Part 4. Framework #3. Psycho-social strategies and structures that lock people into toxic systems.
How do theologians (and others) with a pathological bent use their authority to turn a consumer-culture machine into a self-perpetuating toxic system?
This section cross-pollinates concepts about sick organizations with power-hungry people, to see how toxic systems step up control factors to exert dominion over groups and remove their freedoms. So, let’s think through the systems level of toxic organizations increasingly limit personal choice of the members therein:
An open system lets in new participants, new inputs, new energy. This allows the system and those within it to grow, get rid of pollutants, and take care of other tasks to keep things sustainable. In an open system, individuals have freedom of choice to discern and decide their own trajectory within all possible options.
However, a closed system is either self-contained – no new inputs, nothing old output – or at least socially isolated in ways that limit outside influences that would supposedly contaminate the purity of those living inside the system. A closed system creates what is called “bounded choice.”
Bounded choice is a basic type of “conditioning” designed to control someone’s behavior. This removes freedom for self-determination, allowing individuals to operate only within specified choices. As they do that, it may look like growth or change because people are active, but actually, it’s just an orbit around the set of rules and regulations designed to limit personal freedom and keep people in line. So, even if someone is no longer tethered to the system, they’ve been trained to self-constrain themselves to negate any doubts, objections, or questions that arise. In other words, they keep on the same toxic trajectory, just because it’s become the only thing they really know.
From there, the elites who now have sufficient influence in their gridlock of leadership to create an “interlocking directory” of family and friends who run interrelated political, social, philanthropical, media, and economic enterprises. This gridlock removes freedom of association, because the social identity and consumer products created by the elites squeeze out other providers and other product options. To be a compliant subject, you must kowtow to the slate of consumer choices the leaders allow.
A “total institution” exists where all aspects of life are dictated and regulated. Examples are prisons, old-school mental hospitals, and military boot camps where the entire schedule is set for inmates, patients, and novices. Total institutions are closed systems that assert complete control over their inhabitants’ worldview (beliefs) and world-do (activities). They prescribe inhabitants’ interpretation of reality, self-perception, organizational roles, social relationships, cultural lifestyles, political isolation (or attempts at domination), media access, etc. The system is now just one giant cog, and it removes the freedom of cultural participation. (See also this book by Erving Goffman on Asylums, which was a major research source for the concept of total institution.)
On an even larger scale of total institution is the totalitarian or authoritarian state – typically run by one main person plus an inner circle of enforcers in a dictatorship, or multiple leaders in an oligarchy. At this level, the entity is considered a sociological “cult” (regardless of whether it is a religious group or not). Control is instilled and then maintained across multiple generations over time with a “psychology of totalism” that conditions all its citizens from childhood onward for “right” thinking and behaving, with severe punishments for disobedient behaviors, dissenting views, or any other form of difference that supposedly threatens the “unity” of the movement or state. (See this post with links to summaries of Robert Jay Lifton’s pioneering research work on what have been eight classic criteria for identifying systems that us a psychology of totalism.)
The use of the term institution is important to note here, as one definition of an institution is any social, business, or political organization that lasts beyond two generations. I think that applies to subcultures and other social movements as well, which makes it relevant to the topic of this article. “Institution” has a negative connotation for many people. I’d suggest, however, that just because something is an institution, that doesn’t always mean it is institutionalized – bogged down by rules and regulations. Some forms of social organization create legacies that can last beyond two generations and stay viable and participatory by building in flexibility, and training next generation leaders to adapt the organization’s original purpose to whatever cultural times they find themselves in. So, it depends.
Also, by the time an organization has moved beyond an interlocking directory and is nearing a total institution, it has moved up significantly along the scale of toxicity. Pathological leaders, their enforcers, and their enablers in such insidious systems use positive reinforcements and negative punishments to get people in and then keep them in. Not all tactics work for all people, but savvy spiritual abusers know how to use all sorts of customized tactics to entrap people. They will appeal to hopes, and resonate with lofty desires. They will implant guilt and self-doubt, shame and fear. Whatever it takes to maintain control over others for the ultimate benefit of self. (For a more detailed list, see What are strategies and tactics of leaders who are abusive?)
Moving from the sociological and organizational part of toxicity, here are how psychological and relational processes manifest themselves when a movement has gone from participatory to consumerist, or relatively “safe” to “unsafe.”
Grooming for Recruitment. Intentional psychological and relational conditioning of someone’s thought life, emotions, worldview, friendships to get people involved in a group or movement. Often this uses positive reinforcement and “love bombing” in relationships to get people hooked into the system. These strategies and tactics lead toward …
… Victimization. Intentional misuse of power dynamics (emotional leverage, physical strength, religious or political position of authority, etc.) in a relationship between unequal “partners” to perpetrate abuse of spiritual authority. This is where things often turn nasty, if there is resistance to “the machine.” These strategies and tactics lead toward …
… Grooming for Retention. Intentional conditioning of someone’s thought life, emotions, worldview to keep people involved in the group or movement. This can be either positive or negative reinforcement, or an unpredictable alternating between them to keep members feeling insecure and ultimately to maintain the machine …
So – let’s piece together these frameworks about social movements with what we know of strategies and tactics of spiritually abusive leaders and toxic organizations. What thoughts do you have?
- How do you think subcultures and power dynamics and toxic strategies interrelate?
- Have you seen any/all of these three major elements in action – to a greater or lesser degree – in a group, team, ministry, church, organization, movement, or denomination?
- What happened in those situations? How were people helped, how were they harmed, and how did people react?
- What experiences have you had, or what examples do you know of, of organizations that got progressively more restrictive with bounded choice – interlocking directories – traits of a total institution?
- What level of responsibility do people hold who have led organizations that turn out toxic? How about those who simply show up, give financial gifts, maybe volunteers some?
* * * * * * *
Series on Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex
Part 6 – Thoughts on Mars Hill Church and Emergent Movement as Christian Industrial Complexes.