Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cults: Why They're Bad, and How to Get in One

In Catholic school, we often had the same teacher for Social Studies one year and Religion the next. Therefore, it was either World History with Mr. Beazley, or Religion with Sister Maryann, or the other way around, but at some point my colleagues and I were faced with the definition of "cult." It may have been this, but I remember it more as:

cult (n.)
1. Begins by creating a sense of exclusivity through a complex and/or grueling initiation procedure.
2. Celebrates rites, symbols, and rituals that unite the members but seem foreign or even frightening to outsiders.
3. Imposes its own special meaning on major and minor life events, such as birth, death, eating, sex, and so on.
4. Expects members to display small trinkets, charms, stickers, tatoos, or hand-gestures employing cult symbolism to communicate wordlessly with others.
5. Centered around a special text, manifesto, or creed from which they recite or chant at gatherings.

Our question at the time was, how is this different from the Catholic Church? Is it only size that matters here?

First, a bit of disclaimer: We use the word "cult" with relative abandon these days, but there are some very upsetting real world examples. The oft-used expression "drink the Kool-Aid" refers to these guys, and the ATF is a bit tainted for people of a certain age (i.e. my age) because of this. The cults we'll be talking about here share characteristics with these other more serious manifestations, but I'm in no way suggesting that they're the same. Part of the coarsening of rhetoric in our time is due to the fact that we've turned nazi, socialist, and murderer into prefixes and suffixes of far too many normal terms like feminist, environmental, and ax.

Exclusivity is often an important ingredient in cults. This can be generated through any number of initiation procedures, which may include: a limited pool of open spots, having initiates take a test on specific knowledge of the organization, and/or swearing of an oath of allegiance (forsaking all others)--heck, just to become an American citizen you need to do all of that. In the arts, it usually also involves an audition. My wife talks about the fact that her high school band front--we called it that in the 80s, I know it's "guard" now--had tryouts. Rarely, if ever, was anyone cut, but the very process of auditions produced a sense of unit cohesion. I'm reminded of the Groucho Marks quote: "I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

Sometimes, though not always, initiation practices descend into hazing. Sometimes initiation processes themselves can be considered hazing. Either way, this is where the real horrors begin. Recently, the reaction to the tragic death of drum major Robert Champion was probably for many people, "What? Hazing? In BAND?"

The simple answer is, yes. Obviously, it's not usually fatal, but hazing is often a part of bands and lots of other organizations that experience success, in part, by developing unity among members. The fact that bands in some schools are more popular and powerful than the football teams they "support" means that they can be responsible for much of the same cruelty that we often associate with athletes--particularly athletes in violent sports. For an excellent and much more informed rant on this sort of thing, see Frank Deford's take on hazing here.

The worst part is when this hazing is not only ignored by the institution, but perpetuated by it. In a way, all forms of elder privilege contribute to the problem. Every time a member of an organization looks forward to a day when he no longer must _______ , or she finally can _______ , or he can make the incoming people ________, just for getting older and more senior in the group, the cycle repeats itself. Hazing may officially be the act of the members of the organization, but it always the fault of the leaders of it. Through things done or left undone, those at the very top are what keep it going.

You may not think you participate in hazing, but you do. Something like 20% or 54% of the Federal budget, depending on who you ask (see also: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics), goes to military spending. This means that you contribute to the largest, most efficient, and most official hazing organization in the world. The United States Armed Forces.

I have a special perspective on this, because I came remarkably close to becoming a Marine. The short version of the story is that I went in for the whole college-is-far-too-expensive-to-be-worth-it thing, and was convinced that I was going to play in the Commandant's Own Drum and Bugle Corps. Through the recruiting process, I learned military's theory of boot camp. The idea is that the best method of building self-esteem is to first destroy whatever you've started with, so that you are a clean slate for their own United States Armed Forces version of it. Your brain and spirit are stored on a hard drive, and step one is to reformat it.

Some version of this is at work in lots of initiation and hazing theory. The idea that you can and should break someone down so that you have a clean slate to start fresh permeates most cults, and therefore most of society. We even call it brainwashing.

Why, then, would anyone want to be in a cult? The answer may be that having people around who are officially on your side is very attractive. I know with fraternities, one of the selling points was that if you ever meet Keith Lockart, or Burl Ives, or Andrew Carnegie, or Mister Rogers wouldn't it be nice to have something in common with them? Going through some moderate discomfort is certainly worth it to have a whole network of people who will always be there to get your back.

This is certainly easier when members of your cult readily identify themselves. It's probably the reason for all of the symbols and handshakes and pins and stickers and all of it. We all know the symbols of most of the world's major religions:

And even some of the minor ones:

But, if Dan Brown has taught us anything, it's really these guys that we need to be concerned about:

or maybe:

Organizations that may be normal in most schools may be cults in yours. This may or may not be a bad thing, but it is certainly worth considering if all you're really after is a bit of exercise, or a chance to play the tuba. Look for:
  1. Inside jokes--Do they often exchange knowing looks, followed by spontaneous laughter at seemingly innocuous things?
  2. A common language--Do members seem to have their own terminology for things, and their own way of talking secretively while in the midst of others?
  3. Secrecy--Do members start sentences, and then decline to finish them? Related side-note: I took a pledge to keep secret quite a number of things for my fraternity, but I've forgotten what they were. Forgetting the secrets is fine--it actually makes them much easier to keep, however, in some cases I remember things that I'm not sure whether I must keep secret or not.
  4. Loyalty--not always a problem in itself, but if you get death stares from making a simple joke or comment, well, you know.
  5. Hierarchy--the more clearly defined the strata of initiates, full members, and various layers of leadership, the more people in the organization care about ascending to the next level. It can also lead to power struggles and abuses.
Cults may not be entirely bad, but they can very easily become so. A sports team, a club, or a musical ensemble has a specific function, but these other aspects operate on kind of a shadow level. Sometimes the secrecy and the hierarchy and the hazing and so on overtake the stated purpose of the organization and can dwarf its official purpose. It is possible for tremendous efficiency to be found in building on a tradition, providing a useful shortcut to excellence. Also, when members police their own, passing on work-ethic, procedural elegance, and functionality it can save time and effort. However, when the way the organization runs and the way the power structure works become much more than a means to an end, you may have yourself, well, a cult.


  1. Well done. You date yourself a bit, though, in that three of your four sample Sinfonians are dead. If you do meet one, I'm hoping for Keith Lockhart.

  2. Thanks!
    I guess I do date myself. Gives new meaning to "Once a Sinfonian, always a Sinfonian..."