I have a friend who has been sucked into a cult. I fretted and worried about the balance between his own happiness and the ridiculousness of the group – well, that and the growingly-exorbitant fees they require for him to reach Wizard-hood. I started to examine my own life – am i simply in a cult of academia?
For a week or two, i was pretty convinced that i’d stumbled into my own. Maybe we’re all in cults? Maybe all we are are our belief systems? our attachment to particular ways of being in the word? of thinking about the world?
But last night, i realized, there is a huge difference between a group / sect / client cult being led by a single charismatic leader who has a set of principles that are expected to be taken at face value and what we do. Academics spend their lives debating, reformulating, pushing through, undermining, and recreating themes and ideas. We are constantly at odds with one another, redefining to the minutest detail what each word means, what each frame of thinking is doing. Last night, i went chasing the territory bunny into the warren. The only thing geographers seem to be able to agree on is that it’s under-theorized (and if i read one more paper that begins with “territory(ialization) is under-theorized” – i think i might actually scream). But i digress.
This particular cult leader has, in the past (a cease and desist order has supposedly ended it) claimed to be a psychologist. He’s not. But his entire project is based on psychological adjustment. So i went hunting. I’ve done enough poking around on the group, itself but wanted to find a working definition of a cult. I came across this fantastic page:
What i am most interested in is the section on psychology’s definition – i blame it on all the Jung and Freud books growing up. But i think it gets most at this particular conundrum.
Studies of the psychological aspects of cults focus on the individual person, and factors relating to the choice to become involved as well as the subsequent effects on individuals. Under one view, an important factor is coercive persuasion which suppresses the ability of people to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest.
Studies of religious, political, and other cults have identified a number of key steps in this type of coercive persuasion:
- People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
- Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
- They receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader;
- They get a new identity based on the group;
- They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled.
In the past few months, i’ve heard, repeatedly (from my friend), that i’m too much in my head, that i need to get into my heart, that i can’t figure anything out by thinking about it. So, for six months, i’ve been hearing that my life’s work is a false road. Interesting. Maybe that’s why i started to think it is a cult?
But where are we, and what are we, if we are not thinking critically?
Interestingly, i found the texts for the higher level work – boy is he in for a surprise! Once you’ve shelled out several grand, you get to learn about aliens. And did i mention that it’s a pyramid scheme?
This is where i finally figured it out (shame, really – all that critical thinking and it took an economic moment to come to my senses). His argument for shelling out so much money and my distaste at it was, “Americans have such a hard time paying for their spirituality.” On line, i found arguments about it being a product, which, obviously is worth the money – it’s standard economics – if people didn’t want it or the product was bad, then people wouldn’t buy it.
But how can people know what they’re buying (#1)? And more importantly – it’s not that Americans don’t want to pay for their spirituality – in fact, the proliferation of these pyramid scheme cults in this country is proof enough that they are perfectly happy to buy their happiness. In fact, i’d wager that Americans are pleased to have spirituality and happiness commodified – it’s buying into the cult of capitalism. It is exactly that, a product – something tangible and buyable without too much work. Other arguments i’ve read and heard about exorbitant fees have been, “Well, it’s an energy exchange. This is how we exchange energy in this society.” Um…no. It’s a particular kind of exchange, but it doesn’t fit into the happy rubric of “energy” – it’s nothing so spiritual. It’s laziness. It’s not wanting to spend the time to critically analyze your life, your role in the world, and to actually do anything more than stroke your own ego for how wonderfully happy you’ve become.
I suppose we’re all simply at odds with each other in particular ways. We gravitate toward like-minded individuals and in our own ways, try to work through the details of this thing called living. Every once in a while, a student will complain that i am (or the professor is) too preachy or propagandist. But we only get them 10 weeks at a time. I have 10 weeks to open their minds to accept that their worldview is not the WorldView – that all we are is how we choose to think about the world and our place in it. So, maybe that’s it, then – leave and let be.
And, no. We’re not a cult.