Surviving 1984: Unpacking the Language

Okay, I’m returning to Lifton’s criteria for identifying totalism (previous posts can be found here and here) and want to talk about the role of language in totalistic situations. If you’re familiar with my blog or know me, you probably know how much I love language and words. I think language, in some ways, is one of the closest things we have to magic. By taking sounds and stringing them together, we have developed a way of communicating our private thoughts and experiences to others. Wow! Right?

Language is so so so so important to any society. Language, in a sense, grants existence to something. If you have a word for it, you can talk about it, understand yours and other’s experience around it (to an extent if not fully)…and you notice it in the broader world. That’s why language can be important for marginalized people.

Language can be very personal, but it’s also generally shared. Without the sharing of meaning, the sounds make no sense. It’s through the consensus of a group deciding that such-and-such means a certain thing that language is born.

Now, in loading the language, Lifton is talking about the way that a group of people, be it a government, organization, or family, will begin to use language in a specialized manner unique to them. They might have a slightly different connotation for a word from the broader society or they might have specialized words that only exist within their culture.

That alone, is not necessarily indicative of totalistic influence. Every group will have a tendency to have a sort of specialized private language. On a large level, dialects can be seen as a regional example of how a language (like English) can be vastly different in one area like Scotland from how it is in a different area like the midwest of the United States.

However, there are examples of less location-bound groups as well. If you pick up a journal on neurobiology, you’ll instantly see this specialization before your eyes. Unless you are well-versed in the language used, much of the writing may seem incomprehensible to you.

However, if you know the specialized language, that gibberish will turn into something meaningful.

Sometimes specialized language results from the natural evolution of culture, e.g. dialects. Other times, specialized language becomes a kind of shorthand which can convey ideas faster than spelling them out in simpler terms, e.g. scientific terms. The benefit is the swiftness of communication amongst the members of the group; the cost is that outsiders have a harder time understanding.

So, every group does this to an extent. When does it become a problem?

I’d say it relates to the use.

When you pick up a scientific journal, you might see something that seems like gibberish to someone inexperienced in the ideas, but generally the purpose is not to confuse or stunt critical thinking. Rather, it’s an attempt to create an efficient flow of ideas to further the exploration of the topic.

Sometimes though, specialized or loaded language can serve the opposite function—phrases or words can become a means of separating one from outsiders. It can become a way of shutting down conversation, stopping the exchange of information, or halting critical thinking.

That’s when it becomes dangerous.

Sound bites and slogans become the rallying cry of a group but fail to take the idea beyond the surface. The complexity of dialogue is reduced to a single phrase that, rather than encouraging a deeper exploration of an issue, instead serves as a sort of e-break to the discussion.

Once loading the language begins and is accepted as part of a group’s culture, there’s a distinct feeling that continuing the conversation beyond the acceptable phrases and stunted thoughts would be an unthinkable act, one followed quickly by shame (How could you think that?!) or accusations of betrayal (I thought you were one of us!). Questioning becomes anathema because the language suggests that the “truth” is obvious and only the dumbest or most horrible human being would think otherwise.

If this is sounding familiar to a group that you are involved in, what do you do?

Well, part of this is going to tie directly into the milieu control that I wrote about earlier. Loaded language is one way of controlling thoughts and information, so an important antidote is to begin exposing yourself to alternative sources of information.

But you can also begin digging deeper into the language itself. If the group has not entirely wedded itself to the idea of using language as a means of control, it may be possible to dig deeper with others, but you may also find that (like fighting the milieu control) you have to do it somewhat secretly. It’s at least worth testing the waters. Instead of accepting a standard cliché, ask questions. Pay attention to the way that phrases are used. If there’s a consistent pattern in which answers are trite and used to deaden the conversation, that tells you a lot about the role of words and phrases within the group.

Try questioning what an outsider’s perspective might be.

What alternative meanings might someone else have for a phrase or word? Why might they hold that alternative meaning?

If you encountered someone who didn’t share your group’s specialized terms, would you be able to talk them through what you meant…or even have a conversation about the concept without the specialized terms?

If someone doesn’t automatically accept the “truth” encapsulated in your sound bite, are you able to take the conversation deeper and talk about where you both differ in perspective in a reasonable way that doesn’t assume “I’m right; you’re wrong” or pressure the questioner to end up agreeing with you in the end?

If all you can do is return to the original idea, circling around it like a moth at a light, you might not have fully fleshed out the meaning of the concept or your own position within it. More than likely, it’s serving as a security blanket, curbing the doubts or stopping the conversation from proceeding into unstable territory.

If you find that to be the case, expanding your exposure to the concept and different perspectives on that concept might be in order. Very rarely will you encounter a single way of conceptualizing something outside of totalism.

The more blasphemous or unthinkable this seems to the group, the more likely loaded language is being used in a totalistic method. The more that the complexity of human existence is boiled down into absolutes captured within the span of a sentence or two, the more likely the language is being used to deny rather than enhance critical thinking.

However, one who is well-versed in the loaded language also has the opportunity of using it to subvert the control as well. In some ways, if you cannot get out of the totalistic environment, becoming adept at playing a game with the language to undermine the thought-stopping simplicity can be one way of asserting your own individuality and keeping your mind from becoming dulled. (My partner is the one who taught me this strategy. In the cult, he was remarkably adept at using the language in such a way that it questioned the assumptions around doctrine rather than supporting the thought-stopping.)

Of course, that comes with its own risks, for language, as the vehicle for ideas, is a dangerous tool. Totalistic environments cannot afford to lose control of the use of language.

Nevertheless, just as Lifton asserts that the milieu cannot be perfectly controlled to prevent doubts from arising within an individual, I do not think that loaded language can entirely prevent one’s own personal evolution. Language evolves because individuals make changes. We see the power of personal creation whenever someone coins a word.

Without the general acceptance of that word, it will not be adopted into the language of a group, with a shared meaning among the members, which means that a personal unpacking of language requires the courage to truly question the very foundations of one’s beliefs and a willingness to reject the comfort and belonging that comes with participating in loaded language. However, such an approach can transform the inner world of the individual and the relationship of the individual to the outer world.

Once again, if you are interested in reading more about totalistic control, check out Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton. George Orwell’s 1984, which inspires the title of this series, is a good example of much of what Lifton talks about. 

Surviving 1984: Understanding Mystical Manipulation

Picture this: You walk into a room full of people waiting to see a magician. The loud speakers are pumping with a dub-step based song with voiced-over inspirational statements from the upcoming presenter interspersed. The crowd is excited, and it’s hard for you not to feed off that excitement.

When the magician finally comes out, there are flashes of lights and a puff of smoke. He seems to appear out of nowhere. The crowd goes wild. With a wave of his hand, he quiets them down and as the show progresses, he demonstrates a seeming psychic clairvoyance about people in the audience and playfully induces a few to cluck like a chicken on stage for him.

You leave the venue awed by the magician’s seeming omniscience and omnipotence.

This scenario would be an illustration of the second criteria that Lifton identified in working with survivors of thought control: mystical manipulation. It can take many forms, but it generally has to do with the manipulation of consciousness or experience to produce a certain effect.

Within the illustration above, there are several techniques. The music before the performance was designed to pump up the audience emotionally, getting them excited. The beat of the music could induce a slight trance-like state, decreasing the critical thinking components of the attendees and increasing the suspension of disbelief.

Even the energy of the crowd was a manipulation in itself, encouraging your body and emotions to sync up with theirs.

During the performance, various things from knowing information about others (whether it was pre-gathered or they were actors in the audience is hard to say) and hypnotizing and manipulating the behavior of some (again, real or acted?) increased the sense that the performer was godlike or at least had powers beyond the audience.

Was this man an entertainer or conman?

To some extent it probably depends on the context.

Mystical manipulation is not, in and of itself, exclusive to cults, but consent plays a big part in the ethicality of how it’s used.

When you know that you’re going for that, you probably don’t mind. Buying tickets to see a magic show, for instance, involves a certain amount of consent and expectation and a willing suspension of disbelief. You expect to be wowed—for the magician to seem all-powerful/all-knowing—while also realizing that the magician is just working a fancy trick on you.

If you go to a church service and this is happening, you’re not warned about how it will affect you, and the person on stage is using this to gain your allegiance or to actually convince you that he is as magical as he claims, the manipulation becomes nonconsensual and potentially dangerous as demands are made on you to commit to something or give money towards something while your critical thinking skills are impaired.

What I described is probably a bit over-the-top when, in actuality, milder forms of manipulation are all over society.

Advertisements are notorious for using “peripheral” persuasion, subtle ways of using association and emotional induction to convince people that certain products will produce happiness, create beauty, provide sex, and do a bunch of other things that the company could never explicitly claim for its product.

You’re walking through a store and you suddenly think you NEED such-and-such a product and you don’t know why. The idea seems to come from you. No one is standing there telling you to buy it.

But in reality, you’ve been primed to think of that particular brand first and to associate that product with desires and drives beyond what the product does.

Mystical manipulation can also be used through more common spiritual or cultural practices. Margaret Singer describes the way that chanting or panting (or any exercise that decreases oxygen supply sufficiently) can induce a physiological reaction in a person which can later be interpreted by a group to indicate a spiritual experience that verifies their beliefs.

In reality, it’s a physiological trick akin to pressing the backs of your hands against the door jamb for thirty seconds and then feeling them involuntarily rise when you stop.

Other types of manipulation can be more subtle but just as effective. I mentioned priming earlier in regard to advertisements, but there is also prophetic priming whereby a person such as a fortune teller, preacher, or some other figure claiming to have knowledge beyond others will declare something along the lines of, “Something tragic will happen in the coming weeks. And when it does, you will remember my words and know that what I am saying is true.”

The trick is that it’s vague enough that it’s impossible for it not to come true; when it does, the speaker has already primed the person to associate the incident with a prophecy, once again lending that sense of omniscience and omnipotence to the “prophet” or their message.

Mystical or unusual experiences can be an important part of connection and meaning making, but they can also become weapons used to convince a person to join a cause without sufficient information or surrender their autonomy to someone else.

Being aware of how mystical manipulation can play out is a major component of not being blindly influenced.

If you walk into a venue with the scene described above and you know that the pumping music and emotional crowd will likely affect you, you’re prepared for and informed about the changes that may happen. You don’t suddenly think it’s because the person coming on stage is so damn wonderful, powerful, and all-knowing.

Being aware that you’re feeling the way the environment is designed to make you feel frees you to think critically about whether you consent to that environment and what the agenda of the people involved might be.

For further reading:

Robert Lifton: Though Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

Margaret Singer: Cults in our Midst

Videos on the effects of music in regard to cults/recovery

Compliance Psychology

 

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.

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.

***************

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.

Cult Spotting 101: Breaking Down Multi-Level Marketing Schemes (Guest Post)

Today’s cult spotting is a guest post. My partner did a breakdown of Multi-Level Marketing Schemes after being invited to join several in the last couple of years. Since MLM’s have scammed several people we know and love, I thought it would be good to post his assessment of the mathematical improbability of success and the manipulative ways that most MLM’s suck people into their schemes.

A friend recently asked me to visit his home to talk about an exciting business prospect. He wouldn’t tell me much about the company, except to say it was an incredible opportunity to augment my income, and he wanted me to watch a promotional video. I am suspicious by nature, having grown up in a cult, so I researched the company before confirming my interest. If you’re like me, you want to believe your friends and family when they rave about something that changed their life. But as I read about multi-level marketing (MLM) businesses like this one, I slowly realized that many of these companies seek out this trust to exploit it.

RECRUITMENT

The basic structure of a multi-level marketing plan is that you recruit other people to sell the product for you, thereby gaining profit from their sales. The problem comes when the MLM structure reaches its seventh or eighth level. Let’s say you are the founder of an MLM. You recruit 10 people to sell the product for you, and you promise your sellers 20% of the profit from the product they sell. Those 10 people each recruits 10 people, who each recruits 10 people. By the fourth level, there are 10,000 sellers, which is more than the population of the capitol city of Vermont.

By the sixth level, there are 1,000,000 sellers, which is more than Vermont’s entire population. And by the eighth level, there are 100,000,000 sellers, which is a third of people in the United States and approximately a fifth of the entire North American continent including Canada and Mexico. This exponential growth cannot sustain itself because, if (after the fourth level) the entire population of a small city is selling the product, there is hardly any market left to buy the product. Its ever-expanding nature makes its eventual collapse almost inevitable.

FINANCIAL MANIPULATION

This financial instability requires a different form of income in order to remain profitable. MLMs claim to focus on their products, but the main draw of the MLM structure is the Customer Acquisition Bonus (each MLM has a different name for this), whose name is misleading. You are not acquiring customers—you are recruiting sellers. The irony, however, lies with the fact that most MLMs require new recruits to purchase their own training, training materials (videos, books etc), subscriptions to the corporate service, other yearly or monthly fees, and start-up capital, often totaling hundreds of dollars. Most sellers never recoup their start-up money. In the end, buying into the scheme was the real product all along.

This is a huge red flag for me, because real businesses that are making profit from selling the actual product itself would pay for the training of their employees and often pay for their training materials. These real businesses operate within the basic supply-and-demand structure of our capitalist economy. Such MLMs, which cannot produce profit after a certain expansion point, must rely on other methods of obtaining profit—namely, selling the idea of making large amounts of money on minimal work and by profiting from others’ work.

Ultimately, this second form of income also fails mathematically. Let’s use the 20% example from above. If you are promised 20% of your recruits’ sales, when those recruits recruit more sellers, 40% of the profit has been paid out as a bonus. Upon the fifth level, there is no more profit to be paid out. Corporate doesn’t get any money; you stop getting commission; and the entire business stops working. This, of course, would be true only if our example MLM were operating like a normal business based on the profits of their product.

Instead, most of the money that enters the business comes from its recruits and their unsuspecting, trusting families and friends. This incestuous business model most frequently sucks a seller dry of contacts and resources long before the seller makes any profit.

THE LIE OF GET-RICH-QUICK

As noted above, the draw for getting people to buy into MLM’s is the promise of reaping large profits. If the business model itself isn’t obvious enough in the flaws, a quick verification check of the Income Disclosure statements can reveal how exaggerated claims of MLM’s tend to be. Check out SendOutCards’ Income Disclosure statement from 2012.

92.26% of their employees are Senior Distributors who average a gross annual income of $35.56, which probably doesn’t cover the materials and training costs. Managers make up 3.86% and average $404.11 annually, while Senior Managers make up 2.36% and average $2,483.31 annually. This means that a total of 98.48% of SendOutCards’ employees averaged less than $3,000 annually.

Advocare, whose 2013 income disclosure statement states that 91.35% of their employees averaged less than $2,500 annually, and 96.87% averaged less than $1,300 annually.

Beach Body’s 2011 income disclosure statement shows that 67.4% of their employees were retail sellers only selling the product and not participating in the MLM portion of their company – these sellers made an average of $360 per year. Another 25.7% of employees also participated in recruitment, collecting such bonuses, but even these employees only averaged $2,319 per year. Yet another 4.5% averaged less than $14,659 per year, meaning that of all Beach Body’s employees, 97.6% of them averaged less than $14,659 per year leaving roughly 2.4% of average profitability.

SequenceInc, a forensic accounting website, reports that in 2009, employees of Avon made the following:

• 36.1% earn 0 – $4,999

• 15.8% earn $5,000 – $6,999

• 26% earn $7,000 – $11,999,

• 17.6% earn $12,000 – $29,000

• 4.4% earn $30,000 and above. 

If a physical, bricks-and-mortar business used a business model that functions only on promises and hope while paying 98.5% of its employees so little, the world would condemn the business as ludicrous; yet MLM’s, which rarely deliver on their promises, continue to deceive people through puffed up promises of profitability.

THOUGHT CONTROL AND BLAME

Most MLM plans remind me of cults in the way that they function. The times that I have been to a couple meetings for other such plans, the followers are invariably blind to the mathematical problems inherent in the model. When faced with the facts from their particular favorite MLM, they usually have no answers for me but are absolutely certain that I must be incorrect. They often refer me to their mentor, the person who recruited them.

Also like cults, these groups blame failure on their constituents for lacking hard work, persistence, skill, leadership, or competence. Even when I’ve seen people pour time and money into their MLM with more fervor than most would approach any other commission job, I’ve watched as they eventually cut their losses under the assumption that they just didn’t try hard enough, never considering that it might be the business, not them, that is the problem.

PYRAMID SELLING IN DISGUISE

Many (if not most) MLMs remain legal even though they are not financially viable. Their followers point to their legality as proof that they are not pyramid schemes or scams, which usually results in an argument based on circular reasoning when pushed (How do you know they are different from pyramid schemes? They’re legal. What makes them legal? They’re not a pyramid scheme).

The only legal difference I can see between an illegal pyramid scheme and a legal MLM is the pretense at selling a real product. To be fair, most real businesses have a natural pyramid-shaped income disparity with CEOs making big bucks on top, and grunt workers making hourly wages on the bottom. However, the viability of the business model rests with how closely tied the income is to the product being sold. And most MLMs in my experience are selling people and promises, not products.

The Federal Trade Commission has this to say of MLMs: “Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes. It’s best not to get involved in plans where the money you make is based primarily on the number of distributors you recruit and your sales to them, rather than on your sales to people outside the plan who intend to use the products.”

CONCLUSION

So when you’re approached with a too-good-to-be-true opportunity, be careful. Ask difficult questions that annoy the recruiter. Look up the company’s income disclosure statement and ask the recruiter why nobody makes much money. Ask them whether you must front money, and ask whether you make the majority of your profit from sales of actual product or recruiting new sellers. Check Wikipedia’s list of MLMs for this opportunity. Ask yourself whether the business preys on your family and friends instead of selling real products to people outside the company. Think for yourself and do your own research; most scams cannot stand the test of reason.

Disclaimer: This post is used as an example of cultic thinking and doesn’t constitute an accusation that the organizations mentioned are necessarily part of a cult. This series is designed to give you, the reader, tools to spot red flags of manipulation and potential abuse. It is not a series meant to name and expose cults. The red flags are symptoms that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking, but it is ultimately up to you to decide whether a group or organization is safe. 

Cult Spotting 101: The Power of the Positive Thinking that You Don’t Have

Welcome to my budding series: Cult Spotting 101. This is a set of posts designed to give you, the reader, experience with identifying red flags that indicate unhealthy, cultic teachings.

For this Cult Spotting lesson, we’ll take a look at an article by Joel Osteen. Like last time, go ahead and take a few minutes to read through the link and see if you can pinpoint where the unhealthy teachings are and why they should be of concern.

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

I’ll be the first to admit that Joel has a few good things to say, grains of truth that make the rest of it seem more believable. Unfortunately, he takes a good thing too far. Underneath his optimistic promises lurk thought control tactics, informational manipulation, and induced guilt.

Let’s break those down a bit.

Thought Control:

Do not let another critical word come out of your mouth about yourself.

This quote is just one example of many throughout the article. I don’t have room to list them all. The idea is that only certain approved (in this case “positive”) thoughts and emotions are allowed to be expressed, cutting you off from a healthy means of assessing yourself and your circumstances. Remember that pesky check-engine light we talked about last time? Well, the problems don’t go away just because you disable it.

Remember, your own words will have more impact on your future than anything anybody else says about you.

Sounds great, right? What I say about myself is more important than what others say about me.

Yes . . . and no.

Here we see an example of thought control that targets critical thinking with oversimplification. Your thoughts about yourself should and to some extent do affect you far more than someone else’s thoughts about you . . . in general, but there are many other factors that come into play.

For one, thoughts about the self are often shaped by others’ thoughts. It’s possible to disbelieve what some think, but it’s impossible to have an opinion of the self in a vacuum since the sense of self is initially formulated by feedback from others when we’re young. Even as an adult, that feedback holds importance. You may be the one to whom you ultimately have to answer, but to simply decide that others don’t matter prevents healthy communication and consideration of ideas (making it easier for a cult to convince you that the concerns others hold about your involvement in the group).

More importantly, thoughts aren’t the only aspects that determine your life, your success or failure. Circumstances also come into play. It would be nice if all with which we had to content were other people’s thoughts, but we live in a world of actions and reactions. Everyone’s choices have an influence on many other people’s lives, and that’s not even counting chance events or the natural change of the universe.

The problem with such overly simplistic thinking is that it sets you up for failure and, as we’ll see later, induced guilt. If you have a problem in life, you’re just not thinking as positively as Joel and, therefore, need to become more spiritual, show more faith, give more to God, etc. etc.

Maybe you struggle with condemnation because of past mistakes. Each day, boldly declare, “I am the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. God is pleased with me. He is on my side.” If you say something like that on a consistent basis, guilt and condemnation won’t hang around.

While I might agree that we shouldn’t have to live under a cloud of guilt for the rest of our lives, if someone has done something wrong, it’s not enough to just declare, “God is on my side.” True guilt (not the bullshit guilt that he induces) should be an indication that it’s time to step up and take responsibility for one’s actions, apologize, make amends—you know, the stuff that healthy people do when they’ve fucked up. Joel’s advice sounds more fitting for a psychopath than for a spiritually healthy human being. Accountability is the stuff that cults hate. Be wary whenever you see teachings that gloss over its importance.

Informational Control:

Some of the patients were depressed because they were facing life-threatening diseases and felt there was no hope. . . . So [the doctor] told them, “Then I want you to start saying, ‘I will make it. I will be one of the people who beats the odds.’ ” Those patients obeyed the doctor’s orders, and amazingly, many of them not only came out of their depression, but they also made full recoveries!

It’s convenient when you can back up your argument with examples without citing sources. Joel recounts a story that borders on the miraculous. If true, it would entirely support his claim that your thoughts control more about you than anything else.

Unfortunately, he never gives you a chance to verify its veracity because he doesn’t say where the story came from.

Scientists are learning more about the mind-body connection and have discovered that our thoughts can have a physical impact on our bodies; however, that does not necessarily mean that you can cure everything with your mind. It’s a two-way connection, and your body has an impact on your mental health as well.

Even if the story is true, I want to draw your attention to how little true information he actually gives. He doesn’t tell you the diseases with which these people were suffering. He doesn’t tell you where to find this amazing breakthrough. He doesn’t tell you the name of the doctor. He doesn’t even tell you the percentage of the “many” that actually survived versus the number who died . . . or how many people who had a positive attitude died anyway.

Wouldn’t you think if science had discovered that positive thinking could cure terminal illness that not only would scientists be all over it but Joel himself would want to make as much information about this discovery available as possible?

The absence of actual, verifiable information is a huge indicator that something is being left out that might change the way you would interpret the results of his tale.

Alternatively, without any way to fact-check his claims, we can’t even prove that the story has even a tiny bit of truth. He himself could be lying out of his ass, or he could be repeating a false story that he heard from someone else. We just can’t know, and as nice as it would be to believe what he’s saying, there’s too much risk of misinformation.

Maybe you’re wondering what the harm could be in believing in the power that Joel proclaims, which brings me to my next (and last) point.

Emotional Manipulation~Induced Guilt:

God says you must believe and then you’ll see it.

Friend, if you’ll do your part and speak words of victory, God will pour out His favor in exciting, fresh ways in your life, and you will live the abundant life He has in store for you.

So what if you don’t recover from your illness? What if you don’t cure your financial woes? What if you aren’t able to think your way into a better job, new house, or more fulfilling life? What if you can’t escape from the consequences of your actions by patting yourself on the back and telling yourself that God is on your side?

What then?

Well, Joel doesn’t come right out and say it, but couched in that empowering promise of happy thoughts is the assumption that if you fail, it’s because you didn’t believe enough. You didn’t do your part. You didn’t claim your promise, speak the right words of victory, or trust God to follow through.

We saw a similar vein of thinking in the previous cult spotting, and it’s as insidious this time as it was before. There’s no room for circumstances or other people’s choices to influence your opportunities; there is just the promise that if you will, you can. Adversely, if you can’t, you didn’t really want to.

Some people live in a perpetual state of financial crisis. They can’t seem to pay their bills — always living “under their circumstances” and constantly speaking defeat.

He’s a little more direct with his blame with this one. To him, if someone is having financial difficulties, it’s obviously their fault because they spoke defeat into their life. Although white middle class or upper class Americans often do have a large measure of control over their financial security, the same is not true for everyone. Nor is it consistently true for anyone. A natural disaster, a health crisis, or the crashing of the national economy can transform a rich person into a pauper, and a pauper into . . .

The blame of this statement leaves no room for genuine struggle. You either succeed with positivity or you fail because you didn’t have it.

Ironically, he can’t even see how overly positive thinking could contribute to problems by creating a false confidence and bad spending habits.

Bonus: Financial Control

If you are struggling financially, remind yourself repeatedly, “I am the head and I am not the tail. I will lend and I will not borrow. Everything I touch will prosper and succeed.

It’s been a long post, so if you’ve stuck it out to this point, you’ve earned a piece of chocolate.

In this quote, Joel says that the solution to financial struggle is to simply decide that you are prosperous, then be willing to “lend” but not “borrow.” In three sentences, he dismisses financial crisis (as if it were an annoying fly that can be swatted) and prescribes an overly simplistic and irresponsible budget plan.

If you’ve been in a cult, you probably know what usually follows a statement like this: “Give to God in faith, even when you can’t afford it.”

To me, this is the biggest red flag of this post. Even though he never actually asks for money, he lays the groundwork for it. If everything else he said in the post had been perfect, this statement alone would be enough to make me say goodbye if I were considering his church (I’m not because he’s always struck me as a sleazy speaker even before I decided to analyze his writing).

The number of people who have had their lives ruined after joining a cult that got its hooks into their wallets is staggering. Financial control can easily become the biggest practical obstacle to people leaving. Never trust a church or group that starts to meddle in people’s bank accounts.

Disclaimer: My use of this article as an example of cultic thinking doesn’t constitute an accusation that the author or the site is necessarily part of a cult. The article could just be ill-thought, overly simplistic, or badly written . . . 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 (not your magical thinking).

Cult Spotting 101: Spying Unhealthy Spiritual Teachings

I came across this article the other day in my Facebook newsfeed and wanted to scream with rage when I read it. I honestly don’t know if the article is being true to the actual philosophy of Karma or if it’s just a botched up amateur version of a complex idea, but the amount of bullshit is astounding.

Once the rage settled a little, I realized it’s also a really good example of cultic thinking. I want to use it as a teaching tool–kind of like those practice sheets you get in English class that ask you to go through and circle grammatical mistakes. If you like how this works, let me know. I’m considering making it a series and would be happy to comb through more articles and videos to give you all some practice.

To test your cult radar, first read the linked article and see if you can pick out the cultic teachings, then come back here and compare your answers.

The laws given in the article sound sweet on the surface. They seem to promise people control of their lives, the ability to gain everything they want, and perfect peace and happiness.

It sounds almost like magic!

 Whatever we put out in the Universe is what comes back to us.

Except that underneath all that surgery positive speech are three warning flags for a cult: thought control, emotional control, and victim-blaming.

Thought Control:

If what we see is an enemy, or someone with a character trait that we find to be negative, then we ourselves are not focused on a higher level of existence. -Law of Humility

Sounds like a nice little admonition not to judge, right? Except that instead of just encouraging tolerance of differences, this law dictates outright suspending judgment in order to be “spiritual.” Critical thinking becomes a karmic sin.

If that still doesn’t sound bad to you, think about all of the times that you use your judgment to determine when someone is trustworthy or when someone is dangerous. There’s more involved here than merely letting other people live their lives. It doesn’t leave any room for using judgment to protect ourselves from the malevolence or destructive behavior of others.

But that’s not the whole of this law. What you can’t think about, you can’t speak about, so in addition to censoring thoughts, this law also acts to silence victims.

Looking backward to examine what was, prevents us from being totally in the HERE AND NOW. -Law of the Here and Now

Oh such a positive message about not getting stuck in the past! /sarcasm

I’ve seen this one floating around a little bit, and it never quite makes sense to me. It’s not only dangerous, it’s downright dumb. Our past is what got us to our present. It has lessons to teach us for the future. You might as well cut off your head because it doesn’t walk the road for you!

Looking back is healthy. It gives you a chance to assess your life, the good and the bad. It’s necessary for a healthy life. As with most cultic teachings, you can see a grain of truth in the statement. You do want to live in the present, but living in the present doesn’t require you to cut off your past.

Emotional Control:

If what we want is Happiness, Peace, Love, Friendship… Then we should BE Happy, Peaceful, Loving and a True Friend. -The Great Law

Initially, this one sounds pretty good. It doesn’t say anything outright about suppressing emotions. However, the implication is that these emotions (peace, love, happiness) are the only ones acceptable and that they have to be deliberately pursued. A limited range of emotions becomes the goal.

Why is that bad? Let’s take a look at the next quote.

When our focus is on Spiritual Values, it is impossible for us to have lower thoughts such as greed or anger. -Law of Focus

This one is more obvious about the emotional censoring. I could focus on the irritating way that they fuse a motivation (greed) with an emotion (anger), but I think it’s far more important to talk about “negative emotions.”

Grief, anger, fear, worry—they’re not fun, but they are essential to a healthy soul. Emotions are the psyche’s way of alerting us to what is happening. They are neither thoughts nor goals. They are merely signals.

Suppressing an emotion is like disabling the check engine light in a car because you want the car to be “healthy.” Just because the light doesn’t bother you after you disable it doesn’t mean that the problems aren’t there. If you disable the signal, you miss the chance to address the cause of the signal.

Can you see how this could be a means of censoring thoughts too?

Cutting you off from emotions cuts you off from your full human experience. Cults can’t keep and control members who are whole. They have to pare people down to the thoughts, emotions, and desires that keep them malleable, which means that fear and guilt are exploited (if you commit this karmic sin, you’ll have bad things happen to you) while anger and doubt are demonized. Whenever you see a “spiritual” message that says anything about cutting out an emotion or thought in order to be more spiritual, sirens should go off in your head immediately.

Victim-blaming:

Would you believe that it’s not just for sexism? 😉

Victim-blaming isn’t unique to cults, but it is their favorite tool. To make people want to change in such a destructive way, you have to first convince them that they are bad.

 Whatever we put out in the Universe is what comes back to us. -The Great Law

Remember this one from the beginning? Did you catch the victim-blaming?

This phrase could actually fit into the thought control category too because it requires some serious suspension of logic to believe that in a world of billions of people who all have free will, only your actions have an effect on you. However, I place it here because the more sinister message is that you cause your own circumstances.

So, if you happen to get laid off or get cancer, it must be because you are reaping your karmic payback. Or if you are raped, beaten, molested, kidnapped, caught in a tornado, or electrocuted by lightning, it must be because of something you did to attract that.

Whenever there is something wrong in my life, there is something wrong in me. -Law of Responsibility

Just in case the previous law wasn’t clear enough, they’ll throw this one in too. So again, if you get laid off or get cancer, it’s because you’re bad. If you are raped, beaten, molested, kidnapped, caught in a tornado, or electrocuted by lightning, it must be because there’s something wrong with you.

Not with your abuser. Or the economy. Or nature.

Just you.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the problematic teachings in the article, so feel free to comment with another if you feel like that kid in class who is jumping out of his/her seat with a raised hand.

If you picked up on these without my help, good job! Make use of that perception. It will protect you from manipulative people.

If you were surprised to see that there could be any negative interpretation of these karmic laws, you might want to educate yourself a bit more on cultic or manipulative tactics.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to say that just because I used this as an example of cultic thinking doesn’t mean I think that the author or the site is necessarily part of a cult. The laws could just be ill-thought, overly simplistic, or badly written . . . or they 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 (you know, the thing that was condemned in the Law of Humility).