Mississippi Burning (1988)

This film was portrayed based on a real-life crime incident involves the murders of three civil rights workers in the U.S state of Mississippi in 1964.The plot of the film surrounded on the search for these missing persons as well as the culprit of the crime (that was perpetrated by the members of the Klu Klax Klan) by two FBI agents. It was an uneasy task for the agents to gain information and cooperation from the Black community, especially one that is oppressed and overruled by the members of Klu Klax Klan. Segregations were obvious and whistle-blowers were given hard time (abused, kidnapped, have houses were burnt down). There were also scene that depict the KKK’s congregation that was participated by all young and old to ensure the cult’s loyalty.

What interest me most from the film was that, how normal functioning people like the police officers who are supposed to be the law enforcer to keep community safe and just, would condone such irrational crimes. If Klu Klax Klan was built upon racial hatred and insecurity, on the other extreme polar would be the Peoples Temple that part of its vision is to create an interracial community that is equal (during times where the Blacks and Whites are still heavily segregated). However, the dream to build paradise on earth soon turn into a ugly nightmare when in just overnight on 1978 – approximately 900 of its member committed suicide by drinking poison during a congregation. Also known as the Jonestown massacre, was one of the largest mass suicide event in America’s history.
How can the ideologies of cult bring about such tremendous and extreme behavior out of a person, including doing things that we are well aware of to be against our values (i.e. suicide, killing another persons, inflicting pain in others, etc)? How are these cult members are different from us? In fact, studies showed that the members of cult not more different from who we are. Based on a large scale profiling effort, cult members are usually from the middle to upper-middle class of the society, male youths in their teens or early adulthood and intelligent people (Collins, 1982). If so, the next question is how can we not commit the same mistakes from the past?

Critical thinking. Based on a talk by a former ex-cult member and now a deprogrammer, Diane Benscoter on her experience being a cult member is that they tend to commit invalid arguments when rationalizing (i.e. circular rationalization).

By being aware of these fallacies in argument and critically appraise argument, it is hope that one will be better equipped in the face of a cult’s coercion to either join or leave the group. The following will list some of the common themes used in cults’ teaching to re-educate and subsequently abandon one’s belief of life for the “truth” or “enlightenment” offered by the group based on Robert J Lifton’s research on cult (source taken from http://www.skeptictank.org/hs/cultdyn.htm).


Control of the Environment and Communication The control of human communication is the most basic feature of the thought reform environment. This is the control of what the individual sees, hears, reads, writes, experiences and expresses. It goes even further than that, and controls the individuals communication with himself – his own thoughts. Everything other than their beliefs is excluded. The organisation appears to be omniscient. They seem to know everything that is going on. Reality is their exclusive possession. In this environment the individual is deprived of the combination of external information and internal reflection required to test reality and to maintain a measure of identity separate from his environment. The individual can feel victimised by his controllers and feel the hostility of suffocation – the resentful awareness that his striving toward new information, independent judgment and self-expression are being thwarted.

This seeks to provoke specific patterns of behaviour and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. For the manipulated person this assumes a near-mystical quality. This is not just a power trip by the manipulators. They have a sense of “higher purpose” and see themselves as being the “keepers of the truth.” They are the chosen agents to carry out this mystical imperative.
The pursuit of this mystical imperative supersedes all considerations of decency of immediate human welfare. The end justifies the means. You can lie, deceive or whatever to those outside the organization. Members believe in the ideology to such a degree that they rationalize these deceptions.


Everything is black & white Pure and impure is defined by the ideology of the organization. Only those ideas, feelings and actions consistent with the ideology and policy are good. The individual conscience is not reliable. The philosophical assumption is that absolute purity is attainable and that anything done in the name of this purity is moral. By defining and manipulating the criteria of purity and conducting an all-out war on impurity (dissension especially) the organisation creates a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, the demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is alien to the human condition. Under these conditions the individual expects humiliation, ostracism and punishment because of his inability to live up to the criteria and lives in a constant state of guilt and shame. Since the organisation is the ultimate judge of good and evil, this guilt and shame is used to manipulate and control members. The organization becomes an authority without limit in the eyes of members and their power is nowhere more evident that in their capacity to “forgive”. All impurities are seen to originate from “outside” (the world). Therefore, one of the best ways to relieve himself of the burden of guilt is to denounce these with great hostility. The more guilty he feels, the greater his hatred, the more hostile is his denouncement. Organizationally this eventually leads to purges of heretics, mass hatred and religious holy wars. The group will point to the mistakes of all other belief systems while promoting their own purity. This gives the impression that their organisation is perfect, clean and pure as a people or group.


This is closely related to the demand for purity. Confession is carried beyond the ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for these vulnerabilities. Totalist confession is an act of self-surrender, the expression of the merging of the individual and environment. There is a dissolution of self, talents and money. Conformity. The cult of confession has effects quite the reverse of its ideal of total exposure; rather than eliminating personal secrets, it increases and intensifies them. The individual becomes caught up in continuous conflict over which secrets to preserve and which to surrender, over ways to reveal lesser secrets can be revealed and ways to protect more important ones. The cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain reasonable balance between worth and humility.


Absolute “Truth” Their “truth” is the absolute truth. It is sacred – beyond questioning. There is a reverence demanded for the leadership. They have ALL the answers. Only to them is given the revelation of “truth”. The ultimate moral vision becomes the ultimate science and the person who dares to criticise it, or even think criticism, is immoral, irreverent and “unscientific”. The assumption here is not so much that man can be God, but rather that man’s IDEAS can be God. This gives sense of security to the member. They are confident they can get the answer to the most difficult problem or question.


Thought terminating cliches Everything is compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorised and easily expressed. There are “good” terms which represents the groups ideology and “evil” terms to represent everything outside which is to be rejected. Totalist language is intensely divisive, all-encompassing jargon, unmercifully judging. To those outside the group this language is tedious – the language of non-thought. This effectively isolates members from outside world. The only people who understand you are other members. Other members can tell if you are really one of them by how you talk. This narrowness of the language is constricting. The individual is linguistically deprived because language is central to the human experience and his capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely restricted. While initially this loaded language can give a sense of security to the new believer, an uneasiness develops over time. This uneasiness may result in a withdrawal into the system and he preaches even harder to hide his problem and demonstrate his loyalty. It may also produce an inner division and the individual will publicly give the right performance while privately have his own thoughts. Either way, his imagination becomes increasingly disassociated from his actual life experiences and may even tend to atrophy from disuse.


Doctrine supersedes human experience The ideological myth merges with their “truth” and the resulting deduction can be so overpowering and coercive that is simply replaces reality. Consequently past events can be altered, rewritten or even ignored to make them consistent with the current reality. This alteration is especially lethal when the distortions are imposed on the individual’s memory. They demand character and identity of a person be reshaped to fit their clone of mentality. The underlying assumption is that the doctrine – including its mythological elements – is ultimately more valid, true and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience. The individual under such pressure is propelled into an intense conflict with his own sense of integrity, a struggle which take place in relation to polarised feelings if sincerity and insincerity. Absolute sincerity is demanded by the group yet this must be put to one side when changes take place the individual has to deny the original belief ever existed. Personal feelings are suppressed and members must appear to be contented and enthusiastic at all times. Some cults believe that all illness is a result of lack of faith and evidence of sin in your life. These things have to be prayed away and medical attention is ignored as a “sign of faith.”


Who is worthy to live They have the right to decide who is worthy of life and who isn’t. They also decide which history books are accurate and which are not. Those in the organisation are worthy of life; those outside worthy of death. The outsiders can be permitted to live if they change and become an insider. Members live in fear of being pronounced “dead”. They have a fear of annihilation or extinction. The emotional conflict is one of “being vs nothingness”. Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon mission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the organisation. Should he stray from the “truth” his right to exist may be withdrawn and he is pronounced “dead”.

There were also some similarities between the proposed themes by Lifton’s study and the extensive documentary on the People’s Temple on youtube.


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