Letters - Euphemizing Dramatic Intervention

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 7, Number 1, 1990, pages 95-98

Letters - “Euphemizing ‘Dramatic Interventions’”:

A Comment on Goldberg and Goldberg

In the article, "Family Responses to a Young Adult's Cult Membership and Return" Lorna and William Goldberg appear to use some evasive and euphemistic language to refer to instances of pressured exodus of persons from “cults” in which there may have been a coercive dimension to the exit. The important issues of coercion and the possible violation of the rights of adult converts are buried in this manner.

What exactly is meant by a reference to someone having “been counseled from a cult in a dramatic intervention” (p.5)? This awkward phrase conveys little concrete information. If the person was forcibly seized or abducted or temporarily held captive, the authors should say so and not euphemize; if such coercion did not occur, they should indicate this so readers will not get the impression that someone was brutally “snatched” or imprisoned.

My point here is not that I'm intensely curious as to all the particulars of a given incident, which, in any case, may be confidential, but rather that the authors seem to use the term “dramatic intervention” to represent a generic class of episodes many of which may be physically coercive or even brutal (such as the case litigated several years ago in Minnesota in which a member of a deviant group was chained to a cot!). Such episodes raise a number of legal and ethical issues including the possible violation of an adult's rights which parents, converts, ex-converts, counselors, and concerned citizens, including the leadership of CSJ, should confront directly. But such issues cannot be readily confronted when the reality of manhandling and coercion is buried in evasive euphemisms. Indeed, such euphemistic treatment would appear to legitimate the use of coercive methods to induce an exit, since by implication such methods are at worst overly melodramatic. Coercion is thus made to appear to be the exclusive province of “cults” and not something which pertains to vigilante actions against such groups. Movements labeled “cults” are said to use horrendous “coercive” methods such as “indirect hypnosis” (what is the scientific status of this dubious sounding concept?), while those antagonists of unconventional movements who physically abduct and imprison devotees are merely being “dramatic.”

While the authors appear to want to “normalize” coercive deprogramming, they reserve their indignation for persons accused of trying to normalize cult involvement. Dr. Saul Levine is cited as a source of fatuous rationalizations of involvements in disvalued groups as a stage of rebellion, a reaction to familial overprotection, etc. No weight is assigned to the fact that Dr. Levine is not merely an arm-chair opionator but has interviewed hundreds of converts and ex-converts. More importantly, the authors place much less emphasis on the opposite problem of parents being stampeded into an undue alarm and/or a hasty and forceful action by lurid media hype about cults, by the suggestions of persons (e.g., deprogrammers) whose livelihood depend upon spreading alarm and by the effects of crusading networks whose denizens are continuously exposed to one point of view but are somewhat insulated from other viewpoints, although the latter might conceivably have something to contribute. In this connection, I note that, like many other CSJ articles, Goldberg and Goldberg's piece is redolent of citations to the work of persons whom I am tempted to call “the usual suspects”: Clark, Singer, Ofshe ''Conway and Siegelman, etc. Had the authors ventured off the beaten CAN-AFF track, they might have come across studies by sociologists of religion and others which indicate that even the more authoritarian groups such as the Unification Church are rather like revolving doors in the sense that persons are continuously coming and going without “dramatic intervention.” Studies by Saul Levine and others have suggested that only a tiny percentage of persons who have received some sort of come-on from "cults” are actually recruited, which suggests, in Eileen Barker's words, at the most, “resistible coercion,” and also suggests strong selective factors operating in terms of who responds affirmatively to “cultic” appeals.(1)

Another finding which has cropped up in a number of studies is that whether an ex-convert fiercely recriminates against a movement from which he or she emerged, and, in particular, whether one affirms that one was “brainwashed” by the movement, is correlated with the amount of contact one has with the counter-cult network (through deprogrammers, exit counselors, therapists, etc.). This finding is probably susceptible to different interpretations. What has occurred to me, however, is the possibility of a kind of “sampling error” arising from research which focuses exclusively or primarily on ex-converts who are available for study largely because they are within the counter-cult network, e.g., participating in support groups, therapy, counseling, etc. Such persons are probably more likely to have experienced or at least to report “destructive” involvements with movements compared to those persons who drifted in and out of exotic groups for periods without becoming involved in either “dramatic intervention” or rehabilitative therapy and counseling, and with the somewhat indoctrinative (or “education”) debriefing which these processes may entail.

Finally, I want to comment on the term "cult” which Goldberg and Goldberg use but do not bother to define. The term has a clear and scarifying connotation, but its precise denotation is not clear. Social science traditions have featured several different conceptions of “cult," which has been variously defined as a residual category of religious groups, a relatively diffuse, unorganized, poorly bounded and putatively ephemeral group (as opposed to a tightly knit “sect”), or an innovative group which is not a subgroup of any broader tradition within its society (as opposed to a schismatic Christian sect). (2) These various definitions are mutually incompatible and are not entirely compatible with the term's connotation as a sinister authoritarian group which uses mind control to psychologically subjugate participants. Increasingly, the term is primarily the embodiment of a stigma, and is used to discredit an esoteric group in advance of any particular facts established about the group. Thus, the reader of the Goldbergs' piece is clearly cued to doubt the validity of the “discovery” under hypnosis by a young man from the P. family that he had been sexually abused as a child by his mother and sisters because this discovery was made under the auspices of a “therapy cult” (p.93). No other evidence discrediting the “discovery” is introduced, and if the discovery had been made under the auspices of “therapists,” its validity would probably be viewed as an open question.

If one is fighting against a clearly unconventional group, one has half of the battle won once the group has been labeled a “cult,” even if no other facts impugning the group have been definitely established. It is not hard to attach the label to a strange group, perhaps because the conception of the “cult” as a residual category still coexists with the demonological conception. Thus, it is not clear to readers of CSJ (or at least to this one) whether an esoteric group (such as the followers of a guru) automatically constitutes a “cult” (which may or may not be “destructive") or whether only the sinister or dangerous groups are “cults.” The introduction of the concept of “destructive cult” doesn't really clarify matters much because it is too easy to be labeled "destructive,” i.e., a group which does not overtly threaten anyone or abuse children or female members may still be close-knit and communal and thus be considered a presumptive repository of coercive mind control (particularly if members chant or meditate, etc.). Moreover, since the group would probably not advertise itself as using coercive mind control, it could therefore automatically be labeled “deceptive”! Shouldn't these matters be clarified before the term “cult” is thrown around so glibly?

Notes and References

(1) Rather than cite numerous sources in this short comment, I will merely draw attention to my general survey, Cults, Converts and Charisma: The Sociology of New Religious Movements (Sage, 1988), which is sort of an extended review essay or survey of the scholarly (mainly sociological) literature on “NRMs” in Western Europe and North America over the past two decades. There are over 700 references, including 8-12 from the CSJ.

For a discussion of the various conceptions of “cults,” see the volume cited above as well as the article by Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony. “’Cults’ in the Late Twentieth Century,” Encyclopedia of American Religious Experience, Charles Lippy and Peter Williams (eds.), Scribners, 1988.

Thomas Robbins, Ph.D.