FDR Controverys Part 1: The (flawed) cult claim.
As promised in my last article I wish to explain why certain accusations against Freedomain Radio (FDR) are unfounded. Here I explore the biggest one, that FDR is some sort of a cult.
But first I would like to expand on my motivation for writing this. If FDR was any other online community forum with a split off like Liberated Minds and I read all of the ugly stuff that has come out of it, I would have probably already decided to put all of that BS behind me and move on. I would feel annoyed, disillusioned and disappointed, but I would also eventually come to realize that I can be bigger than that and go on my own. I do not necessitate any comforting affiliations. I can create my own (especially as a web publisher with experience in building an online community). To a large extent this actually IS how I feel about this controversy.
However, I believe this to be an exceptional case and the reason is simply the amount of value that I have been able to derive from FDR and its relative uniqueness. So I am hard pressed to dismiss FDR as a complete failure for me. Instead I am compelled to look at it as a potentially great thing, but perhaps with a few glaring bugs that could use fixing. However, even if they aren’t fixed, I think it can still play a significantly positive role in liberating people’s minds and consequently changing the world to the better. Even the biggest accusers tend to concede to the positive value of at least some of the ideas promoted by FDR.
So first of all let’s just take the definitions of a “cult” from a reputable Merriam-Webster dictionary and see how they relate to FDR.
1. formal religious veneration : worship
Stefan Molyneux promotes atheism and discounts religion (as it is commonly viewed) as mythological superstition. Furthermore, formal veneration is distinct from genuine admiration in that it implies acting in accordance to a particular specifically pre-defined form (e.g. a ritual) so whatever spontaneous or genuine expressions of admiration may exist towards Stefan Molyneux, they cannot fit this definition.
2. a system of religious beliefs and ritual ; also : its body of adherents
As said above, religious belief is discouraged and no rituals exist. I am aware religion may sometimes be defined to include all spiritual tendencies and that certain philosophies meant to affect how one lives his or her life may be seen as having a spiritual dimension (how an individual experiences the world on an emotional level). However, these are scarcely the terms in which FDR discourse is held and individualistic philosophy it promotes leaves too much room for personal and private development of whatever spirituality one wishes to adopt for Stefan’s philosophical views to be seen as any kind of a specific and coherent “religious belief system”, let alone one prescribing certain set of rituals.
3. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious ; also : its body of adherents
I think the above covers this one pretty well too.
4. a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
FDR is hardly a “health cult”. I don’t remember the last time anyone tried to sell me some health tips there. I’d go elsewhere for that.
5. 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: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
This essentially refers to a different kind of cult than what I’m trying to disprove. For example a Star Trek franchise is often described as a “cult TV show”. It has more to do with a general identification of exceptionally popular culture than dangerous cults which are the topic here. If this definition applies to FDR then it probably applies to the entire libertarian movement (devotion to the idea of a non-aggression principle, austrian economics, Atlas Shrugged etc.).
So with the caveat in the fifth definition neither of these definitions clearly describe Freedomain Radio.
That said, let’s get to the more detailed analysis of characteristics that a certain group needs to exhibit in order for the suspicion of it being a dangerous cult to be justified; the FACTnet’s Warning signs of a destructive cult. It begins by noting that “anyone could attack a group they disagree with by unfairly labeling it a destructive cult” which only illustrates the importance of this analysis.
I am aware that Stefan Molyneux already went through these warning signs in his own rebuttal of the cult claim and made a video about it, but I wish to expand on that and provide an independent and hopefully unbiased analysis.
So let’s start.
1. A destructive cult tends to be totalitarian in its control of its members’ behavior. Cults are likely to dictate in great detail not only what members believe, but also what members wear and eat, when and where members work, sleep, and bathe, and how members think, speak, and conduct familial, marital, or sexual relationships.
Next to impossible
Much of the described totalitarian controls are simply physically impossible in the case of FDR unless one would advance a claim that Stefan Molyneux has a paid gang of thugs distributed around the world who can physically intimidate FDR participants into submission to certain ways of clothing, eating, working, sleeping, bathing etc. which would be a claim without absolutely any evidence. The fact that this is an online community with members dispersed around the globe makes this next to impossible.
An example of misrepresented “evidence”
There are various things which accusers claim as evidence to the contrary and I would like to address an example for a case in point. One of the accusers claims that FDR requires an uniform basing that on the fact that FDR sells T-Shirts and that Stefan Molyneux allegedly “produced an angry rant about how cowardly the FDR members all were for complaining about the clothing’s quality and not doing their duty to FDR by buying and wearing them”. He never referred to the exact recording of such a rant and even though I tried I could not find it. However, it appears that another member recalled the podcast in question and had this to say on it:
“That podcast was not chastisement for not buying goods. It was chastisement to the individuals who were clamoring for goods to be be made available for purchase and did not buy them when they were made available. The issue was not the purchase of goods, but the lack of integrity on the part of a few individuals.”
While I cannot take this as absolutely solid evidence against the accuser’s claim since I cannot find the podcast in question, neither does it serve as any evidence in favor of the accusing claim. It does however demonstrate a method of misrepresentation which I’ve seen repeatedly used by the accusers where a given podcast or a forum thread is claimed as evidence which on further examination shows a significantly different picture than the accusers wanted to portray and thus invalidates the reference as any kind of solid evidence for their claim.
There are also various conversations Stefan Molyneux held with certain members who have subsequently broken their relationships with parents or other people which are claimed as evidence that FDR, in accordance to this point of FACTnet’s warning signs, tends to be “totalitarian in its control of its members’ behavior” with respect to “how members think, speak, and conduct familial, marital, or sexual relationships”.
However, the worst that they could possibly claim in this instance falls a little short of “totalitarian control”.
Totalitarian control implies total or absolute control of behavior, albeit not necessarily direct in the way a puppeteer pulls the strings of his dolls. It would require members to act in exact accordance to a particular predetermined fashion exclusively through suspension of their own critical thinking and deference to the leader’s instructions. This suspension and deference would have to be initiated in pursuit of a particular reward promised by the leader which is in fact not gonna come. It would also require certain sanctions to be in place should the victim fail to act in such a pre-determined manner (such as intimidation by threats of physical violence), but such sanctions would not be known to the victim until (s)he fails to follow said instructions. Only this way could control be reasonably called totalitarian.
Yet the worst claims I’ve heard are limited to someone being supposedly verbally manipulated to terminate a particular relationship and involve no violent threats against anyone who failed to terminate them. Furthermore, critical thinking is promoted on FDR (rather than their suspension) and probably emphasized more than on most other web sites.
So even if Stefan Molyneux does use certain manipulative tactics they hardly count as “totalitarian control” and thus fail to meet the criteria for this warning sign to be fulfilled. That said, does he really use manipulative tactics?
According to relevant definitions from Merriam-Webster to manipulate is “to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage and to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose. And unfair is defined as “marked by injustice, partiality, or deception” and “not equitable in business dealings”. The keywords to insidious are also treacherous, seductive and subtle.
The reason I am defining this so rigorously is because I wish to posit that manipulation is impossible without dishonesty of the manipulator and sincere will to harm somebody for his purposes and that manipulation is akin to fraud in that it is like selling something you do not even possess or promising results that will not happen. So is Stefan being dishonest in his conversations? Is he trying to deliberately harm the other party in those conversations and is he indeed promising results which will not deliver?
Let’s take a poster case for the cult accusations which I referred to in my part 0.
Was Stefan dishonest in his conversation? It is hard to say, both for me and the accusers, because we do not have absolute insights into his psyche during that conversation. We can only conjecture and the burden of proof is on the accusers. He was asked for thoughts about a psychological issue a caller had. He asked questions, inferred certain assessments from the provided answers and repeatedly asked the caller for confirmation or correction of those assessments. Regardless of accusers claim that this repeated asking for confirmation is just another manipulative tactic, one can hardly argue against the fact that it does offer the caller repeated chances to express his own thoughts which seems opposite of Stefan wishing to lead him in a particular arbitrary direction of his own.
Was Stefan deliberately trying to harm the caller? Well DID he harm him, since he so to speak “succeeded” in “convincing” the caller to terminate a relationship with his mother? Last I know even after his name was smeared across the media by his own mother, he remained firm in his decision and testified positively about it, had no regrets. One would think the whole media circus would have given him enough chance to ask himself if he truly made a mistake and fell victim to a cult. That he did not reconsider his decision and in fact testified to no regrets about it and an improved life seems more in line with the supposition that FDR is NOT a cult. So there is no evidence that Stefan actually harmed him, but that he helped him.
Note that this is not the only case where cult accusers “analyze” a particular conversation claiming that the caller was a victim of manipulation where that supposed victim never in fact complained nor asked for their defense in the matter. I suppose the accusers simply assume that these people are somehow brainwashed (thus implying they are susceptible to such a thing and not strong enough in their critical thinking to resist) or that they are worse off.
Was Stefan promising results that would not be delivered? First of all, the only promises, if they can even be called that, are of more personal freedom, but the true goals and the true results desired are with the caller. He is the one who defines the results he wishes to achieve. Still, supposing that Stef did promise the caller a better life, the promise was certainly delivered. You can listen to his own account here.
You can also watch Stefan’s take on this case here.
Given these facts the claim of manipulation begins to look a little weak and appears based on some incredibly ridiculous arguments.
Some ridiculous arguments
1. Colorful language.
The argument: “Stefan is manipulative because he used a metaphor which I find distasteful and are meant to make the victim vulnerable to suggestion.”
Response: I agree that certain metaphors used are sometimes quite distasteful and emotionally charging, however the caller already WAS vulnerable to suggestion which is the whole reason he called! Being vulnerable to suggestion does not immediately exclude the ability to reason for himself and thus reject the suggestion should he find it inappropriate (which is, after all, what many did). Suggesting otherwise is offensive to the caller, especially when the caller never complained.
2. He says “right?” after many sentences.
The argument: “Stefan is manipulative because he says “right?” after almost every sentence thus deceiving people into thinking he’s actually interested in their opinion.”
Response: First, if verbal habits make someone a manipulator then we’re all manipulators, including the accusers. Second, many times when he says “Right?” he actually does pause for a response. Manipulation or a chance to terminate him in order to interject with your own thoughts? Would accusers rather have his rants go on without such chances of interjection? I doubt it.
3. He makes overconfident and grandiose statements about himself.
The argument: “Stefan is manipulative because he praises himself too much expecting others to confirm his claims.”
Answer: So, someone being an overconfident a** is a manipulative tactic? Only if you truly think he is worth your confirming his claims will it be a problem for you to simply politely remain underwhelmed. Someone’s expression of overconfidence is hardly an enticement of your cooperation unless you truly believe his confidence is justified. This could in fact be anti-manipulative in that a good manipulator would wish to not make his victims feel awkward, but leave them with an impression that they’re talking to a really really nice and humble guy who will really help them, when he’s not.
4. He tells people to not associate with people who explicitly express support for them being harmed.
The argument: “Stefan manipulates people into breaking all ties from the rest of the world and thus strengthen ties to FDR members by telling them to confront people whom they have relationship with with a question of whether they support initiating violence against them (the against-me argument).”
The answer: Since these accusations come largely from libertarians I am tempted to ask what kind of a libertarian are you to have a problem with people confronting their friends or family with such a question? Do you not believe in the non-aggression as a matter of principle? No libertarian, and probably no human being, wishes to be aggressed upon. If one wishes to have a truly deep and understanding relationship with someone I would find it absolutely crucial to know if that someone would be perfectly fine with initiation of violence on me or not.
This part has turned out to be far longer than I anticipated out of my desire to cover as much as I can and due to the fact that claims of control of members behavior and claims of manipulation form the majority of all reasoning behind the overall cult claim.
2. A destructive cult tends to have an ethical double standard. Members are urged to be obedient to the cult, to carefully follow cult rules. They are also encouraged to be revealing and open in the group, confessing all to the leaders. On the other hand, outside the group they are encouraged to act unethically, manipulating outsiders or nonmembers, and either deceiving them or simply revealing very little about themselves or the group. In contrast to destructive cults, honorable groups teach members to abide by one set of ethics and act ethically and truthfully to all people in all situations.
On FDR members are encouraged to do the exact opposite of inconsistent and dishonest behavior as a core of its philosophy, even if behavior of certain members and occasionally perhaps even Stefan Molyneux himself seem to reflect an imperfect application of this in practice. It is hard to argue that a web site founded to promote consistency among its highest principles is somehow turning out to be the exact opposite. What validates this further is the fact that 90% of all content published by FDR including all inter-member interactions and conversations are public which greatly lowers the distinction between non-members and members and allows any inconsistency and double standards to be exposed immediately.
Cults usually have a far more reclusive membership core mired in secrecy and mystery which allows them to present a distinctively different picture to the non-members than they do to the members. Furthermore, once inside members find it hard to escape even if they wish so, which is simply not the case with FDR as members can come and leave as they please without feeling in any way threatened.
3. A destructive cult has only two basic purposes: recruiting new members and fund-raising. Altruistic movements, established religions, and other honorable groups also recruit and raise funds. However, these actions are incidental to an honorable group’s main purpose of improving the lives of its members and of humankind in general. Destructive cults may claim to make social contributions, but in actuality such claims are superficial and only serve as gestures or fronts for recruiting and fund-raising. A cult’s real goal is to increase the prestige and often the wealth of the leader.
FDR is set up as a donation based web site where donations are absolutely voluntary. The site merely proposes a certain way of donating with a proposed value per a certain number of podcasts. It’s donations system is technically not different at all from that of FreeTalkLive.com.
Some of the most obvious and most easily refuted claims have come from the cult accusers with this regard, severely limiting their credibility. It was claimed, for example, that FDR collects a tithe or a tenth of member’s income, which is simply and blatantly false.
Additionally, every online community is set up with the goal of growing its membership exactly because such growth increases the value that each member gains by participating (more people to interact with, more potentially useful content etc.). FDR is no different in this respect.
Where it does obviously differ, however, is that it is set up around the podcast published by a single person whom does obviously has it in his interest to increase the number of viewers of his podcasts like any blogger or podcaster may. The fact that he deals with philosophy provides further justification for the need and desire to be more widely recognized for his ideas (especially given that these ideas promote views held by a relative minority of people) which is in and of itself hardly equivalent to pursuit of some empty kind of prestige let alone a pursuit of wealth given that all of his content is available without obligation to pay.
4. A destructive cult appears to be innovative and exclusive. The leader claims to be breaking with tradition, offering something novel, and instituting the ONLY viable system for change that will solve life’s problems or the world’s ills. But these claims are empty and only used to recruit members who are then surreptitiously subjected to mind control to inhibit their ability to examine the actual validity of the claims of the leader and the cult.
It is true that Stefan Molyneux claims the ideas he promotes (not all of which are necessarily those he originated, but also those he adopted) are non-traditional and to many people still novel. He also does promote those ideas as fundamental to personal freedom and social change, as do most libertarians or pretty much any political movement as well. However if these claims are empty he would have to be dishonest and not believe what he is promoting, using it solely to grow his membership and power. There is hardly any evidence that this is true and even many critics who subject him to psychological analysis of some sort claim that he has a personal investment in what he promotes which would indicate that he does believe what he says genuinely.
Accusers would often claim, however, that he does “surreptitiously [subject people] to mind control to inhibit their ability to examine the actual validity of the claims” claiming various cases of persons being banned for expressing their disagreement in particular ways which he claims were abusive or unpleasant, as evidence.
However given that these bans are public and explicit he is hardly surreptitious about it and it does not follow that such bans somehow make the rest of the members unable to critically examine the validity of the claims. They are not forced to stay on FDR nor to stop expressing their opinions on other web sites even if they are discouraged to post certain styles of critique on FDR boards themselves.
However, Stefan repeatedly invites those whom disagree or wish to examine certain ideas to talk to him in his sunday call in shows or to have a verbal debate with him. This is a practice that flies in the face of cult behavior even if such conversations do not satisfy everyone in terms of how willing Stefan may be to concede certain points or how often does he do that.
I would be further examining the issue of disagreements in my responses to FDRLiberated articles directly, but suffice it to say I do not see sufficient nor solid evidence that would make this warning sign square and fair apply to FDR, not even if the whole “banning of dissent” accusation was true.
5. A destructive cult is authoritarian in its power structure. The leader is regarded as the supreme authority. He or she may delegate certain power to a few subordinates for the purpose of seeing that members adhere to the leader’s wishes. There is no appeal outside his or her system to a greater system of justice. For example, if a schoolteacher feels unjustly treated by a principal, an appeal can be made to the superintendent. In a destructive cult, the leader claims to have the only and final ruling on all matters.
Accusers might want to point to the bans again as well as the enforcement of the forum rules, but if they do so they would effectively describe almost every internet forum. So the capability of the site administrator to ban people and give and enforce certain arbitrary rules of conduct simply cannot apply here.
I have never heard Stefan Molyneux make claims which would in any way explicitly or implicitly say that he has the final ruling on all matter concerning the lives of FDR members
6. A destructive cult’s leader is a self-appointed messianic person claiming to have a special mission in life. For example, leaders of flying saucer cults claim that beings from outer space have commissioned them to lead people away from Earth, so that only the leaders can save them from impending doom.
If he has claimed anything as prosaic as this it was in a poetic or metaphorical artistic form and/or applied to not only himself, but to everyone else who understood and agreed with his goals and desires for the world. As a voluntaryist with a desire to promote the ideas which help people live freer lives with more integrity, greater tendency to think philosophically and no violence, I would consider myself as having something significantly important to say to the world, something that I wouldn’t hesitate to describe with a metaphor involving a cure and a disease. This hardly means that I think of myself as a messianic leader.
7. A destructive cult’s leader centers the veneration of members upon himself or herself. Priests, rabbis, ministers, democratic leaders, and other leaders of genuinely altruistic movements focus the veneration of adherents on God or a set of ethical principles. Cult leaders, in contrast, keep the focus of love, devotion, and allegiance on themselves.
In the same spirit of the response above, when speaking prosaically or metaphorically, the veneration is either of a particular set of ideas or on those who have adopted such ideas. His occasional expressions of what we might call overconfidence and expectations of enthusiasm about something he seems to see as a great accomplishment is not necessarily the same thing as a set up designed to manipulate people into focusing “love, devotion, and allegiance” on himself.
If this was so then every time anyone feels that (s)he accomplished something incredible and significant expecting others around him or her to be enthused about it are exhibiting characteristics of a potential cult leader. I could think of countless examples where I’ve felt the need to talk about enthusiastically and even perhaps with a bit of an exaggeration about something I personally accomplished only to be met with a less than stellar reaction and a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t necessarily feel the immediate need to punish them for that, even if I did express a bit of friendly frustration with it.
8. A destructive cult’s leader tends to be determined, domineering, and charismatic. Such a leader effectively persuades followers to abandon or alter their families, friends, and careers to follow the cult. The leader then takes control over followers’ possessions, money, time, and lives.
Stefan Molyneux may arguably be charismatic and determined. However I would doubt that he is domineering in the sense that this warning sign is putting it. He did effectively persuade certain individuals to abandon certain specific relationships, but that was far more precise than a complete abandonment of the whole family, all friends and whole careers. The terminated relationships are with specific individuals. One may for instance cut ties with a mother without cutting ties with a father or cut ties with one friend while still having others etc. I have written about the nature of this process in response to the first warning sign above.
Taking control over possessions, money, time and lives is also somewhat resonant with the first point and the point about it being to a large extent impossible is applicable here too. All donations, book purchases or t-shirt purchases are voluntary. There are no explicit rules or demands for members to spend particularly high amounts of time participating on the FDR.
I realize this is a pretty large piece of text, but my intention was to cover as much as I could and express my reasoning behind extreme skepticism I have towards the claim I wish to dispute here. In a nutshell my general understanding of the reasoning behind the cult accusations is that they need to rely on a rather fragmented and weak structure of reasoning and claimed evidence.
Cult claimants tend to say that on the surface FDR does not appear like a cult and that it is required of one to really scratch deep beneath the surface and connect the dots in order to see how it really is. But such a line of reasoning already leaves much to be desired because it effectively claims that most people will not be able to see and understand the evidence and that only few, including presumably the few of those who are perpetuating such claims, were capable of this. It also begins to sound a lot like some kind of a conspiracy theory.
Yet when one takes a look at the nature of a project such as FDR it is obvious that there’s not a lot that could be so susceptible to this sort of a sophisticated cover up, or if anything of the sort even was possible it would not be an equivalent to strong evidence for FDR being a cult, but merely strong evidence that Stefan Molyneux can and is just as imperfect as all human beings no matter what kind of an ideal he aspires to and no matter what kind of an ideal some of his current or former admirers wish to ascribe to him.
More than 90% of all content is public including forum conversations, audio conversations, podcasts etc. FDR discussion is ongoing both on and off the FDR web site. If there’s anything that is somehow “hidden” and thus not obvious to those who don’t scratch deeper and beneath the surface then it is hidden in plain sight among all of the words Stefan has ever uttered. And coming up with conclusive evidence and argumentation for the claim that FDR is a cult begins to look a lot like scouring the bible for quotes that would supposedly confirm that it prophesied a particular dramatic event. In that sense I could claim almost anything about Stefan Molyneux and then seek various “interesting” and “whoa look at that” kinds of statements to support my claim considering the sheer amount of material he has put out.
That said, I am willing to respond to whichever arguments anyone can put forward in the comments as well as various “extremely objectionable” podcasts or recorded conversations to some of which I might dedicate an article all of its own. I also intend to respond to some articles written at FDRLiberated.com.
But I will not participate on Liberated Minds again and in fact regret that those who do not buy into the cult claims still do act as if they are completely fine and not more than a smear campaign. I do not wish to associate with those who advance such extreme accusations nor do I wish to be in the same group which seems to foster support for such actions as those by Barbara W. Even if I was banned from FDR for any reason, I would not come to Liberated Minds for sympathy.