Evil cults

(written 11/10/03) This is going to be a rant. It’s not a reasoned discussion, it’s not an unbiased look at the facts, it’s pretty much just a rant. Go with it.

It started with a friend of a friend trying to drag people to a Landmark Forum event, raving about how it had changed their life. I was skeptical, to say the least. Landmark Forum, according to skepdic, is an offshoot of est, which is itself an offshoot of Scientology. I didn’t end up going to the event, because it conflicted with another obligation, but I did a little reading and thinking, and I’m mostly just recording that here.

Here’s what I don’t get. Why do people believe in crap like this? As far as I can tell, most of these cults (from Jesus Christ onwards) have one message: “You’re a good person. You are valued. Keep on paying us, and we’ll continue to value you.” I can understand the need for validation, and for external approval. I crave it myself. But I don’t understand why people think that such validation that comes with a price tag is worth anything. I only hope I never get that desperate.

It’s a weird thing. Many of these programs, apparently including Landmark Forum, strive to break down the participants in order to build them back up. Things like refusing bathroom breaks, holding the meetings at odd hours (Landmark Forum meetings are typically at 10pm, I assume to take advantage of people being tired and slightly disoriented, and therefore more impressionable), sleep deprivation, and repetition of the core message. When you’re broken down, then they can build you back up, and you’ll forever be dependent on them.

But, as my friend pointed out, even skepdic admits that sometimes these programs help people. And that doesn’t surprise me. After all, the placebo effect helps people about 30-50% of the time even when dealing with actual physical diseases. And I can even see how these programs could help people deal with their life better, providing a crutch to help them get on with their life.

The evil part is that, instead of teaching them to walk first with the crutch and then on their own two feet, they teach them to walk with the crutch, teach them to be dependent on the crutch, and then threaten to take the crutch away unless they pay up. That’s pure unadulterated evil. I have a strong belief in the right of people to attempt to achieve their potential, and deliberately crippling people with a mental crutch like that flies in the face of all that I hold dear. Teaching people to believe in themselves is valuable. Teaching people that they hold their destiny in their own hands is wonderful. Teaching people that to achieve their destiny, they must attend the advanced course is pure poppycock.

The other thing that I thought was interesting was that this friend of a friend apparently made a comment to the effect of “I really got to reinvent myself” at a Landmark Forum event over the weekend. My immediate thought was “So is ‘reinventing myself’ code for ‘making myself feel better about myself’?” I’m skeptical that one can “reinvent” oneself in the sense of making measurable alterations in one’s behavior over the course of a weekend. One’s behavior is so locked in by nature and nurture that changing anything fundamental about yourself is really really hard. Learning to accept one’s limitations and working within one’s behavior patterns is one thing. Changing them is another. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to change what I don’t like about myself, and have learned there’s no shortcuts. There’s no easy path. It’s long, it’s hard, it’s miserable, and sometimes it’s just not worth it, and you have to just accept the way you are.

I can definitely see the appeal of somebody offering a shortcut. I’d love to become instantaneously more sociable and more comfortable around people. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s the equivalent of dieting. Dieting, in the end, is about eating right and exercising. There’s no shortcuts. But that doesn’t stop people from trying every fad diet that comes along, and paying for the right, to the tune of $40-100 billion a year in the US. I see these programs like Landmark Forum to be the mental equivalent of the diet industry. They’re there to give you a temporary boost, which is doomed to fail in the long term, so that they can get you to pay more money for another go-round. And the real solution is free and available – it’s just hard work.

Anyway. I think I’ve said what I want to say for the moment. I’m sure I’ll come back to this subject over the next few days.