What is a cult?

A Dictionary of Cults, Mind Control, and the Language of Abuse

Cultism has a long history here in the United States — but what is a cult, exactly? One could argue the Confederacy was a kind of cult, and the KKK after it. America gave rise to cult leaders Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Sun Myung Moon, among many many others who led cults big and small (Charles Koch, perhaps?! Certainly Donald Trump.).

Christianity itself was considered a cult by some during its humble beginnings after the turn of the millennia and then some. It’s no accident that religious revivalism and many types of faith fervor colored the nation for decades and centuries. It’s the blind worship of a singular ideology or individual, in the case of a cult of personality, that is often the signature trait of both cult leaders and cult followers, who will do anything they’re told — even unto the grave.

Some might call the patriarchal nuclear family the Original Cult. Many if not most Evangelical sects revere it, among numerous others who believe in God the Father quite literally. Others still seek to exploit that zeal, by offering up a series of “flawed saviors” who dangled the prospect of a more theocratic state governed by Law and Order. Their money buys them much more than just the puppets who rule, and the citizens struggle to pierce the veils of illusion.

Mind control and emotional manipulation

Known by many names, from mind control to brainwashing to undue influence, the use of techniques to knowingly manipulate a target’s sense of reality is a devious and unethical way to achieve one’s aims with increased plausible deniability. Having obedient servants do your dirty work, bury your secrets, and protect your property perhaps is an archetypal dream of an America gone by… or current.

From schoolyard bullies and repressive religious upbringing to sexual predators and organized crime, the toolkit is eerily similar — it makes you wonder if they all get pamphlets in the mail from Head Evil, or if they instinctually all arrive at these methods on their own. Their goal is to get inside your head, destabilize you and keep you off balance, and gain some sort of advantage over you both currently and in ensuing negotiations, conflicts, or other events.

Today we are seeing it on a large scale in the digital domain, from Facebook radicalization and QAnon to right-wing backchannels and encrypted messaging. We had better get familiar with the lexicon and vocabulary of the coming era, so we can fight the creeping scourge of thought control roiling the land.

TermDefinitionNotes
abuseUsing one's position of authority unfairly and/or deceptively for personal gain.
aggression
anarchy
anti-government
anti-SemitismReferred to as "the oldest hate," anti-Semitism is also inherently anti-feminist, because Jewish societies wereΒ once matrilineal.
apocalypticismPreoccupation with the imminent end of the world.see also: millenarianism
ArmageddonThe apocalypse; the End Times; the end of the world as we know it (...and we feel fiiiiiiiine!)also a movie with Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, & Ben Affleck -- from back in 1998 when our apocalypsi seemed somehow more quaint
authority
beliefsBeliefs are more like a kind of stock we own than a calculation we do on the fly. We spend time building them and deriving value from them.They're not simply tools for making good decisions, though, but are treasured in their own right and new information that challenges them is unwelcome. We often try to avoid it, in order to protect our beliefs.
biassee also: motivated reasoning, bigotry, prejudice, revealed wisdom
bigotry
boundary violations
brainwashingsee also: mind control, thought control, undue influence
bribery
bullying
charisma school
child abuse
child brides
child pornography
child trafficking
cognitive dissonance
con artist
conditional love
corruption
C-PTSDComplex post-traumatic stress disorder -- a psychological condition occurring after exposure to trauma whether physical, emotional, or otherwise.see also: PTSD
CSAMChild sexual abuse material
cult leadersPeople who wield an alternating current of fear andΒ "love" -- they swing a blunt instrument because they cannot manage the complexity of human relationships and real love.
dark money
DARVO
deep fakes
defense mechanism
demagoguery
denialism
denying plain facts
dogmaA rigid ideology or belief systemA central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable. -- Carl Sagan
domestic violence
emotional abuse
emotional blackmail
entitlement
extortion
extremismNow that sensible moderate conservatives have sensibly gone elsewhere, all that's left of the GOP is the terrifying extremism.
false memory implantation
father figuresSome people think of "freedom" as "freedom from" -- freedom from having to take responsibility for oneself, because one can take orders from a crusty old white dude who promises protection
financial abuse
flying monkeys
front groupsPublic-facing groups with innocuous and virtual-sounding names that exist only to recruit new members into the next circle of the organization, where the process of wearing down the independence of the target begins.
fundamentalism
gaslighting
God complex
grift
grooming
groupthink
guilt
guru
human trafficking
hypnosis
ideologyHas it slain coherence?!
influence techniques
intermittent reinforcementThe same psychology behind casinos, intermittent reinforcement rewards the subject according to an irregular payout schedule that does not correspond to any of the actions of the subject. It is cognitively a very "sticky" mechanism -- one that has another common ancestor: addiction.
isolation
Kool-Aid
labor exploitation
malignant envy
manipulation
mental predatorsPeople who assume they have the right to abuse and manipulate others and use them for their own personal gain -- and behave accordingly.see also: cult leaders, narcissism, sexual predators
mind controlsee also: brainwashing, undue influence, mental predation
minimizing
misogynyHatred of women
mob rule
moving the goalposts
naive realism
narcissismExcessive grandiosity and sense of self-importance
narcissistic rage
narcissistic supply
negging
nihilism
organized crimeThe mob and mob-like structures
paddling
paranoiaExtreme constant fear; conviction that others are "out to get you"
patriarchy
phobia indoctrination
plausible deniability
playing the victim
police brutalitya murdery version of the circle jerk
post-truthpost-truth scandals: Trump, Iran-Contra, Benghazi, Whitewater, Hillary's emails
prejudicesee also: bigotry, motivated reasoning
"proactive" violence
projection
propaganda
prophecy
Prosperity Gospel
psychological abuse
psychological apocalypticism
psychological warfare
psychopaths
PTSDPost-traumatic stress disorder -- a psychological condition occurring after exposure to trauma whether physical, emotional, or otherwise.
purity
racismHatred of a person because of their race.
radicalism
rape
rape culture
re-educationPeriod of indoctrination when the recruit is taught the ideology of the cult as the One Truth.
religious abuse
retcon
revealed wisdom
sadismTaking pleasure in the harming of others.
selective exposure
sexual assault
sexual predators
shame
sociopathsPeople with little to no empathy -- they can be very cold and cruel, yet also warm and charming.
sophistry
spanking
spare the rod
Special Mission
stonewalling
tax fraud
televangelist
thought reform
thought stoppers
tortureUsing physical violence during interrogation or to achieve compliance with a subject or recruit.
totalism
toxic positivityAn inability to fully acknowledge negative emotions in others or oneself, especially anger or sadness.
trauma bonding
undue influence
verbal abusePervasive and chronic denigration of the recruit or target, with the goal of diminishing her self-esteem and building up a dependence on the cult leader.
victim blaming
whitewashingTrying to clean up the reputation of someone or something after the fact -- attempts to rehabilitate a famous person following crime, for example.