Surviving 1984: Resisting Milieu Control

I have written in the past about some of the red flags that might alert someone to a toxic group, with the presumption that the person hasn’t been hooked into the Matrix just yet.

But what if you find yourself in a situation where you start to suspect that you might be already part of a totalistic group? What can you do?

Invariably, one of the strongest controls of the group is the control of the environment and information. Some groups actively isolate people on compounds separated from the rest of the world. Others merely create a cage of fear that prevents members from fully participating with society even as they live and interact in it.

Thus, for me, one of the most important steps to take in breaking out of a cultic group—or even merely testing whether you might be really in one—is diversifying access to information and knowledge.

Some cult specialists like Steve Hassan talk about isolation and information control as somewhat separate concepts. That’s helpful to an extent because isolation doesn’t always look like physical isolation. Within the IFB, I never lived separate from the world, but my schooling, textbooks, social interactions, and all were strictly controlled by the IFB, which was as effective as if I had been physically isolated.

But Robert Lifton’s criteria seems truer to the relationship of how the two interact.

Milieu control is what Lifton uses to refer to the control of the environment—which includes control of the external environment such as who people can contact and what kind of information is allowed to infiltrate as well as control of the internal environment, referring to the sense in which people will start to police themselves and control what they talk about or think about, who they talk to, and what information they seek—which is a perfect description of how I could have access to the Internet but obediently stay within the confines of expectations about what I read and researched.

External control is effective only so much, but if the people themselves will voluntary self-censor out of fear or guilt–well that’s far more effective.

But here’s the thing. Lifton also doesn’t believe that there can ever be a perfect control of the milieu.

There will always be doubts that will float to the surface of consciousness.

There will always be something that can happen in the environment that interrupts or threatens the carefully constructed façade.

That’s important because challenging a reality that is so tightly controlled requires access to information from the self as well as from the outside.

Presumably, if you’re reading this and you suspect you’re in a cultic or totalistic place, you are already beginning to listen to the internal glitch in the milieu control. You have doubts or worries that you’re not ignoring or pushing down.

That’s good!

Listen to those doubts. Actively look for the contradictions that tell you your internal experience doesn’t match up with what the group tells you is happening.

It is important after that to seek out different sources of external information where you can.

There will probably be certain “approved” sources, and the tricky thing is that they may range from outright lies about things that have never happened in the world to biased accounts of documented events. Regardless of which, it’s pretty safe to say that if you feel pressured or forced to stick within the bounds of certain pre-approved sources, they’re probably not giving you the whole picture.

It’s ok to read those and consider them, but they shouldn’t be the sole sources of information. Find ways to seek independent sources with different perspectives. (Don’t just read cult sources that summarize what the “other side” says—actually read the other side). Challenge yourself to truly try to see from the other perspective.

Can you understand how someone might reach a different conclusion?

Does one perspective seem entirely reliant on ignoring certain pieces of information?

Do multiple sources, independent of each other, reach similar conclusions based on their own investigations?

Does the source use so much biased information that you cannot form your own opinion about the evidence alone?

Note: this is also important in the battle against ‘fake news.’ Are reporters reporting on their own investigation of a situation as opposed to merely regurgitating a single source over and over? Are there multiple news sources reporting this happened or one obscure source? Does the language seem impartial or over-the-top and click-baity?

The lack of multiple sources isn’t, in and of itself, indicative that the information is false, but it’s a strong warning to be especially careful to corroborate what that source is claiming or to maintain the understanding that it can’t be corroborated and is, therefore, open to doubt.

Which brings me to an important quality that needs to be developed as you begin to test the boundaries of the milieu control in which you may find yourself—tolerance for ambiguity.

Cults thrive on the desire for certainty.

It’s universally scary and threatening to have one’s worldview challenged. People all over the world react in strange and sometimes violent ways to protect their sense of knowing how the world functions—to feel “right.” (See research on Terror Management Theory for more information about the universality of this)

But cults especially tend to have a low tolerance for deviance, questioning, disagreement, and the like. Part of the reason why people will self-censor is because it’s just downright scary to think, “What if I’m wrong?”

And the fear of that question is notoriously effective at making people ignore information that contradicts their perspective and seek out information that validates it.

Questioning a cult often means questioning deeply held beliefs that carry tons of fear about all sorts of bad things that might happen if you don’t believe the right way. In order to challenge the outer milieu control effectively, you have to be able to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing the truth.

That doesn’t mean complacency with not knowing. There’s a difference between, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” and “I don’t know the answer yet, but I’m searching.”

The world is seldom as black and white as cultic groups paint it to be; thus, questioning and searching often means coming across different or conflicting perspectives. Being tolerant of ambiguity will strengthen the ability to engage with those perspectives openly and curiously to learn from them.

The more you expose yourself to different perspectives with openness and the more you practice thinking critically about information you come across, the better you’ll get at making informed decisions about what to believe.

Ultimately, if the cult doctrine/party line/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is true, it will be able to stand up to scrutiny, including the scrutiny of those critical to it.

I would strongly recommend that those interested in Orwell’s 1984 also read Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Real-life accounts of an Orwellian world and how people recovered.

Reluctant Villain: A Poem

I’m not sure I’m ready to be back blogging, but I decided to share a poem I wrote recently. When the people writing the story get to cast themselves as the hero, standing with my principles doesn’t always allow me to be labeled “one of the good guys.”

Reluctant Villain

It’s not a role I relish.
All I want is to be well-liked
By everyone.
I never intend to hurt
Or offend.
But, you see,
I’m out to infect the world—
With respect
With love
With peace
With human rights for all…
And if the hero of your story
Doesn’t stand for those values,
I’m prepared to be your villain.
Somebody has to.

The Hermit

hermit-rider-waite

The Hermit from Rider Waite Tarot. Public Domain.

My card for this month is The Hermit, a card that indicates a time of withdrawing from society, self-exploration, emotional healing and self-care. It’s actually dreadfully appropriate to what I feel I need right now as I grapple with the death of my grandmother.

I kept up with my blog during my grief following August 2015, but I honestly have no desire to do that again so soon. I’m weary and angry and feeling extremely complicated emotions. I’m generally also pretty burnt out and fed up with social justice concerns, as I wrote about in my last post.

Therefore, I’ve decided that the best thing I can do this month is follow the leading of my tarot card. I will be taking a break from blogging for the time being. I hope when I return that I will be brimming with things I want to talk about.

Right now, I need to turn inward.

My Wounded Activist Heart

I’m not a Trump fan by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m as eager as anyone to see him discredited, dethroned, impeached, jailed, etc.

But I draw the line at attacking his wife.

Since the election, I’ve seen an upsurge of Facebook posts suggesting that Melania’s former work as a nude model makes her unfit to be the First Lady, disparaging her for being an immigrant, or negatively comparing her with “classy” first ladies like Michelle Obama or Jackie Kennedy.

As a liberal, feminist, bi activist, I cannot participate in those efforts in good conscience because they conflict with my values.

How Melania has expressed her sexuality shouldn’t matter. No woman deserves to be ridiculed and shamed for how much or little of her body she has shown. Having a history as a porn model or sex worker should have no effect on whether someone is qualified for political office, much less on whether she’s qualified to be the wife of someone in political office.

On a similar note, her former work shouldn’t imply that she’s less “classy” than other First Ladies because claiming such would require a view that sex work is shameful and debasing–a premise I adamantly reject.

Ironically, I have periodically heard people try to justify these attacks on Melania by claiming that it is no different from how Michelle Obama was treated.

But in my book, turn about is not fair play.

It’s not making people reconsider how they might have talked about Michelle Obama. It’s not preventing Melania from being the First Lady.

It’s not even hurting Trump because he unquestionably demonstrated that he had no problem taking jabs at Melania at the Al Smith Charity Dinner, despite his visible discomfort with any jokes directed at himself. Melania is expendable to him, only useful insofar as she feeds his need for power and prestige.

But I have another reason for my refusal to make sexist attacks on Melania. She is the first First Lady that I have worried about her treatment at home.

Trump is publicly emotionally abusive to virtually everyone he dislikes, particularly towards women. He has been accused of rape and sexual assault from more than one woman, including an accusation of marital rape and domestic battery from a former wife.

I have no confidence that he suddenly becomes a docile teddy bear in private with Melania.

It’s hard enough to get out of a toxic relationship in normal circumstances, but when your husband is suddenly the Commander and Chief with the secret service at his disposal and an ego as fragile as a butterfly wing…I don’t know about you, but I’d probably keep my head down and beg people not to make him angry as well.

Ultimately, I see attacking Melania as more than a direct conflict with my values; it’s potentially heaping yet more mistreatment onto an already mistreated woman, demonstrating to her that those who claim to be “on the side” of women are hypocrites, neither a safe haven nor living example of respect for her.

But standing true to my social justice values has resulted in some unexpected conflicts. Others that I would have previously assumed shared my values have reacted with hostility towards my discomfort with the treatment of Melania. I’ve found that people are willing to resort to prejudice and then claim oppression when I speak out against that prejudice. Just yesterday, I was accused of being a homophobe and a white supremacist because of this stance.

It’s a discouragement I didn’t expect to face as I headed into a Trump presidency. I’m not only contending with the horrible realization that sexism, racism, and despotism won the election, but I’m also having to face the reality that it’s infiltrated what I would have considered “my turf” and poisoned those I would have called “my people.”

Trump has said and done some truly awful things that shouldn’t be ignored…but if the attempts to oppose him sound more like something he would say, I’m not sure that’s a movement I actually want to be a part of.

That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.

 

 

It’s Not About the Narcissism

It’s become somewhat fashionable to rag on people about their social media use. If you take a selfie, “vague-book” about your bad day, or were unfortunate enough to be born a millennial, then someone somewhere is diagnosing you with narcissism.

But is our “attention-grabbing” on social media really about that?

Or is there something more primal at play?

When I was in the height of my grief, I probably posted about it on Facebook every day or two. I would write messages to the person I was missing, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to see and respond but others would.

There was something about the sad emoticons and encouragements from friends that made the pain feel just a little bit more endurable because it wasn’t borne alone.

There was something raw about the desperation to be seen in my pain.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from grad school…and in being a human myself…it’s that we all need to be seen.

Yes, I said need.

“Hear me.”

“See me.”

There’s something in the soul that cries out for that even more than it desires relief from pain.

Half the time at my internship, when I am with a client, I’m not actively doing anything other than listening. For that space of time, that person has my undivided attention…

…but more than my attention.

They have my promise that I will actively try to witness their pain and feel with them.

Because ultimately, attention isn’t the thing people crave.

Have you ever had attention without empathy? Perhaps when you felt the disdain of someone looking down on you or their self-righteousness contempt? It feels pretty shitty.

In fact, when I encounter someone’s judgment, self-righteousness, annoyance, or disdain, I actively avoid their attention. I’ll stop telling them about certain things or stop connecting with them at all.

I don’t want them to see me.

But being seen, truly seen, requires empathy and compassion—two things for which the world is starving.

Yes, people’s use of social media can be over-the-top, manipulative, and annoying. But “attention-grabbing” posts aren’t the problem; they’re the symptom. A symptom of a world in which empathy is scarce.

Society would sooner accuse celebrities of using their trauma as a “publicity stunt” than empathize with the pain they have gone through, and it isn’t much better for those who aren’t celebrities.

But since we created the atmosphere around social media, we also have the power to change it.

What if, instead of seeing narcissism everywhere we look, we saw people who simply need to be seen in their pain and in their joy?

What if, instead of rolling our eyes over the number of selfies someone takes, we compliment them on something we admire about them (not necessarily a physical attribute)?

What if, instead of groaning at the vague-book post, we chose to comment, “Sorry you’re having a tough day. I’m here if you need to talk.”

That doesn’t mean that we have to enslave ourselves to every ploy. There may be times when someone is genuinely toxic or consistently manipulative, and boundaries might be healthier. There may be times when the empathy pool is dry.

But we can change the tone of social media. We are creatures of conditioning after all, so positive reinforcement works. I suspect we’d see a more genuine side of everyone if our modus operandi was empathy rather than disdain—if we saw people rather than merely tossing out crumbs of attention.

Perhaps, we could actually make social media about the thing it was originally supposed to be about–connection.

 

 

 

When Did Blogging Become So Much Work?

I have been so busy the last couple of weeks that it’s been impossible to sit down and focus on a topic to write about for this weekend. I am mentally saturated with all the papers I’m writing for school and exhausted as I race towards graduation.

And of course, I’m judging myself that I’m not somehow capable of writing a blog post in my head as I sprint from one thing to the next because…perfectionism, yay!

But the truth is, I haven’t even had time to sit down long enough to hear my own damn thoughts, so how could I possibly have anything to share?

When I started a blog, I didn’t realize how much actual work it would be, nor did I think about how seriously I would take it. It was a “hobby,” a way to get my thoughts out and maybe entertain or stimulate discussion with others.

In reality, I’ve come to understand that having a blog and keeping up with providing content that feels relevant, isn’t a complete waste of my readers’ time, and meets my standards of sort of good writing is A LOT OF DAMN WORK.

It’s a fucking unpaid part-time job to just get a post out a week!

It’s a commitment that I enjoy and value, but I often fail to give myself credit for what I put into it. It’s not uncommon for me to have waves of guilt that I’m not “writing as much as I used to” while forgetting that I write a post between 500 to 1,000 words each week (not to mention all those academic papers!).

So this week, in lieu of trying to force myself to find a topic on which I can write a hasty, unedited piece, I’m taking a moment to acknowledge that keeping up with this blog while I’m in grad school has been a hell of an accomplishment.

And since I still don’t have a post for this week, I figured I’d just give myself permission to do a little public bragging in a hastily written, unedited piece. 😉