Or perhaps just a cult-like or cultish organization. A cult is very extreme but very real possibility in the world of self protection and martial art; but more frequently, good people get sucked into the drama of a cult-like organization.
So in this month's blog I wanted to share some observations about how certain martial arts or self defense groups can turn dangerously cult like and end up robbing good people of their ability to think for themselves and causing damage to their psyche and even interpersonal relationships.
I will list 10 major characteristics that are recognized by sociologists as cult behavior so that the reader may recognize any of that behavior occurring in the organization they belong to, or maybe even recognize any similar behavior in themselves and take corrective action.
Be warned, there are more than 10 characteristics, these are just the easiest ones to recognize.
1. The guru or leader is always right!
Infallibility is probably the first and the easiest telltale sign that you belong to a cultlike organization.
Is the founder of the organization, the leader, or even the organizations, principles, precepts and teachings beyond reproach or scrutiny?
Are they considered to always be right and never to be questioned?
Think about this for a minute if you are in an organization where the leader is always right, then that means you are expected to be wrong about a lot of things, and the leader is perfect.
As rational human beings we should know that it's really impossible for any organization or leader to be perfect; however in cults it is assumed that everything being handed down from the leader or guru is perfectly true therefore never to be questioned. This creates an environment where one always feels not worthy or less-than-perfect.
If the leader claims to know something that you could not possibly know without him or the organization demands praise for the leader as if he is a perfect human being, be warned.
2. You are always wrong.
This is the sister characteristic to number one. If you are often wrong, not good enough, not intelligent enough, not qualified enough, to either judge the leader of the group, judge its principles, techniques, or tactics, you are clearly in cult like territory. Cult leaders are known to belittle their members so that they constantly feel inadequate and subservient to the leader and the organization.
3. No dignified exit
Often in cult-like organizations when somebody decides to leave or break with the unit ( this could be a martial arts organization, a sports organization and could even be a self protection company) there is no dignified way to exit.
That is you are made to think that leaving the organization makes you weak, makes you treasonous, it makes you a lesser individual, you're a traitor to the greater group and when you do leave then you are victimized by personal attacks to your character and your reasons to leave. You are judged as someone not worthy of the pure and higher levels of knowledge of the inner circle.
In reality if everybody were capable of leaving the cult at once, very quickly the leader is exposed as a phony and charlatan and pretty much not worth anything. The only person who truly fears people leaving the cult is the only person that has anything to lose, the cult leader. Because of this, cult leaders, create a system of peer pressure where somebody that might be thinking of leaving or somebody that has left already is ostracized as a traitor and evildoer etc. Their reputation is smeared and this, in turn, creates more fear for the current members of the cult to leave in fear of same retaliation.
4. There is no graduation
No one ever rises to the same level or becomes as good as the "Guru". There is no end in sight to the servitude of the member. this is not to be confused with an open minded leader who is truly expanding his own knowledge base and learning from others and sharing the new ideas with his peers. This is not considered cultish. But when the student can never reach the goal of becoming as good as the master then that becomes an issue, especially if the master does not seem to be on a path of growth and evolution.
5. Cult speak
An organization that creates its own language or alters the meaning of commonly known words and phrases, or selectively interprets scientific information and studies to fit the organization's agenda is another indicator of cultish structure. If an outsider reading the organization's materials or listening to a member or Guru speak, would have difficulty understanding or the cult's science does not meet accepted standards, it would again fall in the cult category.
6. Group think
When the organization or the leader of the group Have standards answers for everything, and when the members are taught to repeat or parrot those answers when difficult questions about the group, it's leader, or their beliefs arise, that is called a group think.
As part of this very often any analytical, independent critical thinking or criticism of the leader is discouraged or prohibited while any repetitive praising of the leader or the organization is encouraged.
One way to test this is basically to see the level of poor tolerance that the group members, or the organization itself, have of criticism. Do they respond with vitriol to being criticized and having their beliefs challenged? Are they open to rational debate or are they simply dismissive?
In cult-like organizations there is very little tolerance for different opinions and in fact are known to be vindictive in their methods of dealing with people that disagree with them.
7. Demonization of competing organizations
What's interesting about this particular characteristic is that the closer the criticized group is to the original cult-like organization the more they are demonized. Look, for example at how much time members and leaders of some styles of martial arts, combat sport or self protection groups, spend speaking negatively or criticizing other martial arts styles or practitioners. If the focus of the organization is on the negatives of other systems rather than contributing to the better of their community and clients, beware.
8. Personal attacks on critics
Rather than present their merits and the benefits of their particular system some leaders of martial arts or self-defense organizations prefer to personally attack their critics. As with number 7 above, if the group and it's leader seem to spend an unreasonable amount of time launching personal Internet attacks this is a sure sign of a cult.
9. Moral Compass of the Leader
In cultlike groups it's very easy to for outsiders to pick up on the fact that very frequently the leader of the group has very faulty morals and character. Traits to be spotted are dishonesty, manipulative behavior towards followers, greed as motivation and basically just bad characteristics, that outsiders can easily see. The main problem is that, unfortunately, these characteristics go unnoticed by the current members because of the fog of denial often clouding the "true believers" mind.
10. Ideology over perception experience and logic
The last symptom that I'll discuss is when the tenets and principles of the leader or the group are meant to override any of the member's personal experience, perceptions and logic.
For example a leader of an organization may claim to know this one magical move that will help everybody win against all comers and every situation, whereas our logic, experience as human beings and personal observation, tell us that it is impossible. The chaos of combat is such that there's no way that one solitary move could be the answer to all our combative problems.
To conclude I want to say that martial art, combat sport and self protection organizations are fertile soil for both inadvertent and malicious creation of cults. The people that come to us do so because of some genuine fears and feelings of inadequacy for dealing with them, or in some cases, with already weakened and perhaps damaged psyches.
If your organization exhibits 5 to 10 of the above characteristics, you belong to a full blown cult but, sadly, you will probably not know it. It will take someone from the outside to shake you into wakefulness.
If your group shows 1 to 4 of the symptoms then maybe change can happen from within, you are in a cultish or cult- like group.
As leaders and coaches we must be vigilant to recognize any of these traits emerging in our thinking, behavior or organization.
It is easier to see the traits in others rather than ourselves. Continue to learn and grow from other sources expand your knowledge base and allow your students to challenge and question what you teach, you may learn something.
Be loyal to your students' growth and benefit, but never demand loyalty.
Sadly the hardest part is for a member to recognize they are in a cult. If you are currently in an organization and you detect or recognize some of these cult-like qualities from your leaders and your seniors, test it out! Question and criticize and see what kind of response you get and if the responses match the traits above, I recommend that you leave as soon as you can. If someone you know is in an organization like this, help them leave. if you know of someone running a similar organization expose them or call them out on their BS. For your own sake... WAKE UP!
Copyright Tony Torres