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What Is A Cult?
There's a lot of misunderstandings about what a "cult" really is, which are not helped by the fact that the term is often used inaccurately. Some use the term too broadly, to apply to any intense religious group whose ideology they disagree with. Others use it too narrowly, to refer only to extreme cases like Heaven's Gate or Lev Tahor.
In fact, there is a very specific set of criteria by which to define cults. But unfortunately, cults are sometimes extremely good at concealing their true nature. Here, then, is a list of twenty characteristics by which to identify cults, which I compiled from a wide range of online resources. Not every cult will check off every criterion in this list, but they will check off most of them.
1. The Charismatic Leader
The key ingredient in the creation of a cult is a highly charismatic leader. Such a person is usually brilliant, charming, and has a commanding presence. He may possess all kinds of genuine talents and accomplishments, and is certainly talented at motivating people. He might even start out with noble goals. But if he possesses delusional, egomaniacal, narcissistic and/or sociopathic tendencies, then he can end up creating a cult.
2. Adulation of Leader
With a cult, the leader of the group is not merely respected. He is revered, adulated, and near-idolized.
3. Infallibility of Leader
The leader creates a group which will regard his ideology and practices as the absolute Truth. He is never considered to be seriously wrong. He might have made mistakes in the past, but he is never considered to be making them now.
4. Exclusivity of Truth/Salvation
The leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation. Nobody else and no other process of discovery and no other group, not even a similar one, is acceptable. This also means that the group is elitist, believing that its leader and itself possess an exalted status.
5. Absolute Commitment
The group is zealous in requiring absolute and unquestioning commitment.
6. Polarized Mentality
The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality. There is constant negation and/or condemnation of outsiders.
7. Suppression of Criticism
Dissent and doubt or even questions about the leader and the correctness of the mission are discouraged or even punished.
8. Psychological/ Emotional Manipulation
The leadership teaches varies ideas and induces feelings of extreme shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Sometimes this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. In other cases, mind-altering practices (such as chanting, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader.
9. Negation of Members
The educational (if it can be called that) technique is to break the students down so that they can be recreated as mindless followers. Sometimes this is explicitly taught as the ideal - for a student to be "mevatel" themself to the leader.
10. Dangling Validation Out Of Reach
Privileges are accorded to a Chosen Few who are part of an elite Inner Circle. Followers are often made to feel that they are not yet (or ever) "good enough."
11. Control of Members
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should act, think and feel. This includes major life decisions, such as what to do with one's life, who to marry, and where to live.
12. Replacing Members' Interests with Cult Interests
The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interests, but which are in the best interests of the group and its leader. This is where much of the long-term damage is done.
13. Exploitation of Members
The group exploits its members to further the cult's interests. This can take different forms. Sometimes it can be financial. In other cases, members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
14. Ends Justifying Means
The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered inappropriate or unethical before joining the group.
15. Isolation from Others
The cult programming requires the removal of other sources of influence. Anyone apart from the leader who teaches in the cult are themselves graduates of the cult. Members are encouraged to live and/or socialize only with other group members. Efforts are made to isolate members from any external relationships which are influencing them against the cults' interests - including their families, previous schools, other rabbis.
16. Concealment of Nature, Mission and Practices
The true nature of the group, its mission and its techniques and practices are carefully concealed from outsiders and new recruits.
17. Preoccupation with Recruitment
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. (Doing so necessarily involves a level of concealment of the mission and its practices, as above.)
18. Pressure against Leaving
The group rarely, if ever, lets its members believe that there is a legitimate reason to leave, and immense pressure and psychological/ emotional brutality is inflicted upon those who consider doing so. Former members who left are condemned. Remaining members are conditioned to believe there is no other way to be, and subconsciously fear severe consequences to themselves or others if they leave, or if they even consider leaving.
19. Commonality of Accounts of Former Members
Former members often relate similar stories of abuse and grievances. They are psychologically and emotionally scarred. (These are a separate class of victims from those who are still stuck in the cult, compromising their own interests in favor of the cult's interests.)
20. Lack of Accountability
There are no checks or balances upon the leader's actions. He is not accountable to any authorities. Nor would he listen to anyone criticizing him.
As you can see, while religious groups may match some of these criteria, they certainly don't match most of them. On the other hand, an institution can match this definition without any overtly bizarre behavior that would identify it as a cult. It can be a group or institution or yeshiva which conceals the true nature of its operation. Following what I wrote about in previous posts, I will be giving examples.
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