I watch TV partly— oh, all right, mostly — for entertainment, and partly for the occasional blinding streaks of inspiration which arise from seeing a particularly fascinating storyline or character. Law and Order: Criminal Intent, for example, is one of my favorite shows because not only is Detective Robert Goren second only to Jack Bauer in his sheer undisputable awesomeness, but the show is responsible for an inordinate amount of the aforementioned streaks of inspiration.
One episode in particular struck me as especially profound. Detective Goren, you see, suspected this woman of murder, and because he has such an accurate instinctual understanding of psychology, he knew how to trick her into revealing
her criminal misdeeds. The strategy he employed was flirtation, and it worked beautifully. He had her exactly where he wanted her in a matter of days. And I thought, That woman would be me.
I must first explain to you that me getting emotionally involved with someone to the point where I would reveal damaging secrets about myself would be a pretty big deal. I’m paranoid about almost everything. I go about life on high alert, expecting at any moment to be double-crossed. It’s not that I distrust everyone, because I know there are awesome and honest people in this world, and I’m pretty sure I know some of them. It’s just that there are very few people I trust fully, and every last one of them is is in my immediate family. And it is this reason that leads me to believe, falsely, that I would ever again be involved in another cult. I like to tell myself that I would recognize suspicious behavior immediately because I am always on the lookout for it anyway.
This, of course, is not truly the case.
I would fall headlong and without question into the trap set by Robert Goren, for the simple and utterly illogical reason that I like him. Robert Goren, as a character, embodies practically everything I like in a person. He is intelligent, compassionate, educated, handsome (of course!), and he believes firmly in justice and is willing to work hard to achieve it. Plus, he’s a cop. When you come across a person— or organization — that seems to perfectly line up with your standards, you fall all over yourself trying to believe it’s flawless. We don’t like to ask questions of the things we love, because anything less than utter perfection from this godlike being or system is quite literally a personal insult. A person or organization which embodies our entire belief system cannot be found to be flawed, because that is nothing less than a crack in the foundation of our lives.
That’s why it exasperates me when people assume that the members of cults are somehow different than the vast majority of mankind. This is most emphatically not the case, or else cults wouldn’t exist at all. The whole point of a cult is that it takes advantage of universal human nature.
We Americans like to pretend that we want to be unique, but in reality being different is scary and lonely, and many of us spend the majority of our lives in a feverish attempt to avoid precisely these two emotions. When you come across a group of people who believe everything you do, there’s a powerful feeling of homecoming, of belonging, that is difficult to resist. Here, you say to yourself, is a whole nest of people who are just like me. From childhood we are consumed with the desperate need for companionship, acceptance, understanding, and love, and many of us have never had those things. This newfound organization provides it all. It’s like having a family.
And eventually, it becomes your life, because what else do you need? The people inside the cult understand and accept you like nobody has before, and by comparison the outside world starts to look dark and cruel. And, of course, the signature of cultic teachings is their terror and loathing of everything and everyone on the outside. And you accept it, because they have everything else right. The reason you joined in the first place was that you were thrilled with how like-minded you were. And, as I mentioned earlier, people don’t like to question things they love or agree with. Even when things start getting weird and uncomfortable, you keep telling yourself you’ll give them another chance, and another and another, because the alternative is basically that you were wrong about everything.
Every last one of you would join a cult if it was the right one. What do you like? What do you believe in? Any organization that presents itself in a way that speaks to your emotions, an organization that seems like the perfect fit for you has automatically won your unquestioning loyalty, at least for a time. And it’s not because you are stupid or weak-willed. It’s because you are human.
And as for why so few leave cults… well, one reason is that love is blind. Perfection, at least your version of it, must remain so, else the world crumbles. We’re surprisingly persuasive when we put our minds to it. We’re quite adept at convincing ourselves that a cult’s (or, for that matter, another individual’s) weird or abusive behavior is a) the result of a bad day, b) just a little quirk, or c) excusable, because they’re perfect in every other area. It’s partly because we love the cult itself, but mostly because we’re terrified that we may have been wrong about everything. The whole thing is the result of projecting our own values onto another person or organization. Which, of course, is not a unique behavior. It’s fully universal.
That’s just how human beings work. We’re funny that way. People trust cults implicitly because they seem perfect, and I trust Robert Goren for the same reason. I make it a point to know something about psychological interrogation tactics, but Detective Goren would have me spilling my guts in a matter of seconds. He’d be all, “Oh, you’re pretty.” And I’d be all, “You want to know my deepest darkest secret?”
Of course, I would never commit a crime in the first place. I wouldn’t want Detective Goren thinking badly of me...