The Characteristics of a Cult

Robert Lifton, in his book, ‘Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry’, lists the characteristics of a cult. There are eight:

  1. Milieu control
  2. Mystical manipulation
  3. The demand for purity
  4. The cult of confession
  5. The ‘sacred science’
  6. Loading the language
  7. Doctrine over person
  8. The dispensing of existence


1. Milieu Control

A cult leader, or guru, seeks to have complete control of their environment. They have a version of megalomania over the smallest and most dismal globes. Among the things the cult leader seeks control over is how cult members interface with the world outside of the cult: what gets out of the cult (expression is controlled, but this is presented as free speech) and what information gets in. In totalitarian environments, the leader seeks total control over the information that gets into the cult. The guru seeks to own the thoughts of the people under his or her influence; they seek a “psychological depth” in terms of the level of influence they have exert over members.[1]

And who or what creates or characterises the guru? They are likely to be either in their thirties or forties and have had a moment of personal revelation that has resulted in them being able to see the ‘truth’: that truth has given them an often spiritual or quasi-spiritual belief that they have found the path to helping others find their total salvation.

But, ultimately, the guru’s attempts to control the members of the cult always go wrong, always fail. No matter how much brainwashing occurs, no matter how much control is exerted over the information allowed to come into the milieu, there will be resentments inside the cult, and outside voices will penetrate on occasion. This undermines the cult leader’s claim to being in sole possession of ‘truth’, the ownership of all reality. The world outside of the cult is real; it exists. One cannot fully renounce a world on which one’s life is fully contingent, and the denial of the material truth of this will cause substantial cognitive dissonance amongst those subject to control that eventually becomes too much to bear.

This is the ‘hostility of suffocation’. The material world exists, and it contains more complexities in its versions of truth than are found in the cult. Throwing the slur at people who call out abuses as being nothing more than “detractors” cannot hide the fact there is a reality outside of the closed world. Ultimately, the dissonance is too much to bear. Any loss of control is fought by the guru, but the position the guru inhabits, in which the nuances of truth and of opinions outside of the cult are rejected, is too unstable and too obviously false to hold up. Ultimately, the claim to absolute truth is an absolute lie. Things fall apart. 

There is always a price to be paid for mangling the truth and for denying others a right to it: that price is the cult’s inevitable collapse as its members (rather too late) realise that their lives have been based on another person’s delusions. The lie only holds up for as long as people are prepared to live it as, ultimately, living a lie is living a lie, and living in the realm of appearance only remains possible as long as no one thinks to compare it to reality. The inauthentic can only hold up as long as no one can see the authentic. Humans have an innate predisposition to live in truth. 

2. Mystical Manipulation

People within the cult are manipulated. This manipulation, like the control it seeks to engender, is complete, and no technique is written off for being too nasty, too unpleasant, too violent (symbolically or otherwise). The intent of this manipulation is to control the thoughts, emotions and the behaviour of people within the cult, to control every element of the human, every facet of their being.

The guru (or other senior members of the cult) claim to have been imbued with some form of mystical calling; they further claim that they have come up with a new and entirely revolutionary way of seeing the world, a moral purpose that is spiritually and technically superior to anything that has gone before, and this purpose comes above any sense of normal morality nor any concern for the well-being of cult members.[2] This manipulation comes from an extreme form of idealism juxtaposed with an equally extreme cynicism. They are both radical and reactionary at the same time: radical in terms of wanting to destroy a perceived status quo and reactionary in that they want to return to structural approaches to the behaviour of humans that are ‘pre-modern’.

Under such pressure, cult members assume what Lifton describes as “the psychology of the pawn”[3] and make themselves as small as they can so as not to attract malicious attention. They become hyper-vigilant to any cues that suggest they might receive more manipulation, more punishment, more abuse. They go with the flow. They ride it out. They suffer in silence. Their compliance becomes neutral and timid.

3. The Demand for Purity

The purity here is of the ideological variety and it reduces things to a binary: the absolutely pure in-group, those in the cult, and the absolutely impure out-group, those in the denied material world outside it who inhabit a world where morality is complex and where perfection cannot exist in anything other than the abstract. Since the intentions of the cult are absolutely pure, then its morality is absolute too. Anything done in the name of the cult, is somehow morally perfect.

Those in the cult are subjected to a constant diet of shame (think of the public demerit here) and this is one of the many manipulation techniques the cult leaders employ to ensure obedience. Cult members are force-fed a diet of humiliation, and the basic human instinct to want to avoid such a thing forces the members, again, to shrink, to subjugate their natural fight or flight responses and to submit. This division of the world into good and evil, where the cult embodies absolute good and the outside its antithesis, means that the view of morality is so brutally unsophisticated that those who are considered to be not on the side of good can be subjected to abuse.

It is worth knowing that a desire for perfection and any understanding of the human condition cannot co-exist healthily or happily. Human beings are imperfect by nature. You cannot superimpose any desire for their perfection onto them without causing a great deal of pain.

4. The Cult of Confession

This continual prompting of guilt and shame leads cult members into displays of confession. The demand for moral perfection means that to err at any point from the cult’s rigid teachings leads members to feel such shame that they need a means of divesting themselves of that shame.

They must purify themselves by realigning to the cult’s teachings and admitting the error of their ways so that they might, once again, strive towards the ‘perfection’ the cult expects. An individual’s ideas or thoughts are made unimportant when compared to the teachings of the cult, which are perfect. Life becomes about performance, about avoiding shame, about acting in a manner that would not prompt such shame and an orgiastic display of personal confession is constructed as a key means of throwing the abusers off the scent.

5. The ‘Sacred Science’

Questioning the word, the holy dogma of the cult, is completely forbidden since the cult, and the cult alone, owns the ‘perfection’ of science. Precision is the cult’s possession. Members of the cult are the sole accurate processors of the world, and they even claim to own logic itself. Anyone who questions their moral absolutism is entirely written off as they have committed the cardinal sin of being ‘unscientific’. The cult possesses a perfect combination of perfect morality backed up by perfect logic. They are beyond criticism. Consequently, the realities of a world that isn’t totalitarian do not penetrate, and neither the cult members nor the cult leader have any real conception of the enormous damage that such solutions cause.

Totalitarian cults will use their claims to the ownership of science in propaganda materials, but all these claims are merely a surrogate for their aim: the science is merely an idol to worship that will aid them towards their ultimate goal, which is to transform the nature of mankind and, through this, obtain power. Once they have attained that power, then they, as an embodiment of that power, become the sole owners of truth.

As Lifton has pointed out, and as we have seen in my writing, “Within each framework of the sacred science, there is room for both careful step-by-step syllogism and sweeping, non-rational insights.”[4] Again, this ultimately crashes as, ultimately, it causes psychic and cognitive dissonance in the followers as the sacred science is far from perfect, and the perfection claimed does not match up to the more complex realities of the material world the ‘science’ denies.

6. Loading the Language

Lifton comes up with a delightful phrase when describing this. He writes that the cult specialises in the “thought-terminating cliche.”[5] (And isn’t that a beautiful thing?) And these impoverished certainties are used to deny individuals their rights to the perfectly reasonable human desire for personal expression; the slogans will even be used as blunt justifications for denying other humans any form of personal liberty. Language is manipulated and brutalised, but this is held to be fine: the absence of nuance in the language used is held as unimportant since it springs from possession of the ‘sacred science’. The language use of the cult is so deprived, so certain of itself, that it conveys little more to anyone with a marginally more nuanced understanding of the world than a total lack of any similar understanding, and the empty sloganeering is used as proof that everyone outside of the cult is wrong.

Lifton makes a phenomenal point here: he writes, and it lands with the weight of an exquisite epiphany, that, as language is so pivotal to the expression of the human experience, as its complexities and beauty are very much a mirror of one’s experience of life, then linguistic poverty diminishes one’s ability to articulate or understand the emotional realm and, therefore, the cult members’ abilities to articulate human pain as well as the guru’s abilities to empathise with that unexpressed pain. 

Language matters. Truth matters. Labelling your enemies as clueless, unscientific progressives when they are nothing of the sort; shouting the phrase ‘progressive trolls’ across social media in the hope that people who question your totalitarianism will stop questioning; coining empty slogans that appear to have a logic and a truth but, ultimately, are just so much verbiage wearing an unconvincing cloak of profundity is perverting language and therefore perverting truth.

Language matters. It is a defining characteristic of being human: we are (probably, and if one ignores cetaceans) the only species who speak. As Bruner puts it, “the structure of language and the structure of thought eventually become inexplicable,”[6] and you could argue that the greater our abilities with language (whatever the language, as no one language is better than any other), the better we are able to express, understand and appreciate our own humanity and that of others. That is not to say there are not exceptions and that there are people who use language exquisitely but fail to properly empathise with others, or that there are not people with limited language who behave with great kindness; however, we do mediate reality through language’s use, and our abilities with it affect our view of the world. Using it well, we can draw nuance, investigate complicated things with shades of meaning, communicate subtleties of emotion and its expression. 

Whenever violence is perpetrated on people, it is also inflicted on language. A totalitarian calls a spade a spade; a totalitarian tells it like it is; a totalitarian is uninterested in ambiguity or shades of meaning. Any profound lack of linguistic subtlety or skill can seem indicative of a concomitant lack of nuance and a lack of a proper depth of understanding of the emotional realm that students subject to its desire for total compliance would be forced to undergo. It is not for no reason that Orwell had one of Winston Smith’s colleagues given the task of writing a new dictionary in which newspeak is contained and words were destroyed so that bad became ungood and excellent plusgood. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”[7] How can we have failed to notice that reducing the polite and simple request, “could everybody put down their pens, please?” to the imperative “SLANT” is just such an Orwellian brutalisation of language?

Totalitarianism requires simple language to convey the deeply simplistic nature of its ideas. (Mussolini once claimed that the ideas behind fascism weren’t original, but that his success came from the fact that no one else had ever thought to express them in so simple a manner. Debased language is the tool of dictators.) A Michaela teacher references the school’s “decisive and attentive simplicity.”[8] Simplicity, when superimposed on the complexities of the linguistic realm and that of human emotions is dangerous. Viewing an infinitely complex relational art form as being at all simple is to fundamentally misunderstand it. Teaching is not simple. If it were, one wouldn’t get better at it over years of experience. Ultimately, this wing of the profession has not only simplified the complexity of teaching; they have trivialised it. They have removed what they regard as superfluous, and these superfluities include nuanced language, its expression, thought, empathy, freedom and children having any form of voice in their treatment.

Ian Cushing notes that ‘Teach Like a Champion’ requests that teachers enforce what he calls “remedial notions of linguistic ‘correctness’ as well as publicly stigmatising students for making ‘grammatical errors.’” Cushing further suggests that “despite Lemov’s claims that ‘correcting’ language serves to assist students in gaining entry to university, a sociolinguistic view would argue that it only serves to further entrench social and educational inequality, as well as pathologising and stigmatising non-standardised language.”[9] Students’ own cultural use of language is stigmatised in the ‘champion’ classroom; it is made into error and replaced with white person’s language which, like the white people’s tradition, is held to be superior to their own modes of expression. This is deculturalisation hiding beneath the mask of concern for human welfare: an attempt at the transformation of the habitus, of the nature, of black children through a version of identity theft.

Students in previous iterations of American charter schools were denied even their basic human right to speak, their right to articulate their pain, to tell their truth in the language owned and which someone had tried to steal or replace. This denial of language, this denial of the right to speak, has a history. Language matters. Culture matters. One’s language is the host of one’s culture, and to strip children of not only their right to speak but also of their right to speak their culture’s truth in their culture’s language is an act of the most profound and ignorant vandalism.

7. Doctrine Over Person

The evidence of human experience itself is denied in a cult. It is submerged beneath and held to be less important than the holy lore that is sacrosanct. Adherence to the dogma, the power of the organisation, the consistency of the ideology is the path to total salvation, and anything that occurred before the origination of that dogma is written off as the work of fools.

History becomes malleable, subject to being rewritten and truth itself is ascribed the same quality. ‘Ideas’ become more important than human life, and the human experience is written off as being completely unimportant if put up to comparison with the abstractions of a central idea that is simultaneously scientific and spiritual. An orthodoxy is enforced compulsorily, and no deviation from it is permitted. Humans are therefore animalised; human experiences within the cult are irrelevant; the perceived enemies of the cult’s dogma are also made into something not fully human – they are stereotyped into something resembling evil. One’s ability to resist and survive this dehumanisation depends chiefly on one thing: the strength of one’s own personal and cultural identity.

We have cause to be grateful here that the human mind is not infinitely malleable and that the brave people who started ‘Black at Uncommon’ and ‘The Uncommon Truth’ had such a strong, solid and secure cultural identity in the first place; that, despite the imposition of a twisted ideology, the students “stubbornly insisted on retaining their human features.”[10]The network, perhaps accidentally, sought to deculturalise them. It failed.


[1] Robert Jay Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (The New Press: New York, 2019) p69.

[2] Robert Jay Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (The New Press: New York, 2019) p72.

[3] Robert Jay Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (The New Press: New York, 2019) p72.

[4] Robert Jay Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (The New Press: New York, 2019) p78.

 [5] Robert Jay Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (The New Press: New York, 2019) p81.

[6] Jerome Bruner (1991), The Narrative Construction of Reality, Critical Enquiry 18, no.1 p5.

[7] George Orwell, 1984 – The Jura Edition (Polygon: Edinburgh, 2021) p63.

[8] Joe Kirby, Bootcamp Breaks Bad Habits in Birbalsingh, Katharine (ed), Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way (John Catt: Woodbridge, 2016) p83.

[9] Ian Cushing, Language, Discipline and ‘Teaching Like a Champion’, British Educational Research Journal 47/1 (Feb 2021) p??

[10] Hannah Arendt, Imperialism, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Random House UK: London 1966) p254.

Added Wed, 10 Jul 2024 09:24

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