After I left the Church of Scientology, the question that people asked most often was “Why did you put up with it?” People would hear stories of the abuse, the degradation, the sleep deprivation, the slave-level wages, the control, and wonder why anyone would put up with it.
Recent stories about abusive “reg cycles,” blatant extortion, threats, invasions of people’s privacy, family disconnections and so on prompt the same question: Why do people put up with such insanity? Why did we put up with it?
It was a question that plagued me for years after I left Scientology. I consider myself an intelligent person, a rational person. I don’t consider that I am easily pushed around or manipulated. So why had I gone along with such insanity? Why had I agreed to be treated that way? And that prompted my own study of the subject of what we might call “mental manipulation.”
I deliberately avoid the term “brainwashing.” It’s an inaccurate and emotionally charged word. People associate it with duress and torture – pain, drugs, and hypnosis. As a Scientologist, I knew that no one had tortured me, hypnotized me or given me drugs, so the idea that I had been “brainwashed” was ridiculous to me. I also avoid the term “mind control” for similar reasons. People get pictures of staggering zombies with their eyes rolled back in their heads.
But there are ways to manipulate people. There are ways that we are manipulated. And it’s important to know how.
I’ve used the term “cognitive dissonance” before – defined as an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. George Orwell, in his novel 1984, called it “doublethink.” The guy who invented the term cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger, broke it down into three factors: behavior, thought, and emotion. His theory was that if you could control or change any one of these factors, the person would tend to change the other factors to minimize the amount of dissonance they experience.
To give an example, the Church tells public that they cannot watch the Anderson Cooper 360 series on Scientology. This is behavior control. A Scientologist might experience some cognitive dissonance – after all, what is a church doing telling people what they can and cannot watch on TV? So the Scientologist rationalizes it (changes his thought) by saying “Well, they must have a reason for it,” or “It would probably ruin my case if I watched it.” They might also change their emotions to fit the behavior change – feeling hatred for Anderson Cooper as an “enemy” or feeling guilt if they considered watching the program.
If a group can control all of these factors, it can manipulate its members – for example, if they can prevent people from watching the TV program (control behavior), convince them it will ruin their case (control thought) and feel guilt if they contemplate watching it (control emotion), then they have established near-total control.
Steven Hassan, in his study of cults, added a fourth factor, information.
Let’s see how this breaks down with the Church of Scientology:
Behavior Control: Of course, in the Sea Org, behavior control is almost total. Members are on a strict, minute-by-minute schedule. They sleep and eat when they are told to. They wear what they are told (a uniform). If they are told they cannot sleep, they don’t. They have to get permission to talk to family, go to the store, or take any time off. They follow detailed orders and are subject to punishments and discipline if they deviate from approved orders and programs. Every minute of their life is controlled.
But these days, even public Scientologists are on a pretty tight leash, particularly those at the top of the Bridge. They show up when they are called, donate when they are told to, do what they are told – or face ethics “interviews” and Sec Checks. They are told who they can be friends with, if they can contact their family or not, and what they can and cannot watch on TV. As Mary Jo noted in her KR, they are expected to reveal their complete finances, their connections, their intimate relationships – or else.
Thought Control: As Orwell said in his novel 1984, “mind control” isn’t really someone else controlling your thoughts, it’s you learning to control your own thoughts according to the group’s ideology. In a cult-like group, that ideology is composed of black and white, good and evil, “them” and “us.” Members are expected to filter their thoughts and attitudes through this ideological framework. If information comes from the group leadership, for instance, it’s always true and good. If it comes from those designated as “enemies,” it’s always false and bad.
Having enemies is vital. The enemy can be invented or exaggerated, but an enemy has to exist. The group has to believe they are in a “war.” That then justifies extraordinary sacrifices, excessive donations, and even criminal acts, all in the name of “winning the war.”
In a cultish group, the leader is always right and may not be criticized or challenged. The doctrine or beliefs are always right and may not be criticized or even discussed. Any problems or failures are assumed to be the fault of the individual member. The member soon learns to blame himself or herself for any failure. This is true, by the way, of all cults.
LRH never said, by the way, “If I tell you something, then it is true until the end of time and may never, never be questioned or challenged.” In fact, he said the opposite: “If it is true for you, it’s true. And if it’s not true for you, it still isn’t true. Not even if Ron told you is it true. It’s just not true, that’s all” (from the lecture Differences Between Scientology & Other Philosophies). But in the current Church, no questioning of LRH is allowed. And certainly no questioning of Miscavige is allowed.
Independent thought or discussion is discouraged in any totalist group. All of the answers are to be found in the group’s doctrine. You have a question? Read more doctrine. You have a doubt? Read more doctrine. Looking outside the doctrine is forbidden. Questioning or challenging the doctrine is considered treasonous.
Members of a cult-like group are trained to block out any information that is critical of the group, the leader, or the doctrine. If information is perceived by a member as critical, a hostile wall goes up. Anyone attempting to present critical information is perceived as “part of the enemy camp” and is shunned or even personally attacked.
Emotional Control: The emotions most often used to manipulate others are guilt, shame, and fear. These are used as levers to get members to conform and to do what they are told.
Part of creating fear is having a powerful enemy who is out to destroy the group. Where would the IAS be if they couldn’t throw Scientologists into fear about the “psychs,” Anonymous, the “SPs,” and so on? Fear is used to get donations, to get people to devote more and more time and effort to the group.
Members are taught that their own feelings, their own needs, are unimportant and selfish, and that the needs of the group and the leader are paramount. They are never permitted to criticize the leader, but are encouraged to blame themselves, to feel shame and guilt for not doing more, contributing more.
Confession, of course, is a powerful tool. As we know, when a Scientologist confesses anything in session, that information can and is used for manipulation. If they step out of line, the information can be used to shame and control them.
Members are also trained to fear the world outside the group. They are taught that they will be alone and defenseless in the face of unspeakable evils and depravity – drugs, crime, violence.
Information Control: Controlling what information members have access to is key to maintaining control in a cult-like group. Flag, for instance, recently briefed public that they were forbidden to read the St. Petersburg Times articles on Scientology or watch the AC 360 program on CNN. Anyone exposing themselves to this information was routed to Ethics.
But Scientologists are trained to censor their own information flow. If they run across information they perceive as critical of their leader or the Church, they’ll shut it off. They’ll refuse to read it. They will stay off of “enemy sites” or “natter boards” so they won’t be exposed to “entheta.” They are taught to shun members who are speaking out. They are taught to “unfriend” people who are critical of the Church. And they are taught to spy on each other and report anyone seen to be critical or doubting.
Scientologists claim to know far more than outsiders about their Church, however, once they leave, they find out that they knew far less than those on the outside. Scientology is so stratified and so secretive that no one at any level knows what is really going on at the next highest level. They only find out after they leave – or by reading “forbidden” sites.
So why do people put up with abuse? Because they are, in one way or another, under the group’s control. Objecting or complaining is not allowed in the behavior codes of the group and would result in censure or rejection. Thinking critical thoughts would put one on the “dark side” – on the side of the “enemy.” Feelings of fear, shame and guilt keep one from making a fuss. Or one filters out “negativity” and “entheta” and tries to only read or forward positive information. Any one or all of these factors can keep an individual effectively under group control.
Know these factors, and, like Pinochhio, you can sing “I’ve got no strings on me.”