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.
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.