Does scientology deserve the label, “cult”?
Words have power. This is a truism that has become a cliche, and like any overused concept, its precise meaning has gotten lost in the vast set of circumstances to which it has been applied throughout time by various people with various agendas and degrees of credibility. However, it remains at the core none the less true and none the less important to consider. Particularly in an information war such as the one waged by me and other watchers and critics of scientology. I have done a lot of reading and commenting on the subject, and in doing so it is impossible to avoid the ongoing debate concerning the word “cult” and whether it is accurately and appropriately applied to the “church” of scientology. Some authors and reporters try to sidestep the whole issue in one way or another, in particular because it is easy to get bogged down in arguments about the word, its proper definition, and even who might be properly considered the most reliable authority on the subject as a whole. Some people have very strong opinions on the subject, and are not satisfied until they have imposed their opinion on everyone who might have any interest in the matter. In the archives of various message boards and comment threads on stories about scientology, folks have offered many detailed, fully-formed arguments iterating the various criteria that qualify a group as a cult, or invoking the authority of one author or academic or other, who should then be accepted as the final word on what language to use, where, when, and how. These arguments are pointless, and serve to divert attention from what is really important in talking about scientology — the harmful effects of the abuses committed under the aegis of that group.
Think of a “skull & crossbones”, the traditional label for poisons. When we come across such a label, we do not stop to wonder whether it is fairly applied to the material in question. There are many different categories and classes of poisons, with different actions and effects and means of delivery, but we do not quibble with placing them all under the umbrella of “poison”. Here is a Definition of the word (from Merriam-Webster):
1a : a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures, or impairs an organism
1b (1) : something destructive or harmful (2) : an object of aversion or abhorrence
Any substance that meets this basic definition can be labeled a poison. We will place a simple mark – a skull and crossbones – to let others know that this substance can be harmful. One knows enough to avoid contact with it until one better understands how and why it can be harmful. Then a judgement can be made about the use and efficacy of the substance versus the risk entailed, and appropriate measures to be taken in engaging with the poison.
A similar, simple concept is useful in dealing with cults. The criteria used to define poison — “usually kills, injures, or impairs” — is focused on the effect, not the cause or the theoretical framework. Not the specific chemical structure or means of delivery or physiological harm caused. Poison is anything that usually causes harm. Even a normally harmless substance, such as water, can have a poison dosage. That is the correct language to use: too much water is poison. A fact established by its impact, not by any debate about whether water deserves or qualifies for that term. We do not argue about whether or not poison is a “fair” label, because it is a pragmatic concept. It is defined by its observable harmful impact. I am suggesting a similar approach to cults. When speaking about groups such as the COS and whether they are cults, a similarly concise understanding of the term is helpful. I will offer one here to clarify discussion.
For my purposes,this is a workable definition of the word, “cult”:
-A human group system — family, church, wellness community, commune, military unit, etc — that through its social function usually harms, impairs, or kills.
-Something destructive or harmful
-an object of aversion or abhorrence.
-Something to stay away from
-Something to think of as undesirable
As a watcher and someone who has served as a “first-responder” to cult victims, my stake in this issue is a pragmatic one. To help people leave such groups, to help heal the damage done to people by such groups, and to help educate people to avoid such groups in the first place. I have found that in such work, the word “cult” is a powerful tool, just as the word “poison” would be in other circumstances. I think it is very important to err on the side of the pragmatic in this matter. Besides being a distraction for watchers and critics, the fact that there are arguments among critics about whether or not the COS is a cult has been enough to cause some folks to linger longer than they otherwise would in that abusive, exploitative environment. Members of the COS certainly need the balancing influence of a contrasting point of view to the one they are fed within the cult. If there is a consistent message from critics that scientology is a dangerous cult, and needs to be known as such for safety purposes, that is enough to give a push to anyone on the edge of waking up, in my opinion. I am not suggesting that simply using that word will change anyone’s mind, or that it should. My perspective is that folks need to be encouraged to trust their own experience. If eating something usually makes you throw up or damages your health, it’s probably poisonous, at least for you. Stop eating it, and don’t let others eat it, until you better understand what you are dealing with. Same goes for cults and their victims. When confronting the fact that their chosen “religion” is doing them more harm than good, it can be a profound help to introduce the idea, “it’s probably a cult.” Ideological debates and crusades are all very fascinating, but I will leave them to the academics, the crusaders, and their critics. My intention in offering a definitive statement about using the word “cult” in regards to scientology, is just to clarify the language I use here, for the benefit of my readers; and to offer some food for thought to those who wrestle with this issue.
I think avoiding the arguments about right usage is a good call, but I don’t think that requires that we not use the word “cult” at all, or that we avoid coming to some kind of conclusion about the appropriate use of the word. As I said, this is an information war — the entirety of the effort against the ongoing damage done by scientology hinges on freedom of information. The worst acts of the COS have always been committed under cover of secrecy, and often in an effort to control or suppress some kind of information that was unflattering to them or somehow undermined their moneymaking goals. This is a description applies all the way back to the earliest days of Dianetics. L Ron Hubbard often declared people — including his son — suppressive who had potentially damaging information that they could not be trusted to keep out of the hands of his loyal followers. Anything that revealed the true nature of his money-grabbing scam, or that was unflattering to him and thereby undermined his ability to manipulate, was to be suppressed by any means necessary. Avoiding a “flap”, and preventing the dissemination of any “out PR”, this is the language used. All for the sake of protecting the one thing that could save this insane planet from itself — the “tech” — so any means necessary are justified. This imperative has remained a core motivation in the COS throughout it’s history. It developed a reputation for scorched-earth litigation tactics — not, in the main, against those who tried to take their money or their membership, but against those who attempted to offer a critique or objective examination of the “church” and it’s materials. As a result, there was a long period when news organizations, journalists, and their legal advisors went in fear of the COS’s lawyers, and did not report anything about them at all. All that was ever heard about the COS were some fluff pieces about their pet celebrities and how much they credited their religion for their success. The COS did not have to sue, or even threaten to sue, because the reputation was enough that most legal counsel would of course err on the side of caution and advise avoiding the subject altogether.
This is exactly the sort of scenario that L Ron envisioned as a result of his policies about handling critics. It worked so well, for so long, with minimal effort or expense and excellent results for the COS. Throughout the media, most folks were unwilling to even entertain the idea of writing about this bizarre “religion”, because of the implied threat in their litigious reputation. Those who did write about it were regarded as on the fringe, and no mainstream outlet would publish their work. There is a lot of this sort of “thought-stopping” in and around the cult, and it is not just among its members. I have observed that critics sometimes seem to shy away from certain terminology, concepts, and even punctuation because it carries some scientology-related baggage for them. I think that this is an unfortunate and generally unanticipated effect of working so close to the subject of cults, and often engaging with people who are coming from a cult mindset. The simple fact is, Ron stole everything that he used to make dianetics and scientology, and ceding any intellectual proprietorship to him is misguided. Even the wacky, invented terminology of the “tech” often appropriated words with already established meaning and usage, and tied them forever to Ron’s madness. This calls for reclamation of that stuff, not surrender. On that note, I would leave you with the suggestion that language is best regarded as a tool to be used, not a territory to be battled over. In the campaign against scientology, arguing over the word “cult” distracts from the fact that it is an invaluable warning signal for anyone who might be attracted by its PR lies and false fronts.
It must be said, over and over and over: scientology is a destructive cult, and ruins lives every day. Stay away from the cult of scientology.