Coercive groups and relationships are all around us – from domestic abuse and pedophile grooming, to human trafficking and terrorist radicalization – millions of people worldwide are trapped in a web of undue influence, coerced to act against their own best interests.
Sadly, although these people remain caught up between false hope and real fear, most outsiders cannot see the elaborate web of coercion, and assume that the web does not exist, believing that the thirteen-year-old being prostituted to multiple men has “chosen” that life; that the woman staying with an abusive husband could leave if she really wanted to; that the cult member who believes his guru controls the weather is “stupid”; or even that the middle-aged couple who refuse contact with their nonbelieving children are simply “bad parents”.
Undue influence is designed to be invisible to outsiders, so those not in its grasp look for other explanations for the bizarre behavior they see. Because of this, a mass of dangerous misconceptions has arisen, myths about coercive control that need to be debunked. Here are some of the worst:
“If it was really so horrible, they’d leave.”
How much would you sacrifice to save the world? If you knew that, simply by denying yourself some comfort and happiness now, you could help all lifekind to ascend to a new level of enlightenment, wouldn’t you do whatever was demanded of you? Most cult members are convinced that they are working for the betterment of humanity, and through the lens of their faith, what we would see as “wrong” becomes their “right”, harm becomes help, and even murder can be explained away – what is one human life, compared to the fate of the entire universe? Even without the trappings of an afterlife, political extremists can readily contemplate suicide – or genocide – if it means creating a “better world” for their children. The fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century proved this conclusively. As Hannah Arendt said, the surprise was in the “banality” of evil: ordinary people committed atrocities because they believed in a purified world.
Many trapped in a coercive situation – especially those suffering domestic abuse – cannot see that there is anywhere else to go. Janja Lalich calls this bounded choice: whether through exhaustion, misinformation, threats, or a combination of these and other factors, those inside the prison of belief cannot see their options, least of all the option to escape.
“I would never …”
This unhelpful phrase is the bane of all survivors of high-control groups and relationships. Otherwise well-meaning friends and relatives seem determined to tell us that they would never fall for such nonsense, not realizing that they, too, could someday be vulnerable enough – or unlucky enough – to be trapped in a controlling relationship. Unfortunately, the probability of being seduced into a coercive situation has little do with who we are, and much more to do with changes to our everday relationships and routines: first-year university students away from home for the first time, seniors who have lost a spouse, or those seeking a new interest, income stream, spiritual path, or social outlet are all prime targets for manipulative people and groups.
“They must be stupid/ emotionally needy/ gullible.”
Even in support groups for cult survivors, this phrase runs rampant – someone will mention some point of the cult’s credo they still believe, and others will pile on judgmental refrains: “You must be stupid if you believe that!” Even after years of describing the exact processes of manipulation used to ensnare people into high-control groups, popular vlogger and OMF Advisory Board member Chris Shelton still receives comments on his YouTube channel saying: “You couldn’t be all that intelligent if you were in a cult.”
Friends and family members of survivors speculate that those who were trapped must have been “emotionally needy” or just “plain stupid”. In reality, well-adjusted individuals – often with high levels of education – can and do join cults: Aum Shinrikyo (of the Tokyo sarin gas attacks) and Heaven’s Gate recruited computer programmers, heart surgeons and other intellectuals – the Rajneeshis were called the “PhD cult”; emotionally well-balanced people can be seduced by traumatizing narcissists into long-term, abusive relationships. Like those proclaiming “I would never …”, people who believe this myth have missed the important point – that coercion can happen at any time, anywhere, to anyone, given the right combination of circumstances. Indeed, those who are most confident in their invulnerability are among the most vulnerable. It is safer in this world to realize that we can be tricked.
“All religions are cults/ it’s just another religion.”
Espoused by “New Religious Movement” scholars and atheists alike, this is perhaps the most unhelpful fallacy of all. Whether they choose to ignore the coercion and maintain that those in a high-control group enjoy not having freedom or autonomy, or condemn all religions as equally coercive, such blanket statements only cloud an already highly complex issue. Comparing all religions to destructive cults is like saying that all marriages are abusive – it’s not only a vast over-simplification, it’s simply not true.
While some level of control can be found in any “mainstream” church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, it does not compare with the high levels of control found in a destructive religious group. This thinking also dismisses the reality of the high-control groups with no religious trappings, such as political groups, therapy groups, multi-level marketing scams, gangs, and human trafficking rings, or the many situations where coercion is wielded without the slightest spiritual pretense. On the other side, there are plenty of “new” (and old) religious movements which are not abusive – it is the coercion, not the belief, that is objectionable to those who love freedom. If we help people to think more clearly and to understand the manipulation of emotions, they can make their own choices about their beliefs: autonomy is the goal, not an imposed belief system.
“It’s their choice.”
No one chooses to be abused, degraded, or tortured, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Those in the clutches of manipulative people and destructive groups did not choose to become the pawns of their captors; undue influence, coercive control, gaslighting, emotional blackmail and other forms of manipulative pressure are in play, bringing otherwise sane people to believe the impossible, to ignore their friends and family, to hide abuse, to lie, cheat, steal, even murder or commit suicide – all from a lack of choice. From the wife who lies to friends that she “just fell”, to parents allowing their children to die for want of a blood transfusion, from the cult operative setting up a “hate page” full of lies about a critic, to the gang member who murders someone from an opposing group, people commit acts against their own self-interest every day – convinced, hoodwinked, and mentally bludgeoned into compliance through a web of fear, lies, pressure and undue influence.
To free society from the plague of undue influence, we must eradicate this fog of misinformation and disninformation that clouds the subject. We should gently correct those who believe them and point them to the evidence. Those of us with experience should speak out about our experiences without shame or embarrassment. The truth is it can happen to anyone, and we can only prevent that by educating the world about the reality of undue influence.
Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a misconception about coercion that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!