Coming Out of the Cults By Margaret Singer

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Coming Out of the Cults By Margaret Singer

Unread post by David McCarthy » Sun Feb 16, 2014 2:59 am

Coming Out of the Cults

Psychology Today, January 1979
By Margaret Thaler Singer

Clinical research has identified specific cult-related emotional problems with which ex-members must cope during their reentry into society. Among them: indecisiveness, uncritical passivity--and fear of the cult itself.
The recent upsurge of cults in the United States began in the late 60s and became a highly visible social phenomenon by the mid-70s. Many thousands of young adults--some say two to three million--have had vary ing contacts with such groups, frequently leaving home, school, job, and spouses and children to follow one or another of the most variegated array of gurus, messiahs, and Pied Pipers to appear in a single generation. By now, a number of adherents have left such groups, for a variety of reasons, and as they try to reestablish their lives in the mainstream of society, they are having a number of special -- and I believe cult-related -- psychological problems that say a good deal about what experience in some of these groups can be like.
The term "cult" is always one of individual judgment. It has been variously applied to groups involved in beliefs and practices just off the beat of traditional religions; to groups making exploratory excursions into non-Western philosophical practices; and to groups involving intense relationships between followers and a powerful idea or leader. The people have studied, however, come from groups in the last, narrow band of the spectrum: groups such as the Children of G{od, the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Krishna Consciousness movement, the Divine Light Mission, and the Church of Scientology. I have not had occasion to meet with members of the People's Temple founded by the late Reverend Jim Jones, who prac ticed what he preached about being prepared to commit murder and suicide, if necessary, in defense of the faith.
Over the past two years, about 100 persons have taken part in discussion groups that I have organized with my fellow psychologist, Jesse Miller of the University of California, Berke ley. The young people who have taken part are generally from middle- and upper-middle-class families, aver age 23 years of age, and usually have two or more years of college. Though a few followed some of the smaller evangelical leaders or commune movements, most belonged to a half- dozen of the largest, most highly structured, and best known of the groups.
Our sessions are devoted to discussion and education: we neither engage in the intense badgering reportedly carried on by some much-publicized "deprogrammers," nor do we provide group psychotherapy. We expected to learn from the participants in the groups, and to relieve some of their distress by offering a setting for mutual support. We also hoped to help by explaining something of what we know about the processes the members had been exposed to, and particularly what is known of the mechanisms for behavior change that seem to have affected the capacity of ex-cultists to adjust to life after cultism. My own background includes the study of coercive per suasion, the techniques of so-called "brain-washing"; Dr. Miller is interested in trance-induction methods.

It might be argued that the various cult groups bear resemblances to certain fervent sectors of long-established and respected religious traditions, as well as to utopian communities of the past. Clearly, the groups are far from uniform, and what goes on in one may or may not go on in another. Still, when in the course of research on young adults and their families over the last four years, I interviewed nearly 300 people who were in or who had come out of such cults, I was struck by similarities in their accounts. For example, the groups' recruitment and indoctrination procedures seemed to involve highly sophisticated techniques for inducing behavioral change.
I also came to understand the need of many ex-cult members for help in adjusting to life on the outside.
According to their own reports, many participants joined these religious cults during periods of depression and confusion, when they had a sense that life was meaningless. The cult had promised--and for many had provided--a solution to the distress of the developmental crises that are frequent at this age. Cults supply ready-made friendships and ready made decisions about careers, dating, sex, and marriage, and they outline a clear "meaning of life." In return, they may demand total obedience to cult commands.
The cults these people belonged to maintain intense allegiance through the arguments of their ideology, and through social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to condition ing techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships, and devalue reasoning. Adherents and ex-members describe constant exhortation and training to arrive at exalted spiritual states, altered consciousness, and automatic submission to directives; there are long hours of prayer, chanting, or meditation (in one Zen sect, 21 hours on 21 consecutive days several times a year), and lengthy repetitive lectures day and night.
The exclusion of family and other outside contacts, rigid moral judgments of the unconverted outside world, and restriction of sexual behavior are all geared to increasing followers' commitment to the goals of the group and in some cases to its powerful leader. Some former cult members were happy during their membership, gratified to submerge their troubled selves into a selfless whole. Converted to the ideals of the group, they welcomed the indoctrination procedures that bound them closer to it and gradually eliminated any conflicting ties or information.
Gradually, however, some of the members of our groups grew disillusioned with cult life, found them selves incapable of submitting to the cult's demands, or grew bitter about discrepancies they perceived between cult words and practices. Several of these people had left on their own or with the help of family or friends who had gotten word of their restlessness and picked them up at their request from locations outside cult headquarters. Some 75 percent of the people attending our discussion groups, however, had left the cults not entirely on their own volition but through legal conservatorships, a temporary power of supervision that courts in California and several other states grant to the family of an adult. The grounds for granting such power are in flux (see box on page 81 ), but under such orders, a person can be temporarily removed from a cult. Some cults resist strenuously, some times moving members out of state; others acquiesce.
Many members of our groups tell us they were grateful for the intervention and had been hoping for rescue. These people say that they had felt themselves powerless to carry out their desire to leave because of psychological and social pressures from companions and officials inside. They often speak of a combination of guilt over defecting and fear of the cult's retaliation -- excommunication -- if they tried. In addition, they were uncertain over how they would manage in the outside world that they had for so long held in contempt.
Most of our group members had seen deprogrammers as they left their sects, as part of their families' effort to reorient them. But none in our groups cited experiences of the counterbrainwashing sort that some accounts of deprogramming have de scribed and that the cults had warned them to be ready for. (Several ex members of one group reported they had been instructed in a method for slashing their wrists safely, to evade pressure by "satanic" deprogrammers -- an instruction that alerted them to the possibility that the cult's declarations of love might have some not-so-loving aspects.)
Instead, our group members said they met young ex-cultists like them selves, who described their own disaffection, provided political and economic information they had been unaware of about cult activities, and described the behavioral effects to be expected from the practices they had undergone. Meanwhile, elective or not, the days away from the cult atmosphere gave the former members a chance to think, rest, and see friends -- and to collect perspective on their feelings. Some persons return to cult life after the period at home, but many more elect to try to remake life on the outside.
Leaving any restricted community can pose problems -- leaving the Army for civilian life is hard, too, of course. In addition, it is often argued that people who join cults are troubled to begin with, and that the problems we see in postcult treatment are only those they postponed by conversion and adherence. In a recent study by psychiatrist Marc Galanter of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and several colleagues, some 39 percent of one cult's members reported that they had had "serious emotional problems" before their conversion (6 percent had been hospitalized for it) and 23 percent cited a serious drug problem in their past. But some residues that some of these cults leave in many ex-members seem special: slippage into dissociated states, severe incapacity to make decisions, and related extreme suggestibility derive, I believe, from the effects of specific behavior-condition ing practices on some especially susceptible persons.
Most ex-cultists we have seen struggle at one time or another with some or all of the following difficulties and problems. Not all the former cultists have all of these problems, nor do most have them in severe and extended form. But almost all my in formants report that it takes them anywhere from six to 18 months to get their lives functioning again at a level commensurate with their histories and talents.
DEPRESSION. With their 24-hour regime of ritual, work, worship, and community, the cults provide members with tasks and purpose. When members leave, a sense of meaninglessness often reappears. They must also deal with family and personal is sues left unresolved at the time of conversion.
But former members have a variety of new losses to contend with. Ex- cultists in our groups often speak of their regret for the lost years during which they wandered off the main paths of everyday life; they regret being out of step and behind their peers in career and life pursuits. They feel a loss of innocence and self esteem if they come to believe that they were used, or that they wrongly surrendered their autonomy.
LONELINESS. Leaving a cult also means leaving many friends, a brotherhood with common interests, and the intimacy of sharing a very significant experience. It means having to look for new friends in an uncomprehending or suspicious world.
Many of our informants had been struggling with issues of sexuality, dating, and marriage before they joined the cult, and most cults reduce such struggles by restricting sexual contacts and pairings, ostensibly to keep the members targeted on doing the "work of the master." Even marriages, if permitted, are subject to cult rules. Having sexuality highly con trolled makes friendships especially safe for certain people: rules that permit only brotherly and sisterly love can take a heavy burden off a conflicted young adult.
On leaving the cult, some people respond by trying to make up for lost time in binges of dating, drinking, and sexual adventures. These often produce overwhelming guilt and shame when former members contrast the cult's prohibitions to their new free dom. Said Valerie, a 26-year-old former teacher, "When I first came out, I went with any guy that seemed interested in me -- bikers, bums -- I was even dating a drug-dealer until I crashed his car on the freeway. I was never like that before."
Others simply panic and avoid dating altogether. One man remarked, "I had been pretty active sexually before I joined. Now it's as if I'd never had those experiences, because I'm more inhibited than I was in junior high. I feel sexually guilty if I even think of asking a girl out. They really impressed me that sex was wrong." In at least one case, the rules restricting sexuality seem to have contributed to highly charged interpersonal manipulations. Ruth said she was often chastised by Mary, a prestigious cult member, for "showing lustful thoughts toward the brothers." Mary would have me lie on my face on the floor. She would lie on top of me and massage me to drive Satan out. Soon, she'd begin accusing ME of being a lesbian." Needless to say, anyone who had been through experiences of the sort described would be likely to have sexual conflicts to work out.

End of part 1 of 2
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Re: Coming Out of the Cults By Margaret Singer

Unread post by David McCarthy » Sun Feb 16, 2014 3:03 am

Coming Out of the Cults part 2 of 2

As I suggested above, returnees often want to talk to people about positive aspects of the cult experience. Yet they commonly feel that others refuse to hear anything but the negative aspects, even in our groups. Apart from the pleasure of commitment and the simplicity of life in the old regime, they generally want to discuss a few warm friendships, or even romances, and the sense that group living taught them to connect more openly and warmly to other people than they could before their cult days. As one man exclaimed, "How can I get across the greatest thing -- that I no longer fear rejection the way I used to? While I was in the Church, and selling on the street, I was rejected by thousands of people I approached, and I learned to take it. Before I went in, I was terrified that anyone would reject me in any way!"
Conditioned by the cults' condemnation of the beliefs and conduct of outsiders, ex-members tend to remain hypercritical of much of the ordinary behavior of humans. This makes reentry still harder. When parents, friends, or therapists try to convince them to be less rigid in their attitudes, they tend to see such as evidence of casual moral relativism.
THE AGONIES OF EXPLAINING. Why one joined is difficult to tell anyone who is unfamiliar with cults. One has to describe the subtleties and power of the recruitment procedures, and how one was persuaded and indoctrinated. Most difficult of all is to try to explain why a person is unable simply to walk away from a cult, for that en- tails being able to give a long and sophisticated explanation of social and psychological coercion, influence, and control procedures.
"People just can't understand what the group puts into your mind," one ex-cultist said. "How they play on your guilts and needs. Psychological pressure is much heavier than a locked door. You can bust a locked door down in terror or anger, but chains that are mental are real hard to break. The heaviest thing I've ever done is leaving the group, breaking those real heavy bonds on my mind."
GUILT. According to our informants, significant parts of cult activity are based on deception, particularly fund-raising and recruitment. The dishonesty is rationalized as being for the greater good of the cult or the per son recruited. One girl said she had censored mail from and to new recruits, kept phone calls from them, lied to their parents saying she didn't know where they were when they phoned or appeared, and deceived donors on the street when she was fund-raising. "There is something in side me that wants to survive more than anything, that wants to live, wants to give, wants to be honest," she noted. "And I wasn't honest when I was in the group. How could they have gotten me to believe it was right to do that? I never really thought it was right, but they kept saying it was okay because there was so little time left to save the world." As they take up their personal consciences again, many ex-members feel great remorse over the lies they have told, and they frequently worry over how to right the wrongs they did.
PERPLEXITIES ABOUT ALTRUISM. Many of these people want to find ways to put their altruism and energy back to work without becoming a pawn in another manipulative group. Some fear they have become "groupies" who are defenseless against getting entangled in a controlling organization. Yet, they also feel a need for affiliations. They wonder how they can properly select among the myriad contending organizations -- social, religious, philanthropic, service-oriented, psychological -- and remain their own boss. The group consensus on this tends to advise caution about joining any new "uplift" group, and to suggest instead purely social, work, or school-related activities.
MONEY. An additional issue is the cult members' curious experience with money: many cult members raise more per day fund-raising on the streets than they will ever be able to earn a day on any job. Most cults assign members daily quotas to fill of $100 to $150. Especially skillful and dedicated solicitors say they can bring in as much as $1,500 day after day. In one of our groups one person claimed to have raised $30,000 in a month selling flowers, and another to have raised $69,000 in nine months; one testified in court to raising a quarter of a million dollars selling flowers and candy and begging over a three-year period.
ELITE NO MORE. "They get you to believing that they alone know how to save the world," recalled one member. "You think you are in the vanguard of history . . . . You have been called out of the anonymous masses to assist the messiah . . . . As the chosen, you are above the law . . . . They have arrived at the humbling and exalting conclusion that they are more valuable to God, to history, and to the future than other people are." Clearly one of the more poignant comedowns of postgroup life is the end of feeling a chosen person, a member of an elite.
It appears from our work that if they hope to help, therapists -- and friends and family -- need to have at least some knowledge of the content of a particular cult's program in order to grasp what the ex-member is trying to describe. A capacity to explain certain behavioral reconstruction techniques is also important. One ex-member saw a therapist for two sessions but left because the therapist "reacted as if I were making it up, or crazy, he couldn't tell which. But I was just telling it like it was in The Family."
Many therapists try to bypass the content of the experience in order to focus on long-term personality attributes. But unless he or she knows something of the events of the experience that prey on the former cultist's mind, we believe, the therapist is unable to open up discussion or even understand what is happening. Looking at the experience in general ways, he may think the young person has undergone a spontaneous religious conversion and may fail to be aware of the sophisticated, high-pressure recruitment tactics and intense influence procedures the cults use to attract and keep members. He may mistakenly see all the ex-cultist's behavior as manifestations of long-standing psychopathology.
Many ex-cult members fear they will never recover their full functioning. Learning from the group that most of those affected eventually come to feel fully competent and independent is most encouraging for them. Their experiences might well be taken into account by people considering allying themselves with such groups in the future.
Margaret Thaler Singer is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has testified as expert witness in court on behalf of parents trying to remove their children from cults. She holds a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Award and has received numerous research awards. She has also served as president of the American Psychosomatic Society, as a senior psychologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and as an advisory editor for professional journals
Margaret Singer - Wikipedia
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Re: Coming Out of the Cults By Margaret Singer

Unread post by joe sz » Tue Apr 15, 2014 6:16 pm

M Singer's points are referenced in this new article By Stella Morabito
April 15, 2014: ... f-america/

Exactly forty years ago Patricia Hearst stunned the nation when she turned up as a bank robber, a mere two months after she was kidnapped by the violent cult that called itself “The Symbionese Liberation Army.” Her astonishing transformation was documented by bank cameras on April 15, 1974.

There she was — granddaughter of William Randolph “Citizen Kane” Hearst — wielding a sawed-off assault rifle and terrorizing people in a bank. She had recently announced in a taped SLA communique that she had voluntarily joined the SLA in its fight against the “fascist” United States. She took the nom de guerre “Tania,” in honor of a Che Guevara comrade. Before all that, she was just living the life of a 19-year-old college student, looking forward to getting married.

We ought to take this moment to reflect on how little Americans really understand about the processes and techniques of brainwashing, also known as coercive persuasion or manipulative thought reform, and how they may relate to us today.

Criminal or Victim of Brainwashing?

While I followed the case in real time, I naturally wondered how much Patty Hearst had really changed her attitude and lifestyle. I was in awe of the Hearst legacy, having just watched Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a required “lab” assignment for my Cinema class at the University of Southern California.

Possibly, I supposed, after Hearst lived the insulated life of a rich girl, and then as a student at UC Berkeley, the SLA may have awakened her to some hard facts about income inequality, racism, and so forth. Maybe she felt guilty and wanted to make reparations by being a part of a revolution? Rebellious youth? It didn’t really add up, but I mulled this over as a young and diehard liberal is wont to do.

And then I watched in awe footage of a horrendous firefight after the SLA was tracked down at a house in south central Los Angeles, just a couple of miles from where I lived at USC. It was one of the biggest shootouts in police history, with about 9000 rounds exchanged by LAPD and the frenzied, armed-to-the-teeth SLA members inside the house, which by the end was engulfed in flames. Miraculously, no police or bystanders were hurt in the crossfire, though all six suspects inside died.

It turned out Patty Hearst wasn’t there. But, in spite of it all, she stuck with the SLA remnant, communicating her determination to continue fighting, and lived as a fugitive for 16 more months until her arrest in September 1975. After arrest, she publicly acted with defiance, calling out support to all of her “brothers and sisters” in the “revolution” and listed her occupation as “urban guerrilla.”

Hearst describes in her book how her attorney, the renowned F. Lee Bailey, sloppily handled a defense based on brainwashing. The jury didn’t buy it, and neither did many Americans. Hearst was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison, a sentence soon reduced to seven years. According a California poll, 75 percent believed the sentence was “about right” or “too lenient.” I personally had some mixed feelings, but the brainwashing defense resonated with me. In any case, her sentence was commuted to two years by President Carter in 1978. And President Bill Clinton pardoned Hearst just before he left office in 2001.

The Fundamental Transformation of Patty Hearst

So that’s what it looked like to an impressionable, politically unseasoned contemporary. But what was going on in the background?

Hearst’s 1983 book Every Secret Thing describes the kidnapping and the aftermath in meticulous, ghastly detail. Hearst also granted a fascinating interview with Larry King in 2002.

For several weeks, she was blindfolded, confined to a smelly closet, tormented, periodically raped, and subjected to a coarse Maoist style program of indoctrination and re-education. Her life depended on anticipating and meeting the demands of her captors. The leader Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze and the others propagandized and interrogated her constantly, explaining that “Amerikkka” was a racist and evil society, repeatedly calling her a privileged “bourgeoise bitch” and her father a “pig” of the “corporate fascist state.” But then her captors would let up a bit, offering food or tea—then continue more intensely with cruelty and degradation.

This cycle—isolation, threats, and humiliation, punctuated by a little peace (reward) for compliance—broke down Hearst’s sense of self. As she later told Larry King, “Most of the time I was with them, my mind was going through doing exactly what I was supposed to do… I had no freewill.”

The SLA members stimulated in her an overwhelming sense of dependency, which induced her finally to accept their version of reality, and put her past life out of her mind. Hearst eventually became such a reliable convert that she not only robbed banks with them, but did not consider escaping later, when she had many opportunities to do so.

Many view the Patty Hearst case as a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome because of similarities between her bonds with the SLA and those of hostages who, just the year before in Stockholm, had sympathized with the bank robbers who held them, even defending their captors after they were released. Battered person syndrome is another explanation. A victim of domestic violence may stay in a relationship and take blame for the abuse, and then enter into a cycle of “learned helplessness” in which escape is not considered an option.

Hearst told Larry King: “The thought of escaping from them later simply never entered my mind. I had become convinced that there was no possibility of escape… It simply never occurred to me.”

Nor did she realize during the process that she was being so decisively manipulated. King asked her: “A brain-washed person doesn’t know from time element when they’re being brainwashed, do they?” Hearst responded: “No. No they don’t. … I was so far gone I had no clue how bad it was.”

After her arrest, Hearst spent time with two psychiatrists widely known for their expertise on cults: Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer and Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. After just a couple of weeks of separation from the SLA, Hearst became free of what Lifton referred to as the accumulated “gunk” of thought reform, and recovered her self concept. She told King: “I had no freewill until I was separated from them for about two weeks. And then it suddenly began to dawn that they just weren’t there anymore. I could actually think my own thoughts.”

The Transformation of America?

You’d think the American public would be interested in learning a thing or two about how coercive persuasion works. In fact, you don’t need to be locked in a closet with a gun to your head to be vulnerable to coercive persuasion. Being isolated, dependent, and indoctrinated will suffice.

So is it possible something even bigger is in the making? Other nations in history have seen overnight “transformations” in character. Why not us? In fact, can we be transformed en masse so that we all conform to more “beneficial” ways of living our lives, ways that are in accordance with those who dub themselves “choice architects?”

Behavior modification has in fact gone mainstream, even though its tactics often seem a well-kept secret. Last year, the White House launched a “behavioral insights team” assigned with the task of “improving policies” through insights into human behavior. These insights into our behavior, please note, are not for us to understand for our own benefit, but for the government to use for us, as it sees fit.

We take as a given that political persuasion is part of public life. But likewise we take as a given that deliberate government manipulation of the populace using the techniques of unwitting or coercive persuasion represents a grave threat to our freedoms. If we wish to reduce our susceptibility to coercive influence, we must begin by understanding its processes and techniques.

Key Features of Coercive Persuasion

In her 1995 book Cults in our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer (d. 2003) explores in detail the methods and processes of coercive persuasion. These methods are used not just by cult leaders, but by anyone who manipulates the behavior of others in order to promote a hidden agenda, often involving the consolidation of power. (By the way, some very telling experiments that reveal the vulnerability of our minds to manipulation and social influence include those of Stanley Milgram, now labelled controversial, and Solomon Asch.)

According to Singer, the tactics of a thought reform program are organized to do three things: destabilize a person’s sense of self; get the person to alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality; and develop dependency in the person, turning him into a deployable agent for the controller or the agenda.

Singer also lists six conditions that create an atmosphere conducive to coercive persuasion:

•Keep the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person and their thoughts
•Control time and physical environment
•Create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency
•Suppress old behavior and attitudes
•Instill new behavior and attitudes
•Put forth a closed system of logic.

The atmosphere of coercion is reinforced by peer-modeled behavior. Basically, this means that in a room full of people who whisper, you will likely whisper too. Or if you are exposed to a slogan often enough, you will repeat it, even if you don’t understand what it means.

Another feature of coercive persuasion, according to Robert Jay Lifton, is to promote a climate in which the agenda is seen as an elitist movement for those who are enlightened. Those who oppose the agenda are labeled as lesser beings.

The universal human fear and pain of social isolation stands at the core of these methods. Consider that the SLA members did not just physically separate Patty Hearst from her friends and family. They made a point of mentally and emotionally separating her as well, by repeatedly labelling them as “bourgeoise” and “fascist.” In her mind, the only human bond possible was with her captors.

Political Correctness is Coercive Persuasion (or “PC=CP”)

The frightening realization is that these techniques work on mass audiences as well.

We can see hints in the phenomenon we call “political correctness,” because it directs people to censor their speech and their behavior in order to line up behind politically correct agendas. In a sense, political correctness, though more subtle, is analogous to the dark closet in which Patty Hearst was isolated, blindfolded, and incessantly propagandized. It serves to silence us and create the conditions in which the arbiters of correctness can tear down the old world view and rebuild it in their image. We’re told being one of them is to be morally superior, on the right side of history. Those who oppose it are labeled, repeatedly and loudly: bigot, racist, homophobe.

A sophisticated model of coercive persuasion is illustrated in Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. It explains how to use peer pressure and information access in order to influence others into adopting an agenda. Nudge serves simultaneously as a playbook for manipulators and an indoctrination manual for not-so-savvy recruits to the book’s power-centralizing agendas. Cass Sunstein also outlined a model for “collective belief formation” –describing how implausible opinions can be manufactured through a system of social/reputational punishments and rewards – in a 1999 Stanford Law Review article about Availability Cascades. His co-author Timur Kuran, wrote a whole book about how “preference falsification” works.

When we’re in a vulnerable state of isolation and subject to degradation, the brain’s defenses kick in, even if we sense we’re being manipulated. Self-doubts, rejection, and degradation cultivate the yearning for even the illusion of human acceptance. So when Larry King asked Patty Hearst if any of the SLA members were “likable,” she responded that being “treated well” usually means you “weren’t killed.” Translation for everyday life in a PC world: Being treated well usually means you’re not being socially shunned.

When a captive of political correctness feels that there is no way out, quite often the only way to make it stop is to bond with the captors and try to fit in.

“The Psychotechnology of Thought Reform is Not Going to Go Away”

The seismic and manufactured public opinion “shift” on same sex marriage in the past several of years is a glaring example of how coercive persuasion works. As people become increasingly fearful of expressing a heretofore innocuous understanding of marriage as a man-woman institution, they silence themselves and thereby fuel the opposing agenda. The threat of isolation – labeling, shunning, and firings – is a powerful motivator because human survival is tied to it. For Exhibit A, see this article on one Eich, Brendan, of Mozilla.

If we step back and take this all in, there should be no question that coercive persuasion can happen on a mass scale in America. Those pushing the agenda first cultivate a climate that creates social punishment for dissent and social rewards for compliance. Label anyone who disagrees as a bigot or a “hater,” a non-person. Reward those who agree with public accolades. Before you know it, even well-known old conservative pundits who fear becoming irrelevant sign on to it, and thus contribute to the juggernaut.

In Cults in our Midst, Singer warned that cult techniques “should be studied and revealed so that citizens can be taught countermeasures in order to avoid being exploited by such groups.” She also cautioned: “The psychotechnology of thought reform is not going to go away… Education, information and vigilance are constantly needed if we are to keep us, and our minds, free.”

Are we doing that? Hardly. In fact, it seems we may be using education and information to help keep our minds closed. Consider Common Core curriculum, which actually enforces conformity in education. (Maybe it should be dubbed “Common Cult?”) Speech codes on college campuses squash independent thought.

As for information, the media in general has its agenda, as does Hollywood and academia. You’re not going to get objective information about the processes and techniques of brainwashing from them. Marketing in general has become ever more sophisticated, with ever more subtle forms of exploitative seduction.

Academia has even suppressed the whole idea of brainwashing as politically incorrect. Singer was appointed by the American Psychological Association to head up a task force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). But a funny thing happened on the way to approval. In 1987 the APA unexpectedly rejected the very DIMPAC report they requested. They urged it not be made public and criticized use of the term “brainwashing” as “not a recognized theoretical concept.”

And what about vigilance? Well, without education and information, vigilance can’t root itself. Unfortunately, that means if you ask for information about brainwashing, chances are you’ll be told to kindly remove your tinfoil hat.

The Key to Freedom: Education and Information by Individuals

So the road ahead will be rough. But the forces controlling centralized education and information still do not control our one-on-one personal relationships and conversations. This is where our power lies, in what dissidents of the Soviet era called the “hidden sphere.” And that is the key to building a culture of awareness and rebuilding civil society.

The irony of remaining silent about our beliefs when we are being abused is that we actually dig our own hole deeper. Every dissenter feels alone, perhaps even in a roomful of dissenters. Every fence sitter resigns himself to signing on with the perceived “majority.” And those who identify with the PC agenda become ever more hardened and intolerant of dissent. An interesting aside is that partnering with one person can have a huge effect in breaking down social conformity, as the Asch experiment noted: “When unanimity is punctured, the group’s power is greatly reduced.”

While in jail, Patty Hearst requested books by Doris Lessing, a Marxist leaning feminist icon, who ended up later becoming a champion of personal freedom.

Lessing said it this way:

“We can stand in a room full of dear friends, knowing that nine-tenths of them, if the pack demands it, will become our enemies… But there is always the minority who do not, and it seems to me that our future, the future of everybody, depends on this minority. And that we should be thinking of ways to educate our children to strengthen this minority and not, as we mostly do now, to revere the pack… But if governments, if cultures, don’t encourage their production, then individuals and groups can and should.”

How do we begin to do this? Perhaps the answer is very simple. Maybe it’s really all about reaching out and building happy personal relationships without expecting anything in return. Maybe it’s about letting others in your personal sphere — work, school, or neighborhood – know what you believe, especially those who like you and trust you. We each have the power to make more friends and reach out beyond our insulated circles to build real communities based on real trust (not fake communities built on self-censorship). We could get to know our neighbors, share some good laughs, and openly exchange ideas.

By doing these things each individual breaches the walls of isolation built by power brokers, and cultivates a cascade of trust, goodwill, and civility for all.

Stella Morabito can be followed on Twitter here. She blogs at

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