I'm something of an expert on cults; Burning Man is not a cult and is not in danger of becoming one. Dr Robert J Lifton developed what is recognized as the most authoritative criteria for testing whether an organization engages in "thought reform" or "mind control", ie is a cult. Here is an article that explains his Eight Points of Mind Control (original at http://www.watchman.org/na/assist3.htm
). See for yourself how many you think apply to Burning Man.
Privy Procedures for Pied Pipers: Lifton's Eight Criteria of Mind Control
by Craig Branch
The reader is recommended to the website of Wellspring Retreat and Resource center in Ohio (http://wellspring.albany.oh.us
). Wellspring is the only cult rehabilitation facility in the world. They have posted a description of seminal work in the field of thought reform or mind control, Dr. Robert Lifton's 8 criteria for mind control, adapted from his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Fatalism. Psychiatrist and Professor Robert J. Lifton of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, book and works are some of the seminal material on the issue of thought reform or brainwashing.
Examine this synopsis of Lifton's eight points and compare them with the practices described in "Paying the Toll at Heaven's Gate" and "Close Encounters of the Cult-kind," both in this Expositor, to see how Heaven's Gate was employing all eight.
Wellspring writes "members of high-demand organizations often experience . . . the gradual narrowing of the thought life of the members. His or her life experiences, expectations of life are restricted and interaction with alternate ideas is reduced.
"When this tendency is combined with an intense belief system that emphasizes the benefits of life in heaven or a higher plane of existence, members are more easily influenced to radically commit themselves to behavior they would not otherwise choose, even to die" (p.1).
1. MILIEU CONTROL
Control of communication within the group environment resulting in significant degree of isolation from the surrounding society. When non-members are labeled as ignorant, unspiritual, satanic, etc., group members conclude that outsiders have nothing worthwhile to teach them. Thus members are unlikely to look outside the group for information, especially spiritual information. Milieu control includes other techniques to restrict members' contact with the outside world and to be able to make critical, rational judgments about information: [This includes] not only the individual's communication with the outside, . . . but also . . . his communication with himself . . . Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth, . . . they consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this 'truth.' [The group member] is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it. . ."
2. MYSTICAL MANIPULATION
The claim of divine authority or spiritual advancement that allows the leader to reinterpret events as he or she wishes, or make prophecies or pronouncements at will, all for the purpose of controlling group members. "Ideological totalists. . . are impelled by a special kind of mystique which not only justifies such manipulations, but makes them mandatory... They are the agents 'chosen' (by history, by God, or by some other supernatural force) to carry out the 'mystical imperative,' the pursuit of which must supersede all considerations of decency or of immediate human welfare. Similarly, any thought or action which questions the higher purpose is considered to be stimulated by a lower purpose, to be backward, selfish, and petty in the face of the great overriding mission." "One is asked to accept these manipulations on a basis of trust (or faith). . . When trust gives way to mistrust. . . the higher purpose cannot serve as adequate emotional sustenance . . .feeling himself unable to escape from forces more powerful than himself, he subordinates everything to adapting himself to them. He becomes sensitive to all kinds of cues."
3. DEMAND FOR PURITY
Members are constantly exhorted to strive for perfection. Consequently, guilt and shame are common and powerful control devices. "The experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure . . . The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity . . . is attainable. . .. [B]y defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition. . .. Each person is made vulnerable through his profound inner sensitivities to his own limitations and to his unfulfilled potential. . .[i.e.,] his existential guilt. . . He must also look upon his impurities as originating from outside influences."
4. THE CULT OF CONFESSION
Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed, either privately to a personal monitor or publicly to the group at large. "Confession is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed." "In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for, these vulnerabilities. . . The assumption underlying total exposure... is the environment's claim to total ownership of each individual self within it. . ..[T]he cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility."
5. THE "SACRED SCIENCE"
The doctrine of the group is considered the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or disputing. The leader of the group is likewise above criticism as the spokesperson for God on earth. "An aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions." "While thus transcending ordinary concerns of logic, however, the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute 'scientific' precision. . . the man who dares to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also 'unscientific." "At the level of the individual, the totalist sacred science can offer much comfort and security."
6. LOADING THE LANGUAGE
The group develops a jargon in many ways unique to itself, often non-understandable to outsiders. This jargon consists of numerous words and phases which the members understand (or think they do), but which really act to dull one's ability to engage in critical thinking. "The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis."
7. DOCTRINE OVER PERSON
The personal experiences of the group members are subordinated to the "Truth" held by the group-apparently contrary experiences must be denied or re-interpreted to fit the doctrine of the group. The doctrine is always more important than the individual. "Another characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine. . . Consequently, past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic. . . the demand that character and identity be reshaped, not in accordance with one's special nature or potentialities, but rather to fit the rigid contours of the doctrinal mold."
8. DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE
The group arrogates to itself the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. Usually held non-literally, this means that those outside the group are unspiritual, worldly, satanic, "unconscious," or whatever, and that they must be converted to the ideas of the group or they will be lost. If they refuse to join the group, then they must be rejected by the group members, even if they are family members. "For the individual, the polar emotional conflict is the ultimate existential one of 'being versus nothingness.' He is likely to be drawn to a conversion experience, which he sees as the only means of attaining a path of existence for the future. . . The totalist environment . . . thus stimulates in everyone a fear of extinction or annihilation. . . A person can overcome this fear and find. . .'confirmation,' not in his individual relationships, but only from the fount of all existence, the totalist Organization. Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon submission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the ideological movement."
Tragically, the deaths in Rancho Santa Fe, illustrate dispensing of existence literally. It appears that all these processes were present to one degree or another in the group now known as Heaven's Gate. The personality and critical thinking of the victims was systematically eroded by the environment and attitudes established by the leader. "You're right Mr. Applewhite, suicide is the wrong word for what happened in that rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. The right word is murder."
The most seductive evil is when a leader comes across as being very nice, peaceful, genuine and friendly, who seems to be a sincere believer in high-minded and lofty ideals. But the means don't justify the end. In Heaven's Gate, these weren't people who pulled any triggers. They just masterminded a mental state that coerced everyone else to murder themselves.