Perspectives on Cults As Affected by the September 11th Tragedy
Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.
A Paper Presented in Bejing at the meeting of the China Anti-Cult Association in December, 2001
I am the president of the American Family Foundation (AFF), a not-for-profit organization in the United States dedicated to the study of, and public education about, destructive cults. The AFF has been in existence for about 20 years, and I have been president of the organization for more than 10 years. For this period of time, I have, in effect, led a double life. I have been a member of a law firm principally engaged in corporate practice. I have dealt with the representation of large, public corporations as well as individual entrepreneurs, and I have carried on that work separate and apart from my commitments to the American Family Foundation.
Our organization does not have a formal membership; rather, it consists of professionals such as doctors, lawyers, mental health professionals, educators, religious leaders, and caregivers who are involved with and contribute different perspectives regarding destructive cults. We examine groups based upon their behavior and not their beliefs, and, accordingly, extend our concerns and analyses to many different kinds of groups, including religious, political, self-help and occult organizations.
Over the years, our analytic approach has been devoted to three goals: (1) communicating information about these groups to deter people from making ill-informed choices of affiliation; (2) making treatment available to people who have suffered harm from their involvement in destructive groups; and (3) offering education to professionals who analyze and deal with such groups. Our financial support comes solely from individuals and private, charitable foundations. We do not receive any governmental aid, directly or indirectly. Our existence and delivery of message has not been without controversy. Representatives of cultic groups have picketed our meetings and threatened our supporters. Critics who support limitless religious freedom for activists and blind themselves to the harm religious activities can cause to other individuals and societies call us religious bigots. Those who favor unrestricted freedom of expression without regard to responsibility for adverse social consequences, or to the abuse by the powerful of weaker elements in society such as women and children, claim that we seek to abridge the rights of individuals to express themselves freely, associate, and carry out actions without restriction of any kind.
Our supporters have no single political or ideological base. We do not draw our support from the left or the right. Indeed, over the course of our existence, both extremes have been harshly critical of our views. That is not surprising, because we tend to criticize zealots of all stripes, and praise and support individual critical thought, self-respect, and respect for the rights of others.
One would have thought that the events of September 11th would bring greater attention to our perspective and give our voice greater attention. But we sadly note that those who confine their examinations to the channels of their narrow perspective continue that mode of analysis, disregarding the horrific consequences of that day and ignoring views beyond their own narrow field. They remain transfixed, counting the number of angels sharing the space on the head of a pin.
Despite the carping of these pedants, I believe the events of September 11th have given new urgency to the business of examining cultic activities in societies around the world. We hear this from many sources in language whose intent is to express a sense of commonality, but which often consists of tenuously parsed words that strain shared meaning out of them. Many voices express fervent opposition to “cultic” terrorist groups. Some focus only on a single group; others include those that use the trappings and language of religion to attract membership; still others use patriotic, psychological, self-help, or other social themes as their emblems.
World leaders and many professionals insist that current campaigns against Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are not campaigns against religious practitioners of Islam, any more than campaigns against the horrors committed by Jim Jones were directed against Christian evangelism, or that continued prosecution of nr is directed against any Eastern religion's believers.
Since September 11th, I believe that we have become more aware of the cynical use of the language and trappings of religion, and that we should be more opposed to what has been the highjacking of religion to assert claimed protection for actions which, if clearly labeled, would be recognized as indefensible.
Likewise, recent prosecution of violent groups that harm people and property in claimed defense of environmental or animal rights does not constitute persecution of all adherents of those causes; rather, it fastens responsibility for excesses committed in the name of those causes.
Often, interpretation of cultic phenomena requires sensitivity to cultural diversity and history. The limits of acceptable individual action in a state, and the borders between individual rights and the concerns of state sovereignty involving the welfare of its citizens, may differ sharply based upon ethnic considerations, history, and policy.
Putting differences aside, it is remarkable how there has been, in the main, a rallying around condemnation of terrorism, evidencing once more an almost universal repugnance toward zealots’ assertions that, to achieve their perceived desirable ends and goals, they have the right to ignore the suffering they cause to those who stand in their way. While there has been, of course, no consensus on definition of the term terrorism, or clear agreement on condemnation of all violent action no matter what its motivation, there appears to be a growing consensus that limitations exist to individual or group actions that destabilize society through violence.
We need to examine cultic phenomena from a three-fold perspective: first, the relationship between a cult leader and the members of his or her group; second, relationships between group members and those in the society who are not members of the group; and finally, society's role in establishing relations among varying groups, a number of which may claim to represent the unique source of ultimate truth. What I propose to do in this paper, therefore, is to outline these three areas of analysis from the perspective, developed over the past generation, of students of destructive cultic activities. In doing so, I believe we will find striking analogies to the current situation that exists in China, both with regard to the country’s perception of the need for regulation of leaders, practitioners, and supporters of Falun Gong, and to past experience with, and the appearance on the horizon of, other groups that threaten the rights of citizens and stability of the society as a whole in China. Finally, we must strike a balance between recognizing and protecting individual rights and differences and those of society as a whole as we deal with supporters of Falun Gong.
Bear in mind that, in making this analysis, I am making a general observation, and I am only a lawyer — not a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or an historian. In particular, my knowledge of China’s history is superficial; but even such surface investigation has demonstrated the connections I described herein.
The Relationship Between a Leader and Group Members
It has often been observed that an essential element of cultic attraction and organization is the presence of a charismatic and omnipotent leader. Mere existence of a division in role between leader and member is not a cultic indicator, but an organizational one. Expansion to the extreme, however, is the concern. Initially, it is common for a leader to attract members through assertion of idealistic goals, which draws people seeking to achieve a change in the social fabric, or to overcome a preconceived injustice or seemingly intractable economic or social disparity. Projected goals sometimes focus on ameliorating secular defects in current society; in other instances, they propose rejection of a materialistic approach to life and hold out the aim of spiritual gratification.
These assertions often initially portray the current society as imbued with corruption and uncertainty, and offer a simplistic view of a perfect or vastly improved society, without focus on the complexity of methods needed to achieve idealistic results. The leader stressing the goals to be achieved asserts his omniscience and the perfection of his vision. To enhance the gulf between leader and follower, the leader emphasizes the need for full and complete obedience, and requires its continued demonstration through acts of subjugation and destruction of individual initiative and critical thought by the members. Through ritual denigration and humiliation, and required increased commitment of members to prove their unquestioned loyalty, the leader emphasizes alienation of the individuals from other existing ties and increases involvement of the membership in group activities and commitments. The member’s obedient actions are performed not through choice, but at increasing levels of dictated performance to prove dedication. Connections with outside non-members are severed, whether those be connections with friends and family, or with professional associations; or, if the connections are maintained, they are maintained only on a constricted basis with a secondary level of commitment. The extent of the domination expands to encompass all areas of the member’s life.
Increases in the distance between the leader and the membership continue with respect to both power and control. Whereas originally the group was ostensibly involved in a value-oriented task of achieving beneficial social ends, in a destructive cult, exposure to the lure of power guides the leadership to increase the gulf between it and the members and to expand the area of control it asserts over them. Whatever beneficent aims originally attracted the member to the group are subsumed in an aura of obedience, with the power of the leader growing in its scope and absolute infallibility. The membership role is reduced to that of a claque, and remnants of an individual member’s critical thought and questioning become signs of disloyalty and deficiency. The area of controlled activity expands far beyond the achievement of purposes identified in the initial recruitment and instead is measured by those who reinforce the leader’s aura of power and control.
All aspects of members’ behavior are placed within the leader’s control and are included in the group’s agenda. While perhaps continuing to profess ideals, the organization in fact becomes rigid, inhumane, and feeds the ego of the leadership, divorcing it from the idealism that was used for initial recruitment purposes.
Structurally, therefore, the development of a destructive cult highlights the cynicism in the use of ideals that initially made the group attractive. Slogans embodying these ideals are formulated to respond to perceived social needs and deficiencies, but the substance is disregarded as soon as members are attracted and connected within the group. At that point, the group exists not for achievement of the goals used for recruitment but for the aggrandizement of the leadership. Members become merely a faceless cadre of individuals, having lost human distinction, simply filling roles to enhance the leader’s ego.
In this analysis, whether the initial attraction is framed on a spiritual or secular basis does not matter. Those ideals are merely used as recruitment slogans to attract a member; they do not maintain their position as ideals to be striven for. That is why, in dealing with religious groups that become destructive cults, the content of their religious beliefs is secondary and to focus on them is a distraction. These religious beliefs are repeated and promoted solely to enhance the leader’s goals, and the beliefs may deviate significantly from those urged by other proponents of the same religion. That deviation is evident, for example, in xenophobic and racially bigoted Christian militant groups such as the Aryan Nation in the United States and in extremist Islamic groups in the Middle East and Asia. Likewise, such deviation in a secular area explains why the content of dogma and doctrine may shift with the prevailing wind — to continue to form a basis for the attraction of new members, and as an assertion of the leader’s control over members.
We also observe two additional elements. First, that the information made available to initial recruits is far less complete in the degree of control and compulsion than that given to members as they progress in the membership. Second, we often see a great gap between the leadership’s professed goals and idealism and its cynical amassing of trappings of wealth and power.
The common element identifying the destructive cult is not only the cynical use of idealistic goals to recruit without sincere devotion to their achievement, but the growing distance and differentiation between leadership and members, so that the leaders become more and more powerful and the members more and more subjugated, even in groups that profess egalitarian organization. Yet another key element is the distinction between the recruitment agenda put forth to attract new members, and the discipline and control asserted over members. The dichotomy between the initial assertions and ultimate commitment required is deliberately concealed from members. Initial recruits into Falun Gong, described as an exercise vehicle promoting health, are no more told of the ultimate requested suicidal conformity than were members of Heaven's Gate told they could look forward to castration and mass suicide.
While we always have been aware of the increasing authority destructive cult leaders assert over the membership, the occurrence of mass tragedies always serves to bring this reality back again into sharper focus. Many pose the question of how a sensitive or intelligent person could have been led to commit inexplicable and inhumane acts such as suicide or genocide, mass murder, and torture. But historical illustrations show how past leaders lost their restraint in their zeal to exert unlimited power. A long line of religious zealots, tyrants, and gurus of all stripes have started out as reformers, social do-gooders, or critics and ended up inciting their followers to commit the most despicable acts to further the leaders’ power and achieve their ends. Historical analysis gives cultural verification to these otherwise unbelievable narratives, even as, in different cultures, the powerless are not the same, and despicable acts of barbarity and humiliation take on different directions and expressions. Psychological studies over the past generation have also confirmed the capability of leaders bearing the trappings of authorized control to induce followers to abandon moral restraints in their actions.
As illustrations of some of these cultic trends, Rajneesh, the Eastern leader preaching simplicity and love, amassed a fleet of expensive autos while many followers, lured to his city in the northwest United States, froze to death in unheated portions of the group’s facility. As head of his commune, Jim Jones induced parents to feed poisoned Kool-Aid to their children to avoid his apprehension by American authorities who were following the trail of complaints. In Uganda, a church was nailed shut and followers incinerated inside by a leader consumed with megalomania. Indeed, induced suicide to serve the ends of the leader occurred not only in China, but in the Ukraine, Canada, and Switzerland in connection with deaths relating to the Order of Solar Temple, and in the United States with regard to Heaven’s Gate. An excellent personal analysis of this transformation is provided in the book written by Nansook Hong (In the Shadow of the Moon), the ex-wife of the eldest son of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon; in it, she illustrates the transformation and corruption in the development of the Unification Church.
The Nuremberg trials and trials of Japanese war criminals after the end of World War II illustrate inhumane behavior performed to carry out the orders of all-powerful leaders. With a brief examination, Chinese history shows us groups and leaders transforming themselves in this manner, including such groups as the Yellow Turbans, the Tai Peng, and the Boxers, each instance showing leaders using millenarian or idealistic recruitment tactics and turning their movements into politically and socially destabilizing uprisings. Likewise illustrative is the Japanese movement of Sokka Gakki (NSA), which in the United States holds itself out as an exercise group; in Japan, it is a political party with strong ambitions to exercise political domination. Members shift back and forth between various countries and are subject to varying degrees of control. We can also gain insight into these issues through political analyses from George Orwell’s 1984 to studies by Arthur Koestler and others of the history of certain Stalinist leaders. Now, certain Islamic fundamentalists adopt terrorist tactics and eliminate humane restraints on prospective actions to achieve their ends. Chemical, biological, nuclear — all weapons are acceptable vehicles to be used.
Lord Acton summed it up well when he reflected that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are continually reminded of the threats that destructive cults pose when we examine the unlimited lengths to which destructive leaders ask their followers to go, and the disregard they have for each individual’s worth and the rights of their followers. With the tragedy of September 11th, the world has seen the scope of the potential tragedy that zealot members can create. We know that both nr and Osama bin Laden strove to obtain nuclear weapons to enhance their power. I personally was involved in the examination of Aum’s efforts in this regard. While not all terrorist groups are in all respects similar to cults, both share certain characteristics in the exercise of unrestricted power by leadership over members of the group, and in their willingness to sacrifice members as well as innocent human beings to achieve the goals of the group — goals that ultimately are the glorification of the leader.
Relationships Between Members and Non-Members
A second critical indicia of a destructive cult is the degree to which the group sharply distinguishes itself and its members from all non-believers. In doing so, it establishes an “us against them” world view, used to build the bonds between members through concentration of common activity, shared secret language, and symbolic behavior — and an air of elitism, so that while believers and participants are claimed to be favored or specially blessed, non-believers are stripped of elements of humanity and respect.
Development of this distinction is reinforced internally by practices that seek to allow members of the group immediate identification and special lines of communication. Groups redefine language so that terms have “sacred” or secondary meanings to members, meanings that are not readily evident to outsiders. Some groups go so far in this effort as to create their own dictionaries. They may also adopt special forms of dress, distinct in appearance by color, or enforce hair styles that will identify members in the group. These methods both serve to identify members to other members and to foster isolation from non-members through their distinctive behavior patterns.
In addition, the group may encourage or require behavior that violates non-members’ norms. Encouraging sexual relations with children, fostering interracial marriages, and adopting polygamous practices all serve to isolate the group and estrange its members from their families, friends, and associates. The group will also substitute career and esthetic evaluations, causing rejection by its members of commonly held values formerly shared with non-members.
The distinction between groups is often reinforced by the leadership cutting off communication and social interaction between members and non-members of the group. Such interaction may be presented to the group as a threat to the purity of its members or as a diversion that could cause them to lose their intense focus on group loyalty or commitment.
Of course, some non-destructive groups encourage or require separation of their members from the rest of society who are non-members. If that separation recognizes respect for non-believers and honors their distinct existence in a pluralistic society, that separation may pose no problems. It is when the separation is combined with the dehumanization of non-believers that the destructive elements of cults appear. Some groups foster destructive behavior toward non-believers. The Church of Scientology, for example, expressly recognizes and supports harsh treatment of non-believing critics, even if they are spouses or family members of believers. Other groups maintain that it is proper to deceive and lie to non-believers, if those actions are for the purpose of enriching the believers’ group or achieving their view of beneficent ends. This conduct might embrace criminal activities as well. Of course, engaging in such conduct also tends to isolate the members, because commission of antisocial acts that may be immoral reinforces feelings of separation and guilt, ties these members to other members, and prevents and inhibits free transition out of the group. Groups often use information confidentially obtained about such conduct to intimidate and threaten a potential defector, particularly when disclosure would have adverse effects on the individual’s career or relationships outside the group.
There are instances in which groups have engaged in what Robert Lifton in his study of Nazi doctors calls “doubling.” In those situations, group members, to justify their heinous behavior toward non-members, internally create two lives. In doing so, they suppress their guilt about feelings they have concerning the heinous acts they have committed toward non-members, and they live a separate life free of contacts with such non-members. They fulfill their roles as loyal group members while they minimize the internal impact of the harm they inflict on non-members. Of course, this doubling dulls the moral sensibilities and ethical strictures of the people involved, while providing them with a false world in which they can deny the existence of their guilt by suppressing accountability for their behavior. As an analogy, consider those who have incited the suicides of group members, and those who have inflicted harm in the name of enforcing group discipline on members or on non-members.
In addition to these examples, other situations exist in which, to carry out assignments, members are sent out into communities of non-members and instructed to suppress indicia of their membership. To conceal their affiliation, members engage in behavior that would otherwise not be permitted to members. Recently, we have seen this demonstrated with respect to the “sleepers” sent out by terrorist groups: individuals who engage in activities that are inconsistent with the rules of the groups. But those activities, of course, are instructed, insincere, and manipulative. The ultimate purposes are kept secret, and non-group communications are at most ambiguous. Members’ secrets within the group are evidence of their real world. An illustration of this recently appeared in the Al Queda terrorist’s final letter to his German girlfriend, in which he expressed in cryptic terms his farewell to her and his devotion to his murderous mission.
Another aspect of the member, non-member relationship deals with questions concerning non-violent interface. In some instances, members of groups that believe they have the ultimate truth, tolerate non-believers, and confine their efforts at conversion or proselytization to adoption of conduct as an exemplar, demonstrating by actions consistent with their beliefs the value of their doctrine. Destructive groups, however, do not take such a benign view. In their perspective, non-members do not have essential human rights, and their failure to accept and follow the group’s beliefs and practices has deprived them of human status. Such a view can be used to justify ethnic cleansing and other barbaric practices that deny human rights and dignity to non-believers.
We have seen this destructive view demonstrated in recent tribal and cultic conflicts in Africa, and to a certain extent, in Bosnia and Kosovo. In a recent work dealing with nr, Robert Lifton has commented on how the view of that cult was manifested in the apocalyptic goal of “destroying the world in order to save it,” and the group’s action in killing innocent non-believers was viewed as altruistic murder that benefited both the victims and their perpetrators. We can see a similar view in other apocalyptic cults that, through deceit and manipulation, induce members into mass suicides for the purpose of accelerating an eschatological aim of bringing about ultimate world salvation. In a less dramatic way, it is common for members to deceive non-members for the benefit of the group using fraudulent misrepresentations and engaging in the concealment of material facts. We may even see this in commercial, cult-like groups that deal with pyramid schemes and direct sales tactics (which have in recent times been the subject of governmental regulation in China). After September 11th, there has been more focus on the use of emotion-laden language that calls for the elimination of non-believers. Such focus happens often after horrific catastrophes. To the extent we believe in a pluralistic world in which diverse groups will co-exist — and some will believe that they possess ultimate truth — to establish a relationship among believers and non-believers as an essential element in preserving societies that are pluralistic is to foster respect for the ultimate divergence of individuals.
During the course of their lives, people may move in and out of even those groups with strong commitments. A society that recognizes the reality of change and growth must support people’s rights to leave groups as well as join them. A group that is dedicated to total control and demands complete loyalty of its members may place significant difficulties and costs in the way of exit. A function and responsibility of society and of those concerned with cult activities is to ease transition by providing support and understanding for people who leave such groups. This support is just as important as activities devoted to deterring people from entering into the groups, or to preventing abuse while they are members. Exiting a group is difficult. We need to view people who emerge from an abusive group similarly to those who are recovering from inflicted psychological and emotional harm, not as intellectually or emotionally deficient people who have made voluntary mistakes and need to suffer the consequences of their poor choices. The results of the practices destructive cults use to retain members do not immediately disappear when the member leaves. Although some have criticized processes used in counseling members who are leaving the group, and have analogized the processes to the deceptive and coercive recruitment process used by the groups themselves, that analysis, of course, is fatally flawed. People who are recruited into destructive cults are put into an environment of enforced conformity where exit is made difficult. People who are counseled and choose to leave the group still have the option open to return to the group if they so desire.
The September 11th tragedy has caused us to focus not only on the leaders and committed members of terrorist groups, but also upon the process used to separate members of those groups from the rest of society and inculcate those members with hate. In viewing the relationship between members and non-members of highly committed groups, I would hope that the focus of September 11th has caused us to emphasize study of processes by which we can ameliorate the effects of such inculcation, and to provide alternatives and aid to people in obtaining more free transition in and out of committed groups — and to emphasize that societies will always consist of believers and non-believers of all kinds, who we must teach to live tolerantly with each other.
Relationships Between the Group and Society
The third facet of analysis with respect to a destructive cult is the mutual relationship between groups and the societies in which they exist. An identity of the membership of all citizens and members of any single group never exists; and even if such identification did exist for a moment, it would not persist. Rather, there are always citizens of a state who are not members of any one particular group. The group may focus on its own membership and make demands of those individuals with respect to behavior, lifestyle, and obedience, but government in a society owes its obligations to all citizens of the polity, not only those who are members of any single group, no matter how numerous or dominant.
In upholding the interests of its members, society has obligations to those members, obligations that may or may not be inconsistent with the duties or obligations of members of any single group within the society. A totalistic group may require its members to engage in certain kinds of behavior. Those behaviors may be different than behavior in which non-members in the society engage. In some instances, tolerance may find those differences acceptable because they do not violate or infringe upon any of the society’s essential concerns. However, in situations that involve certain destructive groups, the behavior required of members might well be inconsistent with society’s obligations to all members of its polity.
For example, society might require of its citizens certain conduct relating to maintaining health and control of infectious diseases. In such circumstances, members of a group are not free to jeopardize the lives of non-members by refusing to adhere to such regulations — by refusing to be vaccinated, for example. Society might be concerned with preservation of each individual’s human rights and the individual right to live, and so society might enact restrictions and procedures regulating euthanasia and suicide. Observance of such restrictions may be enforced even if contrary to practices of a group. Society may establish recognized rights for those lacking parity of power, such as women and children, and these rights might be inconsistent with strictures certain groups place upon these individuals. A group could require child marriage, it could turn a blind eye to sexual and psychological abuse, and it could prohibit or limit health care and education. That the group prohibits or mandates certain practices does not mean that the state must abstain from action to protect the rights of its citizens affected by those practices. Society may establish rules dealing with wages and conditions of employment. These rules bind groups that might otherwise impose child labor, slavery, and unhealthful practices on their members. The fact that a group is tolerated by the state does not give it the freedom to regulate its members’ behavior without limit. The state owes obligations to all of its citizens independent of their group membership.
This relationship is a mutual one; it is not one predicated solely upon a state’s abdication from regulation. Since September 11th, many countries have recognized the necessity to consider the needs and rights of victims of zealots, to provide food and shelter to those whose needs were subordinated to the zealots’ cause. In Afghanistan, we have observed an imposed recognition of women’s rights, regardless of the persistence of various groups’ restrictions on their education and lifestyle. This shift of focus, hopefully, will restore a balance in the assessment of human rights, taking into account the rights of non-members of groups as well as members.
“Human rights” advocates often focus solely on the rights of members of groups, as if any limits on members’ rights constitutes an abridgement of human rights generally, but that is only half the story. To protect human rights, one must look at the whole society and include consideration of the rights of all its members, not just the rights of members of a particular group. Additionally, society must not ignore practices of members of groups that violate human rights, and it must protect the compact between the state and all of its citizens.
Members of a group may be induced through various pressures to engage in conduct that violates social norms. To the extent that human rights are non-forfeitable — such as those involving slavery — the apparent consent of members to the abridgement of those rights is not a bar to state regulation protecting them.
Here again, the role of the society is a reciprocal one — while observing restrictions respecting the liberty of the individual group member, it need not stand silent in the face of abrogation of non-members’ or members’ human rights by the group.
Analysis of these issues did not arise with the terrorist incidents in September 2001. However, worldwide attention to the use of religious dogma as purported justification and encouragement for heinous acts has caused us to look again and sharpen our focus in our concerns about destructive cults and the threats they pose. The outpouring of shock and revulsion at terrorist activity has been offset by a like outpouring of zealot incitement against perceived wrongs, and promotion of terror as an acceptable means to achieve religious ends.
We have, likewise, been treated to many illustrations of the mind control carried out by religious “educational” institutions that train terrorists and suicide bombers, and we have been appalled by the chorus of proponents of religious wars. If we needed graphic evidence of the chilling effect mind control has in removing moral restraints on horrific behavior, we certainly have it now.
We have seen efforts to build coalitions dedicated to restraining such activities and to discrediting those who proclaim themselves as heroes and martyrs for a violent cause. What has become evident, and what is most needed, is an understanding that destructive cults transcend the social boundaries of mutual respect and have no regard for the human rights of those who disagree with them, or even for the rights of members of their own group. We must strive to recognize individual rights, and to protect those rights in a society that allows divergent groups to flourish and gives respect to individual differences but does not dehumanize any of its members as a means of achieving any group leader’s aims. The events of 9/11 give us the opportunity to seize the attention focused on the elimination of the horrific consequences of terrorism and expand its focus to shared concerns about the dangers posed by destructive cults.
A Summary Word on Human Rights and Cults
We often see the two terms human rights and cults linked in learned discussions and in glaring headlines. Because cults are well sponsored academically, and because there are ample cult financial resources to devote to public relations, it is a pretty good bet that when these two terms appear together, the discourse that follows will deal only with the rights of cult members and not the rights of people who are not cult members or other citizens.
This limitation was recently brought home to me in the reports issued after the Chairperson of the United Nation’s Commission on Human Rights visited China and came away with pronouncements on human rights issues. I found in the declarations some recognition of increase in dialogue, but still a narrow focus on complaints about treatment of individual Falun Gong members. I did not see anything about the human rights’ violations of Falun Gong member families, and I did not see anything about any concerns related to destructive practices of Falun Gong and the harm suffered by Falun Gong members. Unfortunately, this one-sided view is not unique. It has ample historical precedent and has seldom been critically commented on.
When German government agencies decided they would investigate the Church of Scientology because they thought its practices posed a danger to the rights of German citizens, a well-financed claque quickly formed to criticize the German government as violating human rights. Indeed, John Travolta, a movie star and high-profile member of the Church of Scientology, was able to get an appointment with a senior national security official in the American government to discuss these alleged human rights concerns. When a delegation, supposedly objectively investigating the position of the German government and the alleged human rights abridgements of members of the Church of Scientology, conducted an inquiry, its members met with paid supporters of the Church of Scientology as well as some church members. But the delegation refused to meet with representatives of the German government who were prepared to explain the basis for their concerns. When the French adopted legislation that expressed their concern about destructive cults’ abridgement of the human rights of French citizens, the claque again enlisted some of its most vocal supporters. Press releases and articles flooded the media, proclaiming the end of liberty and civil rights in France and asserting grave threats to religious freedom throughout the world. Lobbying pressure intensified in the United States to the point at which a leader in the French government finally issued a statement saying that the French understood the close connections between Scientology supporters and senior persons in the American government and the United Nations, and that they did not believe French legislation indicated any abandonment of the French commitment to liberty, equality, fraternity, or human rights.
More recently, we have seen terrorists, whose horrific actions have been criticized and condemned, seek to apply language that claims their repression and suffering through religious and economic persecution a moral equivalency to the destruction of the World Trade Center and infliction of far more than 3,000 deaths.
On an even more recent event, I contrasted the national reactions relating to the Chinese Government’s treatment of certain Falun Gong protestors in Beijing. While certain governments, such as Sweden, focused their comments solely on alleged mistreatment of protestors and members of Falun Gong, Pravda, in contrast, featured an article discussing the causes for Chinese concern about the abuses of Falun Gong and the suffering of a number of immolated Falun Gong members, including, earlier, a 12-year old girl. A recent article in a Spanish magazine also featured a discussion about harm to Falun Gong members and their families.
Human rights are important because they are based on the inherent humanity of each individual and the necessity that respect be accorded to each person. But they are also important on an overall social level. Why is there no public inquiry about why the Chinese government is concerned with Falun Gong? In the few instances in which Chinese government conduct is discussed, political repression is the primary focus. Why is there no examination of Chinese history, and the recognition of the destructive and destabilizing, apocalyptic consequences of groups whose leaders possess the power to compel total obedience from all followers and launch them on a mission to bring a new order into society? Certainly, the Tai Peng and Boxer Rebellions in China provided insight into a perceived threat of that kind, and the adverse social consequences that flowed from it. Why is there no recognition of the background in Chinese society of family values and the common social goal of preserving families, as opposed to allowing outside influences to destroy them? What about the tradition of individual, critical, intellectual integrity?
Certainly, all members of Falun Gong possess individual rights that should not be abridged. But that does not mean members are free to engage in whatever conduct they desire without heed for the rights of those they will affect. Nor does it mean that an organization that has an adverse impact on the rights of other citizens who are not members of the group, or that has an impact on the members of the group in areas in which the state has an established right to protect the life, liberty, and happiness of all its citizens, must be immunized from state action. Threats to freedom by destructive cults, religious or not, are not entitled to benign neglect. Human rights is a matter of mutual concern on a “micro” level dealing with individual rights, and on a “macro” level dealing with social responsibility and relationships in a society administered by a responsible government.
We need more balanced, thoughtful media coverage of these issues, free from a knee-jerk reaction that contrasts a tiny new religion with a powerful state. We need an objective perspective on human rights that extends to all members of society and criticizes all infringements of civil liberties, with consideration given to the rights and obligations of all citizens of society, and to the responsibility of all to observe its laws and regulations.