The Open Minds Foundation has a stated aim of combating ‘undue influence’. But when I first heard that phrase, I felt cheated.
I was in a cult for thirty years (following Prem Rawat, aka Guru Maharaji), and when I left, I read widely about cults. I like the word ‘cult’ – it has a one-syllable Anglo-Saxon punch about it (even though it is actually Latin), and there is a considerable amount of literature on cults under that specific name.
I have tried to keep up with the changing fashions of academia, where the word ‘cult’ is now being deprecated. Why? Is it because it is only one letter different from a genuine Anglo-Saxon word? First I learned that I had not been in a cult but in a ‘high-demand’ group. Several fashions later, I now learn that I was the casualty of ‘undue influence’.
Here is why I felt cheated by that phrase when I first heard it to explain my cult involvement: as I look back on why I was suckered in to the Rawat cult, I see two broad categories of cause – what philosophers call ‘proximate’ and ‘ultimate’.
The proximate cause, meaning the immediate cause why I entered the cult, was indeed ‘undue influence’. That means, that I was influenced by the usual cult behavior and promises: being loved and welcomed by warm-hearted people, being offered a mechanism to unload all my worries, hearing about the possibility of a simple but profound path to self-enlightenment, and so on.
But all those influences were lies, and were thus indeed ‘undue’. The warm-hearted people really just had a quota of new recruits to produce. The mechanism to unload all my worries was really a mechanism to unload my wallet, and later my bank account. The simple but profound path to self-enlightenment was in fact a simple and profound path to complete delusion and slavery. In other words, I was brainwashed, to use another out-of-fashion term. But it was certainly influence which was very undue.
So why did I fall for this snake-oil sales pitch? Certainly the ‘proximate’ cause of the slick lure was a factor, but also I was receptive to it because of the prevailing cultural and religious idea that I (and most people) are brought up in. This is something like that we need saving from this horrible world by some super other-worldly state or place. It was because of that prevailing belief-system that I was made ripe for the offer by Rawat to take to me to such a place, as long as I ‘surrender the reins of my life’ to him (as he often put it).
This is not being anti-religious or atheist, but is true of any underlying belief-system that places our authority outside of ourselves and invests it in a separate being, place, or state. It seems to me that such a belief-system is pervasive in our culture. I was not brought up in a particularly religious family, though we all went to church from time to time. I remember looking at the stained-glass windows depicting saints and sinners, and at various representations of God and his Son who would save me if only I gave myself to them (as long as I did it according to how my particular church said to do it).
Whether as a rebellious teenager I fought against this prevailing culture, or I accepted it does not matter. My point is that there is an underlying heritage or tradition in most cultures in the world that true happiness can only occur if you get out of yourself and give yourself to an ‘other’ (or an ‘Other’, capitalized).
And I am not even saying that is bad. In many ways I think that can be healthy. What is less healthy is our unthinking and uncritical acceptance of it, where that belief is not ours, homegrown as it were from our own thinking, but taken on wholesale and uncritically from our culture and society.
So in my case, the ‘ultimate’ cause of my joining my cult was this subliminal belief-system, hardly noticed at the time, but simmering in the background. So that when I heard the siren song of the cult promising me the supreme jackpot, and all I had to do was surrender myself to the Lord (yes, we thought our guru was the Lord, ‘Lord of the Universe’ we called him), then that message resonated with this background belief-system, and was reinforced by it.
And as I say, it was not the background belief-system in itself, but the fact that I had taken it on unthinkingly, unknowingly – unconsciously in fact.
So if I am going to accept the current jargon, that I was a casualty of ‘undue influence’, then it has to include this society-wide influence as well as the more local influence of the group which was seducing me. This is where I think the phrase ‘undue influence’ can be helpful – as long as it is understood in this wide sense, and is not just applied to the cult dynamics of the predator group.
The fact is that we are all influenced from the cradle to the grave. No person is an island, as the poet said, and our shores are washed by many seas. What I call a thinking person is simply someone who thinks about what of that influence is ‘due’, and what is ‘undue’.
As I look back at the time I was beguiled into my cult, I am pretty sure I could have resisted the proximate cause of the group’s undue influence, as long as that was not aligned with the ultimate cause of society’s sanction for me to look for my salvation in some supposed God-like figure. That influence was not in my control, but what *was* in my control was the critical thinking skills to see that influence as being undue.
This ability to decide for ourselves which of the many influences on us are ‘due’ (appropriate and healthy) and which are ‘undue’ (harmful and unhealthy) is a prime life-skill.
So I don’t feel cheated any more by the phrase. I was in a cult, sure, but I was also the victim of my own failure to see undue influence in the wide sense of my whole life, not just in the little cult sense.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about undue influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!