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Cult is a four-letter word

Brendan O'Neill enters the paranoid world of today's anti-cult campaigners

'Many people see cults as an American problem which doesn't affect us here in Britain. But the reality is quite different.' Ian Haworth has been campaigning against cults for nearly 20 years. As an ex-member of a 'therapy cult' he learned about weird groups the hard way. 'I was convinced I had been through a very real experience; it was only when I left the group that I realised I had been psychologically coerced.' In 1987 he set up the Cult Information Centre (CIC) to educate others about the dangers of such coercion.

So what exactly is a cult? 'It's a group which uses sophisticated mind control techniques to recruit members', explains Haworth. 'Its aim is to control its members' minds. The victim of this mind control then becomes the victimiser of others, usually within a matter of days, and so there is an exponential growth.' According to CIC there are over 500 such groups in Britain and the problem is getting worse.

But is this a realistic picture? We have all heard stories about strange groups, like the Jonestown cult in Guyana where 913 people committed suicide in 1978; or Waco in Texas, where David Koresh led 87 people to their deaths in 1993; or the Heaven's Gate cult in California which committed mass suicide last year when its spaceship failed to show up. But surely such disturbed groups are few and far between?

'A cult is a cult is a cult', says Haworth. 'It doesn't matter if it is large or small, if it has 20 members, 20 000 members or 2 million members, or even what its beliefs are, necessarily. If it uses the methods I've described then it will be damaging to the individuals concerned.'

Haworth argues that it is the use of 'mind control techniques' which sets cults apart from 'legitimate groups'. According to CIC literature, however, mind control can involve anything from 'confession', 'guilt' and 'finger pointing' to 'financial commitment', 'imposing dress codes' and 'playing games'. By these criteria the (girl) Guides, the Catholic Church, the Freemasons and teenage fanclubs could all be considered cults.

These days it seems that any group which has firm beliefs and which demands a high level of commitment from its membership risks being denounced as a cult. Groups which assume that their beliefs are superior to others', that they are right and others are wrong, are seen as the biggest problem. This is why evangelical 'cults', which make a point of converting people to their way of thinking, are at the top of CIC's hit list.

The mood of the times means that a cranky group like CIC can now be taken very seriously. In public life today, empathy and understanding is in, conflict and controversy are out. The buzzwords are consensus, agreement and tolerance-and in such a climate any group which wants to argue with people to quit the middle ground is easily denounced as 'extremist'. So the 500-plus groups that CIC defines as cults include not just evangelical nutters, but also political organisations and Buddhist peace camps. The definition of what constitutes a cult has been broadened to cover groups guilty of nothing more than standing up for what they believe in.

Those who see cults as a big problem seem to conflate having strong beliefs with being 'indoctrinated' or subjected to 'brainwashing'. The notion of 'brainwashing' betrays a view of people as sponges who will unthinkingly soak up whatever information they are fed. According to Haworth the majority of those involved in groups that CIC defines as cults have been 'psychologically coerced' and have not made a rational decision.

But surely developing strong beliefs is more likely to involve engaging in arguments about the issues involved and making a conscious decision about whether you agree? Haworth is having none of that. 'People would not get involved in a cult if they knew it was a cult', he says. 'The decision-making process is the very thing that is eroded by the techniques I have described. There is no conscious decision being made.' CIC insists that anybody can be manipulated by a cult and turned into a zombie who will automatically toe the line.

'Take your magazine Living Marxism', says Haworth. Excuse me? 'If somebody wants to be a Marxist in a democratic society then that is their right. But if somebody goes along to a meeting of something described as the "local boy scouts", and they are bombarded with information, deprived of food and sleep, put in a tranced state, and the heating is cranked up, and they come out saying "I'm a Marxist", obviously they have not made a conscious decision.'

Wow. That does sound scary. But where do these bogus boy scout meetings and mind-bending groups exist, outside of the most fantastically paranoid imaginations? And where are all the people who would fall for such a trick in any case? When I suggest that most right-thinking adults would realise they were being conned and would make for the exit, Haworth argues that they are the ones most likely to fall victim to the cult's powers. 'Those who think they are immune are only going to make themselves even more vulnerable.'

It looks like CIC holds people in pretty low esteem, even questioning our ability to make rational decisions. There may be some manipulative groups out there, but most of us have the nous to tell them where to go. A couple of years ago Eamon, a student in London, got involved with the Jesus Army, a group about which CIC is 'extremely concerned'. After being 'bombarded with love and information' for a week Eamon realised they were a bunch of weirdos and left. When a couple of 'Jesus freaks' turned up at his house a week later he told them to 'fuck off', and never heard from them again. 'I just decided I didn't want in', says Eamon, 'and when I make my mind up there's no changing it'.

However manipulative a group might be, however charismatic the next self-styled messiah might appear, the fact is that people decide whether or not to join. There may have been some cases in America in the 1970s where cult members were given drugs and electrotherapy, but all those new age, middle class adults who join Christian, Buddhist or therapeutic sects today do so because they want to. And who is CIC or anybody else to deny them the right to make that choice, however strongly we might disapprove of it?

The Cult Information Centre looks at the world as if it were an episode of The X-Files: full of strange and dangerous groups of powerful conspirators preying on weak and corruptible people. It is not surprising then that it should propose a solution borrowed from the X-Files t-shirt: 'Trust no-one.'

'Question people who are excessively or inappropriately friendly', advises CIC, 'and people with invitations to free meals where the objectives are not clearly stated'. Isn't Haworth worried about spreading mistrust? 'We don't want people to become so distrustful that they never communicate with fellow human beings again. It's a question of balance.'

CIC promotes this message to students at the beginning of the academic year in its pamphlet 'Cults on campus'. 'Intelligent. Idealistic. Well educated. Does this sound like you?' the pamphlet enquires. 'Beware! Protect yourself ! Why go away for a weekend with a stranger or a strange group?' Such is the fear of 'cults' that people are being advised to be wary of one another, even fresher students who are supposed to be making friends and taking some risks.

Who knows, not so long ago CIC itself might have been considered 'cultish': it has a charismatic leader, it is obsessive about its subject matter and it promotes a message of distrust about the world. But today CIC's arguments are in tune with the times. That tells us much about the society we live in: a society where fierce commitment and passionate beliefs are seen as extremism, where people are presumed to be incapable of standing up to cranks and of making rational judgements for themselves, and where the solution always seems to be to trust nobody. This strikes me as a far more dangerous message for the millennium than anything about spaceships or second comings.


Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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