McBurners -- Burning Man as Cult and/or Franchise

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McBurners -- Burning Man as Cult and/or Franchise

Post by Flux » Wed Oct 22, 2003 3:03 pm

Check out this article when you have a few minutes.

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Post by Badger » Wed Oct 22, 2003 3:15 pm

Well, I gotta hand it to him. He's certainly consolidated a good number of issues that have been brought up over the last few months. Although I don't agree with his overall assessment that BM is a cult, I do laud him for at least trying to take the Emporer's clothes off. Clowns and pranksters are always a welcomed in my world.

I think it is a leap of the imagination to call BM a cult - by damn near any measure. Seems like that's a conclusion he arrived after the realization that his ass wasn't going to the playa this year and that he needed to bide his time by justifying it later to his friends. Just the same, I hope it sparks a healthy discussion around some of the points - if for no other reason than to get clarification.

BTW, I FULLY fucking relate to what he's saying with the "Welcome Home" bullshit that we're submitted to at the Gate.
Last edited by Badger on Thu Oct 23, 2003 6:31 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by III » Wed Oct 22, 2003 3:20 pm

>"Welcome Home" bullshit

i was at the greeters meeting in '99 when that was decided. i was the one lone voice of opposition. it's made me rather cynical about the whole process ever since then.

(or maybe burning man really is just another rainbow festval...)

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Post by herself » Wed Oct 22, 2003 3:32 pm

Just read the article, Badger, and agree w you. I hate that welcome home bullshit. I think I'm going to write the author, he sounds very interesting.

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Post by Badger » Wed Oct 22, 2003 3:33 pm

My entry into BM 2003...

Gate: "Welcome home bro."

Badger: "Fuck you. Do I look like a fucking hippie?"

Gate: "Dude, you're 'Badger' aren't you?"

Badger: "Yep. Want a burritto?"

Gate: "Yeh dude. Thanks."

Badger: "Want some beers? Oh HELL yeh. Cool."

Gate: "Dude, I never really thought of how fucking STOO-pid
that 'welcome home' shit sounds."

Badger: "You want my ticket?"

Gate: "Um... oh, yeah. Sure dude."
Last edited by Badger on Wed Oct 22, 2003 10:24 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Post by Blenderhead » Wed Oct 22, 2003 3:35 pm

Sort of reminds me of this, but only sort of: ... e_two.html

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Post by Flux » Wed Oct 22, 2003 3:53 pm

I thought he made several good points, but that his conclusions were exaggerated based upon the evidence presented. I don't think that the word "cult" is an accurate description of Burning Man. If it is a cult, it's a pretty crappy one. Hell, even Jones's people got free Kool-Aid; we have to bring our own!

As to the franchising issue, again, I think he's missed the mark. Sure, there is something that goes against my anti-authoritarian grain about signed agreements and all that, but what are the alternatives? Either (a) don't protect the name and the "core values," in which case it will cease to mean anything in about five minutes or (b) keep Burning Man a one-week festival in Nevada.

It seems to me that the organization is taking a middle-of-the-road approach by protecting what BMan stands for, yet allowing people the widest possible latitude to create what they want within that (seemingly fairly unrestrictive) framework.

I went to the three-day Arizona decompression a few weeks ago. There were the usual BMan rules -- no vending, leave no trace -- and I was glad there were. However, at no time did I have the feeling that Larry Harvey was breathing down anyone's neck trying to control the experience.

I'm constitutionally distrustful of authority and organizations, but even as a somewhat paranoid pseudo-anarchist, I'm having trouble seeing a problem with where the organization is going on this.

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Post by Tiara » Wed Oct 22, 2003 4:28 pm

I know and love those of you who have made anti "Welcome Home" comments above. But my experience and opinion are different. I think that 95%+ of the people I welcomed during my shifts at the Greeters station had a positive reaction to that statement.

A lot of them aren't as lucky as we are, in that we live in a place where we can interact with like-minded/free-spirited/radically-self-reliant people year round. They don't get a chance to interact with their Burning Man families on a weekly or monthly basis like many of us do.

For many Burners who aren't part of a local community that tolerates their differences, it really is an annual pilgrimage "home".

And no, I've never been to a Rainbow Gathering, nor do I have any plans to do so.

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Post by Badger » Wed Oct 22, 2003 6:12 pm

Tiara, with your assortment of fuzzy costumes I think you should go to a Rainbow Gathering.

You'd fry 'em. I'd watch.

I'm hearing what you're saying though. Worked a small portion of a gate shift (a bit different from the high octane energy of the greetres) and talked to several cars/RVs that were rolling in from Toronto, Maine and Mexico. To the one they were ecstatic to be at the event and just a general greeting with a big smile was enough to get them totally ramped up. In one case the driver started crying - which was cool. Drug him out of the car and gave him my best hippie hug, made him drink some water, pointed him to the Port-o-let, went through his car and took his stash. It was great.

Well, I didn't really take his stash but then, you knew that.
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Post by Ivy » Wed Oct 22, 2003 9:33 pm

I'd greet, but i just can't commit to being that responsible. A four hour shift? Come on, I'm lucky if my attention span lasts 4 minutes...

Anyway, it's much more fun storming the gates.

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Post by Kinetic II » Wed Oct 22, 2003 9:49 pm

Tiara wrote:A lot of them aren't as lucky as we are, in that we live in a place where we can interact with like-minded/free-spirited/radically-self-reliant people year round. They don't get a chance to interact with their Burning Man families on a weekly or monthly basis like many of us do.

For many Burners who aren't part of a local community that tolerates their differences, it really is an annual pilgrimage "home".
For me living in KC, this is really what it's all about. BRC is my "home" where I can be free and do things I am just not comfortable doing around all the brainwashed midwestern Christ-O-Holics. What one person calls sappy I feel is exactly the opposite. And when I worked my wonderful 4 hour greeter shift, I made it a point to say welcome the end my voice was cracking, but I said it and I meant it. I hope it stays just as it is.

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Post by SED » Wed Oct 22, 2003 11:52 pm

I read that article and I have to agree with Flux. I've been around a cult or two, (though not in one, unless you count the NRA, but that's another story). The only thing mantra-like about Burning Man is the hygiene rap--you know, pick up after yourself, and so on. If that's brainwashing, put mine in the heavy rinse cycle.

The franchising might lower lower the numbers at BRC, which would cut down on the diversity. It's fun to meet people from outside the Bay Area. But what the hell, it could just as easily trigger a new localism--we're far to homogenized as a culture.

Burning Man can survive long as it stays respectful of the local culture and the land, and as long as it stays very expensive. Yes, that's right. I'm all for the high ticket prices. That's about going to giant free events like Rainbow Gatherings and watching them devolve into drunken hobo fests. It's not about excluding the poor--that's BS. Virtually anyone can scrape up a couple hundred bucks over the course of a year. Might mean giving up smoking or some other money sucking behavior, but the ticket price ensures that only those who are determined to be there make it.

Larry Harvey couldn't possibly be the center of worship. He's got good ideas and can run an organization, but as soon if it gets more restrictive than it already is, Burning Man won't hold the attendence rates because people will demand more from it. Like a concert or contest or a food court. Cults have to provide for their followers in a way that Burning Man doesn't seem interested in.

Guess that was long post.
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Post by consumer » Thu Oct 23, 2003 12:01 am

BRC is about creating and experiencing rituals. Rituals are a repeated act.

BTW, count me as another who agrees greeters saying "welcome home" is teh lamest.

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Post by Rob the Wop » Thu Oct 23, 2003 12:15 am

I hear it on the "welcome home" crap. It made me do a double take. I would have enjoyed a "welcome to OZ" or "welcome to the Official Bum Fucked Egypt" or "welcome to BRC Time Share Housing". Anything funny, tongue in cheek, or surreal.

"Welcome home" implied to me that this was where I really belonged and/or live. By the inverse logic, I don't belong where I really live- which is bullshit. If this is my house, where the fuck is my fridge, indoor plumbing, and stove. And why the fuck are all these hippies in my living room? Who stole the fucking cats and the iguana?

I think I need to be a greeter next year. I'll make sure to make it more interesting for folks coming in the gates.
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Post by aforceforgood » Thu Oct 23, 2003 4:18 am

I earnestly toasted with some sake someone had gifted me with the words "welcome home"- which instantly communicated several things; I was a newbie, it was my first time at BM, that I felt really at home there, and that the people there were very hospitable and friendly.

I could tell from the look on his face that internally, he was having the same reaction people are describing here.

He had the good grace to toast back "welcome home" though.

I never said it again.

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Post by Isotopia » Thu Oct 23, 2003 6:16 am

I'm all for ritual.

It's a great way to try to re-engage people with whom you share some commonality. For us, that commonality is returning to the desert for a week of...whatever. There are plenty of secret handshakes in the world to convey this idea. Hell, running around your car three times with your Camel Bak hose stuck up stuck up your butt while you light your shoes on fire would be preferable to the "welcome home'' schtick that seems too the sticking these days. I don't believe it has so much to do with the sentiment as it does with the fact that this is something that's been said for years at many of the regional and annual Rainbow Gatherings throughout the US. All the people I know would tell a curious person that BM is the antithesis of a Rainbow Gathering, that there's little in comparison and that there's certainly no affiliation. The term gets in their craw because of this very reason. Rainbow gatherings - to many of those in the know - suggests more of a homogeneity of thought, perspective, culture and belief and is in many ways much more unlike BM than any comparisons might suggest.

That's pretty much where my contempt of the greeting is anchored.

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Post by Skyhawk » Thu Oct 23, 2003 9:19 am

But here’s the questions that need to be asked: Is this really what we want? And what, in the end, is being sold to us? What kind of textured-vegetable-protein burger are we being asked to eat? And will it poison us?
but thats forgetting the Most important question.. what kind of toys are included?

Me? Im voting for Hot Wheels..

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Post by tzimisce1313 » Thu Oct 23, 2003 10:35 am

i read the article, and it does brng up a lot of good points. however, the one thing that cults do not breed is indiviuality. which, if my impression is not wrong, what bm encompasses... the same can be said about franchises.

the other peoblem i had is that it's too easy to take quotes out of context. i never truly pay attention to those. you can pull them apart and make them say whatever you want them to. to me a good argument is lees quotes and more actual argument.

furthermore, i understand the rainbow gathering reference. i can see a little bit of hippy mystique. but i think it's up to the individual to decide, home is where you make it. there are people who feel like home, places... and what's truly amazing is when the two come together. having not gone to bm yet, i can not speak for the place except vicariously through my bf and his wife and a friend. creatively, my bf feels like bm is home. such a wonderous spiritual experince (it's funny how the man who wrote the article calls it brain washing when it can be as equally spiritual to deprive the body). i myself will understand that myself. but i digress.

honestly, rainbow gatherings don't sound all that bad either, but are they a cult? i don't believe by any extent of the imagination they are. so how can bm be a cult without any religious doctrine, which would be the defining point of being in a cult?

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Post by stuart » Thu Oct 23, 2003 11:13 am

'a means to a higher transformation' is one of the accepted definitions of religion that I like. So for many, myself included, the event can act as a religious ritual as it provides that means. Cult is a pretty loaded word in our society. So, here from webster...

1 : formal religious veneration : WORSHIP
2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
4 : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults>
5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

Clearly we can apply #5.

On a side note, it is funny how the major religions of the world clearly are cults according to these definitions.

So, stripping the loadedness of the word, if the shoe fits, take a stroll in it.[/b]

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Post by stuart » Thu Oct 23, 2003 11:33 am


I read the article.

to paraphrase a close friend, '
in 02 the big theme was the floating world. You go to the sight and read the manifesto and it yammers on about the heroes journey and drags out quotes from everyones favorite literary interpreter. So what do the people do? 'Argh! Pirates!'. The org said one thing and the people did another.'
so, I read all this shit about phases, etc. and it does not really mean much to me. At least not in the near term. I am sure the L.A. org folks look at all that, sign, whatever and it, for them, is still just another excuse to have a mutaytor show. Larry is a great speaker they say, but this in no way impacts what I do at the event. I am a total true believer (in the event), but all the high-level chatter doesn't really touch me.

Oh, and I am O.K. with 'welcome home'. I don't know a thing about rainbow gatherings so I don't have the association. Actually, the first time I'd heard of the 'rainbow gathering' was at burning man.

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Post by herself » Thu Oct 23, 2003 11:35 am

I'm also okay w the "welcome home" having heard Tiara's perspective on the matter.

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Post by Blenderhead » Thu Oct 23, 2003 12:54 pm

Someone Stuart knows wrote:

"Argh! Pirates!"

My faith in humanity has been somewhat restored.

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Post by Bob » Thu Oct 23, 2003 1:29 pm

Slowly I turned... step by step... inch by inch...

Re: the Mark Pesce article -- try replacing "playa" and "Burning Man" with "Sturgis".

Or "Promisekeepers". Or "COMDEX". Or "DEF CON".

"...I decided not to go to Burning Man this year..." -- News at eleven.

People stop going, for a number of reasons, usually not over what Larry writes.

Larry's job is giving Burning Man high concept for those who write about it.

Marian's job is preventing exploitation, outright lies, and broken cameras.

Burning Man has been in politics since the first park ranger said "you can't do that here".

Gate is not Greeters, generally speaking.

"It's just a fucking, camping, trip." -- tee-shirts and bumper stickers available.
Amazing desert structures & stuff:

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Post by Chai Guy » Thu Oct 23, 2003 5:23 pm

It's a camping trip

Aside from purchasing my ticket, BM has never asked me for money, nor have I given them any.

They have never asked me to believe in something, or not believe in something.

They have never said I was wrong for thinking a certain way.

I am openly critical of the event and post these views on the orgs website without censor.

I am openly critical of the founder of the event at the event, yelling obscenities at him through a bull horn. I am encouraged to continue by others working in the organization.

I doubt any of these things would be possible within any other organization, be it a cult, religion, or whatever.

I wish more people would stop coming to the event, I also wish they wouldn't feel the need to tell everyone about it and explain why.

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Post by alice » Thu Oct 23, 2003 5:33 pm

i suggest that if anyone actually wants to be welcomed home, that they go to the big island.

i think we'll be looking for a realator.

this place just rocks my world.
bitch all you want - it won't change nothin.

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Post by stuart » Fri Oct 24, 2003 12:14 pm

mMMMmm, I will be on the northeast shore of kauai in 2 weeks.

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Post by warrior queen » Fri Oct 24, 2003 2:34 pm

I like the idea that the Burning Man experience is individual and confidential. Even if it is part of being a community, what it means to you is ultimately your own, and unique for each person.

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Post by rogue agent » Sat Oct 25, 2003 11:38 am

I'm something of an expert on cults; Burning Man is not a cult and is not in danger of becoming one. Dr Robert J Lifton developed what is recognized as the most authoritative criteria for testing whether an organization engages in "thought reform" or "mind control", ie is a cult. Here is an article that explains his Eight Points of Mind Control (original at See for yourself how many you think apply to Burning Man.



Privy Procedures for Pied Pipers: Lifton's Eight Criteria of Mind Control
by Craig Branch

The reader is recommended to the website of Wellspring Retreat and Resource center in Ohio ( Wellspring is the only cult rehabilitation facility in the world. They have posted a description of seminal work in the field of thought reform or mind control, Dr. Robert Lifton's 8 criteria for mind control, adapted from his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Fatalism. Psychiatrist and Professor Robert J. Lifton of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, book and works are some of the seminal material on the issue of thought reform or brainwashing.

Examine this synopsis of Lifton's eight points and compare them with the practices described in "Paying the Toll at Heaven's Gate" and "Close Encounters of the Cult-kind," both in this Expositor, to see how Heaven's Gate was employing all eight.

Wellspring writes "members of high-demand organizations often experience . . . the gradual narrowing of the thought life of the members. His or her life experiences, expectations of life are restricted and interaction with alternate ideas is reduced.

"When this tendency is combined with an intense belief system that emphasizes the benefits of life in heaven or a higher plane of existence, members are more easily influenced to radically commit themselves to behavior they would not otherwise choose, even to die" (p.1).


Control of communication within the group environment resulting in significant degree of isolation from the surrounding society. When non-members are labeled as ignorant, unspiritual, satanic, etc., group members conclude that outsiders have nothing worthwhile to teach them. Thus members are unlikely to look outside the group for information, especially spiritual information. Milieu control includes other techniques to restrict members' contact with the outside world and to be able to make critical, rational judgments about information: [This includes] not only the individual's communication with the outside, . . . but also . . . his communication with himself . . . Having experienced the impact of what they consider to be an ultimate truth, . . . they consider it their duty to create an environment containing no more and no less than this 'truth.' [The group member] is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it. . ."


The claim of divine authority or spiritual advancement that allows the leader to reinterpret events as he or she wishes, or make prophecies or pronouncements at will, all for the purpose of controlling group members. "Ideological totalists. . . are impelled by a special kind of mystique which not only justifies such manipulations, but makes them mandatory... They are the agents 'chosen' (by history, by God, or by some other supernatural force) to carry out the 'mystical imperative,' the pursuit of which must supersede all considerations of decency or of immediate human welfare. Similarly, any thought or action which questions the higher purpose is considered to be stimulated by a lower purpose, to be backward, selfish, and petty in the face of the great overriding mission." "One is asked to accept these manipulations on a basis of trust (or faith). . . When trust gives way to mistrust. . . the higher purpose cannot serve as adequate emotional sustenance . . .feeling himself unable to escape from forces more powerful than himself, he subordinates everything to adapting himself to them. He becomes sensitive to all kinds of cues."


Members are constantly exhorted to strive for perfection. Consequently, guilt and shame are common and powerful control devices. "The experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure . . . The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity . . . is attainable. . .. y defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition. . .. Each person is made vulnerable through his profound inner sensitivities to his own limitations and to his unfulfilled potential. . .[i.e.,] his existential guilt. . . He must also look upon his impurities as originating from outside influences."


Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed, either privately to a personal monitor or publicly to the group at large. "Confession is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed." "In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for, these vulnerabilities. . . The assumption underlying total exposure... is the environment's claim to total ownership of each individual self within it. . ..[T]he cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility."


The doctrine of the group is considered the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or disputing. The leader of the group is likewise above criticism as the spokesperson for God on earth. "An aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions." "While thus transcending ordinary concerns of logic, however, the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute 'scientific' precision. . . the man who dares to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also 'unscientific." "At the level of the individual, the totalist sacred science can offer much comfort and security."


The group develops a jargon in many ways unique to itself, often non-understandable to outsiders. This jargon consists of numerous words and phases which the members understand (or think they do), but which really act to dull one's ability to engage in critical thinking. "The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis."


The personal experiences of the group members are subordinated to the "Truth" held by the group-apparently contrary experiences must be denied or re-interpreted to fit the doctrine of the group. The doctrine is always more important than the individual. "Another characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine. . . Consequently, past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic. . . the demand that character and identity be reshaped, not in accordance with one's special nature or potentialities, but rather to fit the rigid contours of the doctrinal mold."


The group arrogates to itself the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. Usually held non-literally, this means that those outside the group are unspiritual, worldly, satanic, "unconscious," or whatever, and that they must be converted to the ideas of the group or they will be lost. If they refuse to join the group, then they must be rejected by the group members, even if they are family members. "For the individual, the polar emotional conflict is the ultimate existential one of 'being versus nothingness.' He is likely to be drawn to a conversion experience, which he sees as the only means of attaining a path of existence for the future. . . The totalist environment . . . thus stimulates in everyone a fear of extinction or annihilation. . . A person can overcome this fear and find. . .'confirmation,' not in his individual relationships, but only from the fount of all existence, the totalist Organization. Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon submission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the ideological movement."

Tragically, the deaths in Rancho Santa Fe, illustrate dispensing of existence literally. It appears that all these processes were present to one degree or another in the group now known as Heaven's Gate. The personality and critical thinking of the victims was systematically eroded by the environment and attitudes established by the leader. "You're right Mr. Applewhite, suicide is the wrong word for what happened in that rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. The right word is murder."

The most seductive evil is when a leader comes across as being very nice, peaceful, genuine and friendly, who seems to be a sincere believer in high-minded and lofty ideals. But the means don't justify the end. In Heaven's Gate, these weren't people who pulled any triggers. They just masterminded a mental state that coerced everyone else to murder themselves.

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Post by stuart » Mon Oct 27, 2003 11:56 am

so, as an expert, you seem to be having a different definition of 'cult' than webster does. Care to define what you mean by 'cult'?

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Post by Alpha » Mon Oct 27, 2003 12:45 pm

It appears from the intro to the article that rogue defines a cult as "an organization [that] engages in 'thought reform' or 'mind control'"

I see it but I think it's missing something -- "thought reform" is pretty broad. The correctional system, for instance, is (in theory) designed to reform criminal behavior. Does this mean that system is a cult?

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