Cosmic Connie recently alerted me to this April Fool’s blog post from A-list personal development blogger Steve Pavlina. In it, Pavlina jokes about not wanting employees but slaves to work for free for him:
I have to admit that I don’t really want employees. If I wanted employees, I’d have hired some years ago. Deep down, I know that hiring employees isn’t the right direction for me. It’s not what I truly desire.
What I really want is to build a staff of slaves.
Slavery solves so many problems that I’d otherwise have to deal with if I hired employees or worked with independent contractors. Even unpaid interns can be a bit burdensome. Slavery is clearly the best option.
This model also aligns well with my ongoing exploration of D/s. I don’t want my workers calling me Boss. That just sounds lame. I’d much rather be called Master. It’s better for my self-esteem.
Surely this is just a April 1st prank though right? He’s not really intending to set up a cult? This reply from Pavlina buried deep in the forum comments for this post seems to suggest a grain of truth in the joke (emphasis mine):
The main reason someone would suggest a cult-like comparison is because I deliberately set them up to do so. Partly it’s because I so enjoy teasing people who are willing to diagnose me over the Internet, having never even met me, but the more serious reason is that by making an exaggerated post on this subject first (much of which was indeed intended as a joke), I get a lot of exaggerated feedback that helps me refine the idea to make it more grounded and practical. It makes possible objections more obvious and apparent, so I can consider them and look for solutions.
I intend to share another blog post soon to express how this could work, sans the April Fool’s joke aspects, so people can get a more accurate picture of what the real situation would look like and then decide if it appeals to them. There are a lot of different facets to the idea.
Rest assured I have no interest in becoming a cult leader. I hate Kool Aid, and it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of religion. Joking aside, I do think there’s a lot of repressed anger and envy emanating from those who make that comparison. The very notion that one could live a happy and abundant life and contribute to the world and have people willingly support that vision can really get under the skin of those who feel it’s an impossible dream for them. But this is the very sort of thing I’d like to help change. I think everyone deserves a supportive social circle, and it’s time for people to realize that we’re responsible for our own social environments, and if we desire a certain level of support, we have the power to create it. No force or coercion is necessary — just positive, heart-centered intention and a willingness to work at it. Some people try to create this support with a traditional family structure. Others go a different route.
My business isn’t a typical profit-based venture, so it’s not about getting rich. If I wanted more profit, I could restore the Adsense ads to the website in about an hour. Instant $100K+ of extra passive income per year, deposited directly into my bank account. If I was a capitalist, surely it would be worth spending an hour to add a six-figure passive income stream. I’d like to take a different direction though.
As Caren noted, a big part of this involves helping people develop new skills and learning to express their creative talents. They’d hardly be helpless if they decide to leave. People pay to go to universities and leave with student debts and a lot of knowledge they can’t apply in the real world. What I’m offering is at least as educational as taking classes at a university, a lot more practical, and free.
Pavlina claims that if you criticize his joke for sounding like he’s starting a cult of unpaid laborers, it’s because he set you up to do so…not because a fellow (former) member of the Transformational Leadership Council did in fact create a cult and is currently on trial for the deaths of three people at his Sedona workshop. (James Arthur Ray went further and required his volunteers to pay him money to work at his workshops.) Nope, the only reason anyone would critique Pavlina for cult-like coercive persuasion would be because he exaggerated his position as a joke. Yet he really is thinking seriously about having people basically be his slaves.
The Asshole Takeaway
In high school a friend of my best friend was a bit of a player. He told my friend he frequently solicited sexual activity from women by first brazenly suggesting that the woman perform a sexual act on him, and if they objected, to say “oh, I was just kidding—you didn’t think I was serious, did you?” In this way, he was frequently able to in fact manipulate (persuade?) the ladies to service him in ways they would not have otherwise and have the defense of “just joking.” This same young man would also bully guys like me with the same technique—“lighten up dude, it was only a joke!” We could call this move “the asshole takeaway”: act like an asshole through an exaggerated act of dominance, then blame the recipient for “not being able to take a joke.”
I witnessed another form of the asshole takeaway working at a spiritual organization lead by a certain bald-headed philosopher. This man would often overstate the case for something in a somewhat rude way, then say “I’m an asshole” to preempt any criticism. Stating the rude thing, the listener would want to express anger, but having pre-empted this by calling himself an asshole in advance, all the steam was taken out of one’s potential response. This man’s followers also adopted this behavior within the community.
What Pavlina has done here is a preemptive asshole takeaway. By joking in an extreme way in advance, he is attempting to take the bite out of any response to him that he is creating a cult, abusing his volunteer labor, or dominating others for his personal benefit—all of which he seems to have intentions to actually do in some respects.
Ironic Cults and the Cult of Irony
There were many cult-like aspects of the group I was a member of (Integral Institute) under the leadership of the Bald One (Ken Wilber). But we had irony about it, joked about “being in a cult” openly, and laughed at critics who thought our group was cultish—so we couldn’t have been in a coercive spiritual organization, right? Wrong.
In our case, irony was no defense against “non-coerced” head shaving (both men and women did it without provocation), working 50-70+ hours a week but only getting paid for 40 or less (at an illegally low $5/hour—several members sold illegal drugs to make enough to live and others went bankrupt), defending other teachers who were engaged in very shady activities, and being told regularly by Wilber that we were the chosen ones who were going to bring about the New (Integral) Age (but we totally were opposed to everything “New Age,” naturally). While coercive groups are all on a spectrum and Integral wasn’t necessarily as extreme as some groups, there were ongoing abuses of power that could not be dealt with adequately (the situation may have changed since I left, but Integral Institute/Life and Ken tend to still publicly support highly questionable spiritual teachers). There were also numerous red flags that we chose to ignore. I was skeptical even while working there, but still had a period of 4 or 5 years recovery to deprogram after my time in that organization, a period where I largely lost all my friends who were (and most still are) involved in the Integral community.
Another friend of mine joined the Church of Scientology ironically. He read everything about them available online in advance, and when asked why he wanted to join he mentioned that he was interested in finding out if the reports of it being a cult were true. He ended up doing the first level of “auditing” and didn’t continue, so perhaps his previous research did give him a bit of preparation for leaving, but at the same time he also actually joined this cult and gave them money! When I spoke with him about it, he talked as if he was an apologist for the church.
My point is that there can indeed be ironic cults and cults of irony. Irony doesn’t automatically remove power abuses. In addition, many people in positions of power who joke about abuse are in that moment actually abusing others via the asshole takeaway.
Note too that while Pavlina doesn’t like people who “diagnose me over the internet,” he’s fine with diagnosing the emotional states of his critics as having “a lot of repressed anger and envy emanating from [them].” I’m not going to give the diagnosis from the DSM IV that I think might fit this kind of behavior, I’m only going to state that it is hypocritical. While Pavlina says that “no force or coercion is necessary” to create a “supportive social circle,” he also pulls the asshole takeaway to dominate others, and regularly bans all dissenting opinions. In fact, I received an email today from someone who was banned from his forum for posting a dissenting opinion on the forum thread linked to above. Coercion can be subtle, ironic, and even “for smart people.”
As I write this article, I am checking in with my feelings. I do not notice anger and envy, but a feeling of concern associated with a warmth in my chest and sadness for people who might join a coercive group, and for people who are currently stuck within such groups. Someone I know is currently wrestling with a smart young family member who is stuck in the Dahn Yoga cult. He is working 20 hours a day, sleeping only 4, and he justifies his activity as being part of a movement that will save the world. (I referred this family to John Knapp of the Center for Healing Spiritual and Cultic Abuse. John was a former member of the Transcendental Meditation cult and now works as a social worker specializing in helping people to recover from cults and coercive groups.)
I sincerely hope that any wisdom I have gained from membership in coercive groups benefits others who are considering joining or leaving such groups. Please pay attention to the warning signs of a coercive group or leader. Pavlina is exhibiting many of them already.
UPDATE 4/7/2011: I found this analysis from a blog called “Steve Pavlina Watch” on Pavlina’s April Fool’s post as well: Analysis: Help Wanted
UPDATE 4/8/2011: See also this excellent article from the Cultic Studies Journal entitled “Dominance and Submission: The Psychosexual Exploitation of Women in Cults” by Janja Lalich. While obviously there is a difference, there is a fine line—or perhaps a gradient—between the D/s bedroom play of a monogamous couple and the dominance and submission of a coercive leader or group. Often toxic groups begin on one side of the line and gradually move in the direction of coercion.
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