Cult Spotting 101: Evaluating a New Group Before You Join

Wow, it’s been a long time since I did a post for my Cult Spotting 101 series! I’ve got a new one for readers today.

If you’re not familiar with this series, I link to a source (or in this case sources) and ask readers to take a moment to identify any red flags that might indicate cause for concern about cultic practices or teachings. It’s designed to give readers a chance to exercise their skills in identifying potentially problematic groups.

Why? Because the best safeguard against cults is learning how to recognize the signs.

This week, I’m looking at the Sisters of the Valley (aka, the weed nuns). They’re a relatively new group, consisting of two Sisters who make Cannabis products to sell online. They don’t have a doctrine or body of teachings to analyze. Rather, we’re going to practice evaluating what they say about the group as if it were a new group we were interested in joining.

They’ve been really popular as a share on Facebook, therefore we’re going to start with one of the videos that has been circulating.


Watch it, make notes about the things that give you pause for concern. If you’re really dedicated, feel free to peruse their website and a Tech Insider article on them as well.

Then, as always, come back here for my breakdown of my own thoughts.

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Welcome back!

When I first heard about these “nuns” and saw this video, my initial reaction was excitement. As someone who appreciates the value of herbs and is interested in seeing Cannabis used for herbal purposes more, I was psyched that people were dedicating themselves to such a cause.

However there were also a few things in the video that took some of my excitement down.

Environmental Control

In the documentary, the nuns describe how they “live together, work together, pray together.” That phrase threw up a flag about potentially unhealthy isolation.

Isolation is one of the foremost ways that abusive people and groups use to control others because, by isolating someone, the group essentially becomes a gatekeeper through which all information must get filtered. Control the environment, and you control who people see, what they read and hear, what the group norms are, etc.

Because we have such a strong drive to belong, what we surround ourselves with heavily influences our own beliefs and values. Having exposure to a range of ideas, worldviews, and personalities is healthy because it fosters critical thinking. Without opposing viewpoints, even horrendous things can come to seem normal (e.g. many children growing up in abusive homes don’t realize that other children aren’t beaten like they are. What they experience seems normal to them because of the environment).

But in addition to the potential for excessive isolation from the outside world, environmental control can also interfere with necessary self-reflection. The concern isn’t just that they describe a communal living situation but that they describe doing everything together.

Wherever there is a group that allows for little interaction with non-group members and also severely limits the time that individuals can be alone with themselves, that’s problematic. Granted we’re seeing a 60 second documentary that obviously has a priority of what to present and may not think their vibrant social life is all that important, but their choice of words is important information that needs to be taken into consideration.

Behavior Control

In the documentary video, the nuns say that “all day, every day” is devoted to crafting and cultivating Cannabis and the products derived from it. That’s a lot of time dedicated to one’s work, even if you feel called to it.

Gardening/farming for a living doesn’t exactly fit into a 9-5 work week, and absent some of the other things I might not be so concerned. However, these “nuns” also wear habits to demonstrate their devotion.

In the Tech Insider article, one of the sisters comments: “We live together, we wear the same clothes, we take a vow of obedience to the moon cycles, we take a vow of chastity (which we don’t think requires celibacy), and a vow of ecology, which is a vow to do no harm while you’re making your medicine.”

Despite claiming that they aren’t part of a religion, they clearly have a whole litany of things beyond making their products that they have to do. There isn’t a lot of information given about what their vows constitute, but a few of the words that stand out include “obedience” and “chastity.”

Gathering information about whether to join a group is a little bit like playing the detective. Most of the time, people will be putting their best face forward, and identifying toxic elements often involves reading between the lines a little bit. When you get key words like that above, that should make your spidey sense tingle. Hone in on that and get more information before proceeding forward.

Spiritual Elitism and Special Knowledge

Their website explains that they are not part of an “earthly religion,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own brand of religion. The nuns claim to be part of “an order of New Age Progressive nuns” (stated at the beginning of the documentary).

All of their products are cultivated with prayer, and they claim on their website to prepare everything “during moon cycles, according to ancient wisdom” though they don’t indicate what this ancient wisdom is or where it came from.

I hope my readers know me well enough to know that I have absolutely no problem with a self-designed spirituality; however, whenever a group, even one claiming to have that kind of spirituality, seems to indicate having any kind of “special knowledge” that isn’t available to others, that should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end.

Combined with a stringent expectation of behavior and communal living that leaves little room for outside involvement or personal solitude, there is a lot of room for a prescriptive spirituality determined by one and obeyed by the others.

The fact that there are only two Sisters currently doesn’t give me much comfort. Their blog post described how Sister Kate was meeting with other “Sisters” and “Brothers” about opening up other venues. The Tech Insider article points out that they hope to have other abbeys spring up. Would they have to follow the Sisters’ brand of spirituality?

“Once you’ve experienced the growing with your own hands and the turning of that into medicine, it is very hard to walk back into a different kind of life.”

This quote from the documentary was the first thing that set my radar off. It simultaneously expresses difficulty in leaving and returning to a previous life as well as a sense that only in this lifestyle can life be fulfilling.

Most groups think they have something to offer others, but when a group starts trying to convince you that they and only they have fulfilling or holy lives or that you have to join them in order to obtain your desire (to help people, to be healthy, to make money, to reach heaven), proceed with extreme caution.

Substance Use

“It’s time for the people to revive their spirituality,” Sister Kate declares, “and we believe the path to that is through Cannabis.”

While I don’t think substances should never be used for spiritual purposes, I am very cautious about them being prescribed for spirituality. Substances require safeguards and an extremely safe space because they lower inhibitions and make people more suggestible and easily manipulated. If there isn’t a dedication to protecting the autonomy of individuals in a communal spiritual space, the use of substances can quickly become an abusive practice.

Blending Business with Spirituality

Perhaps more concerning than just the Sisters designing a New Age spirituality is the way it gets tangled up with the business.

In the blog post on their site, Sister Kate described having meetings with others who she hoped would join her cause. Tech Insider gives a prime example of the doublespeak surrounding whether she’s establishing a religion or a business, at once calling these other hoped-for establishments “franchises” and “abbeys.”

At the end of the article, Sister Kate expresses how she hopes the habits will be an identifying mark of the abbeys.

“We would like it to be such that wherever you saw women in their blue jean skirts, white blouses, and hats … those women know about cannabis.”

So on the one hand, they’re purporting to be expanding their business, but their business expansion comes with the hope of expanding their brand of spirituality, lifestyle, and habits (pun intended).

Suddenly it doesn’t sound so much like a business as it does a religious group that happens to sell products. The difference might seem to come down to semantics, but the semantics are significant.

Summing it up

If my initial excitement had gone further into a desire to be part of this movement, how might I handle these red flags that indicate the potential for environmental control and isolation, limited information and access to reality checks, behavior control, spiritual elitism, and muddying the distinction between business and spiritual lifestyle?

I wouldn’t have enough information just on this to feel certain about whether they were indeed a toxic group, but I would have enough to indicate that I shouldn’t jump into this group head first.

We’ve taken the first step of evaluating some sources, including their own words to describe themselves. If we were dealing with a group that had been around long enough to have ex-members, speaking with them might also be a valuable source of information about what life is like on the inside and what they faced when they decided to leave.

I would also eventually want to talk to current group members and ask questions, paying attention to the way they answer, not just what the answer is. Do they seem open to questions and push-back? Do they give vague answers that don’t really contain helpful information?

Any red flags that came up in the initial evaluation would be something I would want to feel certain had been sufficiently addressed, either in direct conversation or through observation of how they interact. If it seemed impossible for me to answer my questions without fully joining the group, I would walk away.

Disclaimer: My use of this documentary or group as an example doesn’t constitute an accusation that the group is necessarily a cult. The documentary could just be over-simplified, highlighting what seems unusual, quirky, or interesting while failing to show other aspects of the nuns’ lives . . . or it could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking.

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More Than a Joke

“Smallish things cast big shadows.”

I saw the comment on a Facebook link to an article about Orlando Bloom’s penis shadow. I couldn’t care less about Bloom or his penis, but the comment made me cringe. I shot out a quick, straightforward reply debunking some of the myths and value-judgments implied about penises and size.

With a verbal eyeroll, the guy quickly replied, “Sometimes a penis joke is just a joke.”

…just a joke.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard this kind of an excuse in response to expressing anger or discomfort about something that someone said.

Keep your hand up if you absolutely loathe that bullshit explanation.

Okay, now anyone else who is sitting there thinking that humor gives you license to say anything you want, pay attention. This post is especially for you.

IT IS NEVER JUST A JOKE!

Humor reveals a lot about the person telling the joke as well as about the people hearing the joke because (drumroll please) jokes are always—ALWAYS—rooted in an opinion, attitude, or idea.

Humor is probably one of the most powerful forms of communication out there because it does allow someone to say something that wouldn’t be tolerated in a more straightforward way…and therein lies its power…and danger.

Humor promotes its seed thought, and because it’s “funny” and “lighthearted,” it brings its message in a less threatening way, bypassing some of the defenses that people have towards more overt forms of influence like debate and argument.

Satirists know this and use it to highlight the flaws of society in extreme and absurd ways in an attempt to help people to overcome the natural defensiveness that comes with being critiqued and to be open to thinking about the way their political, religious, or cultural stances can harm.

But it’s not just satirists who use humor for the purpose of promoting. Generally satire is more overt because it’s attacking the status quo, but every joke either perpetuates or undermines certain ideas.

And it’s important to think about the idea a joke is presenting, no matter how innocently the joke may be told.

Humor allows us to touch on untouchable subjects, things that seem too big for somber conversation, too taboo for casual talk, or too volatile for peaceful discourse. It can take the sting out of a topic to a certain extent.

It can also capitalize on vulnerable people’s pain and oppression.

And that’s where the outrage often comes in.

If a joke gets its punchline from racism, sexism, homophobia, body-shaming, ableism, or any other form of prejudice, then it is not just a joke.

It is a harmful joke made at the expense of others.

It is perpetuating problematic attitudes that have real-world consequences for people.

A few years ago, after comedian Danial Tosh made some deplorable and unfunny rape jokes and threats (I say threats because declaring to an audience that it would be funny if someone raped one of the audience members because she was upset about the joke isn’t, in any fashion, a follow-up joke). He did the typical shrug off, it’s-just-a-joke thing later, and there was a large Internet discussion about whether subjects like rape should be within the purview of comedians to cover.

On some levels, it was a really good discussion encouraging comedians to think about the effects of their jokes, but ultimately trying to decide whether something should be joked about or not was somewhat of a red herring.

It’s the idea at the root of the joke—the thing that must be accepted in order for someone to find the joke funny—that is really the issue.

Sarah Silverman showed the world that it is indeed possible to make a rape joke that is funny and that doesn’t perpetuate rape culture or make fun of survivors’ pain because her jokes were pointing out the insensitivity of our culture towards survivors, gathering laughs over the culture’s need to change, not the survivors’ scars.

Silverman’s jokes were intentional for the ideas presented in them and directly challenged the attitude that Tosh brought to his humor. Tosh’s were cheap shots that devalued people.

I see this explicitly demonstrated with the recent election. There are those who use humor and satire to highlight the danger that Trump poses to democracy and freedom…and then there are those who take cheap shots at his appearance.

The same goes for Clinton critics. Some will poke at her policies, her flip-flopping, etc., whereas others target her as a woman, degrading her for her gender alone.

The ironic part is that usually those targeting the one candidate with vicious personal mockery are condemning those targeting the other in the same way. They seem to think it’s fine to make fun of Trump’s skin color but not okay to make fun of Hillary’s face, or vice versa.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter which candidate you’re going after; you’re being an asshole if you think it’s okay to ever make fun of someone over their gender, body type, clothes, or cosmetic choices. It’s schoolyard bullying behavior.

But often worse than the jokes themselves is the defense. It’s just a joke!

It’s as if the joke-teller thinks that someone somehow missed that fact.

Here’s a secret: if someone speaks up about the root of a joke being problematic, more than likely, they’re not missing the fact that someone is making a joke. They just don’t think it’s funny because in order to think it’s funny they would have to accept the message of that joke.

In the instance I described in the beginning, I didn’t think body shaming was funny. In fact, I thought it was problematic enough to have to take a serious moment to debunk some of the harmful stereotypes about penis size.

That doesn’t mean I lack a sense of humor. It means I take humor seriously enough to recognize the harm that can come from thoughtless jokes.

A joke is an idea—dressed up in a playful laugh and lighthearted wink—but an idea nonetheless. So if you aren’t willing to own the idea you’re presenting when it’s stripped of its pretty ribbons, maybe don’t make that joke. You can dress up a box of shit, but it’s still just…well, you know.

 

Expanding Feminism with Archetypes: Hestia vs. Hera

Recently I’ve been reading a book called Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen. It’s an older book with a fair bit of binary language and a slight over-emphasis on literal application of archetypes to women’s lives, but it has clarified something for me that I’ve struggled with for quite some time.

I like to clean. I like to cook. I like to do a lot of things that might be associated with “typical women’s chores.”

At least, in the right circumstances I do. Sometimes I loathe it and feel boxed into the housewife category. Sometimes when I enjoy dusting or doing laundry, my feminist mind observes with cool disapproval.

I could sort of recognize that the times I enjoyed cleaning were different from when I felt trapped into cleaning, but it still felt like maybe I was caving to gender conditioning or expectations.

That all changed when I read Bolen’s descriptions of the goddess of the hearth vs. the goddess of marriage.

Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, is not a very prominent goddess. According to Bolen, she was honored in every house and temple by the central fire, but she was also pretty unassuming, preferring to sit back and take pleasure in the quiet maintenance of the hearth rather than running off on wild adventures like Artemis or seeking out trysts like Aphrodite.

Hera, the goddess of marriage, is a little more well-known as Zeus’ wife. She’s often portrayed as wildly jealous of Zeus’ affairs with other women but is also fiercely devoted to her role as wife. The convoluted issues of jealousy aside, Bolen describes her as being primarily driven by her union—the stereotypical fifties wife who promotes her husband’s career and doesn’t exactly have a lot of interests of her own.

Hestia and Hera both can be seen doing somewhat similar things sometimes, but for different reasons.

Hera is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because a clean home is a comfortable home for her man, the type of goddess that would probably throw a dinner party to help her husband get a promotion.

Hestia is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because it brings her joy and peace to be in a space that feels good. She would cook because she enjoys the act of preparing food.

I can identify very strongly with Hestia. I like beauty, cleanliness, and harmony around me. I enjoy doing the things that bring that to my surroundings. I know that even if I were single I would still do much of what I currently do in my marriage.

But I loathe being a housewife!

If I’m doing my own laundry, I’m happy as can be. If I’m doing someone else’s laundry, suddenly the task seems like an enormous burden, demeaning as well as time-consuming. If I am cooking dinner because I want to have yummy food that carries the magic of having been prepared by hand, I feel content and absorbed in the process. If I’m cooking a meal because I feel obligated to have dinner on the table when my partner comes home from work, I find the process overwhelming and depressing.

I was conditioned to be Hera, so I’m not entirely without that influence. I do find myself periodically running around trying to be the perfect housewife, and that’s when I really hate household chores.

Feminism has been key in helping me buck that obligatory mindset, but I didn’t quite realize initially that rejecting the notion that I need to clean and cook to “make a home” for my partner didn’t necessarily mean that I would want to stop doing home making things entirely.

To some extent, I think certain facets of feminism contribute to that. There’s a certain amount of judgment or shame that sometimes gets directed towards women who might actually want to be a housewife or carry the greater burden of chores in the home.

It’s not everywhere. There are also feminist circles that uphold the value that a woman should get to decide what she wants to do, even if that is doing things traditionally relegated to women. But it’s present enough that when the Hestia archetype would take hold and I found myself enjoying the process of organizing a closet, I would feel guilty, wondering if I was falling back into old conditioning.

I can see now that Hestia and Hera are vastly different motivating forces. The one chooses to “keep the hearth” because it is valuable in and of itself to her. She probably wouldn’t do it if it weren’t personally fulfilling because she isn’t driven by duty or public opinion.

The other chooses to “keep the hearth” because it contributes to what she thinks a wife should be.

Hestia does her thing for herself whereas Hera does her thing for her husband.

It’s such a subtle but important distinction.

Hestia is a natural part of my personality. Hera is not (though she might be for others). When I find myself driven by the conditioning of “should’s,” I embody the patriarchy’s mandate that I should want to be the housewife that I’ve been told I should be.

This is one area where I think feminism can grow–in helping women see the difference between doing what they choose to do for themselves vs. doing what they are expected to do by patriarchy.

Rejecting the imposition of Hera on me doesn’t mean that Hestia disappears. I can still feel called to keep my hearth for reasons that are authentic to me.