In this paper I want to reflect upon how we use language and how we might be able to develop our approaches in shared discourse when dealing with authoritarian groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Within the areas of advocacy, polemic, and political and religious discourse it is not sufficient that we should say what we mean and mean what we say. It is imperative that we should also ensure, so far as we are able, that our hearers understand what we mean.
The scope for misunderstanding, however, is wide arising at least in part from the fact that words often have a wide range of meanings not all of which are intended in any particular instance of their use. Over time words acquire new meanings and old ones drop out of currency. The result is that many words do not have a single precise meaning. Consequently, a widely used word can, depending upon the circumstances, convey an unintended meaning.
Such misunderstandings may vary across a wide range, from the very common simple misunderstanding that is rapidly corrected or even hardly noticed at all, to what might be termed hostile misunderstanding or even dishonest attribution of error. In practice there will always be grey areas between these kinds of miscommunication but for the sake of elucidation it is helpful to treat them separately at this stage.
- Dave says he has no bread, so Jill offers him a loaf. But he meant he had no money, using bread in its slang sense.
- Anna says, “We should be able to reach a compromise here.” Don responds, “Absolutely not. You know we will never compromise.” They were trying to agree child/parent visiting routines, but Don only ever encounters compromise in reference to an imperative to be unwavering in his JW beliefs.
- Jane, an atheist, describes a grim and desolate location as a “God-forsaken place.” Mike, a keen religious believer, seizes upon this remark: “Aha! Deep down you are a believer after all.” Even a believer would not normally intend God-forsaken in any literal sense here but Mike has pounced upon something he can portray as a Freudian slip in order to claim that even a declared atheist somehow really does believe at some subconscious level.
- Alan makes a reference to a girl he found attractive. Bill seizes upon the word girl and claims that Alan has given evidence of being a paedophile.
In each case here the same process is happening – a speaker uses a word in one sense but it is understood/misunderstood in a different sense. Really, this is so commonplace that most of the time it is hardly worth mentioning. In the field of counter-cult advocacy, however, it is something we do well to bear in mind.
In the second of the above examples, if Anna had avoided the use of compromise and chosen instead a word which would not trigger immediate resistance. the conversation could have been more productive. So, “Let’s try to negotiate an agreement,” rather than suggesting a compromise. With this thought in mind, we should be able to identify a basic list of words to avoid when in conversation with adherents of movements which have their own specialist or nuanced meanings. For the present, though, let’s focus on just a few fairly important words.
Much discussion about counter-cult advocacy rightly focusses upon the importance of promoting critical thinking. Coupled with this is the idea of developing the confidence to think independently or to think for oneself. These expressions, however, will immediately put up barriers for most Jehovah’s Witnesses. Critical, though rooted etymologically in discernment, assessment and analysis, carries with it for many people (not only adherents of cults) the idea of negativity, fault-finding and rejection, and for JW’s this negative meaning predominates.
So, if we invite a current Witness to subject their beliefs to some critical thinking we will almost certainly be immediately misunderstood and our communication will come to an abrupt end. We will be heard as asking them to reject their beliefs and find fault with them. Whilst such may, indeed, be the eventual outcome of critical thinking, to go directly from belief to rejection without any intervening process of rigorous scrutiny would be to by-pass genuine critical thinking.
Similarly, if we were to suggest that a current Witness should think for themselves or think independently we are unlikely to get a hearing. Independent thinking among Jehovah’s Witnesses is something frowned upon and rigorously discouraged. For instance: From the very outset of his rebellion Satan called into question God’s way of doing things. He promoted independent thinking. ‘You can decide for yourself what is good and bad,’ Satan told Eve. ‘You don’t have to listen to God. He is not really telling you the truth.’ (Genesis 3:1-5) To this day, it has been Satan’s subtle design to infect God’s people with this type of thinking.—2 Timothy 3:1, 13. (The Watchtower, 15th January, 1983. p22.)
For us to be advocating independent thinking or critical thinking appears, to the Witness, to put us in league with the devil and we will simply not get a hearing.
We can seek to avoid this abrupt shut-down of dialogue with Jehovah’s Witnesses by choosing words which do not convey such negative or combative meanings. Instead of inviting them to engage in critical thinking we could speak of analytical or rigorous thinking, or simply of taking a closer look at our beliefs and opinions. In most instances this approach may only delay the almost inevitable shut-down but the important point is that it can buy time to sow the seeds of constructive thinking at a later stage for our hearers.
Before moving on to further considerations arising from this approach to dialogue, it will be useful to set out in clearer form what is going on with meanings and misunderstandings. We begin with an example of the simplest case of a word and its meaning and consider how meanings may change with time and especially how they may also vary from one group of speakers to another.
When a word in wide currency carries a distinctive meaning within a defined group of speakers such as a cult, this will almost always relate to connotative rather than conceptual meaning. (An exception to this would be when a word is specifically coined for a technical or jargon use and subsequently gains wider currency outside the originating group.) This gives rise to the potential for misunderstanding or barriers to communication when a speaker uses a word intending meaning 1 whereas the hearer interprets it as meaning 2.
When speakers and hearers regularly use words across a large portion of the range of possible meanings a mismatch between speaker and hearer will often be quickly resolved – an utterance sounds momentarily odd but recognition soon kicks in. In counter-cult dialogue, however, where there will quite possibly be a presumption of disagreement (and even hostility) to begin with, a mismatch will all too easily terminate a dialogue prematurely.
A useful strategy to adopt in order to avoid or least to delay the premature termination of dialogue, is to choose words carefully seeking to avoid wherever possible those which carry potentially inappropriate meanings. We noted above the habitual use of critical and its derivatives among Jehovah’s Witnesses as implying negativity or habitual rejection of doctrine, which makes it virtually impossible to invite a Witness to take a critical look at their beliefs.
If, instead of referring to critical thinking, we choose an expression which is not negatively loaded then we stand a chance of gaining a little more of a hearing. Invite them to indulge in a little analytical thinking rather than critical thinking. And within this analytical approach, instead of confronting elements of belief head-on it would be helpful where possible to take an indirect approach.
The first step in the process is to seek to load the concept of analytical (or critical) thinking with positivity using an example from an unrelated and uncontroversial area. So, instead of talking about the analysis of religious beliefs and their foundations, one might talk about the excitement of discovery in the sciences, the arts and all manner of activities.
Where, instead of simply reading what the experts have said, one goes to see for oneself and whilst gaining greater insight into the chosen area of interest, one also gains enhanced respect for those who have led the way and have become leaders and teachers in those areas. Such an approach, of course, will take an extended time and may only be possible where there is a continuing relationship between a former JW and a current JW.
This is, I suggest, appropriate in the case of a shared custody relationship between an ex-Witness parent and a Witness child. In such a situation one does not want to clash head-on with Witness beliefs at the risk of damaging or even destroying a custody sharing agreement. Nor would one wish to completely alienate the Witness child or to confirm the WT mischaracterisation of the defector as basically an enemy of truth.
The idea is, rather, to follow an interesting and fulfilling lifestyle that is worth emulating and at the same time to demonstrate the real, positive life-enhancing benefits of always asking “Why?” A slogan to adopt alongside this approach might be: “Always be an asker of questions and not just a consumer of answers.”
An area where there is a pressing need to promote genuinely critical and analytical thinking is among those who have recently left the WT movement. And in this case it is entirely appropriate to confront areas of religious belief and practice head-on. But although the general advice given here to avoid using language which can too easily cause misunderstanding must still apply, particular helping strategies in individual cases will vary according to personal circumstances.
Rather than attempt any broad approach in this very short article, I would refer the reader instead to the resources section on Open Minds (www.openmindsfoundation.org/knowledge-bank/resources/) for links to counselling services and, for material specific to Jehovah’s Witnesses, to my own Pathways to Freedom.(www.amazon.com/dp/B08VRN2YWL)
Consider now the situation when our dialogue is not with a current member of an authoritarian and coercive religious movement, but with an opponent of such a movement. In this case we may well expect that ex-JW activist will be an advocate of critical thinking and, indeed, much very good work is being done by many such people.
Nevertheless, all may not be well if a counter-cult activist has adopted a purely negative kind of critical thinking which focusses only upon the perceived faults of Watch Tower beliefs but never upon the conclusions which the activists themselves have reached or the thought processes involved in drawing those conclsuions.
This is especially important where people have been conditioned throughout life to regard the most significant meanings in Scripture as embedded or even concealed within their literary and historical context, so that instead of allowing that context to elucidate the meaning, the text is extracted and applied in a different context which is held to reveal the true meaning.
Such is the manner in which classical prophecy is applied to Jesus of Nazareth (See, for example, my own How to Write a Gospel, pp57ff.) For some among those who have long taken it for granted that this is the way to interpret Scripture it is only a small step to search for hidden meanings in the literature of those whom they wish to discredit.
Hidden meanings are easy to find and even inevitable where words carry a range of meaning. But we should never assume that every possible meaning, whether hidden or overt, is actually intended or that any hidden meaning which the counter-cultist has supposedly identified was really intended to be kept hidden. For instance, some have found in the words new world order which are often used in Watch Tower literature, the meaning associated with a conspiracy theory. According to this theory, a group of international elites control and manipulate governments, financial institutions and the media. And the Watch Tower movement’s use of the expression new world order indicates that they are part of the conspiracy.
Among such conspiracy-spotting counter-cultists this search for hidden meanings extends beyond the language of Watch Tower literature to the non-verbal symbols and artwork. So, widely shared symbols used in some of the movement’s early literature are held to reveal a masonic agenda; “subliminal” imagery in poorly executed artwork betrays an occult agenda; and even an aerial view of a piece of Watch Tower real estate declares the supposed masonic connection.
A big problem with all this wild speculation is not only that it is widely believed; many who put forward such dubiously-founded ideas will be quite sure that in reaching their conclusions they are engaged in critical thinking. This gives us a further reason to be careful about our use of that term because it can easily appear that within the arena of conspiracy theory, misinformation and fake news a kind of critical thinking is a driving force.
It is,however, purely negative proceeding on the basis of underming trust in usual sources of information (i.e.medical science, news outlets, government agencies etc.) Hidden meanings can be marshalled to impugn the motives of trusted advisors who are often portrayed as seeking conceal what people need to know.
It is often possible to recognise this process of misinformation by the vocabulary used in its support. So, we are frequently offered supposedly better information with an introduction as: “Here is what your doctors/financial advisors/leaders do not want you to know.” The implication is that those whom we have trusted for advice know what is best but for their own selfish motives want to conceal that from the general public.
And if we are wary of the alternatives on offer then, instead of getting reasoned support, actual evidence for the alternative or even references to follow up, we are likely to be told to, “do the research.” My point is that genuinely critical thinking must be aimed as much at seeking where to place our trust as at showing where it is not deserved.
At this point we can begin to set out a basic plan of action consisting of three elements. First, we need to identify the words which we need to avoid or at least use very carefully in our dialogue with current and former members of coercive movements. That is, for each movement which we focus upon, it is important to identify the special vocabulary of that movement in order to highlight the possible areas for misunderstanding. (See end note.)
Second, as a long-term strategy counter-cult outreach into society as a whole would benefit greatly from the provision of educational material aimed at raising awareness of the processes of misinformation, conspiracy theory formation and coercive control, and habits of thinking which people can adopt in order to become more and more alert to the ways in which we can all be misled.
Third, and related to the above, such educational outreach needs to begin within the school system in order to develop good thinking skills at the earliest age possible. There are increasingly, in some places, teachers who are very much aware of the importance of such educational provision and are offering courses in critical thinking aimed at school children. This is commendable and to be encouraged.
There is, however, an important need which may not be met by such work, relating to the children of cult members who are exempted from RE lessons or do not take part in extra-curricular activities where such courses may be provided. The result is that children most in need of help in developing their critical abilities are likely to miss out.
My concern in this area is not to seek to persuade children of the falsity of their own or their families’ religious beliefs. Children in Witness families will often be subjected to severely abusive discipline if they step out of line with their parents’ religious views and practices so it is vitally important that teachers are aware of this possibility when seeking to help children in their care to progress in their reasoning skills.
What I want to focus upon is how the basic curriculum can be perhaps the best vehicle for developing the reasoning skills which we all need in meeting and dealing with the many varieties of misinformation which bombard us daily. The best place to begin is perhaps with the natural sciences but the arts will also have an essential role to play.
The objective is the very simple one of encouraging children from the outset to think and work independently and as members of a team. The earliest steps in learning about the natural sciences are ideal for this with, for example, the corner of a classroom designated as the “nature studies corner.” Gradually, over the course of a full school year, this nature studies corner is filled with the children’s findings about the progression of nature from the earliest springtime until late summer. The children’s task is to observe the world around them – to take note when the leafbuds on the trees begin to show; the order in which the trees and shrubs break leaf; which flowers appear first in springtime; and so on.
And, crucially for our present purposes, the teacher’s role is to set the children off as individuals finding out for themselves what is around them, and coming together as a team to put their findings together to build up the overall picture. The teacher’s first motto is, “Don’t just take my word for it – find out for yourselves.” The second motto is, “Don’t just look at your own findings – put all our findings together.”
The teacher could just explain to the class what the growth sequence is through the seasons, and it could be a helpful thing to start this program with a basic hand-out to show that sequence. The task ahead for the children, though, is really to subject that hand-out to critical thinking, to develop their confidence in being able to think for themselves and then to think in a team.
Of course much teaching already proceeds in this kind of way; what I am suggesting here is that children should be helped, not just to learn about the natural sciences and how science proceeds, but that they should also be encouraged to see how their approach to collaborative learning develops skills and attitudes which apply throughout life in general.
That is, the long-term goal of this approach is to load those negatively charged words and phrases with positivity so that the invitation to engage in critical thinking is heard as an invitation to embark upon a journey of discovery.
End note: In relation to dialogue with and concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses, I suggest that the main words where mismatched meanings cause problems are the following:
Critical and independent thinking, where analytical thinking might help to side-step habitual usage within the Watch Tower movement.
Disfellowshipping, is an important topic for counter-cult discourse but the word has virtually no currency outside the WT movement. Excommunication is frequently used as a synonym but its meaning within the Catholic tradition is very different from WT disfellowshipping. Catholic excommunication involves only the exclusion of non-Catholics and seriously errant Catholics from the sacraments of the Church and does not in itself imply shunning or any of the systematic unkindness with which Jehovah’s Witnesses treat their disfellowshipped former members.
The very useful word, cult, is one to watch. It has a wide range of meanings from fads and fashions to abusive religious groups and it is quite simple for any cult to define that word in a way which does not apply to themselves. But further, when speaking with an audience from any of the mainstream faith communities about the issues raised by abusive cults, it is all to easy to allow our hearers to take the message that the problems lie with those groups whereas, in fact, many of the problematic practices are found also amongst informal groupings within the religious mainstream.
This well-researched article was written by Robert Crompton on May 27, 2021. His Biography appears below:
Robert Crompton was a Group Study Conductor, Special Pioneer, Theocratic Ministry School Overseer and public speaker for Jehovah’s Witnesses; all before he was twenty years old. Then with a moment of insight on his part and, a few weeks later, the stroke of a pen on the part of the Judicial Committee of his home congregation, he was a disfellowshipped person. Almost overnight, it seemed, he had gone from being a high flyer to a non-achiever.
He began to lay down some of the foundations of his new life right away but it took a long time. He bought a bike, joined a club and enjoyed a couple of seasons as an amateur racing cyclist. He joined a theatre group and dabbled in acting. Then at last, when he had battled through the depression that so often follows departure from an authoritarian religion, he picked up his old love of learning which had been kindled at school but then taunted and stifled within the Watchtower, and took some part-time courses in psychology.
At thirty years old he went as a late entrant to Lancaster University where he studied philosophy and linguistics. He followed that with a short spell working in town planning. Then he had what seemed at first to be a really crazy idea: “I should enter the ministry, but I was determined from the outset that I would accept no limits whatever upon my right, indeed everyone’s right and even duty, to think and believe or disbelieve freely and without pressure to conform. This brought me to the Methodist church and when I felt confident that I was settled in membership there, I offered myself as a candidate for the ministry.”
Following a long and thorough vetting process, the Church accepted him for ordination training and sent him off to Cambridge to read biblical studies in the University for three wonderful years before dropping him into a church in County Durham. For his post-ordination studies, which every minister is expected to undertake, he registered as a part-time post-graduate researcher and began the work that eventually led to his break-through into the world of the published author with Counting the Days to Armageddon, a history of the Watchtower movement.
Some of Robert’s most fulfilling roles during his time in the ministry were when he acted as a tutor for candidates preparing for accreditation as Methodist preachers, and as a chaplain in a large general hospital. He has also been alongside people facing loss – from sad but expected bereavement to sudden unspeakable loss and tragedy, all of which helped to shape the man that he is today.
Since retiring he has spent a lot of his time writing. He has published six books and whenever he writes, it brings him back to the people, the places and the situations that have inspired him.
Robert’s newest book, Pathways to Freedom, can be found online as an Amazon Kindle paperback.