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Promises and Illusions

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 2, pages 200-210. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Promises and Illusions: A Commencement Address to the SUNY Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome, New York

Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.



On May 13, 1995, Herbert Rosedale addressed the graduating class of the State University of New York’s Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome. The address cautions students against getting so caught up in and thrown off balance by the modern world’s frenetic pace and seemingly glittering opportunities that they become vulnerable to hucksters’ promises of complete security or absolute certainty. The address discusses the deceptive, manipulative ways in which cultic groups lure the unsuspecting; presents historical and contemporary examples of otherwise decent people being manipulated into performing evil acts; and offers certain principles that graduates might keep in mind in order to avoid the “adoption of a narrow perspective that refuses to see beyond boundaries dictated by another.”

I would like to dedicate my remarks to the hundreds of members of destructive cults whom I have seen emerge from the cloud of narrowed thought into the bright sunlight of assertion of their own free will. I also dedicate this to those other millions who I hope in their time will join other former cult members in sharing the spirit of liberty and pursuing their own choice of individual happiness. And I dedicate this to the families of current and former cult members everywhere.

Today’s world is one in which we confront a daunting array of challenges and a dazzling string of promises. Given the accelerating  speed with which the world changes, challenges emerge in startling, sometimes confusing profusion. Often we appear to be merely observers in a scene so dominated by change that freshman courses are outdated by the sophomore year. This is true for specifics, as well as generalities.

When I was a student, the industrial age was being transformed into the postindustrial age, which now has given way to the age of communication, soon to be followed by the age of introspection. If we keep going in that direction, we may see the age of contemplation, and then the age of utter silence. All of this speedy transformation not only tends to bewilder us but also presents us with the challenge of how to fit into a kaleidoscopic world. Institutions that we believed were indestructible, on which we relied--such as the family, the nation-state, and the community of nations--have been shaken, and we now confront the widespread belief in the diminished ability of any individual to make a difference, as well as experiencing a pervasive sense of personal insecurity.

Indeterminacy is no longer just a law of physics; it has become a principle of economics and personal relationships. Nothing is safe or secure. There is no firm borderline between “there” and “here.” In such a world, the challenge each of us faces is how we individualize ourselves and make a place and mark upon this apparently chaotic world.

In seeking to meet this challenge, we are often diverted by glittering promises. Hucksters of various stripes hold out the lure of complete security or absolute certainty. They flash the bait of unconditional approval, the taste of complete power, a quick peek at unconditional loyalty, and finally suggest the joy of total surrender.

But all of these are shadows cast by flickering light on the walls of Plato’s cave. They are nothing but manipulative devices projected to divert you from the goals you seek, as the one who makes the promise imposes his hidden agenda. This agenda aims to place you in a state of narrowed consciousness, so as to effect the surrender of your critical thought, resulting in abdication of your rationality.

In the decade that I have dealt with destructive cults, time and time again I have observed the offer of such promises. These false illusions--spun out deliberately toward a person at moments of indecision or emotional stress--seek to steal from each individual his or her persona and critical sense. These lures reek of soporific incense, relieving the stress of decision making and substituting dulled acquiescence.

 Cult recruiters conceal their identity, their real intent and motives. Their false sets of promises are constructed to offer what they believe you want or need at a given moment of time. These promises are not designed to bring fulfillment, but are merely lures. A cult recruiter approaches a person during moments of difficulty--for example, when a personal relationship is strained or you’re at a crossroads in life without assurance that any choice will be certain to be right. Cult recruitment is a process designed so that the only choice you need to make is that of surrender, which, of course, is not disclosed. A new lifestyle, new values and a new all-powerful leader are there to be grasped as salvation in the midst of the angst of the moment, along with making a commitment to a life of supposed idealistic fulfillment.

Succumbing to this kind of solicitation results not from any fault or deficiency within us. Rather, it is our trust, humaneness, and idealism that feed into the success rates of cult recruitment. The entire recruitment process rests on concealment and callous manipulative abuse of power. It’s as much a scam as the sale of watered stock, counterfeit merchandise, or automobiles with rigged odometers.

And who are the people injured by this theft? Those who have seen their ideals spirited away, who have set out to do good and ameliorate the ills of the world but find themselves empty vessels filled with someone else’s sound and fury. They were willing to invest themselves in righting the wrongs they perceived, but were left with their trust twisted, left bearing the scars of abuse: starving children, beaten women, stacks of corpses, victims of murderous zealots.

How does this relate to events of recent years? We observe devotees who sacrificed their critical thought to the dictates of a single-minded leader who carried them away from questioning and using their own minds to the point where they engaged in behavior that might be considered beyond bizarre, even barbaric. Abandoning their own independent judgment in favor of submission to the will of others, they appear to have committed unthinkable, unspeakable acts.

We wonder how intelligent people could commit such acts. When people forfeit their critical thought and independence, they no longer act as rational individuals but merely as vassals of an authoritarian leader. Exercise of power corrupts these leaders, and absolute power corrupts them absolutely.

History shows numerous examples of people who, when co-opted into a totalist group, committed acts they would not have performed if they’d been acting on exercise of their own free will. Mothers fed their children poisoned Fla-Vor-Aid at Jonestown. At Waco, an escapee from the burning building turned and ran back into the firestorm. In a California suburb, mothers asked a court to return their children to the control of a leader found guilty of murdering another child in the group. Members of the Solar Temple engaged in mutual slaughter. Parents in a northern New England group birched the flesh off the backs of their children because they made an unseemly noise while the leader was speaking.

Examples of people carrying out barbarous acts and using the justification that they were only “following orders” strike resonant chords in us. In Hitler’s Germany, doctors and judges professing integrity maintained a cozy, private family life while carrying out the barbaric dictates of a totalitarian society with chilling efficiency. Students in a well-known psychological experiment inflicted what they believed to be dangerous levels of pain on an unconsenting subject when instructed to do so by a person possessing apparent authority. We have many examples of intelligent people abdicating their moral values after having surrendered their critical thought.

But those who were in such groups or situations did not choose at the outset to involve themselves in a total loss of rationality or to commit these base acts. They only thought they were joining a group dedicated to social improvement, fighting against a perceived inequity or injustice. They were taken in by the initial sales pitch, trusting the charismatic and convincing leader. By the time these followers realized that the agenda was far more broad and more frightening, they had lost their capacity for critical thought and were locked into a group, cut off from their familial and prior personal connections, and deprived of access to unfiltered information or the ability to participate in discussions with someone other than a like-minded clone.

In our country, many scholars have long acknowledged a paranoid style in American politics, and we have often seen tendencies in some to view the world as dominated by various conspiracies. Today there is a proliferation of apocalyptic and xenophobic groups held together by a paranoid belief that we are at the edge of some great cataclysm after which only the “elect” will survive. In following that view, they prepare themselves for Armageddon, not eschewing violence but grasping it firmly and without limit. They arm themselves for the inevitable war. They distance themselves from individuals who do not share their beliefs and disparage all institutions they do not control. These people are not only in remote locations far removed from us. They are also in our cities and towns. They are on our campuses and in our churches. They are the merchants of dread.

These people believe that all their troubles are traceable solely to sources outside themselves. The “outsiders” are denominated variously as individuals of immense wealth and power, international bankers, foreigners, governmental agents or provocateurs, or, in some instances, all of those who believe differently from the “chosen few.” Clearly, these people believe they are above all but their own interpretation of the law. Their ends justify the use of any means, and they regard the death of innocents as a price that may be required for the advance of their cause. But there is no Valhalla, no paradise, no idealized end. All that is held out is resistance and alienation. None of these groups have a worldview in which you or I will survive that final battle. Their idealized world is a return to a fictional garden of Eden stripped of all discordant humanity.

Promises of entry into an idealized world sound a bit too good to be true. Their shallowness and illusory nature derive from their absolute character. A patina of uncritical approval, which appears to vest us with attributes we know we do not fully possess, is often included in this process. While this seductive and manipulative solicitation has been described as “love bombing,” it is really “mind sapping.” For those who extend this shimmering adulation seek only to achieve their end, which is to attract a new member. How far recruits fall when they learn it was all an act and  that they were led to accept the pretense for reality!

There is nothing new in the attempt to sell the virtues of slavery. How bitter the fruit is when the trusting recruit learns that unconditional loyalty requires infliction of pain on others, public self-humiliation, violation of law, living in a state of dread and depression, suffering the exploitation of women, and inflicting abuse on children. All of these may be required for the purpose of proving the completeness of the individual’s surrender and the unquestioned nature of obedience. The evil is easily seen afterwards when the veil is lifted, but there are cautions evident to the wary even while the web is being spun.

Insistence on complete dependence, erosion of self-respect, and rejection of critical thought as abhorrent to the achievement of a group’s goals are bright signs of the slippery slope ahead. When even the slightest remnant of individuality is subject to elimination--including choosing your career, spouse, clothing, or even the maintenance of your name--an alarm should sound.

Pressing for submission and unconditional obedience or seeking the abandonment of intellectual reflection in dedication to a movement is not novel. For thousands of years venal leaders have sought the abdication of reason and promised millennial solutions. The pied piper, for example, is not new to us, but what is new in our contemporary society are the trappings with which pipers adorn themselves and the technologies of persuasion they utilize. Often the appeal is characterized under the guise of a Anew age” or the label of a Anew religious movement.” Sometimes a manipulative message is wrapped in Eastern dress, claiming a false heritage and pedigree it does not possess.

If, by chance, you state that the message does not make sense, it is turned around on you and you are marked as deficient. If you don’t connect up, it’s because you’re not opening yourself to new thoughts. If you don’t join, it’s because you’re a prisoner of the establishment or caught in a commitment to institutions whose time has passed. If you don’t stay, it’s because you don’t possess true ideals but are selfish, and certainly you can’t expect to understand all these purportedly wondrous ideas without putting the rest of your life on hold.

Of course, this hard sell doesn’t work well in the light of day or after reflection or communication with others, so it must be sold and pushed in the half-light of twilight or before dawn. Decisions must be made before the sun rises and light shines on these ideas. Critical thought and discussion is anathema and the recruit must be put in the position of an isolated receptor with access only to fully indoctrinated group members.

Another infallible indication of the misleading and manipulative nature of these promises is the claimed urgency of the need for immediate commitment. The time trap is an invariable warning light. The need to commit before reflection or discussion with those who might have a different point of view is contrary to the education you have received. Your own ability to accept or reject ideas should overcome someone else’s assertion of your inability to understand. There should always be enough time to explain. The only bus is not about to leave. The attempt to substitute someone else’s judgment for your own is insufficient, no matter how stridently urged, as an acceptable basis for making an idea or belief your own. You should hold it up to the light and turn it first one way and then another to see how you interpret it and if you really want to make it yours.

The urging that you give up that process because you are incapable of making those choices is an insult. We each know that what we treasure most differs somewhat from what another person holds dear. Ideas may be shared, but each person should go through her or his own examination of alternatives, which might result in a particular choice that will not always conform to another’s. Suggesting that what was good for another must be good for you should raise an immediate warning, an immediate query as to why this imposed uniformity is so crucial.

Similarly, identification of only one individual or group as the repository of all that is true and good, with everything outside indelibly tainted by evil often signals an ulterior purpose. If there were ultimate truth in such an assertion, why are there so many claimed exclusive sources of true and good, where each regards the others as flawed and evil? And why do so many of these messiahs, masters, and gurus use the same manipulative methods of recruitment and retention? Given our pluralistic society’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and the defense of the right to disagree, the urging of totalistic authoritarianism and the denigration of all “outsiders” under whatever banner raises a warning. Under the cloak of such claims--whether religious or patriotic--hides the potential for the use of violence and regression to an age of bigotry and know-nothingism.

The lures and scams that are out there today are not only in the political and religious self-help arenas, but they extend to the business world as well. Cultic management training groups claim to be able to improve an employer’s bottom line and at the same time reform the personalities of the workforce, as well as adjust their families to newly dictated modes of behavior. Working for such an employer is not a job or career and you’re not Ain good hands” under such a regimen. It is a misappropriation of employees’ lives and an unwanted intrusion into their privacy and constitutional freedom.

In the political area, some nominally patriotic groups aim at destruction of our political system, hoping to substitute one where liberty exists only for those who share their views. In academia, cult groups have taken over universities without disclosure of their ties or their agendas. This fosters erosion of professional values and substitutes dogmatic thinking where ideas are accepted or rejected solely because of their conformity to the group’s doctrine, not because of their intrinsic merit. Recognizing the importance of the media in today’s world, cultic groups have obtained ownership and control of newspaper and television interests.

Cults also contribute to debasing our language by substituting slogans and intricate symbols to distort communication. Words generally understood in one form with an accepted meaning are conveyed with a twist not readily ascertainable to the outsider. Obvious examples surface when we examine the self-labeling of these groups. For example: The Unification Church recruiting arm is called the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP). Certainly not something a new joiner would believe to be a religious group proselytizing for a new messiah. The Church of Scientology promotes its scripture through personality tests and communication courses, with no indication of its religious aim. Some groups that seek to change our government and purport to identify an evil cabal at the root of all our misery use bland names like the Historic Preservation Association or the Institute of Historical Review.

This use of language has as its purpose the substitution of propaganda for truth. It seeks to eliminate objective evaluation of ideas by any manner other than the litmus test of cultic correctness. It applies this test, without restriction, to matters of current financial or political interest, and propositions of science, law, education, and medicine.

In this era of the rapid development of technology of communication, we must understand that the quality of information supplied must be related to the identity of the parties supplying it. Without that, we may not readily be able to identify the informer’s perspective and bias. Working within an accepted belief in something like “heavenly deception,” a zealot’s underlying manipulative motive distorts what could otherwise be expected to be straightforward. That applies to revisionist history, the promise of new science, and the development of “novel” theories in education, medicine, and other professional arenas. These new world schemes should be carefully checked out lest they be no more than simply a science fiction writer’s musings elevated to dogmatic scripture, or yet another instance of orchestrated Orwellian chanting of “war is peace.” Today’s challenge requires that each of us build our individual critical thought and increase our self-reliance.

Promises that are real are able to be fulfilled within your own personal self. They rest on the interaction of yourself with the external world. Each of you faces an individual challenge. You cannot fulfill the promise of your future by surrendering to a collective will. You must be prepared for the excitement of the unanticipated, the discovery that there is more to the world than you thought there would be. To sort out the false from the real, you must recognize that every expressed idea is not of equal worth no matter how forcefully presented. The world is not made of green cheese; the sun does not move around the Earth; the Earth is not flat; and those black objects buzzing overhead may be flies not helicopters.

Education has expanded your horizons, taken you on a journey to this point. Think how different you are from the person who embarked upon a college education a few years ago. Reflect on how many times you shifted direction, how many times you found something in yourself, in another, or in the world around you that you had not dreamed existed. Think of how many new people you met, how many new songs you heard, how many new skills you acquired, and, during the course of this journey, how many times you had an unexpected joy, saw a serendipitous solution as soap bubbles rising or an apple falling or experienced that famous individual “aha” reaction.

A real promise is a promise of tomorrow, one that rejects absolutes and simplistic solutions and builds on your own self-confidence and self-respect, along with increasing respect for others who may differ from you. A real promise avoids the ideology of zealotry or the adoption of a narrow perspective that refuses to see beyond boundaries dictated by another. With it comes an understanding that power and knowledge contain responsibility and are not enhanced by an abusive need to establish dominance over another.

Indeterminacy or uncertainty is not a vice. It may well be the ultimate opportunity. We have the ability to choose and the proclivity to change our minds and choose again. We have the right to make mistakes, recognize them, and correct them. We have the ability to reach out and help others and support them, not because we are told by another to do so, but because we want to. In doing so, we have the ability to recognize that we do not have to control those we help or make them identical to us. Our differences may be sources of celebration. They do not prevent us from living together. There is no single walled path that we must follow to our destiny. This would not be a gateway to tomorrow, but reentry to a maze of yesterdays.

During the past four years, you have experienced a process of learning that has led to this moment of graduation, moving you from one stage of knowledge, of ideas and attitudes, to another which might be quite different from where you began. We are at a commencement, not an ending. It is a looking forward, a beginning of another stage of life. It is a life where you yourselves will make your future choices and assert control over your own destiny.

Each of you, with the support of others, has gone through an experience of enhancing your own personal sense of responsibility. It is something that you cannot and should not give up to anyone else. It is your unique gift and your opportunity. Having come this far with the support of those who care about you and with the aid of those who helped you grow, do not give it all up and sell it in a supine surrender. Rely on your own common sense and, as stated by a Jonestown survivor, firmly believe that what sounds too good to be true, probably is.