Today, we posted Diane Benscoter’s revealing talk on being a Moonie and how cult thought can lead people to do the unthinkable. It’s a topic that’s not often talked about and that fascinates many, so, to bring you more from Diane the TEDBlog caught up with her for an interview. We talked about her time with the Moonies, her efforts as a deprogrammer and her ideas about how we should be fighting cults and extremism around the world.
Could you speak a little more about how you came to join the Moonies?
I had just turned 17. I was very idealistic. The Vietnam War really bothered me. I had a good friend with a brother in Vietnam. I was determined to find a community that would stop the madness. I went off in search of something like that. I went off on this Walk for World Peace. It was a five day walk, and during the entire walk there would be two people walking with me at all times, talking about this new world they were going to build, saying that I was special and chosen by God to be a part of this, otherwise I wouldn’t be there. There were lectures every night. And slowly I came to believe that they were right, and that Sun Myung Moon was the second coming of the Messiah.
What was it like once you were in the group? What was it like to live as a Moonie?
It was constantly reinforced that we had a purpose that was much higher than that of anyone else in the world. It was pretty appealing to be a part of something like that. But, I missed my freedom. There were times when I really missed being like the people I saw on the street every day. But, it was constantly reinforced that I was saving the world, so I trusted my beliefs and gave up my freedom.
I spent most of my days fundraising — selling candy and flowers. I started in Nebraska and began living in their Nebraska center. I cut my hair off and cut my ties with my family. I was shipped off not long after I joined, for training at a “monastery” in upstate New York. Then I began my mission — fundraising. We lived in vans and went from place to place selling candy and flowers. We also went back for training over and over, and the trainings were pretty long. One of them was 120 days. They reinforced beliefs and erased any doubts during their training. They kept the circular logic intact.
What was this experience like for your family?
They were desperate. You see, it wasn’t like I came from a family that was dysfunctional or abusive. I came from a normal, loving home. My mother was especially desperate to get me out. And when they did talk to me, all I wanted was to get them to join. I thought Satan was using them, was talking through them. They suffered greatly. Now that I’m a parent, I can’t imagine how hard it was for them.
They did everything they could. My mom really wanted to have me deprogrammed, my dad wasn’t as sure. It’s a drastic measure. And what if it didn’t work? He was afraid that if they tried, and it didn’t work, that they might lose me forever.
Could you speak a little bit about deprogramming? You were deprogrammed and became a deprogrammer, but it’s a rather controversial practice and many think that it brings up ethical issues relating to free will.
Yeah, I have a lot to say on this topic, but I’ll try to give the main points first. One — involuntary deprogrammings, which I was involved with, aren’t really taking place anymore and definitely not as they were. Looking back on it, I think there are ethical issues there. Still, I totally understand why people did it, why I did it — desperation, not knowing what to do, love of their child. You’re dealing with a problem that hasn’t been defined psychologically, so you can’t lock people in a mental hospital for it.
Now, I had one foot in and one foot out of the Moonies when I was deprogrammed. My faith was already wavering. Also, I had a loving family. But, to pull a belief system away from someone who doesn’t have the correct support system can be very dangerous. It’s like chemotherapy. Chemotherapy many times cures cancer, but it can also kill people. So, I’m not going to say that deprogramming is the way. And that‘s why I’ve gone in the direction of prevention.
Also, some people came to deprogramming more professionally that others. Some made mistakes and some used really admirable techniques. For the most part, in the ones that I was a part of, we just talked to the person and made sure that they ate and slept well. We were trying to introduce rational thought and a healthy mental state. We presented no new philosophy and no desire for them to take up any of our personal beliefs. We simply tried to explain that much of what they had been told was not true and was possibly brainwashing. We based our techniques on psychological theory, especially the work of Robert Lifton.
READ MORE: Diane talks about how to distinguish a cult from a group, what it feels like to lose your critical thinking and how we can combat extremism — using memes.
What do you think are the identifying traits of a cult? What differentiates cult from group?
The first one is an all or nothing world view. If easy answers to complex questions are handed to you on a silver platter and if you’re asked to believe in them unquestioningly and told not to seek an alternative, that’s a cult. If there’s a clear us and them, and we the insiders have the answers to all the questions about the world — especially if those answers are very simple. For example — Moon is the messiah. I’m a mere mortal so I shouldn’t question anything. Anytime that you feel that you’re inside a group looking out at the rest of the world thinking, “If they only knew what we knew, they’d understand how right we are.”
Also, if the leader is all-knowing. That’s a big one. And of course, the circular logic is the other thing. If everything comes back to this simple logic, if you can’t have rational thought or critical thought, that’s a cult.
What is it like to have this circular thought? What does it feel like for the individual in this logic loop?
Often, I would hear a song, or see a headline, or encounter someone that would bring up issues contradictory to the perspective of the group and it would just bounce off of me, because I knew that that was Satan invading. If it would start to make sense to me, it was Satan invading my thoughts. And this was reinforced by the group that that type of experience was as a result of a lack of faith. We were God’s soldiers and Satan was constantly trying to break down God’s soldiers. I needed to pray harder.
Any critical question — the kind that a scientist would welcome — was not acceptable. In circular logic, anything that questions belief means something evil, bad or Satan. It’s wrong to listen, it’s wrong to even play with ideas that are different. This is how unthinkable things can happen.
So, you stop using critical thought?
Yes. And the thing that takes the place of critical thought is someone else’s voice. That voice literally replaces critical thought.
Could you elaborate on the connection you made in your talk between memetics and combating extremism?
What I theorize is that we’re looking in the wrong place and we’re attacking the extremism in the wrong way at the moment. To try to fight extremism with guns and to simply label extremists as bad or terrible people is wrong. The actions of these extremists are unthinkable, horrific, repulsive, but the person is a person who is passionate and truly believe that they are doing good. A mother who fed poison to her baby in Jonestown is not an evil person. She truly believed she was saving her baby. It’s hard to contemplate, but these are the same motivations that drove Hitler Youth and suicide bombers.
We need to take these phenomena out of the realm of good and evil and into the realm of science. What we really need to do is understand what happens in the brain, and I challenge experts in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry to do this — perhaps there is some way to identify the extremist brain.
When extremism occurs, something has happened to our mind. The human mind is very susceptible to ideas — to memes. And, much like viruses, memes spread. If we can just define this as a problem, as a memetic infection, as a disease. Ideas can infect our brains, and shut down other pathways of thought.
I suspect that the more a person uses critical thinking, the healthier their brain is. It’s like a computer that is well-tuned and running fast. For some time now, doctors have been recommending to older patients that they do crossword or number puzzles to ward off the onset of senility — suggesting that practicing our thought processes preserves them. Circular logic stops us from using our faculties of critical thinking, and causes our ability for critical and independent thought to atrophy. A lack of critical thought can cause behavior that is dangerous to the person and to others. That person is like a machine that’s broken — they’re simply not functioning normally.
I think that this particularly dangerous state called extremism can be prevented. I realized that when I found memetics. For me, finding memetics was like water to a thirsty person. It was only theory that was able to explain what happened to my brain and how it could be prevented in others. This circular logic I was caught in was a malfunction — if that meme caught on and people started speaking out against circular logic, perhaps the incidence of that malfunction could be reduced. We have memes about which sandal is fashionable for which season, why not a meme against circular logic?