Truth, Lies, and the Cult of Academia
“You always ask me what to do and expect others to fix your problems for you,” she says. I could feel the blood boil inside me as she says this. I could feel my muscles tighten and grow stiff in anticipation to respond to her accusations. As I open my mouth to respond, she once again interrupts me to say that she was not finished.
In that very moment, it became apparent to me that I was not the only one who had repressed her feelings. It seems as though she was also repressing her true feelings towards me. Every little thing I did that she did not like reflected poorly on her as my advisor. I began to realize that I was not my own person but instead an extension of her. I was like an ambassador, representing her and all other Latinas in academia. And I was giving us all a very bad name.
My body was screaming, I had to get out. Every instinct in my body was crying out to get away from this person. I’ve had it with the manipulation. I’ve had it with the lies.
“If you’re an alive body, no one can tell you how to experience the world. And no one can tell you what truth is, because you experience it for yourself. The body does not lie.” Stanley Kleeman
I’ve been thinking a lot about cults and conspiracy theories lately. With the pandemic and all the talks of pseudoscience, post-truth, coronavirus deniers, anti-maskers, and anti-vaxxers, it has made me come to wonder where the line between science and pseudoscience, truth and post-truth, non-cult and cult lies.
I spent my formative young adult years in the institution where Truth is found. Where Knowledge is created. And I am having trouble understanding the differences between this group that dedicates itself to Science and Truth and those that dedicate themselves to personalities, gods, and ‘’pseudoscience’ in general.
The horrific harm that scientology or NXIVM have caused to its followers have been widely documented now in films like Going Clear and The Vow as well as in investigative news articles and reports like the New York Times. The more I hear the stories being told and the experiences former members went through, the more it reminds me of the stories I have heard in academia as well as my own personal experiences in this institution.
Emotional abuse, economic and sexual exploitation, harassment, and unaccountable leaders are just some of the many harms documented in cults. But they are all also salient to the academic institution. Anyone who has spent time here as a graduate student, or even as an undergraduate student, know this as well. While the harm experienced in academia is exasperated based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability, the overall toxic environment and mob mentality that exists in the institution (as extensively chronicled by Allsion Harbin in her blog Post-PhD the Blog) is damaging to all.
The abuse and exploitation that exists in the Ivory Tower has actually been widely documented for some years now. Former students, professors, and administrators who were pushed out for speaking out against these harmful practices have been telling their stories for years now, sometimes even attracting the attention of the Guardian and the Washington Post. Just google ‘Academic Abuse’ or ‘Academic Professor Abuse’ and you will see countless, heart-breaking tales of manipulation, coercion, intimidation, and worse.
With so many stories told from all over, this institution, like the police force, is clearly more than a case of ‘a few bad apples.’ Rather, this is a deeply systemic, socio-cultural issue that requires serious deconstruction (or destruction) and then reconstruction based on entirely new principles that emphasize empathy, compassion, spirituality, love, and community.
But who loses if we were to do this? And what does this mean for Truth and Knowledge if we were to radically transform the institution in charge of creating it?
Mainstream institutions have persecuted many cults over the years, even the very rich ones like NXIVM. However, what do we do if the cult in question is itself a mainstream institution?
The Cult of Academia
“But academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls”
While the term cult has often been applied primarily to new religious movements like Scientology or Heaven’s Gate, the label can also apply to non-religious entities in which adherents are “united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure” (Ross, 2009). NXIVM, for example, was not a religious movement but rather, a multi-level marketing company in which members were devoted to personal and professional self-improvement and success, as defined by leader Keith Raniere.
In a 2009 article from the Guardian, acclaimed cult expert Rick Ross cites Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s paper on Cult Formation in identifying the three primary characteristics destructive cults share. These characteristics are: (1) a charismatic, unaccountable leader who increasingly becomes the source of power and authority in the group, replacing once-coveted principles; (2) a process of indoctrination (or brainwashing) where members increasingly act in the best interest of the group and its leader rather than their own; and (3) exploitation in any form of its members by the group’s leader and other ruling members.
The main objection many would argue in calling Academia a cult is that there is no central, unaccountable leader telling members what to do but rather, actions are followed based on a set of established principles that systematically categorize knowledge based solely on empirical evidence (i.e. what can be seen), in other words, Science. How can one be indoctrinated or brainwashed when Science is the practice and goal of Academia?
In other words, with Science as the governing ideology in Academia and objective Truth as the object of devotion for its members, how does one explain the many cult-like experiences and harms that occur in this institution?
To explain how this happens, I will speak from my own personal experiences. I believed I knew everything I was getting myself into when I applied to PhD programs. Having already received a Master’s, I had experience working with an advisor and had come to understand what was considered acceptable epistemologies (ways of creating knowledge) and which (or, rather, whose) Knowledge was considered valuable. I, like many who enter self-proclaimed Social Justice programs, was looking for so much more than just a career in Academia. I wanted to change it. I wanted to change the way we looked at Truth and Knowledge to include diverse perspectives and value the importance of lived experiences in arriving at Knowledge.
I was coming from years of researching and writing about critical theories from Indigenous scholars and scholars of color who exposed the pivotal role Academia has played in the genocidal colonial project which effectively worked to destroy other forms of knowledge creation in favor of Western, Eurocentric systems emphasizing the Scientific Method and Empiricism. Since the Civil Rights era, enough non-white, critical scholars have emerged onto the academic scene that now seemed like the right time for someone like me to enter an institution that may have a destructive history but was today heralded as the Vanguard of Diversity, Truth, and Enlightenment, particularly in today’s post-truth climate.
And so I jumped in enthusiastically. I started working with an advisor and took part in some other collaborative student-professor projects addressing pressing social issues specific to the city we lived in. At first, I was very excited and rather smug as well, here I was working with so many acclaimed, accomplished scholars who are known for tackling important social issues like racism, affordable housing, environmental issues, and more. I felt so incredibly important and lucky just to be in the same room as them.
However, as time went on, I started to notice some things that didn’t seem to match the image I had of this institution. At first, it’s the stories you hear among graduate students about difficult or even harmful experiences with certain professors. These include anything from inappropriate encounters to taking sole credit for research in published articles to stealing research ideas and even to force a student out of the program simply because a professor was unhappy with them. These were all stories, however, and I had yet to actually see or experience things myself. Also, these were scholars on the vanguard of social justice research, how could they do harm to others if they care so much about social justice?These were smart, educated, scientific, and rational people who cared about justice, how could they cause harm to others, particularly for petty stuff like taking credit for work they did not do or punishing a student for disagreeing with them? This all seemed too paradoxical for me to wrap my brain around and made little sense to me at the time.
I began noticing more things myself as time went on. Meeting after meeting with professors on projects became more and more just sessions where the professors talked and made decisions while the graduate students served as little more than secretaries, taking notes and taking on all the tasks involved in the actual work that needed to be done. With all the work we were given (teaching assistantships, research assistantships, coursework, committee work, our own research work, project work), it was clear that 12+ hour workdays were expected. Beside all the work, mandatory professional development courses, conferences, seminars, and workshops were all rife with the same toxic neoliberal, constant self-improvement talk I had previously written about in my first blog post.
As time went on, it seemed more and more clear to me that we were not full human beings with our own ideas, thoughts, and needs but rather, mini-projects to be molded, controlled, and silenced if we were to object. It was the mask of respectability and professionalism we were instructed to wear at all times; the professional identity as academics and scholars we had to take on while neglecting all the other parts of ourselves; and the overworking that was expected of us as we graded papers, taught entire courses led by professors, and conducted research for papers authored by professors.
As what happens to all bodies under stress, I started to fear and dread everything: the next meeting, the next presentation, the next project, the next day. And I started to dislike myself. I disliked the way I spent my time always working, I disliked the way I related to my research topic (cold, distant, “objective”) and I disliked the professional, respectable, academic mask I had to wear in every meeting and interaction both within and outside the institution. As a member of Academia, I had to remain emotionally indifferent, serious, and, above all, deferent to those above me on the hierarchy. I was losing my spontaneity and authenticity and was increasingly separating myself from my body. My mind began to take over every part of my existence. Every facial expression, body movement, and breath I took was all under the close surveillance of my mind as it worked exhaustingly to prevent outside critique and ensure self-preservation.
Then, one day, it all culminated until my body could no longer remain silent. I decided I had no other choice than to speak up. To ask for help. To seek compassion and collaboration from other members on my team. Instead, (and looking back now, unsurprisingly) I was met with hostility and contempt. I was told things about myself that I had never felt nor experienced and yet, this was supposedly who I was. I was told versions of events over the past semester that did not make sense or at least, were not how I experienced them at all. I was made to feel that everything I had experienced over the past year was in no way circumstantial, environmental, or cultural but instead, it was all signs of my own personal failure as a student in Academia. I was told many things that spoke against my own truth.
The lies all entered my system at once, violently destroying any and all illusions I had about what I was doing here, about the work I had dedicated my time, identity, and sense of self-worth to. But they also made me realize that I too was a liar. I had been lying to myself about what made me happy. I had convinced myself that working within this institution and using their prescribed “Master’s tools” was going to actually change things for the better. Theymade me realize that, despite all the warning signs I saw daily negatively impacting my spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health, I kept lying to myself in the spirit of conformity, economic security, and social prestige.
I was also afraid. I was afraid of losing everything I had worked so hard for as well as the privileges that being part of an academic community gave me. My sense of identity, self-worth, and purpose were all wrapped up in this institution.It was impossible to not feel this way after years of indoctrination where my very sense of being was fused with that of the institution I was a member of.
As in most cults, I was blacklisted for speaking up, for exiting a toxic situation and relationship. No one wanted to work with me anymore and so, I left. A quick search on google will show that my experience is not exceptional. Rather, compared to other experiences, I actually consider myself lucky. I got out in time before I fully lost myself. Before I woke up 20 or 30 years later and realized I had spent much of my life inauthentic, afraid, and, worse, perpetuating the very harms inflicted on me onto others (as the vicious cycle of trauma continues).
Now, over a year later, I now find myself asking the same questions over and over: how can an institution that treats its members this way also have authority on what Truth is? Is it that Academia just happens to attract a bunch of evil geniuses whose narcissism and entitlement must always be excused in the pursuit of Science, Truth, and Knowledge? Or there something rotten in the institution itself that facilitates or even encourages this kind of behavior?
The Mind/Body Split and the Normalization of Suffering
“Without the body as a unifying figure of existence, we become fragmented, We repress our aliveness and become machinelike, easily manipulated. We lose our testing ground for truth.”
The HBO docu-series ‘The Vow’ describes the process former members of NXIVM went through from joining and becoming devoted members of the cult to slowly waking up to the many abuses going on and finally deciding to leave. Throughout the 9-part documentary, you hear tales of long, unpaid hours working to advance the teachings of the group, the normalization of discomfort at the many transgressions occurring in the group, and an untouchable, unaccountable, narcissistic, and egotistical leader who views his work as an important contribution to the world (Keith Raniere was known as Vanguard by himself and his followers).
Watching this docu-series brought me back to my time in Academia. It brought me back to the times when I would work long, unpaid hours out of blind faith that what I was doing was going to help many people. It also brought me back to the many times I chose not to listen to my gut when I saw how certain people (including myself) were being treated and what values were being practiced. And it made me think of the many advisors, administrators, and lead researchers who see themselves and their work as on the Vanguard for Social Change and Progress while they manipulate, abuse, lie, and steal to ensure their place as the sole hero or heroine responsible for all that they had achieved.
‘The Vow’ dissected the pseudoscientific ideologies propagated by Raniere that provided support for the many harmful practices members were brainwashed and coerced into doing. Episode after episode, you see how incremental and insidious the process was. It started out with the practice and promise of self-improvement which, in NXIVM, involved eliminating all emotional reactions to different situations and practicing total self-control. Members were further taught that comfort and rest were addictions to be overcome for the sake of productivity and progress. Raniere preached for members to “overcome [their] bodily feelings” and argued that they needed even less rest ‘than they thought they did.’ Over time, Raniere and his leaders convinced members that all emotional reactions, instincts, and intuitions were merely “visceras” (NXIVM code for feelings) in need of ‘fixing’ and signs of our enslavement to society that must be overcome.
Since the conviction of Raniere and subsequent fall of NXIVM, many in the media have been quick to dismiss the worldviews, ideologies, and practices at NXIVM as ‘faux-rational pseudocience’ while opting instead to focus on the more news-worthy consequences of this thinking on members, particularly the sex cult that Raniere had developed for his most loyal female followers. While the sex cult aspects of NXIVM deserve attention and are important to discuss, more attention needs to be paid to the values and ideologies that created the perfect environment for these horrific transgressions to occur.
In fact, I believe that, if we were to look a little closer at the ideologies, values, and practices at mainstream institutions like Academia, I think we would see a lot more similarities between Raniere’s pseudoscientific values and teachings and the values and ideologies practiced in academic spaces where ‘real science’ occurs.
What Raniere taught his followers, and what I believe lead many members to stay in the cult despite deplorable living conditions, was that the mind is inherently separate from the body and, as the superior entity, the mind must be in total control of the body. Bodily needs, functions, instincts, and intuitions are therefore further diminished, ignored, or, in the case of Raniere’s followers, violently repressed. This worldview is what allowed Raniere to continue harming so many of his members who, throughout ‘The Vow,’ mention over and over again how they had felt strange, weird, or uncomfortable throughout their time at NXIVM and yet, did not listen to these bodily signs of danger because it was coming from an inferior source that must not only be ignored but aggressively repressed.
Devaluing the body and its intelligence is not unique to NXIVM. Many cults (as well as mainstream religions), propagate similar worldviews about the body as inferior, or even in some cases, evil. Not only is this ideology strategic in the ways it facilitates the domination, subjugation, and control of others, it is also very harmful as we become disembodied from our lived experiences and physical reality; leaving us lost, alienated, and spiritually homeless.
What does the scientific worldview in Academia say about the body? What values are practiced in these academic spaces that facilitates the continuing exploitation, abuse, and harm many of its members experience?
“Universities educate our minds at the cost of our bodies, where we sit completely still for days, months, and years, training ourselves for sit-down jobs that continue to ignore the body’s needs.”
According to the Scientific Worldview, the mind and body are inherently separate. The mind, as the only place where ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ can occur, is deemed superior over the body and thus, must always call the shots. When we allow the mind to take over fully in our decision-making, without any input from the body, we become vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression as we overwork and constantly push ourselves to do more since our self-worth is inherently tied to our productivity. These ailments eventually lead to more serious, chronic health issues over time as the body continues to repress all sources of stress until they can no longer be ignored and instead manifest mentally and physically in the body through illness.
While the many harms this culture and ideology in Academia causes cannot be overstated (as outlined in my previous blog), I want to focus here more on the emotional manipulation and spiritual degradation that occurs in academic spaces and what this means for the Knowledge that is being produced.
Anyone who has spent some time in the Ivory Tower as a graduate student has heard the same motto we are told to live by as Academics: “If you are not suffering then you are not doing it right.” And as loyal followers and devotees to Knowledge, Truth, and Science, we willingly and enthusiastically obey by pushing ourselves beyond limits. We learn to not only normalize the stresses and discomforts we experience in our bodies but we even brag about it. I remember classes, meetings, seminars, and study groups full of students bragging about how little they sleep and how much they stopped caring about how they look; all to show their level of commitment to this industry and to the higher purpose of Truth. We not only learn to ignore and normalize the many struggles and pain we endure but we actually learn to like it, to need it in our lives. So much so that if we do not feel it, we begin to question our self-worth not only as Academics but as human beings existing on this earth.
This type of emotional manipulation and spiritual degradation, facilitated by the rampant disconnection between the mind and the body, is essentially what defines a cult. Ignoring and normalizing all signs of bodily discomfort out of devotion to a higher purpose (in this case, Scientific Knowledge and Truth) is what opens the door to other abuses in the form of spiritual, emotional, sexual, and physical. This is exactly what we see over and over again in the Ivory Tower. And, just like in other cults, the perpetrators are seldom punished and remain unaccountable for their actions as disciplinary committees, departmental administrators, and even the university legal team in charge of enforcing the laws against discrimination in educational spaces (in instances where a student from a protected class is harmed) work to protect abusers because they have reached the impenetrable status of Tenured Professor, Academic, Scientist, and, ultimately, Arbiter of Truth. So if they say that is not what happened and that a student is lying then that is the Truth, case closed.
This veneration and protection of abusers essentially provides them with the power and lack of accountability that defines cult leaders. This quality, in combination with the indoctrination whereby one sacrifices one’s spiritual wellbeing for the sake of Truth shows that referring to Academia as a cult is not as far-fetched as it initially seems. But what are the repercussions of this type of cult-like academic system on the Knowledge being produced in these spaces? What is considered as Knowledge and Truth in these spaces where the creators have such little regard for everyday, embodied experiences and realities? What kind of Truth and Knowledge is created when it comes from oppressive institutional spaces like academia?
Where the truth lies: Going Beyond Objective Truth
“Scientists have maintained a stranglehold on the definitions of what respectable and reliable human experiences are.”
Vine Deloria Jr.
These questions bring me back to my time as a graduate student pursuing my Master’s, where I got my first taste of the rules of Academia. I was in a meeting with my advisor who, as a staunch social Scientist, asked rhetorically what the point was of not following the Scientific Method in the study of humans and society since it is the only way to arrive at real Knowledge and objective Truth in the world. He described any knowledge created outside of the Scientific Method as mere stories and thus, without the pursuit of objective Knowledge through Science, Academics would be nothing more than just “a bunch of storytellers.” His words no doubt echo the frustrations of many Academics in the social Sciences who strive for the same respect and recognition as those in the natural Sciences but always come up short because they must deal with actual embodied, human lived experiences which, to any real Scientist, are essentially obstructions to Science, Truth, and Knowledge since they represent human subjectivity and bias.
This blind faith in Scientific ‘objectivity’ and in the Scientific Method as the only epistemology (i.e. way of creating Knowledge) worth considering in arriving at Truth, particularly in the social realm, has a long, violent historical role in subjugating Indigenous populations all over the world. In his book Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and The Myth of Scientific Fact, Indigenous scholar Vine Deloria Jr. provides important historical context for the process within which Science became institutionalized as the mainstream, dominant Knowledge system. He writes:
“The institutionalization of science […] meant that scientists would come to act like priests and defer to doctrine and dogma when determining what truths would be admitted, how they would be phrased, and how scientists themselves would be protected from the questions of the mass of people whose lives were becoming increasingly dependent on them. In our society we have been trained to believe that scientists search for, examine, and articulate truths about the natural world and about ourselves. They don’t. But they do search for, take captive, and protect the social and economic status of scientists. As many lies are told to protect scientific doctrine as were ever told to protect ‘the church.’”
Deloria Jr. essentially deconstructs the myth that Science is the only worthy knowledge system capable of arriving at truth while all other systems are merely backward, outdated systems developed by inferior peoples and cultures. Deloria Jr. reminds us that Science is also a culture with its own ideologies, beliefs, and dogma. He further notes that, just like religious leaders, Scientists have their own doctrine stemming from the particular ideologies and beliefs of Eurocentric peoples and cultures.
I know that what I am saying is controversial and some would probably even describe it as dangerous considering all the attacks made on Science in recent years. I am not arguing that Science is not a valid knowledge system; I do believe that it has important merit in society and should be respected. However, it is just one of many knowledge systems worthy of respect and recognition that can help us better understand the natural and social world. I am particularly writing this in the context of a worldwide pandemic where the entire world’s population is experiencing major shifts in their spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health. Yes, the Scientific study of the virus as well as the development of a vaccine is important work to get people healthy again. But Science is ultimately limited in its ability to tell us what it feels like to miss the touch, warmth, and aliveness of being around friends, loved ones, and even complete strangers. It is limited in its ability to show us how a broken heart due to loss (of a person, job or lifestyle) creates an emptiness in ourselves that, without proper attention or care, permeates our entire bodily system and manifests as physical illness. Science is inherently ill-equipped to show us how important it is to feel connected to each other and the earth in real life, away from social media, video calls, and streaming services and how losing these connections affects our bodily system as a whole. Only we, through our everyday, embodied, sacred lived experiences, can know this kind of truth.
The fundamental tenet of Science is that Truth lies outside of us and, as subjective, biased humans, we cannot trust our embodied experiences. We are told to therefore leave it to the Experts like Scientists, Scholars, and Doctors to tell us the ‘Truth’ about our own embodied experiences as spiritual beings on this Earth. Critical academics have created a term to describe the kind of violence that manifests from being told that one’s way of knowing themselves and the world around them is stupid, backward, ‘pseudoscientific’ (even when one is not even claiming to be scientific) or simply not the Truth, it is called epistemological violence. Epistemological violence eventually translates into many other forms of violence (as evidenced throughout this blog post) since one eventually learns to mistrust their body and forgets what it is like to be fully alive, present, and in the moment in the world.
With the continuously rising political divide going on today, we are constantly fed messages that feelings and emotions are obstructions to Truth. In the mainstream media, the only information worth sharing is quantitative, stripped entirely of its context and of the actual lives being reported on. In mainstream academia, the only information worthy of creating knowledge about the natural and social world is statistical data. Companies increasingly market themselves as ‘data-driven’ in the ever-important quest for machine-learning. Truth and Knowledge today means gathering more and more data on everything possible to eventually create a world where machines will make the decisions for us since they are not ‘burdened’ like we are with feelings, emotions, and intuition.
I am fully aware that there is much controversy in what I am saying. With the current state of the world and all the talk of post-truth politics appealing to emotion over Scientific facts, particularly in the context of a pandemic, the arguments I made here can easily be mistaken for the post-truth narrative. I am not arguing in favor of this or really any kind of politics. What I am writing about goes beyond politics and asks that we let ourselves truly feel what it is like to be deceived by the false promises of care and concern of politicians, to have a loved one taken away from us in the name of law and order, to be forced out of our homes simply because we cannot pay the rent, and to be utterly powerless to the everyday decision-making of those in power in the institutions governing our lives.
Scholar John Snider describes the truth we miss when we rely solely on Scientific, quantitative data to tell us about the world. He writes: “…to resort to statistics is the surest sign of defeat. Do we want the charts and the graphs to demonstrate the truth or to protect us from the truth and to insulate us against feeling?” (Snider, 1996, p.37). How easy decisions become for leaders of governments, universities, and corporations when the sacred is reduced to numbers. Snider further notes: “Statistics are the language of genocide” (1996, p.37) and it may very well be the language we have chosen to lead us into our own demise, whether its physically, mentally, emotionally, and/or spiritually.
In my previous blog post, I wrote about how students in Academia today essentially need to heal from and unlearn the many toxic neoliberal messages they receive that delegitimize their emotions and embodied experiences. As outlined throughout this blog post, this need to heal and unlearn extends beyond Academia and into the general population. Everyday we are disempowered by Experts in the Government, Media, and Academia by being told that our truths are meaningless and that, for the sake of continuing Scientific Progress, we need to ‘leave it to the experts’ to tell us what the Truth is and resume our rightful roles as “productive, consuming animal[s]” (Dardot & Laval, 2013, p.255).
Mark Vicente, former high-level member of NXIVM, describes the particularly insidious nature of cults. He states: “Nobody joins a cult, they join something they think is good and then get fucked over in discovering it is a cult.” I can speak first-hand to how painful it can be to discover that the institution you gave everything to was in fact a cult. However, with pain comes the freedom you gain to stop giving the institution so much power and find it instead in yourself and in the people and communities you love. This is what I believe will lead to real, lasting social change. How much social change could we accomplish if we were to finally stop and listen to our gut exposing the suffering many of us experience in the mainstream institutions and organizations we are told to trust?
Dardot, P. & Laval, C. The New Way of the World: On Neo-Liberal Society, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009/2013), chapter 9, “Manufacturing the Neo-Liberal Subject.”
Deloria Jr., V. (1995). Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Simon and Schuster, Inc.
Ross, R. (2009). Watch out for tell-tale Signs: what makes a cult? The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/may/27/cults-definition-religion
Snider, J. (1996). Apologies for Empire. In Sylvia O’Meara and Douglas A. West, From Our Eyes: Learning from Indigenous Peoples (pp. 31-46).