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Fear and Pride in Ideographic Identification

Fear and Pride in Ideographic Identification

Amy Osmond, M.A.

University of Utah


The purpose of this paper is to construct a critical rhetorical paradigm from which to analyze the persuasive strategies of destructive cults. First, I attempt to create more of a space for the use of the discipline of communication in the interdisciplinary project of understanding cult processes; I do this by reframing coercive persuasion (Schein, 1961) as a process of rhetorical identification (Burke, 1950). Second, I attempt to expand the work of McGee (1980) and Cloud (2004), arguing that ideographic identification can be used to explain social identification in destructive cults. Third, using the personal journal of one original member of the Davis County Cooperative Society as a case study, I argue that destructive cults use discourses of fear and pride to persuade people to become committed to exploitive ideologies.

On March 27, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego, California committed mass suicide by ingesting Phenobarbital. Autopsies revealed that eight men were castrated, and all members maintained a unisex look by wearing similar clothing and a short buzz haircut (CNN, 1997).

On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones ordered his followers of the People’s Temple cult, a utopian community in the jungle of Guyana, to commit mass suicide by taking cyanide. Those who were not willing to do so were hunted down and murdered. Nine hundred thirteen people died, including 270 children (Knapp, 1998).

In 1977, a polygamy sect headed by Ervil LeBaron murdered numerous opponents and then five former members of the group, including two of Ervil’s wives and a pregnant daughter. This San Diego-based cult is allegedly responsible for at least 25 murders over the past 30 years (Singer, 2003).

Cult violence, as the above examples indicate, has resulted in the deaths of many people and the psychological, physical, emotional, and sexual trauma of many others (Singer, 2003). Although not all cults are violent or “destructive” (Hassan, 2006), Lifton (1995) states that the number of destructive cults has risen in recent years, resulting in an “epidemic” of fundamentalism. Destructive cults, or groups led by charismatic leaders who use “coercive persuasion” (Schein, 1961) to exploit and manipulate idealistic members (Lifton, 1995) to be devoted to a radical ideology (Ofshe and Singer, 1990, in Langone, 1993, p. 5), are receiving international attention in their attempts to enforce particular worldviews or ideologies upon members and sometimes society at large. Even though destructive cults are often viewed as religious in nature, cults actually encompass a variety of groups, including some terrorist (Welner, 2001; Lalich, 2004; Colvard, 2002), religious fundamentalist (Galanti, 1993), commercial (Hassan, 2000), and therapeutic groups (Singer, 2003). Although there can be a variety of motivations for these groups (Post, Ruby, and Shaw, 2002), the persuasive, manipulative rhetoric each uses is strikingly similar (Singer, 2003).

This paper is an attempt to answer the question “How do destructive cults persuade converts to believe in and act upon ideologies that authorize violence?” This question is significant because violent crimes by extremist organizations of all kinds are increasingly common and increasingly coordinated and sophisticated (Houghton and Schachter, 2005). As long as extremist groups are able to continue soliciting and retaining members through rhetorical strategies, violence will continue. But if we can understand the ways by which extremist groups use persuasion to gain and retain converts, we might be able to overcome some of this discursive violence through our own mitigating rhetoric.

The purpose of this paper is to construct a critical rhetorical paradigm from which to analyze the persuasive strategies of destructive cults. I first discuss how critical rhetoric can contribute to our understanding of the persuasive strategies of destructive cults. [1] By “critical,” I mean an analysis that investigates what McKerrow (1989) terms “discourses of domination,” or how hegemonic power is gained and maintained through discourse. My use of “rhetorical” draws upon Kenneth Burke’s interpretation of rhetoric as “identification” (Burke, 1950, p. 19). I reframe coercive persuasion (Schein, 1961) as a process of identification, to argue that people are persuaded to follow the rhetoric of destructive cults because they identify with the discourses—or language and associated practices—of the cult. By reframing rhetoric as identification, I hope to create more of a space for the use of the discipline of communication in the interdisciplinary project of understanding cult processes. Second, I draw upon the works of McGee (1980), Cloud (2004), and others to discuss the role of ideographs in enacting social and organizational identification. Here, I make theoretical contributions by emphasizing that ideographic identification is an emotional response. Third, I turn to the personal journal of an original member of the Davis County Cooperative Society, a Utah-based polygamous organization commonly viewed as a destructive cult by former cult members and citizens of the larger community. From this rhetorical analysis, I argue that destructive cults persuade people to identify with cult rhetoric through discourses that elicit emotions of fear and pride. Here, I make methodological contributions by arguing that one can effectively evaluate discourses that promote identity enhancement or change by exploring and isolating the particular emotions that enact identification; in the case of destructive cults, these persuasive strategies appeal to both fear and pride of individuals. When these rhetorical strategies are successful, psychologically healthy, “normal” people identify with the organization (Langone, 1993) and can be led to adopt a malignant version of cultural ideographs.
Critical Rhetoric and Destructive Cults

In this section, I attempt to create more of a space for the use of the discipline of communication, especially the subdiscipline of critical rhetoric, to support our understanding of cultic processes. The discipline of communication has made many contributions to our understanding of hegemonic and/or manipulative political rhetoric (see, e.g., Burke, 1973; Foucault, 1994; Hauser, 1999; DeLuca, 1999); very few studies, however, have concentrated on manipulative rhetoric within cults. In fact, of the approximately 100 communication-related journals included in the CIOS (Communication Institute for Online Scholarship) database, I could find only three studies that were even somewhat related to understanding cultic processes: one study about the contested cult Our Lady of Guadalupe (Westerfelhaus and Singhal, 2001); one study about the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas (Lindsay, 1999); and one study about a water cult in classic Andean literature (Columbus, 1997). From my perspective, the relative emphasis on manipulative rhetoric in communication literature and the dearth of literature about cults—prime examples of organizations that are created and sustained through the use of manipulative rhetoric—is significant. As Goodheart (1999) stated, “In a time like the present when the academic disciplines have become interdisciplinary, ... what we need in the language of the academy is a sensus communis (a common sense) among the disciplines” (p. 440). This need exists for cultic studies, as well. By reframing coercive persuasion (Schein, 1961) as a rhetorical process of “identification” (Burke, 1950), critical rhetoric might claim a space in cult literature as a tool to critique discourses of domination in cult settings. In the paragraphs that follow, I show how critical rhetoric’s (1) purpose, (2) epistemological orientation, and (3) focus on identification are highly amenable to increasing our understanding of oppressive cultic socialization processes.
Purpose of Critical Rhetoric

Critical rhetoric, represented by scholars such as McKerrow (1989), Ono and Sloop (1992; 1995), and McGee (1980) is a subdiscipline of the discipline of communication. As McKerrow (1989) explains, the purpose of critical rhetoric is unmask or demystify the discourse of power. The aim is to understand the integration of power/knowledge in society—what possibilities for change the integration invites or inhibits and what intervention strategies might be considered appropriate to effect social change. (pp. 441-42)

Critical rhetoric focuses on unmasking ideologies, perceived as rhetorical creations, that create and sustain the social practices that “control the dominated” (p. 442).

The purpose and the methodology of critical rhetoric are highly amenable to enhancing the current understanding of cult processes because manipulative persuasion is a major factor in the creation and maintenance of destructive cults (see Singer, 2003; Langone, 1993; Lalich, 2004; Schein, 1961). West and Langone (1985), for example, define a cult [2] as a or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control ... designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their family, or the community. (see also Chambers, Langone, and Grice, 1994; Beall, 2005)

Ofshe and Singer (1990) present a similar definition: A cult is a or movement that, to a significant degree, (a) exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, (b) uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members (i.e., to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices), (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, (d) exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community. (in Langone, 1993, p. 5)

Singer (2003) states that three factors work together to create a cult: a charismatic leader, an authoritarian organizational structure, and a coordinated program of persuasion.

In all of these definitions, common themes emerge: (1) cults gain and retain members through a socialization process of which persuasion is a key feature; (2) cults exploit members in that they induce them to devotedly participate in their own domination (i.e., dependency and control); and (3) cults cause psychological and/or physical harm to members, their families, and the community. Persuasion, in all of these definitions, emerges as a key component of cult socialization, thus making critical rhetoric a valid orientation through which to analyze how cult members are persuaded to participate in their own domination, and to suggest intervention strategies for social and organizational change.
Epistemological “Principles” of Critical Rhetoric

Critical rhetoric’s basic epistemological “principles” focus on unraveling discourses of domination while at the same time reminding us that these analyses are contingent, partial, and open to revision. Following McKerrow (1989), critical rhetoricians (1) recognize themselves as both rhetors and scientists, which means that the scientific claims they make are recognized as arguments with a possibility of bias. They also (2) recognize that power is material; that is, domination exists in both discursive and nondiscursive ways. Because of this recognition, critical rhetoricians can analyze both manipulative rhetoric and the ways in which nondiscursive practices (such as economic, sexual, and physical abuse) are incorporated into a totalizing destructive cult ideology.

Critical rhetoric (3) aims for truth based not upon universal standards of judgment, but, rather, upon how discourses affect societal practices. Thus, with critical rhetoric, one can focus on what a religious cult’s interpretation of scripture does to the people rather than get caught up in whether or not the scriptural interpretation itself is valid. Critical rhetoric (4) asserts that words have multiple meanings and that these meanings are fluid and temporary. With this assumption, critical rhetoricians can track diachronically (through time) and synchronically (through different meanings of words) the ways in which cults sometimes radically reinterpret widely accepted religious or political texts to support their own agendas (see McGee, 1980). Critical rhetoric (5) assumes that rhetorical “influence is not causality” (p. 456); this means that although manipulative rhetoric is powerful, it does not necessarily produce action or belief. Thus, the agency of cult members to resist domination and exit destructive cults is affirmed. [3]

Critical rhetoric (6) asserts that what is not said is just as important as what is said in symbolic expression. For example, destructive cults may attempt to portray themselves to the media as benign, as in the case of Utah polygamists represented by the organization Principle Voices for Polygamy. In a 2000 book published by Principle Voices, called Voices in Harmony (Batchelor, Watson, and Wilde, 2000), polygamists celebrate plural marriage, affirming their belief in and happiness because of the “principle of celestial marriage.” While testimonials in the book abound, very few concrete examples of “happiness” in plural marriage are included. A critical rhetorician would look at this glaring absence as having equal importance with the included text and would use this imbalance as a basis for further exploration. In fact, critical rhetoric (7) maintains that texts are fragments of a larger social phenomenon and might contain many (polysemic) interpretations. In the above case of Voices in Harmony, a critical rhetorician might engage in a polysemic critique, viewing the absence of concrete positive experiences in the text as potential indictors of a subtle subversion of authority by the dominated at the same time that the “primary reading appears to conform to the power of the dominant cultural norms” (p. 456). In this way, critical rhetoricians might discover sites of textual resistance among the dominated and use them as possible sites of social change. Using the above example, a critical rhetorician might probe more deeply into the lack of specific positive experiences in polygamy among its members, inviting participants to provide a more complete picture of polygamous life and participate in “restimulating the analytical faculties” that cult participation may have suppressed (Galanti, 1993). In this way, cult members may become ideologically emancipated, so to speak, by filling in the absences of which they themselves may not have been fully aware. This restimulation of analytic faculties, according to Galanti (1993), is the end to which cult deprogramming and exit counseling is geared (p. 102).

Finally, bringing this discussion full-circle, critical rhetoric (8) affirms that critique is a performance rather than a methodology. Not only are the scientific claims of critical rhetoricians rhetorical, but the attempts by critical rhetoricians to demystify discourses of domination demonstrate an ethical component to critical rhetoric. As McKerrow (1989) states, “the function of an ideologiekritik [critical rhetorical analysis] is to counter the excesses of a society’s own enabling actions ... that underwrite[s] the continuation of social practices that ultimately are harmful to the community” (p. 458). Critical rhetoricians, then, are ideologically committed to identifying and developing strategies of resistance to those discourses of domination that support or normalize oppression. The analysis of the Davis County Cooperative Society in the third section of this paper is an example of critical rhetoric applied to cults for the purpose of demystifying discourses of domination.
Coercive Persuasion As an Identification Process

Critical rhetoric views persuasion as a process of identification not unlike Schein’s (1961) explanation of the process of coercive persuasion. Applying Lewin’s (1947) model for understanding organizational change to coercive persuasion, Schein states that the unfreezing, changing, and refreezing of beliefs is “best characterized as one of a growing identification” (p. 131). Schein then lists a six-step process through which coercive persuasion occurs, beginning with an identity crisis, moving to a search for and identification with an “other” whose identity is socially acceptable (even when the other was originally defined as an enemy), and culminating in “the acceptance of things this ‘other’ says and does” (p. 132). Cult scholars such as Langone (1993), Hassan (2000), and Singer (2003) agree that cults systematically persuade members by breaking down their former individual identities and establishing new ones that are loyal to the cult. Singer (2003) and Langone (1993) refer to this organizational identity as a “pseudopersonality” that eclipses any individual identity (Zimbardo and Andersen, 1993) and that is kept in place by the organizational environment (Singer, 2003). Although their former individual identities might return after members have left a cult organization (Singer, 2003), these ex-members often struggle with “unclear thoughts” about their identities long after they leave (Langone, 1993, p. 222).

Kenneth Burke (1950), in A Rhetoric of Motives, also connects persuasion with identification. Using Aristotle’s classic definition, Burke states that “rhetoric is the art of persuasion.” But, like Schein (1961), Burke affirms that identification with a persuasive “other” is of fundamental importance in the persuasive process: “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (p. 55). And “as for the relation between ‘identification’ and ‘persuasion’: We might well keep it in mind that a speaker persuades an audience by the use of stylistic identifications” (p. 46). Identification, for Burke, is the medium through which people are persuaded—the rhetorical means to the socialized end. Therefore, in the discipline of communication, a Burkean definition of rhetoric is usually framed as “identification” (see Cheney, 1991; McGee, 1980). Other communication scholars, such as Cheney (1985; 1991), Hall (1996), Parameswaran (2006), Hatch (2002), DeLuca (1999), Wilson (1999), and Mumby (2004), have continued this work on elucidating how rhetoric constructs identities.

Scholars such as Schein (1961) and Burke (1950) agree that persuasion is largely a matter of identification. If coercive persuasion is reframed as a rhetorical process of identification, then critical rhetoric can make valuable methodological contributions through the use of McGee’s (1980) ideographic analysis. In the following pages, I discuss the benefits of using ideographic analysis as described by McGee (1980) in analyzing persuasive strategies of cults to gain and retain members. I provide an example of this analysis using the personal journal of one of the original members of a polygamous cult, the Davis County Cooperative Society.
Ideographs As Social/Organizational Identification

Thus far in the paper I have shown a dearth of academic literature that pertains to destructive cults in the discipline of communication in general and critical rhetoric in particular, despite critical rhetoric’s emphasis on elucidating discourses of domination in social and organizational settings. I have also reframed coercive persuasion as a rhetorical process of identification, as Burke has noted (1950). In this section of the paper, using McGee’s (1980) discussion on ideographs, I show how critical rhetoric can contribute substantively to cult literature through ideographic analysis. Drawing upon the assertions of both cult literature and critical rhetoric that rhetoric produces social and organizational identification or “pseudopersonalities” that work for the benefit of the cult (Singer, 2003; Langone, 1993; Cheney, 1985, 1991; Simon, 1997), I argue that ideographs are especially useful in producing organizational identification with a cult because of their strong emotive potential.
Identification and Ideographs

In the previous section, I accepted Burke’s (1950) definition of rhetoric as the “art of persuasion.” Consistent with Schein’s (1961) analysis of coercive persuasion, I also accepted Burke’s (1950) assertion that people are persuaded through a process of rhetorical identification. A more specific definition of rhetoric, then, would be the “art of persuasion through identification.” Drawing upon Burke’s framing of rhetoric as “identification,” McGee (1980) goes one step further. McGee states that identification with political and social organizations occurs through the strategic use of ideographs, or powerful slogans that signify ideological commitment.

“Truth and falsity with regard to normative commitments is the product of persuasion” (p. 4), states McGee (1980). As a critical rhetorician, McGee views ideology as a hegemonic rhetorical language of “excuses for specific beliefs and behaviors made by those who execute the history of which they were a part” (p. 16). These rhetorical “excuses” for personal beliefs are promoted by hegemonic power as Truth, thereby controlling public belief and actions (p. 5). Through the control of ideological discourse, the “powers that be” are able to exert social control—or “control over consciousness” (p. 6)—of the public, thereby creating identification with a norm. Quite simply, ideology is a “political language” (p. 15), a “rhetoric of control” (p. 6), that is composed of “slogan-like terms” that signify and also produce “collective commitment” (p. 15).

McGee calls the powerful slogans that signify and produce collective commitment “ideographs.” McGee defines an ideograph as ordinary-language term found in political discourse. It is a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable. (p. 15)

An ideograph articulates and explains the motives of a social group. As a signifier of an ideological orientation, an ideograph such as <liberty>, <justice>, or <equality> calls forth collective commitment, or social/organizational identification, and “deludes individuals into believing that they ‘think’ with/for/through a social organism” (p. 15). This construction of social/organizational identity is used to serve the interests of the hegemonic society or organization (see Cheney, 1991). In sum, an ideograph is a slogan that references a hegemony-approved ideology that individuals use to frame their identities.
Ideograph and Emotion

McGee (1980) does an excellent job of elucidating that the ideograph is the link between the symbolic and material worlds used to produce social identification. Extending his discussion, I argue that ideographs work because of their strong emotive potential.

McGee alludes to the ideograph as having emotive power: He discusses “commitment” and “normative goal.” He discusses the strength of the ideograph in producing organizational identification. While he doesn’t say it outright, McGee (1980) clearly implies that the ideograph works because it elicits an emotional response—and therefore commitment—in the public. Cloud (2004) also refers to the emotive potential of visual ideographs in relation to identification. Cloud states that “identification entails emotional responses” such as anger, fear, or pity (p. 290). As the building blocks of ideology, ideographic images “possess the capacity for visceral emotional appeal” (p. 290). Here she makes explicit the link between ideological commitment and emotion.

Ideographs work because they legitimize individual desires and mold them into social identification and commitment. As Condit (1999) states, public rhetoric has the potential to convert “individual desires into something more—something carrying moral import, which can anchor the will of the community” (p. 309). As a part of public discourse, ideographs can anchor social will and produce commitment by facilitating social identification, what Adorno (1991) defines as an emotional bond (p. 139). At their best, ideographs can help to form powerful and productive normative goals that affirm and respect the value of life. But they also have the ability to deceive people into accepting oppressive ideologies. As Orwell (1946) states:

The words democracy, socialism, freedom ... justice [all ideographs] have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.... Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. (pp. 132-33)

While I believe that ideographs can be used in honest and productive ways, I agree with Orwell that ideographs are often used to deceive.

In the hands of destructive cults, ideographs and their surrounding rhetoric have the potential to use people’s desires to socially identify with and commit to a harmful organizational ideology. Galanti (1993), for example, states that cults influence through emotion rather than intellect:

...although the terms ‘brainwashing’ and ‘mind control’ place emphasis on their effect on the intellect, what I found was that the process works first on an emotional level and a behavioral one.... The need for love and approval [belonging, having an identity]—upon which cult members play—leads to psychological and behavioral identification with the group. Over time, beliefs change as well, but more through the repression of the intellect than the changing of the intellect. Thus deprogramming, exit counseling, and post-cult rehabilitation are geared toward restimulating the analytical faculties. (p. 102)

Singer (2003) concurs that cult members are induced to make “emotionally based acquiescence to complex, powerful, and organized persuasion tactics” (p. 116). Thus, ideographs and their surrounding rhetoric are used to emotionally persuade cult members and elicit emotion-based organizational identification.

In the following section, I argue that extremist religious groups use ideographs and surrounding discourses of fear and pride to elicit identification with cult ideologies. When these strategies are successful, individuals are led to accept widespread religious and cultural ideographs that these organizations malignantly redefine and use to legitimize exploitation of cult members or others in the community. It is to the rhetorical exploitation of emotion that I now turn.
Discourses of Fear and Pride, Ideographic Identification, and the Davis County Cooperative Society

In this section, I argue that extremist groups use rhetoric persuasively to elicit emotions of fear and pride. Through fear and pride, or narcissistic desire for power, extremist organizations are able to persuade individuals to accept “perverted” versions of widely accepted cultural ideographs, which eventually results in proactive hostility toward others. As a case example, I use the personal journal of Harriet [4] Kingston Gustafson, sister of Elden Kingston, who is the founder/prophet of the polygamous Davis County Cooperative Society.
The Kingston Polygamous Organization, the Davis County Cooperative Society

The diary of Harriet Kingston Gustafson, sister of Charles Elden Kingston, is an excellent example of the ways in which cults use the discourses of fear and pride to reappropriate widespread cultural ideographs to persuade members to be complicit in their own exploitation. The diary spans the years from 1930, when the Kingston polygamous organization was in its infancy, until 1949. Over this 20-year span, Harriet chronicles her personal experiences with the doctrinal teachings of “the Order.” As a devout seeker of truth, she was influenced by numerous discourses of fear and pride that allowed the Order to reappropriate ideographs to be used to make cult members complicit in their own exploitation.

Harriet was born January 8, 1912, to Charles William Kingston and Vesta Minerva Stowell in a one-roomed house in Henry’s Canyon, Idaho (Gustafson, 1949, p. 19). She grew up in a religious family, who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as Mormons. In 1931, at age 19, Harriet was married to Clyde Gustafson, also a member of the LDS faith (p. 20).

Harriet’s father, Charles, believed that the LDS church had “apostatized and broken the everlasting covenant” by renouncing the practice of polygamy in 1890. As a result of preaching these views, he was excommunicated from the LDS church, and the rest of the family soon followed. Clyde was excommunicated in 1932, and Vesta, Harriet, and Harriet’s sister, Ardous, were excommunicated in 1933. Harriet’s brother, Charles Elden, was also excommunicated sometime during this period (p. 20).

On January 1, 1935, Clyde Elden Kingston, age 25, and his two wives became the first members of the Davis County Cooperative Society. Elden claimed Jesus Christ appeared to him in a cave and gave him directions to revive the latent practice of polygamy and redeem the true church of God from apostasy (Hall, 1999; Erickson, 2005). The rest of Elden’s family soon followed, and they began a communal “utopian” society in which everything was shared—money, homes, and even marital relationships—for the expressed purpose of building the “kingdom of God” upon the earth. In the following sections, I describe how the discourses of fear and pride and the reappropriation of cultural ideographs (in this case, culturally dominant LDS ideographs) led Harriet to willingly sacrifice her home, possessions, and free will to her and her children’s exploitation.
The Discourse of Fear

Destructive cults persuade through the exploitation of members’ fear. Hassan (2000), for example, states that one of the chief features of cult “mind control” is the excessive use of fear. This fear can manifest itself in many ways, such as fear of the outside world, fear of enemies, fear of losing one’s religious ‘salvation’ in the next world, fear of being ostracized by the group, or fear of punishment. Former “Creek” cult member Fawn Holm (2005), for example, was told by her group that she would “burn at the last day” if she ever left the organization. Members of some destructive cults are told that without the help of the organization, without renouncing their individual identities and becoming part of a collective, they will not have a place in heaven. For example, most polygamous religious cults in America believe that salvation in the afterlife can be obtained only by following the “higher law” of polygamy. Those who obey this law will rule over the monogamists, who did not sacrifice for the “principle,” but those who deny the truth may be punished with everlasting fire (Batchelor, Watson, and Wilde, 2000).

The discourse of fear has the potential to not only persuade but also reconstruct a cult member’s identity. As Beall (2005) and Cassidy (2002) state, discourses used to elicit fear and control (called “verbal abuse” in domestic-violence literature) break down a victim’s individual identity. Abusers tell their victims that they are worthless, crazy, negligent, and so on (see Duluth, 2006), and victims often do not contradict their abusers for fear of punishment (see Dayton, 2000). [5] Over time, in the absence of positive discourse, victims begin to believe the negative identities assigned by abusers (i.e., they are crazy, worthless, adulterous, bad) and adopt them. In essence, their identities are constituted by the hegemonic discourses of their abusers. [6]

Although discourses of fear abound in the journal of Harriet Kingston Gustafson, one particularly effective discourse of fear is what was termed the “law of one above another” (October 17, 1939, p. 61). A vital part of the Kingston doctrine since the mid-1930s, the dogma states that the kingdom of God is structured hierarchically. God retains the highest place in the kingdom, and Elden, the prophet and messiah, is second in command. Men in the order are assigned numbers to indicate their social status in the organization. Harriet’s husband, Clyde, for example, was given the number 2, just behind Elden, and was called “Brother 2” or simply “2” in the organization, even by his own wife (October 17, 1939, p. 60). Men in the Order are given a place above their wives, and parents are given a place above their children. To achieve harmony within the kingdom of God, people should give complete and unquestioning obedience to the ones above them. To obey this law meant that everyone was to obey the prophet, and all women were to obey their husbands without arguing or questioning their decisions (October 17, 1939, p. 61). As Harriet states: “Wives should obey the husband, the husband should obey the one over him, etc.” (January 30, 1946, p. 98). Those who failed to keep this law, one of the chief “commandments of God,” would be punished by evil spirits and possibly even removed from the order through death. Harriet clarifies:

Tonight I became angry at Brother 2. Instead of acknowledging the hand of the Lord in what had happened and trying to profit by it I in an angry voice accused him and said words I shouldn’t have said. When I went to bed it seemed like I was in a stupor. I heard the evil power all around me like a ringing or buzzing sound. It seemed as though an evil spirit had possession of my body... These thoughts came. I should have acknowledged the hand of the Lord in everything with His spirit. It was a test to see if I could keep the spirit. I fell short. I was going to be held accountable for everything I lost in the spirit in anger. (March 18, 1936, p. 38)

Harriet was told by prophet Elden that any degree of sin (i.e., disobedience to her husband) would be punished by God (April 1, 1936, p. 39; October 31, 1935, p. 26); yet her marriage was tumultuous from the beginning (October 9, 1935, p. 22) and was difficult enough that she considered divorce (August 6, 1940). This situation elicited much fear in Harriet because she felt her life and her eternal salvation were continuously threatened by her inability to achieve harmony in her marriage (October 17, 1939, p. 60). Because her place was to obey the one above her (i.e., her husband), she placed the blame for her cacophonous marriage squarely on her own shoulders (July 2, 1935, p. 9; October 17, 1939, p. 60), although numerous references imply that Clyde was at the least verbally abusive (October 17, 1939, p. 60; February 15, 1940, p. 67). Prophet Elden, for example, came over and threatened the lives of both Clyde and Harriet if they did not have more peace in the home:

[Brother 1 said] the things that have been going on in this home which have grieved the spirit of the Lord and caused it to leave must be stopped. If they are not then we have no claim upon life whatever. The Lord can wipe one of us off in no time and this home can be scattered to the four winds. (October 17, 1939, p. 60)

Harriet was further told by Elden that if she did not achieve peace in the home, she, Clyde, and Clyde’s other wife (her sister Ardous) would be responsible for Clyde’s death.

Persuaded by these discourses of fear, Harriet attempted to achieve peace and obey Clyde to the extent that she thought the spirit of the Lord told her “to cut out all idle talk and only speak when necessary and be careful of my speech to those above me” (February 15, 1940, p. 67). She also feared that she would die: “...someone talked to me in a dream and said, you must overcome hurt feelings [regarding her marriage] and be happy and cheerful. If you don’t you will be taken away and some happy cheerful person will be put in your place” (July 2, 1935, p. 9). Through the discourse of fear, Harriet was persuaded to believe she should always obey her husband; if not, she would be punished by God. Through the “law of one above another,” Harriet’s voice was silenced and personal identity sacrificed for the “harmony” of the organization.
Discourse of Pride

In addition to the discourse of fear, the discourse of pride, or appeal to an individual’s narcissistic desire for power, is also effective in subverting an individual identity and replacing it with a pseudopersonality (Singer, 2003; Langone, 1993), or organizational identity. The discourse of pride is effective because while it negates individual identity, it offers a supposedly “superior” and “powerful” identity as a constituent of an elite organization.

Scholars such as Adorno (1991), Burke (1937), and Humphreys and Brown (2002) emphasize the element of pride in social/organizational identification. Drawing upon Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, [7] Adorno states that people are inherently narcissistic, that is, they have a self-interested love for power that leads them to identify, or develop an emotional bond (p. 139) with an authoritarian leader, one that is an “everyman”—one that seems similar to the common man—but also a “superman,” personifying the power that the masses desire in the “great little man” (p. 142). Through the identification of the people with an authoritarian ruler, the people are able to see the leader as “the enlargement of the subject’s own personality, a collective projection of himself” (p. 140), and thus satisfy their narcissistic desires. Burke (1937) also maintains that pride is an important element of social identification:

[One] identifies himself with some corporate unit (church, guild ... etc.)—and by profuse praise of this unit he praises himself. For he ‘owns shares’ in the corporate unit—and by ‘rigging the market’ for the value of the stock as a whole, he runs up the value of his personal holdings. (Burke, 1937, pp. 2:144-45; in Cheney, 1991)

Humphreys and Brown (2002) concur, stating that self-esteem is largely determined by the satisfaction people gain from their organizational identification (p. 424). Thus, whether it is called narcissism, praise, or self-esteem, discourses that appeal to pride are effective in creating social identification.

By constructing their organizations as elite religions (Singer, 2003), destructive cults are able to convincingly play upon the pride of people to join their organizations. Through the unique qualities of the authoritarian, often “prophetic or messianic,” infallible leader (Lindsay, 1999), organizational members are told they will enjoy privilege while the rest of the world is assigned to an inferior state, such as being “damned” (see Moore-Emmett, 2004), “burned” (Holm, 2005), or destroyed by a political enemy (Harpers, 2006). Al Qaeda, for example, considers its terrorist attacks a “holy war” against the corrupt and evil “infidels” of American imperialism in which inferior, evil Americans will ultimately be destroyed (Harpers, 2006; Hassan, 2006). While the appeal to pride is a factor in all organizational identification (Burke, 1937; Humphreys and Brown, 2002), destructive cults can be differentiated from other organizations in that they construct the identities of individuals as important only in terms of the collective. Mainstream religions, for example, assert the intrinsic worth of all “souls” or people in the eyes of a higher power, but destructive religious cults emphasize the separateness and eliteness of their organization, assigning a status of inferiority to “nonmembers” (Dowhower, 1993; Singer, 2003). People who don’t belong to the organization are worth little, and select out-groups must be destroyed (such as the attempted genocide of the Hazaras under the Taliban or the Jews in Nazi Germany; Burke, 1940). Because of this emphasis on the necessity of the organization to provide power and identity, individual identities are minimized, and people in the organization adopt an organizational identity, becoming dependent upon and thus obedient to the cult, even at the expense of their own self-interest (Langone, 1993; Adorno, 1991).

While Harriet Kingston Gustafson was subjected to numerous discourses of fear, she also was persuaded by discourses of pride that appealed to her desire to be one of God’s chosen people. In a blessing, or prayer to God concerning her personal worth, prophet Elden told her she was “a chosen spirit” (June 16, 1935, p. 8). The people of the Order were told that they were the elite of the LDS church who remained true to the principles of the gospel as established by Joseph Smith while the rest of the LDS church fell into apostasy (March 2, 1938, p. 52). They were God’s “covenant people” (May 3, 1940, p. 67), a special group of righteous followers who were given the promise of spiritual eliteness in the afterlife. As Harriet states:

The world will soon witness the fulfillment of another prophecy. It will be the coming forth of a people from among the Latter-day Saints. They will be that portion of the Saints who refuse to change The Everlasting Gospel to meet the modern world. (March 2, 1938, p. 51)

Harriet felt this elite group was the Order.

While belonging to what she felt was an elite organization appealed to her pride, these discourses also served to control Harriet. For example, she was told that because of the difficulty of living the “law of celestial marriage,” or polygamy, only an elite few first wives would ever “gain their salvation or reward” (April 17, 1937, p. 44). This appealed to Harriet’s sense of pride because she was one of the few first wives who accepted the “law of celestial marriage.” But this pride also kept her from voicing her pain at the many injustices she received living in polygamy. Because she was one of the “elect,” she felt she had to live at a higher standard; that is, be willing to sacrifice and endure suffering without voicing her pain:

I dreamed the Lord was going to hold me accountable for even the least degree of sin such as anger or losing the sprit of the Lord or speaking falsely or harshly of my associates or neighbors. It said I had more knowledge than most people therefore more would be expected of me. (April 1, 1936, p. 39)

Because she believed her dreams were prophetic (p. 97), she felt extreme pressure to endure injustice without complaining because she would be destroyed by God if she did not: “That which is not perfect shall be done away with: Therefore is the importance of trying to be perfect in all things” (p. 98). In this case, the discourses of fear and pride worked together to create in Harriet the belief that because she was elite, she was held to a higher standard and would be punished for any “sin,” or act of disobedience to the prophet or her husband. These discourses bound her choices (Lalich, 2004), leading her to construct an identity in terms of the organization (her new name was “2-1”; March 25, 1945, p. 97) and to become extremely devoted to the Order, even at the expense of her home (she lived in a tent for many years; September 6, 1942), her food (fasting was commanded every other day; March 1935, p. 6), and even her marital relationship (she shared a husband with her sister Ardous and an unidentified G. F. nearly her entire marriage; May 1, 1935, p. 6; August 6, 1940, p. 39).
Fear, Pride, and Ideographs

When discourses of fear and pride are successfully persuasive, people can be led to accept commonly accepted ideographs that have been malignantly redefined by destructive cults. According to Hassan (2000) and Moore-Emmett, (2004), religious cults often borrow discourse from mainstream religions and subvert it to both imitate an acknowledged, culturally legitimized religion and differentiate itself from that religion (Hassan, 2000; Moore-Emmett, 2004) through the reappropriation of discourse (Butler, 1997). This reappropriation of discourse occurs largely in the “bastardization” (Burke, 1940) of widely believed ideographs such as <love>, <righteousness>, and <unity>. For example, while he doesn’t use the actual term “ideograph” (it was made popular in communication literature by McGee 40 years later), in his 1940 article of the rhetoric of Hitler’s battle, Burke shows how the widely accepted Christian ideographs of <love>, <dignity>, <war against evil>, <unity>, <sacrifice>, and even the political ideograph of <democracy> were used to justify hate, dehumanization, war against tolerance, unquestioning obedience, and totalitarianism. Hitler’s <hatred> of Jews was recast as hatred of sin (p. 7), Christian <unity> was reframed as Aryan unity at the expense of the Jewish population. Christian <sacrifice> became Aryan sacrifice, or “the sacrifice of the individual to the group” (p. 14), the marginalization of personal identity. And <democracy> was reframed as “German democracy,” or the people’s choice of the leader, who then demands unquestioning obedience for his responsibility and sacrifice (p. 12).

Burke states that the reason this reappropriation of ideographs worked was because it appealed to the nationalistic pride of the German people:

A people in collapse, suffering under economic frustration and the defeat of nationalistic aspirations ... have little other than some ‘spiritual’ basis to which they could refer their nationalistic dignity. Hence, the categorical dignity of superior race was a perfect recipe for the situation. (p. 11)

In essence, Hitler appealed to the narcissistic desire for power, or the pride of the people, to encourage them to blame their troubles on the Jews and assert themselves as a superior race. This pride, in combination with his widely publicized methods for exacting compliance through fear and terror that do not need to be discussed here, was a lethal combination for producing social identification that allowed Hitler to reappropriate culturally accepted ideographs to serve his malignant purposes.

The discourses of pride and fear in the Davis County Cooperative Society worked together to subvert the culturally dominant LDS ideographs that Harriet grew up with and that were commonly used in the Bountiful, Utah area where she lived. These ideographs, a few of which include <kingdom of God>, <united order>, and <sacrifice>, are used in LDS doctrine and were reappropriated by the Order to be used in different, exploitative ways. One of these ideographs (with which Harriet became obsessed, writing incessantly of it in her journal) is <word of wisdom>.

The <word of wisdom> is a commonly used ideograph, or ideological slogan, in the LDS church. LDS doctrine states that Joseph Smith received a revelation from the Lord in 1833 in which church members were asked to obey a health code, or “word of wisdom,” that would benefit both their physical and mental health (Doctrine and Covenants, section 89). This code of health advocates abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and tea and coffee. In addition, church members are asked to eat mostly whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and to avoid large quantities of meat (v. 12). People are promised that, if they obey this code of health, they will “receive health” (v. 18), “find wisdom” (v. 19), and “run and not be weary” (v. 19).

Drawing upon the revelations of Joseph Smith contained in what is now known as the Doctrine and Covenants of the LDS church, Elden Kingston used the discourses of fear and pride to reappropriate the <word of wisdom> into a debilitating method of control. First, Elden appealed to the people’s pride by promising them that strict obedience to the word of wisdom would “bind Satan” (September 15, 1940, p. 73), allowing them to live forever and never die. As Harriet states: “Brother 1 [Elden] received the knowledge of how we can live forever and not have to die and lay our bodies in the grave. Thus we see how important it is to take care of our bodies” (February 3, 1946, p. 99). Then Elden appealed to the fear of the group, saying that disobedience to the commandments, including the word of wisdom, would bring punishment (April 8, 1942, p. 88) and death from God. As Harriet states: “I can take [knowledge of the word of wisdom] and use it and receive health or I can eat bread to the committing of suicide” (October 31, 1941, p. 86).

Once Elden had persuaded the people through fear and pride that the word of wisdom must be obeyed, he assigned a new definition to the word of wisdom. Rather than a simple guide to food choices that, outside of alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee, contained no dietary restrictions, the word of wisdom became a justification for extreme fasting and changes in diet that made members weak and sick. Harriet, for example, states:

We fasted every other day. I grew very weak. One night after fasting all day I was in such misery from hunger and weakness I could not sleep nor rest. [After a dream] new strength was given me and no sooner did it come than the evil power came. The buzz and whir was something terrible to hear. I fought and prayed to be delivered. It seemed like it would choke me. (March 1935, p. 6)

In addition to multiple-day fasts, members of the Order were instructed to eat only one food per meal, to avoid using salt and honey, and to use only one kind of ground wheat or flour (June 25, 1935, p. 10). They also fasted on both Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1935 (December 25, 1935, p. 31). Although these restrictions were eventually relaxed, members’ adherence to the Order’s <word of wisdom> required them to obediently sacrifice their personal desires to the doctrines of the organization (Lifton, 1961), which reinforced their new organizational identities. The use of dietary restrictions (Hassan, 2000) in cults to subordinate the individual identity to organizational doctrine (Lifton, 1961) is, according to cult experts, a common practice of cults. Elden was able to deftly institute this practice through the reappropriation of the <word of wisdom>.

Even though the dietary restrictions of the Order were eventually relaxed, Elden’s reappropriation of the <word of wisdom> yielded permanent deleterious effects in Harriet. Harriet, through her commitment to being an elite, obedient member to the Kingdom of God, was unable to stop restricting her diet, even after the standards were relaxed by the Order. In fact, she began hearing voices telling her that the word of wisdom meant that she must fast for days at a time, eat only raw (uncooked) foods, eat 12 ounces or less per meal, and feed her children the same restricted diet (October 8, 1941, p. 85). Her obsession grew to the point that she began to starve to death (May 25, 1940, p. 69) and malnourished her children (October 20, 1940, p. 75). Her husband, her mother, and even prophet Elden insisted that she change her eating habits. As Harriet states: “[Mother] thought the children were starving because they desired to eat as I did. Brother 1 sent word up that I had done wrong” (October 20, 1940, p. 75).

Harriet’s obsession with the word of wisdom also caused her considerable confusion with regard to what she believed was her personal relationship with God, further undermining her sense of personal identity. Harriet felt she had been told by the spirit to eat raw foods (October 8, 1941, p. 85) and fast for numerous days at a time. As she states: “Today I have been shown that I must fast 34 days before the summer is gone. Today I am fasting the 4th day. I eat my food raw and fast 2 days a week on water” (January 30, 1946, p. 97). At the same time, she believed that Elden was the “mouthpiece” of God and was committed to obeying the “one above” her. When Elden told her that her revelation about the word of wisdom was coming from the devil rather than God (December 30, 1939, p. 63) and repeatedly told her to eat everything (June 19, 1940, p. 70), she became confused: “I talked to Brother 1 [Elden] on June 2, 1940. He told me to eat everything. I couldn’t quite understand because I had learned by the spirit that milk, honey, etc. were not word of wisdom foods” (June 19, 1940, p. 70). But, because Harriet had sacrificed her personal identity to organizational doctrine, she obeyed the prophet Elden: “I ate secondary foods, cooked foods and everything as Brother 1 said” (June 19, 1940, p. 70). Ultimately, through prophet Elden’s reappropriation of the ideograph <word of wisdom>, Harriet’s physical and mental health were compromised, and her children were undernourished. Despite this, Harriet remained permanently committed to a restrictive reappropriation of the <word of wisdom>, even though the rest of the Order had abandoned the diet.

In sum, discourses of fear and pride work together to persuasively gain and retain cult members. Through these discourses, culturally dominant ideographs are malignantly reappropriated to encourage members to be complicit, even devoted, in their own exploitation. In the case of Harriet Kingston Gustafson, the discourse of fear disabled her personal identity and led her to believe she must unquestioningly obey her husband and the prophet at the risk of punishment and even death. The discourse of pride reconstructed her identity as important, but only in terms of her membership in the Order, as her personal desires and identity were sacrificed to the doctrines and benefit of the organization. And the discourses of pride and fear worked together to reappropriate the ideograph <word of wisdom> to mean excessive fasting and intense dietary restrictions—something that Harriet was unable to abandon even at the risk of starvation. As this case study has shown, the reappropriation of ideographs is an extremely powerful, emotionally persuasive strategy of persuasion with lasting consequences.

In this paper, I have argued that coercive persuasion (Schein, 1961) can be reframed as a process of rhetorical identification (Burke, 1950), thus offering more space for the use critical rhetoric to address and assess cult processes. I have also argued that the ideograph rhetorically manages social/organizational identification and is powerful because of people’s emotional responses to it. And, using the journal of Harriet Kingston Gustafson as a case study, I have argued that destructive cults use the discourses of pride and fear to persuade and promote social identification with these groups. This identification leads people to accept widespread cultural ideographs that have been radically and malignantly redefined by elitist destructive cults. This paper contributes to the body of cult literature by offering a critical, established methodology for analyzing the persuasive strategies that destructive cults use to gain and retain members. It also contributes to critical rhetorical theory by discussing the role of emotion in eliciting collective commitment to an ideograph. Finally, it contributes to our knowledge of destructive cults by showing how the discourses of fear and pride reconstitute identity, reappropriate ideographs, and bind people’s choices (Lalich, 2004) until they become complicit in their own domination. It is my hope that, through a critical rhetorical perspective, we can find ways to use rhetorical analysis to effectively intervene in destructive cults’ use of malignant rhetoric.

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[1] Noting that not all cults are destructive, this theory is intended to apply only to destructive cults, or to those that are psychologically and/or physically damaging to members or society (Beall, 2005).

[2] Outside of cult literature, the term “cult” often invokes the image of religious quacks doing crazy things (Singer, 2003), and there are many recent examples—from Elizabeth Smart’s 2002 abduction (AP, 2003), to the Jonestown massacre in Guyana that killed 913 people including more than 270 children (Knapp, 1998), to the murders directed by Ervil Lebaron in his religious polygamous cult called the Church of the Firstborn (Singer, 2003). Because of the term’s controversial and pejorative connotative meaning, scholars have shied away from using the term until recent years (Lalich, 2004). The original theological definition of cult, found in church-sect typology in sociology-of-religion literature sometimes used in the discipline of communication, stems from the Latin, colere, which means to worship or devote attention or care to a person or thing. But the current use of the word “cult” in psychology literature, from which I base my argument, is a descriptive term that refers not only to extreme religious groups but to all types of groups with charismatic leaders who use coercive persuasion, all-encompassing ideologies, and authoritarian organizational structures (Singer, 2003). Cults include terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah (Welner, 2001; Lalich, 2004; Colvard, 2002; Schneier, 2003), religious fundamentalist groups (Galanti, 1993) such as Church of the Firstborn and the Kingston polygamous organization (Moore-Emmett, 2004), and even some commercial (Hassan, 2000) and therapeutic groups (Singer, 2003). Although there can be a variety of motivations for these groups (Post, Ruby, and Shaw, 2002), cults are defined not by what they believe but by what they do (Singer, 2003). This information is of course elementary to cult scholars; however, it is not common knowledge in the discipline of communication and is therefore included as an explanatory endnote.

[3] This claim separates critical rhetoric from other critical approaches that are inherently deterministic, such as a structurally causal Althusserian critique of culture or a “pure” deterministic Marxist conception of class structure and ideology (see McKerrow, 1989, p. 456).

[4] Ms. Gustafson’s first name has been changed at the request of her granddaughter, who gave me the journal.

[5] Domestic violence victims learn that their perspective will not be validated and they will be punished, instead. This is called “learned helplessness” and is a common characteristic of battered women (see Dayton, 2000).

[6] This process, called “cult mentality,” is comparable to “battered woman syndrome” in domestic-violence situations and “Stockholm syndrome” in hostage-captor relationships. These syndromes are also characterized by the victims’ emotional bond with their abusers. Humans need emotional attachment bonds as much as they need food and water to survive (see Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1979; Guerrero, 1996; Guerrero and Jones, 2003; Main and Solomon, 1990; Rivera, 2003; Weger and Polcar, 2002; and many others supportive of attachment theory). This need continues when a person lives in captivity and isolation (see Cassidy, 2002), or even in abusive situations with an authoritarian leader (Main and Solomon, 1990). When victims of abuse are isolated, as is common in cult situations (see Donaldson, Flood, and Eldridge, 2006), not only are they interpellated by powerful hegemonic discourses (see DeLuca, 1999), but they also identify with and can develop long-lasting attachment bonds with their abusers (Main and Solomon, 1990; Goldberg, 2000). The need for emotional attachment combined with isolation of the victim results in the strengthening of the previously discussed rhetorically constructed organizational identity. This phenomenon is important to note when one is discussing the conditions for constructing an especially effective rhetorical appeal, but a full discussion of isolation and its nonrhetorical elements is beyond the scope of this paper.

In addition to being a result of the constitutive power of discourse, identification also occurs as a defense mechanism to minimize anxiety and shame (see Freud, 1936).

[7] According to Freud, boys desire to unite with their mothers but are afraid of castration by their fathers. So they abandon incestuous desires, realize the father as the authority, and seek unions of their own. Girls also want to unite with their mothers, but upon realizing their state of “castration,” girls develop penis envy and begin to try to seduce their fathers. The desire for a penis is eventually replaced with the desire for a baby (Eagleton, 1996). The libidinal desires of the id in girls, repressed by the superego, lead them to seek unification with an “all-powerful and threatening primal father” (p. 13), thus fulfilling their narcissistic desires for a penis. The desires of boys are similarly replaced by a respect for authority for their father and the possibility of becoming an authority themselves. Implicit in both of these desires is narcissistic self-interest.
About the Author

Amy Osmond is a third-year Ph.D. student in the department of Communication at the University of Utah. She received her BA and MA in English from Brigham Young University (1997, 1999). At Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, Amy has taught classes in rhetoric and composition, technical writing, and communication. Amy works as a freelance editor, writer, and graphic designer for clients which have included the Utah Attorney General’s office, Idea Group Publishing, OnBoard Baby Outfitters, Empire Realty, and the San Clemente Sun Post. Her current academic interests include organizational identity, organizational abuse, critical rhetoric and communication ethics. She and her husband, Jeff, have 3 children.