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Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable
extent a substitute for lost faith in ourselves
                                  Eric Hoffer

Cults in the MA/SD/RBSD/WSD/DT world
and why you should be careful

On this page:
Awareness vs. Paranoia | Groundwork for Cult Thinking | What Does Cult Behavior Look Like? | How do cults work? Money | Volunteer abuse | Scottish Knights | Never ending new information | Mixed and Filtered Information | Why do cults work? The Master | Superior knowledge | Authoritarian personality | Charisma | Leaders, followers and failed cult leaders | Eric Hoffer, The True Believer | Cult Questionnaires

I didn't wake up in the jungles of a South Pacific island this morning.

I woke up in a complex, modern, multi-cultural place called the United States. I don't follow an ancient, Asian warrior code. I 'follow' both the laws of the land and the societal rules of where I live. The philosophical/moral/ethical/religious standards I try to live up to are a completely different story. (That isn't following, that's being and doing --and it incumbent on me to do my best).

I don't feel that I am above, apart or rejected by society and family. And I am certainly not interested in searching endlessly for any secret or great truth that will save me from my life and relieve me from I think about myself and fix my self-esteem.

As an instructor, I'm not interested in being a martial arts/self-defense/knife fighting messiah. I definitely haven't discovered great truths that people --a whole lot smarter than I am -- have been working on for thousands of years regarding martial arts and violence. I do not claim to know the TRUTH™ about fighting and self-defense. I am not a master of the ultimate fighting system. I cannot make you into your fantasy ideal warrior. I am not seeking to surround myself with people who, not only obsess on violence, but fantasize about it so they can bow to me as the all-knowing guru who feeds their fantasies and dysfunction. I will not take a so-called "martial art" or "fighting style" from another country and culture and drop it into this complex, multi-cultural society that I live in and say "This is how a warrior fights" But this is often the appeal that cults have to the dissatisfied and those who have holes within themselves.

I don't expect people to conduct themselves according to another culture's standards at my command -- especially because I am teaching smack dab in the middle of the United States. Although I have traveled widely, am of a particular ethnic descent and have a strong knowledge of history and cultures, I am not going to:
     A) tell my students how to conduct themselves in the "traditional"
         manner from a place that I have never been to, and
      B) set myself as the judge and arbitrator whether or not they meet
        those standards
If I don't even know the modern culture of a place I have never been, how can I accurately dictate whether or not they're following the traditional one?

And I certainly am not going to exploit people for money, obedience and sex to 'teach' them this 'superior lifestyle.'

Now that you know what I'm not interested in doing, you should know that there are a lot of people out in the MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/DT/ MMA / combatives/ knife fighting/ streetfighting world who are not only very interested in doing those things, but are in fact, actively engaged in those behaviors.

These are the cults this section will warn you about.

Cults, Near Cults, Dysfunctional Organizations and Toxic Groups
Let us start out by saying that just because a martial art school or self-defense organization is screwed up, doesn't mean it is a cult. It may be a toxic, dysfunctional, corrupt group filled with people who need therapy, but that does not a cult make ... it makes it a toxic, dysfunctional, corrupt group filled with people who need therapy.

Cults, near cults and groups with cult-like tendencies abound in this field. BUT, it isn't black and white. Not only is there a continuum of cults, but there are all kinds of other factors -- including hardcore, profiteering business practices. Another consideration is that the over-all organization isn't a cult, but various franchises are. This can work the other way too, a cult group can have franchises that for various reasons aren't producing Kool-Aid Drinkers(1). Then add to this that a fanatic and a Sunday-Only worshipper can share the same pew. The former would be very happy to turn whatever group he/she is involved with into a cult.

Strip away all the trappings and you see cults operate along two core guidelines: Money and power.

But power (and control) of a very unique kind.

It is the blend of profiteering and this specific kind of power that distinguishes cults from legitimate businesses. Are there huge money making programs in the martial arts? You betcha. Are they redefining martial arts? Very much so. And while they and cults do business the same way, that doesn't make those corporations cults. That brings us back to the unique kind of power cult leaders seek and cult members give. You need that blend of money making and unique power in order for a group to be a cult.

What follows is a look into the behaviors and identifying earmarks of cults. Although this information is tailored to the MA/SD/WSD/DT/RBSD/combatives /knife fighting /streetfighting world it is based on how religious, spiritual and self-help cults work. In other words we've gone to outside fields to bring you this information (2).

This external perspective is important because so often, cult behavior is hidden behind 'martial arts tradition.' While we're not saying that a group is or isn't a cult, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, floats like a duck ... then it ain't peacock. No matter what the Kool-Aid drinker tells you.

Awareness vs. Paranoia
Let us start out by saying that many MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/etc. cults prey on those who are obsessed with violence. There is a big difference between an actual threat and an imagined threat. Cults not only tell the person the imagined danger is real, but they feed this and many other dysfunctional fantasies

Groundwork for Cult Thinking
Cults operate by reconfirming your beliefs in how violence works. In other words the reason they sound so credible is because they are telling you what you want to hear. On this page we address many of the misconceptions that cults not only thrive on but actually promote

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What Does The Behavior Of A Cult Member Look Like?
People don't walk around wearing t-shirts that say "I am a cult member" (although they will often wear clothing that pronounces their allegiance to a system). However Kool-Aid drinkers do have certain identifiable behaviors. Behaviors that should tell you something isn't quite kosher. traits. cult behavior
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How do cults work? Money making
When it comes to cults, there is nothing simple about them. Cults have incredibly complex business/interpersonal/marketing/spiritual /psychological dynamics. However, there is one overriding element, making money.

This aspect of cults is so big that this topic has subcategories. While some of these business practices can be found in any commercialized school they take on a distinct flavor when it comes to cults. Cults take them beyond extreme.   Scottish Knights: Cults are the ultimate Pyramid Scheme. In fact,
      take a pyramid scheme and a hamster wheel and mush them together.
      Now you have the perfect, never-ending hustle. Although they'd prefer
      the term 'franchise owners' rely on Scottish Knights to fill their coffers.   Volunteer labor: While many martial arts schools make teaching a
      requirement for belt advancement, cults demand volunteer labor.
  Never Ending Information: Remember we said a cult is combination of
      a pyramid scheme and a hamster wheel? Here's why we said that. While
      initially the information that a cult supplies is of good quality (that's the
      hook), past a certain point the information becomes more and more
      obscure and unrealistic. But these new and revealed teachings keep you
      on the hamster wheel. But by this time you're addicted to junk food and
      don't notice that all nutritional value has been sucked out of the new
Mixed and Filtered Information: Cults are not static in nature. That
      is to say that they are constantly adapting to market pressures. Like
      other martial arts pirates, cults freely loot and pillage other sources for
      information (you didn't think they made up all this by themselves did
      you?). Like pirates, any fad in the market, any criticism of the system,
      any challenge to the dogma is superficially researched and then
      presented as part of the system. Again like other martial arts pirates
      this is an attempt to convince you that they offer one-stop shopping
      (in other words you don't need to go spend your money anywhere else).

      However, cults take a very specific and dangerous approach to
      mixing and filtering information that is different enough from pirates to
      bear mentioning.

Why do cults work? The Master And His Organization
Cults organize themselves around a strong charismatic leader. However, this leader and the organization that grows around him become so intermeshed that they are functionally inseparable. Still in order to understand the organization, you must understand what the master offers.

This is another topic that is so big that that it has subcategories. It isn't just what the Master purports to have, but it also what the organization is based on and what the followers want.
      Superior Knowledge: The Master isn't just offering any old truth, what
       he is offering is
THE TRUTH™. His inspired knowledge on the subject
       (which he will reveal to you for all your money and control of your life) 
       is beyond the keen of any other person in the field. What's more there
       is a good chance that it is beyond the understanding of mere mortals

      Authoritarian Personality: Another charming trait of cult leaders and
       those surrounding them is the concept of the authoritarian personality.
       Although not a recognized DSM IV personality disorder, it is a recognized  
       psychological term. It is an ugly blend of Narcissistic personality,
       Paranoid personality, Obsessive-Compulsive, Histrionic Personality
       Disorders and about sixteen different ugly disorders. All of which translate
       into the fact that the cult leader (and his followers) are corkscrews with
       legs (no, that term isn't in the DSM either).

       Charisma: Often when people hear about cults and their behaviors
       they wonder "How could anyone fall for that?" Aside from the fact that
       there is a huge number of followers with either Dependant Personality
       Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder among the ranks, the simple
       fact is these leaders could charm the socks off a snake. They are that
       charismatic. This and the offer to solve all your deep-seated insecurities
       and self-esteem issues make them very appealing to the above mentioned

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Leaders, followers and failed cult leaders
Often people are confused when trying to assess whether a group is a cult or not. Well the simple truth is not everyone has what it takes to get 900 people to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. There any number of near cults, cult-like organizations and groups with cult tendencies, but don't quite make it to cult status. These can be very toxic organizations, because while it isn't a cult, it isn't from a lack of trying.

Cult Questionnaires
Below are offsite links to questionnaires to see if you are involved in a martial arts cult. Most cults are religious in nature and as such the nature of the questions are oriented towards that nature. This does not mean, however, that they do not also apply to martial arts cults. Once again, let us state that just because a group has a few of these traits does not automatically make it a cult. However, having said that the more "yes" answers you give, the greater the danger.

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer 
Eric Hoffer was perhaps one of the last century's greatest thinker on mass movement and the dissatisfied personality of those who join cults, mass movements and give up personal responsibility over their lives. We've collected a series of his sayings and added a few thought of our own.

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1) You will see the terms 'Kool-Aid Drinkers' and 'Drank The Kool-Aid' in this section. It refers to the mass murder/suicide of over 900 cult members living in Jonestown in 1978. The implication is that someone has not only accepted the doctrine of the cult, but has pretty well stopped thinking for themselves. This includes not only believing everything the cult leader says is true, but rabidly defending and promoting these ideas to outsiders Return to Text

2) We would like to point out that, by and large, what is being presented here is a general set of guidelines; a list of what to watch for and the danger signals of cults. Although some specific examples are used, this page is not tailored to any specific MA/SD/RBSD/WSD/DT group. So the good news is that we are not slamming anyone in particular. The bad news is that a whole lot of groups fit the profile set forth on this page. Boy howdy, do we get a lot of e-mails asking "Are you talking about (fill in the blank), because you describe them perfectly". This should warn you how many cult-like, near cults and outright cults there are out there. Return to Text

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