Most of the following characteristics (to an extent) are common in a sect:
I. Indoctrination and Manipulation
The most common characteristics of a sect are indoctrination and manipulation. Indoctrination is a manipulative device that occurs automatically; it is usually used on children and young adults who are growing up within the sectarian community. Furthermore, it is always in the interest of the sect to use manipulation towards all its members in order to increase the plausibility of its message.
“Does the group use education (formal or informal) to get its message across?”
“Does the group use manipulative techniques (rhetorical devices, small group meetings, wondrous stories, myths, et cetera) to increase the plausibility of its message?”
The leaders of the sect have a certain authority – to such a degree that they are (almost) beyond reproach. The leaders are in the position to make efficient use of their power, which is usually exalted over the members of the sect.
“Are the leaders in the group in possession of a certain unquestioned power (over people)?”
III. Social control
A common characteristic of a sect is social control. The group will try to influence the private life of its members to quite an extent.
“Does the group try to influence the private life of its members?”
IV. Only the leaders are in possession of the truth
The members of the sect (are forced to) believe that the leaders of the sect are the only, or at the very least, virtually the only people who are in possession of the truth. Everything what is being done, said, or believed by people outside the sect is judged to be wrong if those beliefs or actions are not sect policy.
“Are (virtually) only the leaders of the group in possession of the truth?”
V. Destructive control methods
The sect uses ‘forcing manipulative techniques’, also known as brainwashing, or ‘destructive control techniques’. The sect is constantly trying to keep its members close to the group. This is achieved by:
– driving members into feelings guilt; whether they are rebellious or not.
– threatening exclusion.
– assuring members are socially and emotionally dependant of the sect.
“Does the group try to keep its members close to its core with one or different techniques?”
VI. Financial demands
The sect can expect or demand a regular financial contribution of its members. In extreme cases, the sect can confiscate personal property, savings, or claim a percentage of each member’s regular income. Motives mostly include making the members financially reliant on the sect – trying to ensure its members are financially tied to the community. This can also be done by refusing outside help such as: refusing insurance payouts, benefits, pension, et cetera. Expecting a regular contribution however, is more prevalent.
“Does the group try to make its members financially reliant to some extent, or claim personal belongings – financial or otherwise?”
Loyalty is in almost all cases demanded of everyone. The life of each member must revolve around the sect. Members must be an example of the group at large, both in appearance as in personality. These physical and emotional demands can be quite draining; nevertheless, members are judged if they do not appear to be absolutely loyal to the community and its standards and beliefs. These demands can be quite severe: anything from a forced dress style to the death of a non-vaccinated infant.
“Does the group make any physical and emotional demands – and judgemental of every dissenter?”
VIII. Loaded language
A specific type of language is often a characteristic of a sect. Although one will rarely find a sect with its own unique language, a distinctive dialect or jargon however, is quite common. This variety of language can involve anything from persuasive and manipulative phraseology to a mystic or religious language. The specific language variety is also known as a loaded language; its primary function is to make the policy of the group sound more weighty and plausible. The loaded language can also produce problems for group members who have grown accustomed to the language of the sect.
“Does the group have a specific language variety (jargon, phraseology, et cetera) to talk about its policies and beliefs?”
IX. No criticism
Doubting any of the policies or beliefs of the sect is seen as rebellious behaviour and will be crushed. Group members receive appreciation from other members only by portraying unquestioned loyalty and submission.
“Does the group not allow any criticism on its policies or beliefs?”
X. Lying and intimidation
Inside the sect it is usual to lie about reality. First of all, the belief system of the sect must remain an absolute truth at all times. This means any criticism must be crushed. Second, critics and dissenters are often lied about to discredit their name to the remaining members of the group. Chronic lying, psychological-, and perhaps even physical intimidation may be used to smother the person who walks out of step.
“Does the group use lies, psychological-, or physical intimidation to contradict and/or smother a critic or dissenter?”
XI. Threats and blackmail
Members who do not submit to the group or even attempt to leave can be reproached or even threatened with all sorts of consequences.
“Does the group try to prevent its members from leaving?”
“Does the group reproach or even threaten any dissenter?”
XII. Infliction of rights and privacy
i. Infractions on own identity
Every member must conform to the group identity. It is not allowed to do research outside of the group, every member must accept and believe what the leaders say. The group may also try to drive the member into submission; this may involve constant contradiction, intimidation, or manipulation, even withholding information, financial means, food, or sleep.
“Does the group infringe on the personal identity of its members?”
ii. Personal infractions
Friendships and relationships with partners, children, and parents can be severely inhibited or damaged.
“Are any friendships or relationships with partners, children, or parents severely inhibited or damaged by members of the group?”
iii. Financial infractions
The group can pressure people into making donations to the sect. Methods of acquiring funds vary from implanting a certain understood obligation to donate money to using severe measures like manipulative pressure or threats.
“Are the members of the group in any way obliged to donate money to the group?”
iv. Infractions on contact with the outside world
Almost everybody outside a sect is usually portrayed as bad, unworthy, underdeveloped, or dangerous. In doing so, every member is isolated from the outside world. Everyone in the world outside the sect is – to a certain extent – portrayed as an enemy of the group, or its policies, or both.
“Is everyone outside the group in question portrayed as bad, unworthy, underdeveloped, or even dangerous?”
v. Infractions on time and privacy
The sect regularly checks up on its members to see if all members are sound and loyal; it also uses a lot of its time and energy for regular group activities.
“Does the group regularly check up on its members to review their loyalty and attitude?”
“Does the group regularly come together for regular group activities?”
XIII. Possible consequences for the sect member
i. Personality change
Virtually all the people in the outside world (especially friends and family outside the sect) can say they do not recognise the person who has been consumed by the sect. They often find the member irritable, critical, and reproachful when he is contradicted on doctrinal, dogmatic, ideological, or religious matters.
“Do group members seem irritable, critical, and reproachful when contradicted on doctrinal, dogmatic, ideological, or religious matters?”
ii. Loss of identity
The group member cannot (or at least with some difficulty) see him/herself as an individual.
“Do group members experience difficulty or even fail to see themselves as an individual?”
The critical outsider is seen as a threat. If someone says anything negative about the group, whether this critic may be right or not, this person is seen as someone who persecutes the group. This is an obvious reaction since criticism in any form is not easily accepted – if it is accepted at all.
“Does the group experience criticism (founded or unfounded) as persecution and therefore a threat?”
iv. Social alienation
Members of a sect can lose contact with the outside world. This happens because members are manipulated into believing the outside world is fundamentally wrong as well as wicked and bad. Nevertheless, members who acquire contacts or even relations outside the group are reprimanded, rebuked, and shamed into breaking off these contacts. It can therefore seem as if people who are living in a sect display a certain amount of naivety – social alienation is one of the major factors what causes this.
“Do group members believe that the ‘outside world’ is fundamentally wrong as well as wicked and bad?”
“Do group members display a certain naivety in their contact with the outside world?”
“Do group members have a lot of contact with the outside world? – are they criticised for this?”
XIV. Severe feelings of guilt
All activities which are not in accordance with the teachings of the sect – activities which are not allowed for all sorts of reasons – are considered shortcomings in its members and judged accordingly. It is in the interest of the group to exaggerate any former breach of uniformity; the sect will repeatedly remind members of their previous offences, causing feelings of guilt and remorse. It is also common for the sect to remind its members that they are never doing enough – no effort is too great. In doing so, the sect entraps its members into a web of guilt, and constantly tries to make its members more obedient. This uniformity is often only achieved at the cost of rational thought, which causes all sorts of problems for the members of the group.
“Does the group try to remind its members that they are never doing enough for the benefit of the group?”
“Does the group try to remind its members of past actions or present practices in order to cause feelings of guilt and remorse?”
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