Extrapolation, Exaggeration, or Exculpation?
Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.
It has always struck me that the issues at the forefront in dealing with cults have broad scale application and can be fruitfully considered in analogical contexts with those raised in other areas. This was most recently driven home to me by reading a number of books analyzing the works of Holocaust deniers. Professionals and academics often write these works, which are sometimes supported by well-financed “institutes,” propounded in conferences run by alleged scholars, and published in widely circulated books and pamphlets.
A recent work, Denying History, by Michael Schermer and Alex Grobman and published by the University of California Press, has a very enlightening analysis of some of the issues raised in an inquiry seeking to determine how and why those claiming that the Holocaust never took place or that its horrors have been deliberately exaggerated reached those conclusions.
Reading this work, I was struck by how many parallels exist to criticisms of the “anticult movement” or of scholars or professionals who describe the harms related to cult activities. In this piece, I would like to deliberate provocatively and cite some of the issues the authors of this work address and invite readers to recognize the analogies to the field of cults. I believe that the analogies may go both ways, relating sometimes to cult critics and sometimes to cult defenders.
What stands out to me in this book’s analysis is the strong propensity of Holocaust deniers to avoid intellectually honest discussion of differences and instead use numerous devices to denigrate the views or character of those with whom one disagrees. Holocaust deniers, for example, call Holocaust scholars “extremists,” “Holocaust hobbyists,” and assorted other names (p. xv). Does that remind you of the characterization of cult critics as “religious bigots” or even, in at least one article, “terrorists”?
Second, the Holocaust deniers rely on the incredulous nature of the asserted horrors in order to reject the personal reports of survivors and affirm the cynical assurance of perpetrators of atrocities that if the victims survived and told of the experience, “the rest of the world would not believe what happened – and people would conclude that evil on such a scale was just not possible” (Terrence Despres, The Survivor in Denying History, p. 49). Does this sound like the denigration of ex-member reports by calling them “atrocity tales”?
Holocaust deniers point to “engineering studies” that claim it was impossible to construct crematories using poison gas, even though these ‘studies” were authored by persons having no qualifications. Does this not recall claims that Aum Shinrikyo could not have had the technical capability to produce Sarin gas?
In analyzing why academics might be led to conclusions supporting Holocaust deniers, the authors of Denying History cite the studies of cult researchers Stephen Kent and Theresa Krebbs, noting that professionals might have found “themselves the unwitting tools of religious groups striving for social acceptance and in need of an imprimatur of an academic” and showing how scholars’ “deception becomes self-deception” (p. 57).
Schermer and Grobman also criticize the relativistic approach of historians who, for example, assert an afrocentric view of the origination of Aristotle’s ideas in the face of fact errors (pp. 237-240) or that paleontologists and archeologists conspired to cover up evidence that humans lived in a civilized state tens or hundreds of millions of years ago (pp. 240-241). There are other examples of pseudo-historical views propounded merely to support political or ideological conclusions.
Do these unexpressed biases in evaluations of factual material sound familiar? And what about the motivation? Schermer and Grobman discuss a number of motivations unearthed in their analyses of the backgrounds of Holocaust deniers, including anti-Semitism, a “germanophile” view of history, and religious zealotry associated with the Aryan Identity movement. Indeed, the authors maintain that a primary reason for the acceptance of such ideologically dependent views of history and the rejection of contrary views is the proponent’s commitment to “religion to anchor the belief system in a meaningful and significant history of faith” in support of which a useful lie might be accepted for the sake of the greater good.
The authors discuss one of the most commonly used techniques of Holocaust deniers, namely, “that these revisionists rarely say anything definitive about their own position and instead attack their opponents’ weak spots or mistakes…they find errors made by scholars and historians and exploit these as if all historians’ conclusions are wrong…they quote usually out of context leading mainstream figures to buttress their own position…they consciously turn debates on scholars on specific issues into debate of veracity of the entire field…and they focus on what is not known and ignore what is known, carefully selecting data to fit and ignoring data that do not fit their preconceived ideas” (p. 103).
I’m confident that cult critics can relate to this description of the means used to avoid genuine debate about issues such as the existence of undue influence or mind control, the harm cult zealots cause, and the need to balance freedom of religion with the rights of individuals to assert and carry out their own beliefs and not to impinge on others’ freedom and well being.
It may be that there are common dynamics influencing Holocaust deniers and certain scholars who seem never to see in new religious movements anything warranting criticism. Or it may be that, as Carl Popper suggested many years ago, the biases so blatantly demonstrated in these two fields reflect the influence that beliefs and backgrounds can have on the conclusions of all scientists. Hence, when we hear or read attacks on cult critics, we should pause and consider the personal biases and motivations that may drive the attacker so that we may disentangle what might be legitimate criticism from the distortions produced by ideological or other motives.