Dave Snowden

The Cultists

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4: Anything requiring you to attain levels of enlightenment

I’m never sure if I dislike pseudo-science more than crypto-religious movements.  In practice they both tend to end up as cults in order to maintain a false belief system.   The exemplar of the former, although it is now on the wane, is Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) with its various promises of personal mastery and manipulation.   Check out the Wikipedia entry (in which I am an active editor) if you want to see the evidence for its lack of scientific authenticity.   I’ve never understood why the University of Surrey allows a group of NLP consultants a home, but interestingly even they claim that the only evidence is phenomenological, for which read self-reported effects.   If you depend on those then any cult counts as a science.   For the latter we can use Spiral Dynamics in the Beck/Wilber variants as a good example.  As you personally ascend through the different colours you gain access to the elite and those at lower levels are no longer able to comprehended your reasoning; a convenient way of avoiding painful truths.

Interesting both movements see a acrimonious split between their founders early on in their history.    Bandler and Grinder fought for ownership of the NLP brand and rights to the lucrative revenue streams in the courts.  Cowan remained close to the ideas of Graves which gave rise to Spiral Dynamics while Beck split and formed an alliance with Ken Wilber, adding three (maybe its four now) colours to the levels.   I suspect that allows the elite to remain elite as there is always another level to climb before you can join the truly enlightened.

Two personal experiences summarise both movements for me.  In IBM days I discovered that one of the team had gone through the multi-week NLP indoctrination course and had converted our training programme to a form of disguised NLP when I was not in the room.  He brought along a few NLP types one of whom cornered me against my car after I had condemned his NLP.  He looked me in the eyes and asked if there was anything I wanted to ask him.  No was not considered an acceptable answer and he finally let me go with the admonition that one day I would realise that I had a question at which time he would be there for me.   Needless to say that day has not come although I am haunted by the idea that my last moments might see him revisit.   In the other example at a conference I was plagued by a SD type who went challenged simply told me as I was caught up in a green state and needed to attend his course to move to a heightened state.   I had badges made that night with Proud to be Brown which most of the conference ended up wearing.  Both reminded me of the heavy conversion techniques of religious cults.

Personal examples aside, both of those movements start around some interesting ideas.   SD for example from the idea that societies of though different levels of awareness and with that in part the idea of memes (for the record I think memes represent a poor deterministic metaphor which is not to say that ideas do not transfer , nor to say that ideas cannot entrain behaviour).  But it then moves sideways to define the individual and then allows the high priests of the cult to maintain special status.  Seeking exemption from criticism by virtue of status is one the warning signs of impending perdition by the way; as dangerous for the enlightened as for their followers.  NLP starts off with observation of patterns of behaviour but then sweeps up other bits and pieces of material which have utility and partial validity.   The problem is not that, but what then follows.

In a milder form you can see the Black Belts of Sig Sigma acting in a similar way (not all by any means).  The same is true in academic life around the obsession with publication in a limited range of journals, if you are not prepared to dance that game then you have lesser status regardless of the quality of your ideas.   I’ve also seen fellowship programmes in large companies such as IBM manifest similar characteristics with recruitment to the priesthood a form of self-imposed cultural conformity.  Paradoxically the cult of personal enlightenment depersonalises knowledge in favour of the norm.  The cult following around “gurus” such as Senge also seem to be there to prevent criticism to reduce engagement with any challenging ideas.

True religious enlightenment is achieved by years of dedication, it can not be acquired in a simplistic training programme. Scientific insight and understanding is similarly the product of years of study and practice.  Both take part in a social setting that welcomes criticism and while rewarding status does not allow that status to prevent learning.  The various popular management movements that attempt to ape either or both to generate training and consultancy revenue should be wholeheartedly condemned.