When is a cult not a cult? A quick trawl of the internet reveals quite a bit of information about them, and to read some of the definitions they could be applied to pretty well any political movement, religion or business model. There does seem to be some agreement though, as to the key things that are needed to build a cult. The first requirement is a charismatic leader. This leader needs to have some form of programme of change as the bait for their potential followers to latch on to. The said followers need to be in a place where they feel there is something missing or lacking in their lives; as perfectly happy well adjusted individuals won’t necessarily take the bait.
Okay, so that definition is a bit of an oversimplification, and the whole subject is far more complex. However, it is something that has fascinated me for a long time because I’ve often wondered if I might have been, or maybe still am, a follower of a cult. So let’s see if I can throw some light on the subject from a personal perspective.
Anyone who has read any amount of my blog will have picked up that I occasionally refer to peer to peer counselling. Simply put, this is a practice where one person gives attention to another for a set amount of time, and then the roles are reversed for the same amount of time. This is something I got into in the early 1970s at a time when I was really struggling with my life. Now by the previously outlined definition, the organisation I got involved with could have been viewed as a cult. It had a charismatic leader and many of the other followers were either needy or simply wanting to experiment with a different way of tackling mental health issues. At the time I even got quite evangelical about it myself, but quickly realised that other people weren’t that interested. I count myself lucky that this period was short lived for me. I somehow managed to separate out the thinking behind the practice from what was going on with the personalities and the organisation. Since that time I’ve been quite comfortable with the knowledge that I’ve managed to stay grounded, and not get caught up in some of the things that didn’t seem right for me.
Some years down the line, I effectively dropped out for a number of reasons. Partly I wanted to test out whether or not I had developed some kind of psychological dependency and thankfully discovered that wasn’t the case. I’d also begun to question some of the ethics in the methodology, and I’ve gradually come to terms with or changed some things in my own thinking.
So why did I find it necessary to reconnect with the network I had effectively dropped out of? Well a few years ago I found myself struggling again, only this time round I decided to seek some professional help. The British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists has a website with a national directory of accredited practitioners. So I checked out a few and settled on one who seemed to be well qualified and experienced. Things went reasonably well and after a number of sessions I was able to move on. Over about four years I saw a couple of other counsellors for short periods. Each individual counsellor had their different ways of working and they do say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince or Princess. However, it seemed to me that the quality of the attention I was receiving was little different to the standard within the peer network I had previously been a part of. In fact the main difference was that I was paying close to £50 an hour for one way attention. So I took the decision to track down and reconnect with my original network and signed up for a refresher course. I was pleasantly surprised at how much information came back to me and how quickly I was able to get up and running again. Equally I’m not at all surprised that, people being people, a lot of the same problems still exist within the organisation itself. To me, it still has an image problem. For one thing, it still gets accused and attacked as being a cult and to be honest, for a variety of reasons that doesn’t surprise me.
I’ve got to the stage where if one of my peers in the network expresses despair that we’re viewed as a cult; I just turn to them and suggest that if they want to know why people do that, they should take a step back and look at us from a lay person’s perspective. What we do appears to be so outside the frame of what many people see as normal behaviour that, personally, I’m freaked out by it; even after all my years of experience.
The word “cult” carries quite a bit of baggage with it; some good and some bad. In the arts for example, many films, music genres and fashion trends have what is often referred to as a cult following; these are considered fairly benign. However, the term also has its dark side in that it’s also associated with mind control or brainwashing. Usually, this mind control is to the benefit of an individual and or an organisation that has less than the best interests of its followers at heart. Sadly, it’s this darker use of the word that seems to be more prevalent.
For me the word “cult” is simply shorthand for, I don’t understand what I’m being presented with here. It doesn’t look like normal behaviour. It looks weird/creepy/funny/peculiar. Or even, sad/evil/dangerous/bonkers. The briefest of conversations with someone who expresses these viewpoints reveals, for me at least, a quite deep rooted fear. Now fear of what depends on the individual. It may be fear of difference or fear of losing one’s will or any number of reasons depending on the person.
Referring back to mind control and brainwashing; if one thinks about it, isn’t that something that we are all subjected to constantly from the moment of birth? We are raised within a particular framework that is meant to make us secure, functioning members of the society we grow up in. We grow up learning to accept as normal some quite irrational concepts and beliefs. To question any of these is a scary thing for us. Historically, brutal wars have been fought between societies that considered each other dangerous, because they held different views and values from one another. Religions also have a long history of conflicts with each other.
Currently, the established peer to peer network in the USA is coming under attack and being subjected to a certain amount of Cult Baiting from one particular newspaper over there. I don’t really know the details, it being quite some distance away from life on this side of the pond. I do though, have some thinking about the whole issue of attacks of this kind and how they should be dealt with.
My first thought is that this attack is coming from a newspaper and the media generally don’t necessarily go in for truth or even facts. Their role is to manipulate people into buying their brand of news. Their main interest is in making money. So if a story doesn’t persuade enough buyers to buy their brand of news, it will very quickly get dropped. Given this, my second thought is, do not engage with the attacker. This only adds grist to their mill, as you will be helping them to keep the story rolling and thus making more money at your expense.
I’ve come under attack myself quite a few times in my life. It’s a horrible feeling. There is confusion about where the attacker is coming from, and a strong sense that what is happening is unjustified and unthinking. The pull that I feel is to defend myself, to put them right. However, I’ve learned that this is rarely the correct response. I’ve occasionally been Trolled on the internet. I’ve learned that all these individuals are looking for is attention, and they’re doing it in a very nasty way. My response to them is to deprive them of their oxygen. I delete, block and do not engage. In my view the same response applies to attacks from the media. Turn around, walk away with your head held high and do not engage.