You are a Cult, Right?

As i was going through the endless array of stupid comments in the recent Yahoo Parenting article on Twin Oaks, i found myself wanting a good summary of why Twin Oaks (and other secular and especially egalitarian communities) are not cults.  Fortunately, these communities have designed themselves to make this easy.

Let’s hop in our time machine for a moment. It is 1967 and the original 8 founders of Twin Oaks are looking at the principals and cultural norms around which they will form the community where they want to live.  Reverend Moon had just visited the US and set up holy grounds in the 48 contiguous states.  The FDA had just raided Scientology offices and seized illegal medical equipment, and the religion was being banned in Australia and other places.  And the Church of Satan was performing it’s first recorded baptism.

23 May 1967, San Francisco, California, USA --- Original caption:

Satanic Baptism – 1967

The intentional communities movement wanted to distance itself from these kinds of organizations, so it looked at the behaviors which typified cults and set out to make themselves different in as many ways as possible. The 4 things which typify a cult are:

  1. It has a living charismatic leader
  2. You give them all your money
  3. You are kept away from your old friends and family
  4. You can’t leave when you might like

Cults are also exclusive, often highly secret and universally authoritarian. Let’s take a quick look at these components.

Living Charismatic Leader:  Twin Oaks has a complex internal decision making system.  Specifically, we have 3 or more planners who serve 18 month terms but can not serve consecutive terms.  Over the last 18 years i have been at Twin Oaks, the problem is not having people want to do consecutive plannerships, the problem is getting people to complete their terms – recently several planners have quit this generally thankless job.   Holding onto leaders in an egalitarian community is hard, because they get extra headaches without the extra perks.  Plus at Twin Oaks  we have a distrust of people in leadership roles and they often get extra flack for this reason.  We would appear to fail the charismatic leader cult test.

Cult of personality?

Cult of personality?

Give up your assets:  This one is understandably complex, because the difference between income sharing and asset sharing is often confused.  When you join Twin Oaks, we ask you not to touch your pre-existing assets, if you have any, for the duration of your membership.  This does not mean we ask you to give them to the community.  If you want you can lend them to the community, and when you leave you get them back.  Without interest.  The interest is income.  Because the community pays for everything when you live there, food, clothing, medical, housing, entertainment, taxes, dentist, etc we ask that any income your assets earn (including Social Security and pension income – excluding 401K interest, which you can’t get at) be given to the community.   This feels fair to us.  We also don’t take your debts if you arrive with debts.  Most cults require you give everything over.  Some (like Scientology – which fails the living leader test) require you to pay for expensive classes and encourages significant donations to the community.  Members are not encouraged to make donations to Twin Oaks of pre-existing assets nor do we charge our members for anything.

We provide everything you need

We provide everything you need.

Isolation:  Bring your friends and family to the commune, by all means.  They can stay for free and the host determines what work, if any, is appropriate for them to do (if you are going to stay for a while we would like you to work quota).  It is true there are people who live at Twin Oaks who rarely leave the farm.  But we design our selection process so that it pushes you back into the arms of those who care about you, before you come to join.  At the end of your visitor period at both Twin Oaks and Acorn you must leave, even if everyone thinks you are great and you should stay forever.  After you have been home for 10 days you find out if we have accepted you and then (at TO at least) you have to wait another 3 weeks before you can come.  My joke is if your friends and family can’t convince you not to join this hippie commune in 3 weeks, then you are free to come.

“You don’t need to go anywhere.  Everything you want is right here”

No Exit:  I dislike grumpy communards.  I really dislike communards who are grumpy about the community that they are living in.  I want these people (after making a good faith effort to fix their situation) to leave.  Every one of them represents a misallocated space, because there is someone on the waiting list who wants to take that person’s place and really wants to live with us.  Again we have had waiting list for years.

Exclusive:  One of Twin Oaks and Acorns missions is to be a model.  To be a model you have to be open to outside guests – friends, media, academics, curious travelers and more.  Cults won’t let you inside, and while it is wrong to say our doors are always open to anyone, if you ask in advance and come to any of the Saturday Tours or 3 Week visitor periods you can see pretty clearly what we look like.

Secretive:  Similarly, models can’t be secrets.

Tell no one

Tell no one

Authoritarian:  This seemed to be where many readers of the Yahoo article got hung up.  The assumption seemed to be that, if there were a self selecting group which was not following the roles of the mainstream, then there had to be an authoritarian oppressive structure.

Look, these communities are filled with anarchists.  We are not going to work if the structure is authoritarian.  We want to do better than majority voting.  All the egalitarian communities require democratic decision making systems, at least voting, ideally consensus.  This does not absolutely insure authoritarian structures will not emerge, but consensus is one of the best ways to maximize the power individuals have over oppression by a group.

Thus by any of the standard criteria for determine cult status, we fail.  But you dont need to believe me, come visit and see for yourself.  Call 540-894-5126 and arrange a Saturday tour.

Tags: , ,

About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

4 responses to “You are a Cult, Right?”

  1. Joan Mazza says :

    Great explanation, Pax. When I first visited Twin Oaks in 1993, friends were worried that it was a cult. At the time, I was reading books about cults and mind control and was struck by how much TO was not a cult. Varied beliefs; no charismatic and controlling leader.

    Here are a few more ways Twin Oaks does not meet the criteria for a cult:

    Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
    The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
    ‪The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
    The group is preoccupied with making money.
    ‪Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
    ‪The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
    Important decisions in the lives of the adherents are made by others;
    Making sharp distinctions between us and them, divine and Satanic, good and evil, etc. that are not open for discussion;

    These points are taken from a variety of sources. I have a file I can share, if you’re interested.
    ~Joan

  2. Catherine says :

    One of my favorite former members of Ganas, when asked the same question, would usually just say “Cults don’t generally have waiting lists.”

  3. Rico ex- aka Richard Feldman says :

    I suspect that you are giving the commenters an unearned compliment by assuming that they have enough capacity for critical thinking that one could have an actual dialogue with them. Probably best not to get me going on the subject of authoritarianism and some of the more popular western religions.

    • paxus says :

      Well, if you read this blog a fair bit you know that i don’t approve all comments. The world is filled with trolls who are boring and waste time. And i would be early to agree that many, perhaps most religions (eastern and western) have highly problematic relations with authority. And i would quickly concur that “conventional religions” have been responsible for far more problems than cults have been.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: