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Response to Steve Hassan: When it Comes to Harmful Unethical Practices Indeed I Will Not Be Silenced

April 14, 2016

Steve Hassan’s recent blog article dated March 31, 2016 states that:

The ‘refusal to be silenced’ often causes issues. When disagreements arise between activists, the resulting fallout can have damaging consequences. Public infighting and social media attacks dilute the core message and alienate the many who are looking for real help. Divisions and mudslinging sessions between former members serve as leverage for the very groups activists claim they are combating.

He then goes on to say we need to focus on the “greater cause regarding activism and undue influence.” That focus is all well and good, but should it be at the expense of turning a blind eye when we see harm being done? That is the question I would like to explore here.

First, I need to point out that he is handing us a type of “package deal” by conflating “mudslinging” and any kind of disagreement or criticism, referred to as “divisions.” When it comes to mudslinging and petty bickering I couldn’t agree more that it should be off limits. There is a major difference, however, between petty bickering and “mudslinging” vs. legitimate criticism and exposure of practices that could be harming consumers. And yes, believe it or not, ex-cult members who become counselors are not immune, if anything they are even more vulnerable to taking on such behaviors, given what was learned in the cult. I offer just a few examples (there are general categories, not accusations of anyone in particular):

  • If a practitioner is charging very high fees, much higher than their colleagues, that consumers need to go into debt to afford unless they are very wealthy, yet there is no research evidence that their approach is superior to any of their lesser charging colleagues, this needs to be exposed. This is particularly egregious if the person is using their knowledge of undue influence to manipulate a person into paying high fees (for example, guilt and fear induction by asking the person if they would hesitate in paying a high fee if their loved one had cancer or saying that horrible things will happen to their cult involved loved one if they don’t do the practitioners particular highly priced brand of intervention – when in fact, the family does have options for how/whether to intervene).
  • If a practitioner is abusing others, such as taking advantage of the person sexually (which has been alleged regarding some high profile “deprogrammers” from the 1970s. In 2008 in Philadelphia, there was even a presentation on this topic at an International Cultic Studies Association called “The Anti-Cult-Cult”.
  • If the practitioner is engaging in other unethical behavior such as violating client confidentiality, misrepresenting their credentials, engaging in dual relationships as I blogged about previous was the case with a licensed social worker who counseled ex-cultists and eventually lost his license due to his unethical behavior documented by his State Board.
  • Making unsubstantiated claims about their intervention (e.g. that it is superior to all others, that it is the only way to save their loved one, that it has been shown to be effective when only very preliminary pilot studies have been done).
  • Engaging in mental health practices that have been shown to be potentially harmful
  • Practicing beyond the scope of their licensure or education (for example, someone without a mental health degree engaging in mental health practice or someone with a license making diagnoses in areas that are outside their area of expertise or diagnosing someone they have not personally met with)

People can feel free to comment and add to my list, which I in no way intend to be exhaustive.

The fact is that like any human beings in any profession, there are bound to be ones who behave unethically and harm others. This is particularly true of people coming out of destructive cults who may still be acting out some of the behaviors they learned in the cult or perhaps were people who were inherently narcissistic or psychopathic to begin with and are now acting out what was done to them in the cult.

To say we must not speak publicly about this because it is bad for the “cause” is very cult-like and seems to be just the opposite of what Hassan is alleging when he implies people who do this, who blow the whistle on their own or speak out, need to heal themselves. I would contend that people who remain silent and do not speak out against abuses, whether they are comrades in the cause or not, shows that the person might have some healing to do. When we consent to a code of silence against harm that is being done, we create a very unhealthy group dynamic and that applies to people fighting cults as much as it does to people who are members of such groups.

Now it should go without saying that I agree that petty personal attacks and mudslinging are not helpful. However, where I part ways with Hassan is his inference that somehow unintentionally reinforcing the erroneous belief system of cult members that if we challenge and expose someone, we are somehow “unhappy” is more important and takes priority over exposing harm being done to consumers.

Sometimes things can get said in the heat of a spirited discussion that would be better left unsaid and we’re all guilty of lashing out like this at times and again, I wholeheartedly agree, abstaining from that kind of behavior would be a good idea, but I don’t see Steve Hassan making any such distinction, so I would have to ask him the following. Are there any circumstances where you would deem it appropriate to speak out against a colleague who was on “your side” who may have made valid contributions to the movement, but is in some way is harming others? If so, what would those circumstances be? When, if ever, do you think it would be unethical to remain silent and courageous to refused to be silenced? Readers can also feel free to comment on this as well.

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