On Dialogue Between the Two Tribes of Cultic Studies Researchers

Cultic Studies Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 1, 1983, pages 11-15

On Dialogue Between the Two Tribes of Cultic Studies Researchers

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

The spirited contributions in this issue of Drs. Robbins, Zerin, and Schuller underscore the rift between the so-called “pro-cult” and “anti-cult” positions. Despite repeated calls for “dialogue,” little convergence of opinion has occurred. Why?

I submit that the barriers between the two “camps” are primarily due to unspoken agendas (Dr. Zerin’s “unacknowledged biases,” but a bit more, in that unspoken agendas imply an impulse toward action, not just a slant in perception).

An important unspoken agenda is identification with one of the two great tribes in this business: the pro-cult tribe or the anti-cult tribe. This identification results, in part, from passing much time with people of similar persuasion. But it is also generated by attacks on intellectual positions with which one sympathizes. To some extent, these attacks are inevitably perceived as personal. Thus, through my association with the anti-cult tribe, I have been indirectly accused of being a “witch-hunter,” a modern-day “demonologist,” sadly misinformed (the ultimate “tut tut”), ruled by the “impulse to expand the regulatory power of psychiatrists,” insensitive to the religious strivings of the young, in league with evil deprogrammers, a “medicalizer,” an inveterate “labeler,” and on and on. This—I think understandably—makes me a bit defensive, ready to meet spear with spear. Hence, I feel a sweet revenge when a sharp-witted ally like Jeanne Schuller disembowels pro-cult warriors like Bromley and Shupe, who have bludgeoned many anti-cult braves. My exultation, however, is short-lived, for I know that the pro-cult tribesmen are fierce fighters, and not easily vanquished.

Although obviously a caricature, this blood-and-guts portrayal of academic communication isn’t so very far from the truth. Look at the comments in any scholarly journal in any field, and you will see the ultimate weapon—words—wreaking mayhem everywhere. The first unspoken agenda, then, is “hold tight to shield and lance, for words draw blood.” The result is people “dialoguing” without communicating.

Though more diffuse and less fundamental than self-defense, a person’s world view—especially its political and religious components—is, I believe, another critical unspoken agenda. I, for instance, basically like my world as it is, even though I could scribble out hundreds of complaints and injustices at a moment’s notice. Talk of “transformation,” “revolution,” “new age,” and the like—though capturing my spirit if the musical accompaniment is sufficiently stirring—makes me suspicious, hostile even. I feel that people possessed by an idea can easily turn that idea into a monster. My heart is touched by the likes of a Mother Teresa, feeding one poor person, then another, not by the likes of a Lenin, a Hitler, or a Sun Myung Moon mesmerizing a multitude. Perhaps I went into psychology because I most value individual-individual, rather than group-individual or group-group- relationships. Hence, when examining the cult arena, I immediately go on the alert, for so much of what I see exalts the group and denigrates the individual.

If this impression is not pure fantasy, then—even disregarding the unspoken agenda of self-defense—it is no wonder that cult researchers in the two tribes strain to understand each other. One tribe believes that concepts such as “normality,” “healthy,” “maladaptive,” “harmful,” “destructive,” etc., have meaning and value. The other tribe sees these concepts as mere “labels,” used by certain groups to maintain or gain dominance over other groups (the “conflict model” mentioned by Dr. Schuller).

Speaking as an anti-cult tribesman, I can acknowledge without embarrassment that terms such as “maladaptive,” or “destructive” are labels. But so what! All words are “labels,” including “witch-hunter,” “demonologist,” “the new exorcism,” etc. The important question isn’t whether “labels” are used, but whether they are meaningful and helpful.

Yet even when labels are meaningless or of little utility, how we use them may be revealing. The anti-cult tribesmen, as pro-cult warriors have pointed out so often, use labels to describe the subjects or objects of their research. Pro-cult tribesmen, on the other hand, seem to prefer to use labels to describe researchers in the other camp.

Being labeled doesn’t disturb me all that much (although I don’t view the chosen labels—e.g., “demonologist” —as particularly meaningful or useful). I believe that we researchers are buffeted byt many of the same social and psychological “forces” that influence our subjects. We are part of the process under study, and we should, therefore, examine (which implies categorization and labeling) ourselves, as well as our subjects. Otherwise, our unspoken agendas may lead us away from the Way of Science, a god that both of our tribes worship.

In honor of our common god, let me offer here a hierarchy of propositions which, I hope, will illuminate some of the differences between the two tribes of cultic researchers. If some warriors label me a “peace monger,” so be it.

Proposition One. Groups can influence a person’s behavior. [I believe the two tribes can accept this proposition without much bickering.]

Proposition Two. Groups can exploit an individual by using manipulative techniques to induce that person to do things that are in the group’s rather than (and sometimes contrary to) the individual’s interest. (Exploitation = manipulation to advance group-centered goals.) [I believe the two tribes can accept this proposition, although I suspect there would be some dispute regarding the specific meanings of the terms used.]

Proposition Three. Groups can harm individuals—often, but not necessarily, as a result of manipulation. [The definition and/or utility of “harm” would surely generate much debate, partly because Science has commanded his worshippers to shun “value-laden” concepts. In proposing such a term, then, I commit heresy. I hope, however, that the High Priests of Science, whose tolerance has grown in recent years, will forgive me.]

Proposition Four. Manipulation, group-centered goals, and harm are dimensional, rather than categorical, concepts. [With regard to the cult phenomenon, nobody has fully elucidated the specific components of these terms or has devised a means for measuring their quantitative dimensions. Attempts to do so will, I suspect, generate much debate within as well as between the two tribes.]

Proposition Five. Nearly all groups exploit and/or harm their members at least a little at least some of the time. [This is why one can see unfavorable similarities among the Marines, the Carmelites, fraternities, the Moonies, and academic faculties.]

Proposition Six. Because exploitation and harm are dimensional concepts, some groups may exploit and/or harm their members more (more intensely and/or more frequently) than is socially/ethically acceptable. [This seems almost self-evident and would probably not arouse much controversy so long as we use the vague referent “groups.”]

Proposition Seven. Some cults exploit and/or harm their members more than is socially/ethically acceptable. [As the vague referent of proposition six becomes more specific, i.e., “cults,” adrenalin probably begins to surge in the veins of the pro-cult warriors.]

Proposition Eight. Certain factors within individuals—e.g., unassertiveness, alienation, gullibility, spiritual searching—may render them unusually susceptible to manipulation and harm. [The degree to which a person’s behavior within a cult is a function of variables within the person is a major point of dispute. Ironically, pro-cult tribesmen, who tend to be sociologists, emphasize psychological factors, whereas anti-cult tribesmen, many of whom are clinicians, place more stress on social factors.]

Proposition Nine. Society should do something about groups (including cults) which exploit and/or harm members more than is socially/ethically acceptable. [“pass laws!” shout some anti-cult warriors. “Witch hung!” scream pro-cult braves. “Preventive education,” intone another band of anti-cult tribesmen. “What’s to prevent?” retort pro-cult troops.]

What do these nine propositions tell us about the two warring tribes? First of all, despite the injunctions of the great god Science, value-laden concepts permeate the propositions. This is because the Ivory Towers in which Science feels most secure have been felled by the thunderbolts of other powerful gods—Family, Government, Law, Education, Religion. But because defining value-laden terms is so dependent upon unspoken agendas and mere personal preference, definitional consensus is very difficult—if not impossible—to achieve. If, however, at least a working agreement were reached on the definitions (which would have to include a quantitative dimension) of exploitation, harm, socially acceptable, and ethical (with regard to manipulation), then dialogue in the language of Science would be possible. Proposition number seven, for example, could be subjected to empirical testing, a ritual that is most pleasing to Science.

Some relevant empirical work has already been completed. Dr. Robbins alludes to several studies suggesting that the “brainwashing” metaphor (which is basically a categorical rather than a dimensional concept) does not hold up when cross-sections of cults or groups within cults are investigated. But such studies—which have their flaws (Science is a most demanding god) —do not disprove the existence of exploitation and harm, if one accepts the quantitative distinctions that have been proposed here. The key question is not: “Does brainwashing characterize cult conversion?” Rather, it is: “To what extent does unethical exploitation and harm occur in cults?” A corollary question is: “What factors make some people particularly vulnerable to the processes that lead to exploitation and harm?”

In order to help answer these questions and, I hope, contribute to peace, this anti-cult brave suggests that:

  1. We develop quantitative measures of harm and exploitation (and hence, of manipulation and group-centered goals) that are applicable to group-individual interactions. Because the concepts to measure are so value-laden, consensus may be impossible to achieve; but at least the terms and their application will be clarified.

  2. We seek some agreement on what quantitative levels of exploitation and harm are unethical and/or socially unacceptable. (These levels would apply to all groups, not just cults.)

  3. We use the measures developed in (1) to survey representative samples of cults, controversial cults, and non-cult groups in order to determine (a) the extent to which cults in general exploit and/or harm people, (b) the extent to which the more controversial cults exploit and/or harm people (in order to find out whether this group is a “guilty” subset of a possibly “innocent” larger set), and (c) the extent to which non-cult groups exploit and/or harm people (in order to construct a baseline against which to compare cults, as well as to find out whether some non-cult groups should be scrutinized more critically).

  4. We regularly examine our own participation in the processes under study, for, like our subjects, we belong to “tribes” which can influence us in ways of which we are unaware.

After we better understand the quantitative aspects of the cult phenomenon and after we reach some consensus as to which levels of group-individual exploitation and harm are acceptable/ethical (rather like setting air-safety standards), we will, perhaps, find it easier to agree upon what to do about the problematical aspects of the cult phenomenon. Then all of our gods—Science, Religion, Family, Law, Government, Education—will smile upon us.