Skepticism in action: Crommunist joins a cult

Some times I have fun adventures. This is a story of one of them.

I have a friend (who I will call Valerie for the sake of clarity) who, although we get along quite well, I find to be a bit credulous. I’m sure if you asked her, she’d tell you that, although we get along well, she finds me simplistic and reductive and closed off to possibilities beyond what can be seen and heard. This is an unfair characterization, but rooted in a larger ignorance of skepticism that we are slowly resolving through good-natured chats whenever we get together.

Because I’m, well… me, Valerie calls from time to time to ask my opinion on various matters. Not because she thinks I’m particularly brilliant, but because I am in real life more or less how I am online – full of opinions. She also knows that, as a skeptic, I am quite adept at poking holes in things. It was in this spirit that she invited me to attend an open house at the life-coaching workshop she had been attending for a while. She thought that maybe I would learn something new, or that (more likely), I would sit like a curmudgeon and get into a fight with the speaker. I promised her that I would be open minded (which was a bit of a cheat, because she and I have very different definitions for that term).

And so it was that I found myself attending a workshop for the Executive Success Program, led by none other than director and film-maker Mark Vicente. Yes… that Mark Vicente.

Now I very rarely walk into a meeting like that without knowing anything about the speaker or the product being flogged, because part of my definition of being open minded is understanding what critics have said. Let’s just say that I almost changed my mind about going:

But [inventor of the Executive Success Program Mr. Keith] Raniere, known as “Vanguard” to his faithful followers, apparently attempts to deflect any meaningful personal responsibility by blaming his failures on former business associates, the “negative thoughts” of others and “outside forces.”

Any time that the only information about your product that isn’t published by you comes from Rick Ross’ Cult Watch website, you know you’ve got problems. I’m going to leave the whole “Vanguard” nickname alone for now (but I suggest you click through, because the guy sounds like a real winner), but let’s just say that I was not expecting big things from mister Vicente. But I had promised Valerie I would attend, and so attend I did. While there, I jotted down a few thoughts.

Love Bombing

I interact with people a lot. I play regular shows with the band, I am invited to parties, I go to bars, I attend many types of social functions. I have a fairly large sample size to work with when it comes to Vancouverites’ behaviour when meeting others for the first time. I walked into the room (after taking off my shoes… weird, but whatever) and had been there for no more than 10 seconds before I was approached with big, friendly inviting smiles and sincere-sounding inquiries as to how I was doing by 4 or 5 people. Sure, friendliness is nice, but the kind of over-familiarity and faux sincerity on display was well above and beyond normal friendliness.

Of course this is a technique that has a name – it’s called “love bombing”, and is a technique used by cults to make the naive newcomer feel that they have found a group where they belong. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by happy, positive, and (let’s face it) good-looking people who all treat you like an old friend from the moment you walk in the door? It’s probably the nicest form of brainwashing you could imagine, unless you have Asperger’s in which case it’s probably one of the circles of Dante’s hell.

The Presentation

After being forced to pretend that I wasn’t creeped out by the effusive welcome from my new best friends in the whole world, we were invited to sit in the conference room. After a brief introduction by the local ESP group leader, Mark took the stage. I will give this to him – he’s a gifted speaker, who can sustain a narrative and walk you through a thought process in such a way as to make it seem as though all the ideas he’s sharing came from within your own head, and he was just helping to coax them out.

I’ve seen sales pitches before, and so the slick delivery didn’t bother me. What did bother me was his attempt to completely shut down the audience’s critical thinking abilities. The first instruction to the audience was “be open”, which was essentially begging us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. He listed a handful of “blocking strategies” which represented, basically, any strategy that involves critical thought. This included a straw man swipe as skeptics as “cynics” who refuse to accept any new ideas. When I was the only one to raise my hand when he asked if there was anyone who didn’t see themselves described on the list, he chuckled knowingly and said “you’re what we call ‘the defiant'” and added me to the list. I’m anything but defiant – I just don’t accept everything that a salesman tells me.

The Question

In the first half of the presentation, Mr. Vicente talked a lot about the things we do to interfere with our own success – that either through fear of succeeding or through old bad habits, we set ourselves up for self-sabotage. He kept bringing the discussion back to a central question: “what would you give up in order to stop blocking yourself?” What would you be willing to sacrifice if it meant that you could achieve your goals?

He then invited all of the “coaches” from the ESP program to introduce themselves to the group. The coaches themselves were the same over-friendly people from my ill-fated entrance. The presentations were all variations on a theme: “I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to get it. Then I started doing the program. Now I am successful.” There is a slight problem, and maybe you can find it. Maybe if I give you a clue: all of them were in their mid-to-late 20s.

It has been my experience that, when you start your 20s, life isn’t that great. If you’re anything like me, you have lots of ambition but few skills and little experience to speak of. You try many things, and most of them fail. But as a handful of years pass, you become more competent, and things start to work out. That happens in the absence of taking a self-help program; it’s just how it works for ambitious, highly-educated, personable people. I thought of a great slogan for them: Executive Success Programs – the antidote to your first world problems!

We were exhorted to reconvene in small groups with whichever coach “resonated the most with you”, so I split off and joined the group discussion; another fun adventure that I will share with you in this afternoon’s post.

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  1. Aquaria says

    Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by happy, positive, and (let’s face it) good-looking people who all treat you like an old friend from the moment you walk in the door? It’s probably the nicest form of brainwashing you could imagine, unless you have Asperger’s in which case it’s probably one of the circles of Dante’s hell.

    Oddly enough, Dante described the eighth ring as fraud, and it was composed of thieves, perjurers, bad advisors, hypocrites, seducers and flatterers. And that’s about where I’d put them, somewhere between the 10th Bolgia and the 9th ring (Treachery!).

    People like that creep me out to no end. I think it’s the Stepford thing they present. I usually end up saying weird stuff to them, to get them to get the hell away from me, like asking them if they ever wake up and want to stick hot rods in their eyes rather than come to work some days. Just totally inappropriate stuff because I’m freaked.

  2. Enkidum says

    Heh – I worked for an Amway dealer for a while (doing construction, not Amway), and it was very much the same sort of thing, except far more aggressive, by the sounds of it. Friend of mine got sucked in and blew several hundred dollars on motivational tapes.

    I went to precisely one meeting, at which I tried doing the math to see how much the average Amway member made (based on their own figures in the pamphlets). Some guys who had been telling me about their plans, how they were all going to go to their high school graduations in Porsches, were very put off by me, the way I kept looking for the negative side of the deal. Couldn’t I just keep things positive?

    Anyways, I’ve never seen What the Bleep Do We Know? , but fuck that nonsense.

  3. herp says

    Oh that movie is absolutely hilarious. One example, from the movie (spoiler, heh) is that “positive engery” can effect how water makes an ice crystal, or snowflake. All of the positive energy pictures were shaded with a cool blue color, whereas the bad energy water had a darker red backdrop. It also happened to be a pointier ice crystal, which makes it appear “bad” ( I cannot remember the specific terms they used). I think it is more telling on what shapes we perceive as good vs bad or happy vs sad. This article comes to mind Perception.

  4. Retired Prodigy Bill says

    I don’t have Asperger’s, but the “love bombing” would certainly drive me nuts.

    Maria Bamford does an excellent cult sketch, by the way. (When the cult recruiter asks if there is anyone from whom she can borrow money to attend a seminar, she replies, “Oh, that would be great if you could spot me!”)

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