Five Ways of Resisting Without Punching Nazis

Wow! It’s been a hell of a week, and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty damn raw and emotional.

There are many people who are scared, angry, grieving, etc. over the events that happened in Charlottesville.

Many are calling for measures to suppress free speech, seeing it as inextricably linked with the violence of the previous weekend. There are others arguing that we should go around and punch Nazis, harass them, send them threats, and “make them afraid” to show their faces in public.

I get it. I do.

But I can’t help but cringe at how these responses merely contribute to the problem. We’re dealing with extremism, and we have to be smart about how we deal with extremism. I believe, from what I’ve seen, that it’s safe to say that these white supremacist movements qualify as cults and that they have a very deliberate recruitment program.

And you getting pissed off enough to punch someone in the face for their ideology is part of that plan!

You getting pissed off enough to dox someone online or harass someone or prevent them from speaking at a college event is part of that plan.

Because they really want to convince angry, scared, and vulnerable people that they are being persecuted…and the more that you can give evidence of that, the better for their recruitment agenda.

But I also get that some of this extreme response to extremism stems from a very legitimate place of fear.

Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery writes about how revenge fantasies are not uncommon in response to trauma because they offer the illusion of rebalancing the trauma. People desire resolution, and sometimes the idea of becoming the big bad aggressor who makes the oppressor afraid the way they have been afraid seems like the only or the best way to go about resolving the trauma and regaining a sense of safety.

It doesn’t work though.

Perpetuating violence against others can actually compound trauma. That’s part of the reason why soldiers can get PTSD—it’s not just the threat to their own lives; it’s the memories of what they’ve done to others that can haunt them, even if that “other” was an “enemy.” (Edit to add: based on feedback from others, I’d like to clarify that I’m not condemning self-defense or protecting others and that those can be healthy responses to physical threat–they can also result in trauma, but not necessarily).

But we’re feeling helpless, and we need somewhere to turn, something to do.

So here’s a list of five ways that you can resist extremism and white supremacy that I think have a better chance of being effective than lashing out.

  1. Self-care. No seriously! Self-care is super important right now. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress (basically becoming traumatized from witnessing or hearing about trauma) are major risks, especially when there is very graphic footage that is being virally shared from last weekend.The symptoms of burnout and secondary trauma can compound the unhelpful aspects of this situation and interfere with your ability to think about and do things to help you and your communities heal.

    So, make sure you take breaks, get rest, meet your physical and emotional needs, do things that are pleasant, comforting, and hopeful.

    And if you notice yourself having nightmares, being hypervigilant, having intrusive thoughts or memories (or flashbacks), experiencing extreme mood swings, or other symptoms of trauma, consider seeing a professional and getting some extra support.

    You can read more about self-care after tragedies at this post. There are also some great resources on the Orlando Grief Care Project website for dealing with grief and stress that I would recommend you check out.

  2. Donate to Life After Hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or some other group that is working to counter the violence, racism, and extremism of our current times. I mention these groups specifically because they specifically focus on resistance without oppression.Life After Hate reaches out to people who have become embroiled in the cult of the alt-right. They are working specifically to help people leave these ideologies…which is way more effective than trying to silence the ideologies.

    It might seem like a slower approach, but every person that chooses to walk away from that movement is one less person at those rallies and one more person with connections to others and the ability to influence others who might be going to those rallies.

    The SPLC has released a handbook outlining how people can effectively counter white supremacists coming to campus without damaging the right to speech. I get that free speech doesn’t seem as valuable to many right now in the face of neo-Nazis, but if we are really up against a group that wants to implement fascism and we already have someone sympathetic to their cause in office, we definitely don’t need to help break down the protections of citizens. Once we start dismantling free speech for others, it’s only a matter of time before that gets used against us (see my post about Pussy Riot for a deeper discussion here).

  3. Learn some ways that you yourself can engage with cults and totalistic forces that are likely to be more productive than force.It’s important to understand why people get involved in cultic groups. They often don’t start out as radical as they seem after they join. Many join because they’re scared and angry and confused. Transitional/stressful times make people more vulnerable to cultic influence because cults promise to solve people’s problems and provide a simple worldview that clarifies all of the complexity that makes life scary.

    Cults offer certainty in a world of seeming chaos, and they subtly manipulate people’s emotions and beliefs in ways that most don’t recognize at first, sometimes leading to actions that baffle the rest of the world with their violence—the Manson murders and Jonestown being very prominent examples.

    But the good news is that there are ways of reaching people even while they are in a cult. Megan Phelps-Roper has a lovely Ted Talk about how she was able to break out of Westboro Baptist Church due to the compassionate but worldview-challenging dialogue that others offered her, and she offers some great tips on how individuals can engage with others in some of those difficult conversations. Her Ted Talk often reminds me that dialogue is the first line of defense against extremism.

    I also recommend reading the following for a better understanding of what we may be facing right now. These inform much of my own approach. Having the knowledge of how extremism and totalism work can go a long way in knowing how to reach out to those influenced by it.

    Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton
    On Tyrrany: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
    by Timothy Snyder
    Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan
    Cults in our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer
    The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo

  4. Do healing activities with your own communities and connections.It is healing to get together to sing and dance. It is healing to spend time with loved ones. It is healing to engage in comforting touch like hugs and hand-holding. While organizing or participating in events that involve art or music or dance or other touchy-feely activities may seem so far removed from the issues at hand, it can be just as important as self-care.

    Healing trauma for an individual often involves a dance between dealing with the painful issues and doing comforting or pleasurable things. And healing as a society from collective trauma, societal trauma, and historic trauma needs the same thing. Peter Levine calls it the healing vortex and describes how it can counter the vortex of trauma that tries to pull you into a repetitive, unhealthy cycle of avoidance, re-enactment, and re-traumatization.

    If you’re involved in activism, give attention to community healing. It doesn’t have to wait until racism seems to be conquered—it can’t wait until then!

    At a social justice conference I attended this year, I was struck by an observation made from someone who was an activist originally from a different culture. They said that Americans are too serious about our activism. We don’t learn how to laugh and have fun even while we are fighting oppression. This person had come from a war-torn region and talked about how dancing and laughing were essential in keeping the work going, essential to not being overwhelmed with despair.

    That message stuck with me, especially because my training in helping people with trauma as individuals also highlights that need for pleasure, comfort, and joy. In fact, it’s the foundation. Every trauma model I have studied begins with a foundation of creating a sense of internal safety and strengths through connecting to happy memories or doing positive activities.

    Activism that is, at heart, dealing with collective trauma from injustice needs to be grounded in a trauma model, which means we need to have opportunities for our communities, divided though they may be, to come together in these ways.

  5. Explore your own relationship to and feelings about racial issues. I’m assuming that most of the people reading this would identify as people sensitive to social justice issues, but I also think that everyone’s journey is different. SO…It’s okay to need space to explore these issues even if you feel you strongly disagree with “SJWs” or if you have negative feelings towards the left. You don’t have to be wholly aligned with the most liberal stance in order to explore these issues.

    It’s okay to have questions or make mistakes in your attempt to talk about these issues. Be willing to make mistakes because that’s part of growth, but also be willing to own up to and apologize if you make a mistake because that’s also part of growth.

    It’s okay to want to feel safe and respected while you struggle with examining your worldview, and I understand that those qualities tend to be lacking in many spaces. Call-out culture has become pretty scary and toxic, but that’s not how everyone operates. There are many lovely activists, advocates, and social justice ambassadors (my new term for differentiating from the more antagonistic ilk) who don’t resort to shame and aggression to control.

    Of course, also be willing to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is not the same as lacking safety…and it’s good to know how to differentiate between those. Talking about racial issues is uncomfortable. Challenging your worldview is uncomfortable. You shouldn’t expect yourself to tolerate feeling completely unsafe, but if you aren’t at least tolerating a little discomfort, you are probably not anywhere close to the growth edge.

    If you have a supportive group where you can feel safe to explore but still be challenged around racial issues, great! In person connections with people you know are always better for these tough conversations.

    You might be able to create a community yourself if you don’t know of one—but make sure it includes people who are respectful and compassionate as well as willing to challenge your thinking and allow you to challenge theirs. I’m currently in love with the deliberate dialogue movements that have sprung up and the idea that it is in the spot with the most tension that the solution ultimately lives.

    Just…don’t create yet another echo chamber. Make sure you’re not just talking to people who agree with you and validate your feelings (and for those who identify as more liberal, this might mean challenging yourself to talk with and explore a more conservative viewpoint. You help no one by insulating entirely.)

    Therapists are also a great place to go if you need a space that is confidential and non-judgmental but hella challenging. Therapists can help you explore your own assumptions and beliefs in a warm, compassionate way, supporting you towards the changes you want to make in your thinking. Generally, they also don’t let you off the hook of doing hard work (or they shouldn’t).

    There are also online groups, though I hesitate to recommend them because the Internet tends to be one of the more vitriolic spaces one can go right now. However, Authentic Allyship is an online group that seeks to provide a space specifically for white people to explore the emotions that come up around being white, including anger and the trauma of being part of oppression.

    It’s designed to be a safe space for “white emotions,” and from what I can tell, the person who runs it (who is, incidentally, a therapist) seems genuinely compassionate and highly principled about the work they’re trying to do. What I’ve read aligns a lot with the mindfulness-based, compassion-based, and non-violent activism towards which I tend to gravitate.

Bonus (because there’s never just five): Get to know the local groups already active in your area. This is something I am challenging myself on more as well. Online activity has always been where I most engage with difficult conversations because it brings me in contact with so many people all over the place. It’s also where I found my greatest supports in exploring my sexual orientation and exiting and recovering from cult life. But online has become more and more toxic lately, and I’ve started wondering if social media is exacerbating the problems we face. I want to give a social media detox a go, get to know more ways to be active “in real life” (which isn’t to say online isn’t important or real, just virtual), and test out other ways of staying informed that don’t involve being bombarded with catastrophic images and articles ALL THE TIME! So, I encourage you to do the same. As always, if you get involved in any group (online or otherwise) that starts to exhibit red flags for cultic or totalistic practices, it’s probably healthiest if you leave, even if you really like the cause they espouse.

 

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A Tale for the Times: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

One of the perks of being connected to a bookstore is getting access to advanced reader copies of books that haven’t been published yet. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to read The Black Witch by Laurie Forest recently (I believe it’s released in early May).

Now, I’ve talked about a handful of books on my blog in the past, but generally it doesn’t feel too important to talk about what I read unless is makes a significant impact on the topics I like to cover.

This book does that, but I have other reasons for also talking about it.

It’s caught the ire of a small faction of vocal, well-meaning, but ultimately…shall we say, reactive…people on Twitter and Goodreads. The majority of these people are declaring this book racist, homophobic, and all around terrible. Most haven’t even read the book and are going on, from what I can tell, basically one person’s review.

Thus, this is as much a post about how I personally relate to the book as it is a defense of an important read for our time that has fallen prey to what I consider an unfair campaign.

I read the review before I read the book, and I could only think about how everything seemed out of context. If I cherry-picked statements from The Handmaid’s Tale, I could also write an angry review about how sexist that book is…but just because characters say, think, and do prejudicial things doesn’t automatically mean that the author is condoning that.

I’ve read enough theme-driven books to come to expect that problematic attitudes are often portrayed as a form of social commentary. After all, writing fiction has been one of the most time-honored ways of critiquing reality since fiction was invented.

So I decided to read the book and judge for myself.

What I found was a story that I might have written. A story about a character who grows up in a religious cult that has taken over the government and who begins to encounter other worldviews for the first time when she goes to university.

Sound familiar?

Hell, parts of it could have been my autobiography, if you take out the glitter skin (which I would probably consider having cosmetic surgery to achieve) and the mythical peoples and creatures (God, I wish I lived in a world with dragons).

I read a good portion of the book waiting to be offended, ready to throw it across the room and rage about how the author failed to address something. I really really really looked for it.

But I couldn’t find it.

All I could see was the incredibly, poignantly realistic struggle of the main character as she questions first small portions of her beliefs and then larger ones. I could feel her fear of the repercussions of such a controlling culture should her brother’s same-sex attraction be discovered or her best friend’s romantic involvement with a Lupine (wolf shape-shifter) be found out. I could relate to the chasm of doubt that opens up once the foundation of her worldview begins to crumble.

The world is a prejudicial world, yes.

The main character (along with most of the other characters) has her fair share of prejudices and stereotypes, yes.

But the story arc is not one of condoning or overlooking prejudice. It is one of changing, learning, and growing.

From experience, I know that journey is hard.

And that’s why this book is important.

There aren’t enough books that portray the journey out of extremist, isolationist beliefs. In the documentary “Join Us,” I learned that the U.S. is one of the biggest harbors for cults in the world, with millions of people having experience with a cult in some fashion throughout their lives. Yet, little to no attention is given to the invisible survivors.

Stories have always been important in the way that they can offer a kind of map through a struggle.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Harry Potter, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings are just a handful of the ones that were influential in helping me break out of my cult. They stimulated me to think about my own world and the parallels between my world and the problematic aspects of those worlds.

Orwell opened my eyes to the gaslighting and manipulation of the IFB. Harry Potter, Frodo, Edmond Dantes–they showed me that it was possible to resist and that it was worth fighting for freedom and standing up to power abuse, even with little hope of succeeding.

Had I had access to The Black Witch at the time, I think it also would have been one of those that deeply influenced my journey out because it could have shown me a model of someone who leans into the questions and uncertainty rather than retreating from them.

It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to someone who is struggling with leaving an extremist position, and I’d feel confident that the book would in no way reinforce prejudicial thinking.

It’s not that I don’t have complaints about the book. There were times when the writing fell short, got clunky, or succumbed to derivative tropes. I would also encourage the author to think about at least some portrayal of ethical, consensual sexuality that doesn’t involve life-mating or a form of marriage.

But the story isn’t ruined by those shortcomings. The strengths of the plot and the importance of the message far outweigh the weaknesses.

Some are saying a book like this shouldn’t exist in 2017, but I think this is exactly the kind of story we need in 2017. I can only hope that the current backlash against it will spur those who most need to read it into picking up the book.

And to those who think that the change in the main character is too slow, I’d just like to say, “Check your privilege.”

I say it cheekily because I legitimately hate that phrase and the weaponized way that it is typically used, but it is indeed a privilege to never have had to question the very foundations of your worldview—to never grapple with the fear that you might actually be damning yourself to hell for rejecting a doctrine that has been taught to you as the absolute truth of God.

Until you go through that kind of existential crisis, you can’t understand how terrifying and difficult it is….or maybe you could if you opened yourself up to empathizing with the main character. 😉

Because of the backlash against this book, I feel the need to make a note about comments on this post. If you’re not respectful, I won’t approve the comment, no matter what you have to say. If you’re unsure of my comment policy, you can check it out here.  

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.

Pride, Accomplishments, and Degrees: On Being a First Generation Graduate Student

Women in my family don’t go to graduate school.

Women in my family barely get degrees at all.

Perhaps it wasn’t so unusual for the times that my grandmother never went to college. Even with a high school education, she was able to do a variety of things from teaching kindergarten to having a real estate career.

My mom received only slightly more education, obtaining an associate’s degree rather than the four year degree she had initially intended to get. Unlike many women in the cult, she didn’t go to her IFB school in pursuit of her M.R.S. degree (where you get a husband instead of a diploma), but like most women in IFB schools, she left with one.

I also didn’t go to Bob Jones University to find me a man. Even though the pressure to “date” was astronomically high for girls there (especially those who were deemed fit for being a preacher’s wife), I managed to avoid a serious relationship until my junior year.

When I dropped out just before beginning my senior year and got married, I seemed to be on my way to fulfilling the pattern set up for me by my foremothers. There was little expectation that I would get my bachelor’s. My mother clicked her tongue as she told me that I would regret my decision later.

Dire predictions weren’t far behind my vows:  “First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes baby in a baby carriage.” If betting were allowed, I suspect that half the cult would have put their money on my being pregnant within a few months.

I was still determined to graduate, though. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their anger, disappointment, and expectations of my failure, I fought like a banshee to transfer to a new university…a secular one, where I realized that the three years I’d spent previously at BJU were as good as wasted.

When I finally received my diploma, it didn’t strike me as particularly unusual…except maybe the timing. I was aware that I had broken “out of order” by marrying first and graduating after, but it never occurred to me that I was doing something momentous for my family history.

This past week, though, I realized that not only am I one of the few women who received a four-year degree in my family. I’m also one of the few who has received a secular degree from a non-religious school (even considering my extended family, I can only think of one other cousin, two if I count the men too).

Now I’m working towards a Master’s.

There’s a part of me that feels incredibly out of place with this realization. I’ve never considered myself on the spectrum of “first generation to go to college” before, but I suppose on some levels that’s what I am.

What is it that makes one generation conform to the norms and expectations that they’ve been taught and makes another generation break out and do things that have never been done before?

There’s nothing in my upbringing that would suggest I would leave a cult and fight to create a life that didn’t follow the religious, gender, or cultural roles I’d been given as a child…but somehow, even as I seemed to repeat familiar patterns, I changed them—changed me.

It’s hard to believe that in a time when women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men that my realization is such a big deal, but it feels like it’s completely transformed my perspective.

I spent so much of my time as a child trying to be “the best”—to gain the pride, approval, and affection of my parents through my achievements and academic performance. But it was always in the shadow of my father’s accomplishments. If I got an A on a test, he would tell about getting an A+ on his seminary test. I simply couldn’t outshine him, but I continued to try. For some reason, I thought that would guarantee my parents’ love.

Of course, I realize now that basing my worthiness on my academic performance is ridiculous. My parents’ approval is tenuous and fleeting, and I’ve come to accept that they will never truly be proud of who I am since pretty much everything about me goes against their beliefs.

Nevertheless it’s a struggle that still crept in even just a few years ago, the childlike anticipation of praise when I finally got my undergraduate degree, followed by the bitter disappointment of realizing that it wasn’t good enough…just like everything else.

It’s ironic that my parents can’t recognize the accomplishment that I’ve already made. The nuances of breaking my own glass ceiling are lost on them.

But I see it. I know that despite how much of a failure they think I am, I’ve already done more than they have. And in seeing it, there’s a kind of comfort that even if I fail, I’ve already succeeded. For the first time, being proud of myself is all that I need.

 

 

Is Bob Jones University Covering Up Sexual Abuse…Again?

As I was writing this post, I was thinking of that question about trees falling and sound, then I found this graphic from Naked Pastor that so poignantly illustrates the concept and the emotions that I'm experiencing around this.  Copyright David Hayward. Used with Permission

Copyright David Hayward, nakedpastor.com. Used with Permission.

Apparently Bob Jones University, the kingpin of my former cult, seems to think that ignoring sexual abuse will make it go away. At least, that’s the impression they give through the termination of their contract with the ombudsmen whom they hired last year to do an independent investigation of their past handling of sexual abuse cases.

I have to say that I’m not surprised they would backpedal shortly before the investigative team at G.R.A.C.E. released their findings. It wasn’t a smart PR move for a cult to bring an outsider in for such an in-depth review of their policies and was bound to backfire on one level or another, but I’m sure they didn’t feel they had many other options after the incidents that Dr. Lewis details in her post here, which included the student-led protest to remove a board member who had covered up a rape in his former church fifteen years ago and the vocal concerns of alumni over the questionable sexual abuse policy in BJU’s employee handbook.

Perhaps BJU hoped that a year later people would have forgotten their reasons for wanting an independent investigation…or perhaps the cult just underestimated the amount of shit that the investigation team would be able to uncover…regardless, BJU sent a termination request to G.R.A.C.E. this past week.

As I said, I’m not surprised, but I am outraged and grief-stricken.

I knew so many dear friends who had gone through horrendous pain to tell their story in interviews this past year, reliving their pain in the hopes that they might finally get the acknowledgement of the injustice of the way their trauma was handled. Now, I watch them grapple with the disappointment and devastation of having been silenced once again.

It’s downright heartless to encourage victims to speak of their abuses with promises that they will be heard, only to shut them down again and again—but it’s a tactic that the IFB loves to use.

Because they think they can break victims that way.

Because they think they can control the flow of information.

Because they think they can get away with it.

But they’re wrong.

Once upon a time, Bob Jones University might have been able to keep survivors’ stories under wraps. They might have been able to scatter and divide survivors, as good as erasing them from existence.

But they can’t do that anymore. Survivors have found each other, and through that, they’ve found their voices. They’ve discovered they have power and strength together. They’re not alone. They’re not without hope. And they’re not at the mercy of the cult anymore.

BJU has been allowed to get away with their abuses and control tactics for so long that it’s easy to believe they will continue to be able to get away with them, but the Internet is changing things. Survivors have been figuring out how to speak out over the last few years and finally–FINALLY–people are starting to listen.

Progressive Christian blogs like Naked Pastor and John Shore are spreading awareness. The media, both local and national (and many more than I can link to. Google it and see), is starting to report. And here’s the real kicker: for once, survivors aren’t going to shut up just because the cult refuses to listen.

They can keep playing the same games they’ve always played, but there’s an audience now. Their own precious image was the cost of this little cover-up. For once, even people within the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult might think twice about sending their kids to BJU.

You can paint a skunk white, but you can’t hide hide the smell. Sooner or later, the world will see BJU for what it really is, and the survivors will be leading the charge to tear down the gates.

“And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18: 5-6

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.

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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).