Scientology’s Convenient Ethics of Honesty


With the premiere of the new documentary “Going Clear” by Alex Gibney (based in part on the book by Lawrence Wright) at Sundance, there has been an enormous increase in scientology presence in the media. In addition to releasing statements to the media, they have also spent large sums of money to take out full-page ads in the New York Times, USA Today, and elsewhere, to strike back against what they see as an attack: a new documentary about their organization which does not cast the “church” in a flattering light. I always find it fascinating, the vehemence with which the “church” of scientology lobs accusations of dishonesty and lack of integrity and openness against those who criticise them. Wright and Gibney have been labelled as unethical and sloppy and guilty of using “discredited” sources. They have been scolded about using “free speech as a pass” for publishing or broadcasting false information. This is, to say the least, and extremely ironic accusation coming from an organization with a policy that has all sorts of euphamisms for lying, when it is for the benefit of the COS: “acceptable truth”, “shore story”, “safepointing”, and sometimes “dead agenting” when the lies are intended to discredit someone who is deemed an enemy. All this while calling themselves “the most ethical people on the planet”. I prefer the description provided by Leslie Felperin in her review of Gibney’s docu on the Hollywood Reporter: “famously litigious, allegedly religious”. That is an apt description of an organization that has a very long history of litigation and harassment of reporters and media outlets that propagate negative information about scientology and it policies and practices. An organization that rejected the label of “religion” until it became useful to deflect the scrutiny of federal health officials and medical professionals. Tony Ortega, in a recent article, recalls that scientology took out a full-page advertisement to respond to the damning cover story in Time magazine in 1991, and that this was itself just an extension of the practices put in place long ago by founder L Ron Hubbard during scientology’s “golden era”, when he was confronted with criticism and scrutiny from the FDA and various reporters and others critics.

One thing that can certainly be said about scientology is that it imbues an, erm, shall we say unusual idea of ethics and what constitutes ethical behavior. For members of this cult, the concept of ethics is used as a lever and a cudgel. It is a lever for extorting money from members, by equating an unwillingness or inability to throw large sums of money at the various registrars and fundraisers with a degraded ethical state. In fact, the cult delineates a very specific, rigid, and easily manipulated code of ethical behavior that is impossible to fathom because it is nonsense. The cult also delineates very rigorous processes for restoring one’s ethical standing with the church — a series of steps labeled with letters that appear to be clear-cut criteria for redeeming oneself, but which actually function as constantly moving goalposts that are only deemed achieved at the discretion of those who enforce ethics “corrections” on members who have strayed. The concept of ethics as enforcement is an effective tool for control, when paired with a sufficiently vague and malleable definition of correct ethics. “Ethics” as defined by the cult of scientology, is this: “According to the Church of Scientology, “ethics may be defined as the actions an individual takes on himself to ensure his continued survival across the dynamics. It is a personal thing. When one is ethical, it is something he does himself by his own choice.” (Source) A crucial point is the idea that the individual takes these ethics actions “on himself”. It is voluntary, as a demonstration of one’s inherent sanity — sanity as it is defined by scientology, which asserts that only an insane person would refuse to have their ethics put in order so that they can be a better human being, on scientology’s terms.

It must also be said that this is a very slippery conceptualization of something that is so foundational to the practice of scientology, and in particular one’s ability to remain in “good standing” with the group, that they publicly declare themselves “the most ethical people on the planet”. Essentially, according to the above definition, ethical behavior is whatever behavior you yourself deem it to be in pursuit of your survival. There is an implicit expectation that your survival is in alignment with that of Ron and his “tech”, but that is beside the point when dealing with the outside world. That means that anything, any behavior, should be acceptable, and there should be no basis for labeling someone unethical that could not be refuted simply by asserting that it is pro-survival to do what they want to do. That is certainly how Ron justified whatever he did or bid his cult to do for him, for his protection and preservation. that was always the bottom line for him, but the concept of ethics is where the double standard in the cult is most apparent. What was ethical for Ron, what is ethical for COB David Miscavige and his cadre of stooges, or any other so called “big being”, is not ethical for you as staff, Sea Org, or a public member. The leader is ethical by definition, because he is the “ultimate terminal”, the final point of determination in scientology. You are not the source, and you are not a “big being” and so your ethical boundaries are far different than those proscribed for the Dear Leader.

This is even more so when dealing with those who are not members in good standing with the cult — wogs, and even worse, suppressives who have turned away from the tech created by Ron to save the planet. Scientologists may lie, deceive, and cheat; they may manipulate and distort, and they are entirely allowed to do so, because they are on the right side of the only ethical line that truly matters in any cult: in, or out. This boundary — being in good standing as a member of scientology, is the primary determinator of one’s ethical standing, and by definition, anyone who is not in is subject to a different set of ethical rules. Outsiders can be absolutely crucified for lying, or the suggestion of lying, by omission or commission, deliberately or by virtue of deception or ignorance. Thus, we have scientology’s response to those who publish or produce material that is critical of the cult, or that conveys unflattering information from former members, which they would discredit by labeling the information as lies. In recent months, that would be Lawrence Wright, who wrote a powerhouse book about the history and influence of scientology. And now, Alex Gibney, who has produced a documentary based on that book that premiered recently at the Sundance Film Festival, and has been picked up by HBO here in the US. In part the statement reads:
“Given those facts, the Church asked Mr. Gibney to share statements and allegations being made about it and its leadership so the Church could comment on their accuracy — or lack thereof — as well as provide evidence to support what it was saying. Mr. Gibney refused.
Mr. Gibney’s film has been in the works in secret for two years. He and HBO never bothered to tell the Church it was even being made until recently.” Source
The apparent indignation at Gibney’s refusal to let them know what his next film subject would be, and to seek their input and guidance the entire time, as if that would be normal practice for a documentarian in any situation, is charmingly naive and arrogant. The characterization of keeping something secret as something which can discredit a person and their work, is highly ironic coming from scientology, which has litigated extensively and intensively to protect their copyrighted tech and secret religious documents from public view.

At the time that Wright’s book was released, the COS released a series of statements regarding the sources used in the book, and Wright’s alleged unwillingness to talk to someone officially connected with the Church of Scientology. In fact, he was unwilling to submit his work to the approval of his subject, which is pretty much standard practice for a reputable and objective reporter. Yet scientology chose, through the statements issued by their spokesperson, to portray this as dishonest and unprofessional behavior by Lawrence Wright. The same behavior has applied to Alex Gibney, now that the premiere of his documentary is imminent. There is a predictable sameness to what they say in these situations. Their statements always contain shrill accusations of unethical behavior, and a slew of insults that call into question the professional qualifications and integrity of the journalist. Always, the accusation is that the reporter is engaging in dishonesty in order to promote their own agenda. But how exactly is this unethical, by scientology’s own definition of the concept? If a journalist wishes to bend or distort the facts in order to advance their own agenda, or even just to sell books, how is that wrong?

In fact, by their own lights, it is not wrong at all. They don’t actually believe the things they are saying about the journalist in question, they are simply following their own rules for ethical behavior. It is in their best interest to do whatever they can to discredit someone who is criticizing them or drawing attention to their more questionable and troublesome policies and practices. It is not about pursuit of the truth, or concern for the state of being of whomever they target as misinformed and ethically lacking. It is entirely about self-preservation. When you realize this, then it becomes clear that their statements are not to be taken seriously, except as evidence of their typical mode of “always attack, never defend”. In this regard, Alex Gibney hit exactly the right note in the statement he made to Tony Ortega, in response to a full-page ad that scientology took out in the NYT in order to declare his movie discredited: “What I find so fascinating, from having studied the church for more than two years, is how eerily predictable it is. It’s almost as though all the voices from the church were channeling the views of a single individual.” He did not take the accusations leveled at him, the criticisms of his methods, as worthy of refutation or response. Instead, he simply treated the entire thing as what it is, the intensely defensive reaction fo the leader of the cult to any threat to his money-making enterprise. The more that highly reputable journalists — Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, and Oscar and Emmy winner Alex Gibney, for example — take up this story and bring it the attention it deserves, the harder it will be for the cult to suppress information to make it easier to recruit new members and retain access to money from their current ones.

Expect the intensity of attacks by the COS against this film and its sources to intensify. A full-page ad in the New York Times, believe it or not, is only the beginning…

More information:
On why Scientology claimed to be a religion:
“L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology’s founder) claimed that Scientology was a religion because he saw the claim as a marketing device to make money and avoid taxes (Kent, 1997b: 25ff; Miller, 1987: 199-203, 220) as well as a way “to reduce the likelihood of governmental interventions against it for allegedly practising medicine without a license” (Kent, 1996: 30). Moreover, Scientology denies its reputedly religious nature if it is attempting to enter a country that might react adversely to religious proselytization (such as Japan or Greece [Kent, 1997a: 18-19]). Nevertheless, the historical reasons behind Scientology’s religious claims, as well as the organization’s selectivity in making the claims, do not diminish the probability that many Scientologists view their commitment as a religious one.”