featured image by Hartwig HKD
Quick recap of my current situation (if you don’t already know):
I call myself a lifelong cultist because I was abused by two cults before age 18, and continued to “cult hop” from movement to movement after that. I went from veganism, to liberal feminism and transactivism, to radical feminism. (Right now, I don’t belong to any groups or ascribe to any political or philosophical perspective.)
Each time I disbanded from a movement, I made the decision to publicly address my reasons for leaving the movement, rather than silently bowing out.
Why? Oh, it could be that I’m a writer, and writers write about just about anything that crosses our minds. But I think the more important question is: why not? Why not publicly discuss one’s negative experiences with an ideology or movement?
Having “been around the block” with this public disavowal thing, so to speak, I’ve noticed that, no matter what group I’m dealing with, they all have very, very similar feedback to my public statements on them. Sometimes I wonder if there’s some hivemind script that they’re reading from. Because despite each group’s claim that they’re somehow different from other movements, more often than not their vitriolic responses to ex-members* are nearly identical.
So in this post, I’m going to list the most common responses I’ve received from members of my past movements** who were dissatisfied with my decision to publicly critique/leave their movement — and then I’m going to rebut each one.
*Here on, I will refer to “people who publicly criticize or leave a movement” as disbanders for short. And for the record: my discussion of “movements” below does not automatically imply that I think they’re a cult.
** By “my past movements,” I specifically mean veganism, liberal feminism, radical feminism, and transactivism. I don’t mean to pick on them. I just can’t speak for other movements, like the atheist community for example, because I haven’t personally been involved in them.
1. “By publicly writing negative things about our movement, you’re unfairly representing us!”
The flipside of this statement would be, “By publicly writing positive things about our movement, you’re fairly representing us!” It seems that most groups think the only acceptable public statements about them are the positive ones.
I mean, to be fair, I often hear ex-members say the complementary thing: “By writing positive things about them, you’re denying all the bad stuff they do!”
Both of these sentiments are fallacious for a few reasons.
First of all, no individual person is obligated to give (or even capable of giving!) a completely unbiased, objective and fair appraisal of anything. Biases are unavoidable. We can do our best to keep our biases in check, but even so, someone with overwhelmingly negative experiences with a group should not be forced to write a balanced appraisal of that group, because that would be an unfair representation of their personal reality. The group’s investment in its public image does not trump an individual’s perception of that group.
Second of all, writing something negative about a group is not the same as denying their positive attributes, and vice versa. To say otherwise is just a derail.
2. “If you publicly make our movement (veganism, feminism, transactivism) look bad, you’re driving people away from our message, and ultimately contributing to the deaths and rapes of animals/women/trans women.”
No, for real. They actually say this.
When I disbanded from veganism, some vegans called me a rapist and murderer, and said I was causing more animals to die by writing the egg essay. When I disbanded from transactivism, I was accused of directly causing the suicides and murders of trans women. When I disbanded from radical feminism, one political lesbian called me a rape apologist and homophobe.
These are all manifestations of the Us versus Them Mentality, a hallmark of cultism. This is when the group holds the belief that anyone who isn’t with them is their enemy, or at the very least, is collaborating with their enemy. (That said: if a group you’re part of has special insults and derogatory labels for non-members, watch out, okay? That’s a major red flag of cultism.)
3. “Publicly criticizing a movement is attention-seeking behavior.”
Oh, and publicly supporting a group isn’t?
Sorry to break it to you, but saying anything publicly is attention-seeking behavior. By default. That’s the nature of social media. We share things that people are then free to comment on and express approval/disapproval of. If you know people are going to respond to it in some regard, then you’re seeking attention by posting it. That goes for everything from political opinions, to product reviews, to an Instagram of your #delicious #vegan #dinner from last night. So to whip out the accusation that people who critique something publicly are somehow seeking attention by doing so, without acknowledging that one’s own activity on social media is no less attention-getting, is an obvious case of the pot calling the kettle black.
And now, just for a moment, let’s concede for the sake of the argument: even if publicly critiquing a movement was a more extreme version of attention seeking, what exactly would be wrong with that? People critique groups for all sorts of legitimate reasons! They might be interested in saving potential converts from getting into a dangerous situation. Or they might want to embolden other survivors to speak out and expose the abuse within the group.
“Attention seeking” has this unfortunate connotation of being something selfish and pointless, but it can actually be quite productive if utilized correctly. Some concerns deserve to have attention drawn to them.
4. “You’re starting drama/infighting/divisions in the movement!”
Chances are, that drama was already happening long before anyone said anything negative publicly. In fact, it might have been the reason the disbander left in the first place!
Blaming ex-members for the instability of the group, is a classic guilt induction tactic that works in two ways: it makes the ex-member feel guilty and look selfish for daring to say anything negative about the group; and it scares the in-members into silence by making them believe that voicing their concerns is harmful to the group rather than helpful.
This guilt induction tactic also frames the entire movement as a collective victim of the person speaking out against them, rather than acknowledging the ways that they collaboratively victimized that individual.
5. “We’ve done so much for you! How could you stab us in the back like this?”
Again, this is how the group casts itself as a collective victim of an individual. Betrayal! Nobody wants to be accused of betraying anyone. It’s another implicit character judgment — you use people and then leave. You can’t be trusted. Traitor.
Interestingly, by doing this, the group exposes their secret: that they do believe members are indebted to them in some way or another. They may brag about how free-thinking and independent they are, and how not-a-cult they are. But healthy relationships are not transactional. To insist otherwise is a tried-and-true emotional manipulation tactic called guilt induction.
6. (Personal insults)
So, hopefully, I don’t need to explain why personal insults are an inappropriate response to a public critique. Instead, I’ll explain why I think they’re used so often.
See, when somebody makes a statement about a movement’s ideology, tactics, collective behavior, etc. they’re not talking about individual people — they’re addressing abstractions. However, the more deeply-indoctrinated members of the group won’t see it as an impersonal statement — no, they’ll take it as a personal attack.
For example: when an ex-vegan dares to say “I wasn’t personally able to maintain my health on a vegan diet,” some vegans hear ‘Anyone who claims to be healthy on a vegan diet is in denial!’
So, to counter what they perceive as a personal attack, they retort with a personal attack of their own: “If you couldn’t make veganism work, then you’re lazy and don’t care about the animals enough!”
This is the problem with movements whose members’ identities hinge on that movement’s ideas. Once an individual member assimilates to the group’s core tenets, it’s nearly impossible to discuss the group without putting the individual on the defensive.
7. “You were never a real _______ anyway!”
Similarly: “You never really cared about the cause!”
The funniest (read: most pathetic) example of this, is watching Mickey Z. (an extremely dedicated, proud vegan of twenty freaking years) get labeled as a fake vegan for writing this one article. (Can you say “Retroactive No True Scotsman fallacy?”)
There’s no point in breaking this one down. It’s painfully obvious why group members say this to disbanders: DENIAL.
The existence of ex-members is so threatening to their worldview that they have to literally overwrite a person’s life in order to keep their precious ideology safe from questions. I suppose when a group member plays the ‘not a real ___’ card, you know you’ve won, because they’ve resorted to blatant lying. I’d even go as far as to say it borders on gaslighting territory.
8. “You’re allowed to say whatever you want about us, but could you say it more nicely?”
There are certainly cases where tone policing is necessary. For example: when someone is advocating for violence or personally insulting someone — then yes, by all means, police that shit.
However, as a disbander, I’ve often experienced a more insidious version of tone-policing.
I’ll say something like, “How many times do I have to say this? I DID NOT call radical feminism a cult. What the fuck. That doesn’t even make any sense.”
and someone will leave a comment like, ‘Okay, fine, but I can’t take you seriously when you sound so aggressive.’
That’s the trick: my tone has no bearing on the validity of what I’m saying. So what may seem like a fair appraisal of my statement is actually an implicit ad hominem (‘You can’t be taken seriously’ and ‘You’re obviously too angry to think clearly’).
9. “I know how messed-up our group is. But unlike you, I can ignore all that for the sake of the cause!”
I’ve heard many a feminist/vegan/transactivist say that they are well aware of the inconsistencies in their ideology, and even straight-up abuse within their respective groups — but they put up with it (perhaps, to prove their dedication). And I have actually heard actual vegans say that they would still be vegan even if it made them sick.
In saying this, they expose the truth of the matter: they have fully internalized the “Doctrine Over Person” tenet of cultism. Once a member has gotten to the point where they will brag about how much they needlessly suffer for the cause, or how much bullshit they tolerate without reward… you know they’re in deep.
This comeback is often used against disbanders in a competitive way. It acknowledges the disbander’s issues with the group, but doesn’t actually address them or attempt to fix them. The implication is that the disbander just couldn’t handle the group — and that their low tolerance for the group’s bullshit is something wrong with the disbander, not the group. And quite frankly… that’s just masochistic.
And finally, my personal favorite:
10. You’re a cultist anyway. How can we trust your judgment?
As I already said in this post, people who say this to me aren’t actually making a point; they’re deflecting by questioning my sanity because that’s safer than questioning their own.
Fun fact: Never having been in a cult doesn’t mean you’re any better at critical thinking than a cultist. In fact, critical thinking and cultism are not mutually exclusive. The beliefs we arrive at have more to do with what information is available to us, than whether we’re capable of rational thought. (I elaborate on that here.)
And let’s be honest: who better to criticize any movement, than someone who’s been in plenty of them? Just sayin’… 😉
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate this:
People often ask me why I am so public about my issues with certain movements. But I’m not interested in justifying the why. I’m interested in exploring the why not.
Why not publicly discuss a movement’s or group’s shortcomings?