Self-Improvement and Cults
Americans appear to be obsessed with self-improvement. They want to be smarter, better looking and more confident. And to satisfy this need, there are books, films, courses, and the occasional cult.
The Nxivm cult used its clients’ needs for self-improvement, in particular the quest to find meaning in their lives, against them.
Sometimes I walk through the self-help sections of bookstores and marvel at the offerings. The books say you can be better at any worthwhile goal, often immediately. I am a Black Belt and it takes years (in my case – seven) to learn martial arts. This has given me a healthy skepticism about claims of speedy success. There is no golden road to improving yourself.
For instance, weight training. I learned a lot about lifting weights when I was using it to supplement my body development. Many of the books promise powerful benefits in six weeks of training and they are very often illustrated with before and after pictures. In actual fact, it takes about six months to get visual results with weightlifting and only with a strong routine. There are good internet articles on how the before and after pictures can be manipulated.
So, I have a healthy skepticism about claims of speedy improvement, etc.
But Nxivm got around the skepticism. Your first intro was someone of the first rank in society, often an heiress or a leader in a field. (The same method of recommendation is often used in Ponzi schemes.) And as you progress in the training you meet more and more opinion leaders and everything is designed to appear professional and well organized. The elements that in America are the epitome of our ruling class were used to sell what eventually turned out to be a tawdry sex cult where women were systematically degraded and manipulated in the name of liberation.
I would love to name a simple cure for cult recruiting, but there is none. We are taught or more correctly sold on the idea that self-improvement can be made easy and that it is purchasable. The fact is that we develop meaning in our lives by focused thinking, by experience and by our actions. Each of us can generate self-worth in multiple ways.
I know — I know. Relying on our own efforts seems like such a slender reed when confronted with our often-overwhelming reality of pandemic, bizarre politics and global disasters. But that is where the struggle for meaning takes place. You can quit, embrace a cult, settle for a religion, do just whatever your group does, conform, …
But the battle for who we are is always going to be internal, intensely personal, and dependent on our own struggles.
James Alan Pilant