This is the sixth in an eight-part series on how to identify brainwashing in a destructive group or cult. It is based off of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s “Eight-Point Model of Thought Reform” and borrows from several other authorities on the topic of religious mind-control.*
1.) Part One: Milieu Control
2.) Part Two: Mystical Manipulation
3.) Part Three: The Demand for Purity
4.) Part Four: The Cult of Confession
5.) Part Five: The “Sacred Science”
6.) Part Six: Loading the Language
7.) Part Seven: Doctrine Over Person
8.) Part Eight: The Dispensing of Existence
*Stephen Martin’s book, The Heresy of Mind Control, and Margaret Singer’s Cults in Our Midst.
For folks outside of cults it may seem unbelievable how cult members can submit to spiritual abuse. Can’t they see how manipulative and controlling the group leader is?
No, they can’t.
The reason they can’t see is because they are blinded by religious brainwashing. And while each cult member bears responsibility for his or her own soul, cult leaders bear responsibility for deceiving them.
How can a manipulative leader deceive sincere Christians in a manner that causes them to submit completely to his or her control? One of the primary ways is by “loading” religious-sounding words with twisted meaning.
“Loading the language” according to cult-expert Stephen Martin means to manipulate “words and phrases to produce ‘thought-terminating clichés’” which results in a “narrowing and constriction of thought processes.”
Here’s how cult leaders play the language game.
1.) Over-Active Mental Filters
In order to isolate their followers from outside influences, leaders of unhealthy groups create buzzwords which shut the door on truth and outside input.
For example, such leaders define any negative feedback about their group as “persecution,” and they call the source of such feedback a “slanderer.” Instead of stopping to consider whether the criticism is true, group members are taught to treat negative comments about the group leader as a threat.
An analogy might help. I attended a Christian university in Indiana which installed strict filtering software on Internet search results. While the filters prevented exposure to much filth, they also sometimes blocked legitimate sites or helpful terms.
In a similar way, members of cults are trained to put up stiff filters against any suggestion that their group may be unhealthy. They call any negative feedback “slander.” In reality, slander is defined as something which is untrue. But to the group members, any criticism about their group is untrue. Thus their minds function like the hyper-active filtering software in my college’s computers.
Mary Alice Chrnalogar, in her book Twisted Scriptures describes such an environment:
“What if the group labels those who give you that negative information as ‘the enemy,’ or tells you that these persons are persecutors? You can be persuaded to project hatred towards these people and to denounce outside influences. Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible for you to objectively evaluate the dissenting comments. You are on a merry-go-round, and you must get off in order to study the information away from the influence of the group.”
The only reason to call all outside criticism “slander” or “persecution” is in order for the group leader to more fully control his or her members. Healthy groups, on the other hand, are open to outside input, consider carefully charges against leaders, and wisely discern truth from error.
2.) Thought Suppression
Once cult leaders have labeled outside influences “evil,” they can then suppress the thinking of their followers inside the group. They do this by loading certain words or phrases with a twisted meaning which causes their followers to shut down mentally. It is really a form of verbal hypnosis.
For example, cult leaders create verbal formulas to manipulate the minds of their followers. They use a form of mental algebra which works something like this: asking questions (a) = rebellion (b) = sin (c), therefore, asking questions (a) = sin (c). In this case, the leader has taken a biblical term, “sin,” and equated it with asking questions. But in reality “a” does not equal “c.” It is all just a verbal game the leader plays in order to control his or her followers.
Leaders of unhealthy groups also use what Dr. Lifton calls “thought-terminating clichés.” These are phrases which have been hijacked by the group leader, stripped of their true meaning, and clothed in a counterfeit meaning.
For example, the group leader may call hobbies “fleshly” pursuits, with “fleshly” meaning “sinful” or “of the Devil.” If a follower wants to play a tennis match on a Saturday, but the match conflicts with a group activity, the cult leader may say, “Sally, you’re just being fleshly here. The Apostle Paul said that his spirit and his flesh were in conflict. You know that God wants you to be spiritual and to crucify the desires of your flesh. Remember that Jesus said if we are to be his true disciples we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. Stop being fleshly.”
Do you see what the group leader has done? He or she has just equated playing tennis with a “fleshly” pursuit, and “fleshly” implies sinful rather than spiritual. Sally therefore feels that she has only one choice (though in reality she can also choose to think for herself): she must forsake the tennis match in order to take up her cross and follow Christ.
Leaders of unhealthy groups may also use what Dr. Lifton calls “all-encompassing jargon.” This occurs when a term which may technically describe one behavior is universalized to describe almost any behavior.
For example, in my former church, one of my pastor’s favorite terms was “inappropriate.” By this he meant that something was sinful. If children were running outside after church, he might pull them aside and say, “Now kids, you know that it is inappropriate to run on the Lord’s Day.” Or he might say, “That movie is inappropriate,” or “To wear sandals in church is inappropriate.” The term “inappropriate” was so broad that it was hard to define. Was running outside really a sin? We weren’t sure. We only knew that it was “inappropriate” and so we had to stop or else we would offend God.
Mary Chrnalogar says:
“Deeply programmed disciples are subject to a form of instant amnesia. A discipler who fears that questioning might show the cracks in his twisted Scriptures has only to say, ‘That is doubt.’ Click! The disciple’s mind shuts out the question because the disciple doesn’t want to commit a sin. That’s how it works—much as the stage hypnotist’s trigger-word puts his subject into a state of unconsciousness, the discipler has trigger words, too.”
In groups like this, leaders are constantly loading biblical terms with unbiblical meanings. But the group members respond like programmed computers to shut down their brains at the slightest mention of a trigger word.
3.) Attitudinal Sins
Another way that cult leaders load the language of their group in order to control members is by focusing incessantly on sins of attitude rather than behavior. This is subtle, but catch it. While the Bible does talk about attitudinal sins such as pride and selfishness, cult leaders invest these words with a whole new range of meaning.
For example, a cult leader may convey the message that to be “committed” to Christ means to attend every single group activity, even if it leads to exhaustion. The Bible never says that commitment to Christ demands attendance at every group activity, but cult members come to believe that it does.
Or again, the group leader may equate asking questions with being “proud” and “rebellious.” Thus if a follower comes to the group leader with honest (and probably accurate) doubts, the group leader says, “Todd, you’re just being proud and rebellious. The Bible says to obey your leaders and submit to their authority, not to question them.” Todd instantly feels guilty about his supposed “rebellion” (though his guilt is false guilt), and his mind shuts down in penitence.
Other words that cult leaders imbue with their own range of meaning are: insubordination, independence, uncooperative, selfish, troublemaker, gossip, slanderer, unsubmissive and immature. Do you see how many of these terms relate to aspects of authority and submission? That’s no accident. Group leaders try to eliminate any questions about their abuse of authority by squelching critical thinking and labeling question-askers as rebels.
Where does “loading the language” lead? It leads to enforced dependence on the group leader, a focus on uniformity rather than unity based on truth, and ultimately to controlled behavior.
Dependence. Leaders of unhealthy groups love to create a climate of enforced dependence. Dr. Lifton calls this a regressive childlike state known as “abnormal dependency disorder.” Whereas healthy group leaders try to lead their followers to maturity in Christ (1 Pet 2:2-3), unhealthy group leaders foster infantilism and co-dependent relationships. This gives them a sense of power and self-esteem.
Uniformity. By loading the language, cult leaders emphasize outward uniformity instead of unity based on the truth of God. While Jesus prayed that all of his followers would be one (Jn 17:21), that unity is based on the truth of God as revealed in the Word of God (Jn 17:17). The author of Hebrews tells us that scripture “divides” like a two-edged sword (Heb 4:12-13). And the heart of God rejoices in diversity of culture and personality (cf. Rev 7:9ff; Rom 14-15; 1 Cor 8; Acts 17:24-28).
Controlled Behavior. The ultimate goal of cult leaders is to control the behavior of their followers. They use loaded language to brainwash their followers in order to keep them subservient, beaten down with fear, and lacking critical thinking skills.
In the old comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” cartoonist Bill Waterson created a precocious 6-year-old boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger named Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes often played a game called “Calvinball,” whose only rule was that there were no permanent rules. Thus both players could shout out rule-changes at any time, and the one who thought more quickly could win the game by defining his own rules.
Cults are like that, except the only person allowed to change the rules is the group leader. When a group leader “loads the language” and redefines all of the terms, he or she wins the game of control every time.