” claiming that brainwashing was not a scholarly concept. Essentially, they defamed Singer for doing her job.
The APA’s Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility squashed the report and ordered that it never be released, so it never has been. In the meantime, cults and their apologists have had free reign to shut down or hijack any effective organization that could help potential victims and their families understand and resist coercive thought reform techniques. (The Church of Scientology, which many view as a cult entity, sued and bankrupted the Cult Awareness Network, an organization founded in the wake of Jonestown.)
In my opinion, the APA’s suppression of the DIMPAC report was a shameful action against the safety of the American public. This cultivation of ignorance has no doubt had a destructive effect on millions of Americans. Without the immunity we need––especially in these times of social upheaval with the rise of newer and all-encompassing communications technologies––cult-like tactics are given free reign.
Cults Are Not Defined by Beliefs, But by Their Methods
As a nation, we need to talk openly and clearly about the reality of coercive thought reform. We must understand how easily our minds can be molested when isolated from real conversation and debate. The only people who profit from such conditions are powerful elites in their never-ending quest to control the lives of others.
So I offer a few notes about cults from Singer’s book, “Cults in Our Midst“:
- Cults are defined by their methods and tactics, not their supposed beliefs. Cults and cult-like thinking always proliferate at times of great social upheaval, when people feel displaced.
- Cults always serve a powerful elite, with recruits manipulated from above to profit those elites, who employ coordinated persuasion programs.
- Cults always have a hidden agenda that is never exposed when recruiting. They isolate their recruits from other points of view in order to control and manipulate them.
- Cults control language in order to blunt independent thought. They cultivate dependency, debilitation, deception, dread of separation, and desensitization in people, all of which makes it harder for them to walk away.
- The main goal of a cult is simply to grow, grow, grow. There is no end in sight in terms of recruitment or fundraising or power.
- Cults make a point of getting footholds in the institutions of society — including government, media, and education — in order to get mainstream credibility.
- Cults are very organized in suppressing critics and criticism.
We should also be aware of Singer’s list of the six conditions practiced by cults:
- Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how he or she is being changed a step at a time.
- Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.
- Systematically create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency in the person.
- Suppress old behavior and attitudes by manipulating a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences.
- Instill new behavior and attitudes by manipulating a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences that induce group-approved behaviors.
- Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval.
Based on all of the above, could we be so deeply immersed in cult-like thinking today that we don’t even feel it? For example, is it possible that the entire education establishment and our school boards are immersed in cult-like behaviors? What about globalist leaders? (Many, if not all, cults have always had aspirations for global control.)
What about the transgender movement? Is that a cult? What about a huge administrative state? Does it operate in a cult-like manner? How about socialism? Does the socialist movement have features of a cult? After all, socialism pretty much requires a centralized power structure that can’t help but be authoritarian. It ends up placing all power into the hands of a few elites. It’s tailor-made for creating mass dependency and the groupthink that goes with that.
The stated beliefs of any of the above groups are irrelevant to the questions above. To figure out whether something is a cult, you must just look at the tactics and methods of those groups, especially their tolerance for different points of view.
Groupthink Versus the Individual
We must heed Singer’s warning that the psycho-technology of thought reform isn’t going to go away. We need to arm ourselves with information and education, to spread awareness in order to protect ourselves and our minds. Protecting our capacity for thinking our own thoughts should be a major priority in a world that seems increasingly dominated by anti-thought forces.
A prime lesson of the Jonestown tragedy is that our freedom of thought is a sacred right of all human beings. To deny it to people is to rob them of their humanity and dignity. We must all learn that lesson, and not allow it to be lost.
In the aftermath of the APA’s unconscionable suppression of the DIPAC report, we can all start by reading Singer’s book, “Cults in Our Midst.” It exists as a great public service and is a must-read for our times. Singer concludes it with these words of great wisdom:
A free mind is a wonderful thing. Free minds have discovered the advances of medicine, science, and technology; have created great works of art, literature, and music; and have devised our rules of ethics and the laws of civilized lands. Tyrants who take over our thinking and enforce political, psychological, or spiritual ‘correctness’ by taking away our freedoms, especially the freedom of our minds, are the menace of today, tomorrow and all eternity.