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misunderstanding cults

Misunderstanding Scholars: A Review of, and a Footnote to, "Misunderstanding Cults"

by Massimo Introvigne

Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, edited by Ben Zablocki and Tom Robbins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), is the long-awaited result of a worthy attempt to call to genuine dialogue academic "anticultists" and "cult apologists" (with both sides, of course, objecting to such labels: I will use them in this review with a touch of irony), in the hope of finding a "moderate" middle ground. As the project went on (and some more sceptical scholars opted out of it), similar results were sought through the participation of cult critics to conferences organized by CESNUR and INFORM, and by "cult apologists" to conferences organized by the AFF.

What, exactly, has been achieved? Although no consensus has emerged on several crucial issues, there are some significant results making the difficult enterprise worth pursuing. The book proves that scholars of different persuasions may indeed have a dialogue, in itself no mean achievement, even if some on both sides are still suspicious of the other side’s motivations (with Ben Beit-Hallahmi’s tirade against "collaborationism" as perhaps the most egregious example of this continued mistrust). A second important result is that almost everybody agrees that triangulation is methodologically important: if one is inclined to interview members first, he or she should also interview disgruntled ex-members, and vice versa (although one contributor, Stephen Kent, insists that in groups such as Scientology members are under such a high pressure to tell scholars only what the organization likes, that it is neither useful nor ethically appropriate to interview them; I personally disagree). Readers of both Janja Lalich’s and Susan Palmer’s chapters would probably be persuaded that the latter does normally practice what the former recommends. All authors, on both sides, recognize that movements do try to control scholars (with Julius Rubin’s chapter on the Bruderhof being a case in point), and that strategies are available to escape this control. All (or almost all) agree that funding by new religious movements, anti-cult organizations, or governments is not always unacceptable but should be disclosed, although a problem emerges when scholars claiming that their work has not been funded by any of the above sources are not believed by those on the other side.

Beyond these procedural achievements, there is also substantial progress made on the controversial issue of brainwashing. Although exchanges on this point (between Ben Zablocki and Dick Anthony - David Bromley, and between Stephen Kent and Lorne Dawson) show that many issues are still bitterly fought, two important areas of consensus emerge. The first is that the "crude" brainwashing theory usually connected with the name and court activities of Margaret Singer (but by no means restricted to her work), is rejected not only by "cult apologists" but by participating "anticultists" as well. Zablocki calls Singer’s theory of brainwashing "a distortion of the foundational concept" (p. 168); both Zablocki and Kent insist that brainwashing theories are of little use in order to explain how "cults" recruit new members (Singer’s key point), although they maintain that they are still useful explanations of how they keep members within the fold. Secondly, both critics and apologists of brainwashing/mind control theories acknowledge that the work on thought reform and coercive persuasion of Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar Schein deserves serious considerations and should not be dismissed by lumping it together with cheap anticult propaganda. Whether the word "brainwashing" should be used remains a matter of dispute (both Lifton and Schein ultimately recommended not to use it), but building on these two points a much more meaningful discussion on persuasion in religious movements (and elsewhere) may perhaps continue. Readers will also realize that neither camp is monolithic: Kent and Zablocki, for instance, differs on how they evaluate the current European anticult crusades (Zablocki being much more critical of them), and Anthony’s and Bromley’s rejections of the brainwashing theories are, in turn, not identical.

Because of these results, the book is important and the bravery of its editors should be praised. Non-specialized readers should, of course, realize that whilst the book tries to give equal time to the two sides, this is not the prevailing situation in the academia, where critics of the anticult position still enjoy a comfortable majority in NRM studies (a fact both acknowledged and lamented by Zablocki and Beit-Hallahmi). Unfortunately, sloppy or non-specialized proofreading by the publisher does not match the quality of the papers: for instance, the Mormon city of Nauvoo is consistently misspelled "Nuavoo" throughout Jeff Kaplan’s otherwise very informative chapter.

Some more technical criticism is, in my opinion, in order on the brainwashing chapters. One problem is that Lifton and Schein are consistently quoted together, as if they were (with all due respect) the Laurel & Hardy of early thought reform studies. This is by no means the case. Borrowing David Bromley’s astute comment in his chapter that we do not have a word for the "good brainwashing" (i.e. thought reform processes used for socially accepted purposes, such as reforming difficult jail inmates), I would say that Lifton, for his own political and philosophical reasons, doubts that "good" thought reform exists (although it does distinguish between legal and illegal uses of such techniques), whilst Schein concludes his book Coercive Persuasion with a paragraph suggesting that there are both "good" and "bad" uses of coercive persuasion and that we normally distinguished them on the basis of their content. Schein’s 1993 autobiographical essay "The Academic as Artist" may have been usefully quoted in this respect: after Coercive Persuasion, what Schein mostly did for a living (and still does) was to teach large corporations how to subject their employees to what Bromley would perhaps call "good brainwashing". More generally, Schein was sceptical from the very beginning (and Lifton started harbouring doubts at least in his Aum Shinri-kyo book and in later papers) about the possibility of identifying unacceptable coercive persuasion or thought reform on the basis of process only, without also looking at what ideology is actually promulgated through each persuasion process.

Finally, a footnote on CESNUR and my own research. Positive references to what we do are gratefully acknowledged (the more so when they come from the "other" side). As for criticism, there is only one point I would like to return to. Ben Zablocki regards as "shameful" the fact that I (and Gordon Melton) "by playing fast and loose with terminology attempt to parlay a rejection of a committee report [the DIMPAC report, rejected by the American Psychological Association’s BSERP in 1987] into a rejection of the brainwashing concept by the American Psychological Association" (p. 168). "Shameful" is a somewhat strong word in a book about dialogue, although in a footnote Zablocki adds that I can perhaps be excused because I am after all "a European attorney"[1], and he "applauds Introvigne’s efforts to protect the fragile tree of religious freedom of choice" in certain European countries where religious liberty is threatened (p. 205). I, in turn, applaud Ben’s applause (realizing that it puts him at odds with others on "his" side), but this is not the point. About what the APA exactly did when it rejected the DIMPAC report there are two bitterly partisan opposed narratives, but Bromley’s "two cities" are not divided here as one may expect them to be. In fact, the division is (and has always been) between those who have access to a number of crucial documents on the incident (either because they were part of it or for other reasons), and those who did read only some of the documents, but not all. Crucial documents include, together with the APA’s BSERP Memorandum of May 11, 1987: (a) its relevant enclosures (where reviewers offer their criticism of the DIMPAC report); (b) the DIMPAC report itself; and (c) Margaret Singer’s version of the whole story as reflected on the lengthy writ of summons she filed against APA and several scholars on organizations on January 31, 1994. Before 1998, most of those commenting on the controversy obviously did not know these three documents. Because of complicate legal reasons, after 1998 almost all of them became accessible (through, inter alia, the CESNUR Web site and a file accessible to the public in Turin’s CESNUR library, the latter including Singer’s 1994 summons in its entirety). When one looks at the documents, one realizes that the camp of those arguing that in 1987 the APA rejected the brainwashing theory as it was commonly used against "cults" at that time includes, together with myself, Gordon Melton and Dick Anthony, at least Margaret Singer herself. Firstly, in her 1994 summons, she tried (unsuccessfully) to recover damages from the APA for what Singer defined APA’s malicious "rejection of the scientific validity of the theory of coercive persuasion" (Summons of January 31, 1994, n. 110, p. 31: she mentions rejection of a theory, not of a report only). Secondly, the comment of the reviewers enclosed with the 1987 Memorandum clearly referred to the theory as it was commonly used against "cults" at that time in general. One of the reviewers was Ben Beit-Hallahmi, a contributor to Misunderstanding Cults (and hardly a "cult apologist" himself). In his review, dated February 18, 1987, he asked: "What exactly are deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control? I don’t think that psychologists know much about techniques of persuasion and control, either direct or indirect, either deceptive or honest. We just don’t know, and we should admit it". Beit-Hallahmi’s verdict was clear: "The term ‘brainwashing’ is not a recognized theoretical concept, and is just a sensationalist ‘explanation’ more suitable to ‘cultists’ and revival preachers. It should not be used by psychologists, since it does not explain anything". Note that Beit-Hallahmi here is discussing "the term ‘brainwashing’" in general, and his remarks do not seem to be confined to its use in the report. Perhaps because I am an attorney, it seems quite obvious to me that when a documents (such as the 1987 Memorandum) calls its readers’ attention to its enclosures, the document should be interpreted taking the enclosures into account. Thirdly, and most importantly, I would urge anybody interested in this controversy to read in parallel both the DIMPAC report and relevant texts of the brainwashing controversy circa 1985-1987. The reader would easily conclude that the DIMPAC report faithfully represented the brainwashing anticult theory as it was used in the 1980s by the old CAN, activists associated with the AFF (Michael Langone, according to Singer, was the DIMPAC committee member who materially drafted the report), Singer herself, and the attorneys representing clients against "cults" in court cases. In short, the DIMPAC report did represent the anticult (or "cult awareness") consensus of the 1980s. Accordingly, the "rejection of a committee report" was indeed the rejection of the brainwashing anticult consensus as it existed at that time (additionally, a key enclosure of the rejection document rejected the term "brainwashing" as well).

I believed that the public availability of the original documents did put the issue to rest, and am surprised to learn that this is not the case. Obviously, Zablocki is right if he means that the rejection of the DIMPAC report was not a rejection of the Lifton and Schein theories about thought reform, but "we" never claimed otherwise (quite to the contrary, the fact that anticultists in the 1980s, and later, misinterpreted Lifton and Schein has always been an important part of "our" side’s argument, and still is). He also verges on the obvious if he argues that different theories of "brainwashing" (by any other name) may be advanced, that were unknown in the 1980s and thus were not rejected together with the DIMPAC report. Personally (and perhaps unlike other scholars on "our" side), I do believe that Zablocki’s own theory of brainwashing is significantly different in many respects from Singer’s. Claiming that DIMPAC’s content was a "distortion" of the "real" theory of brainwashing is a respectable (and, thanks to Zablocki’s own efforts, well-known) position in 2001; it would have been simply not understandable in 1987, when the DIMPAC theory of brainwashing was the anticult theory of brainwashing as scholars, anticultists, courts and the media knew it. Perhaps the only useful point in returning to this controversy is to reiterate, once again, that we all now regard this theory as unacceptable.

[1] In fact, I devote roughly half of my time to my activity as an attorney. My specialized field is intellectual property (not civil rights), and my typical clients are corporations in the fields of fashions and consumer electronics rather than religious movements. I devote the other half of my time to scholarly activities on behalf of CESNUR. Last year, the Italian Association of Sociology (AIS), group "Religions", voted to receive me as a member. Unlike, say, the ASA or the ASR, AIS does not have an open membership, and members should in principle be academics engaged in full-time teaching of Sociology (obviously, this is not my case). By-laws, however, provide that AIS’ subgroups may accept members who are not engaged in teaching Sociology because of their "outstanding contributions to the field", based on a majority vote (this, by the way, does not happen very often). I was asked by the relevant AIS subgroup to submit an application on this basis, and the association voted unanimously to accept my membership. [back]

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