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Media Interviews


This article comes from a letter relating to communication with the media. It deals with a problem that a lot of people have, which may also be a significant barrier to spiritual growth, both in terms of developing leadership skills and in terms of accepting responsibility.

The problem is an apparent inability to put yourself into someone else's shoes. Some people seem to be trapped in an almost autistic tunnel that allows them only to view and think about things from their own perspective. We definitely need to work at finding ways to break out of that tunnel.

Child psychologists have found that up until a certain age (around three or four, I think) children are incapable of imagining how anyone else pictures anything. If two children are standing on opposite sides of a vertical object, a three year old will automatically assume that the child on the other side is seeing the same thing that he/she is seeing. It is an important breakthrough in cognitive development when the child begins to understands that the other person is seeing what is on the opposite side of the piece of paper or whatever.

Something similar to this seems to happen with a lot of communication between adults in our community as well. Whenever two or three people arrange to meet up, there always seems to be tension, because each individual is primarily concerned about what he or she is going to do, and there doesn't seem to be much concern about what the other people may need to do or to know in order for the meeting to take place successfully.

This is probably the most fundamental and simple example of this problem. However, when leading you will find yourselves in similar situations which are far more complex than this. You need to be anticipating a hundred different things on the part of those whom you are leading. It takes great concentration. When it comes to communication with people outside of our community, and especially with the media, the problem becomes even more complex.

One general characteristic of communication from a person with this inability to put themselves into the other person's shoes, is a tendency to "broadcast" rather than truly communicate. They "announce" what they are doing, and they do it in such a way that is meaningful to themselves, but which may not be clear to the person who is listening. In particular, they do not allow for feedback. This insensitivity to feedback is the real concern I have with regard to an overall leadership style. People end up acting arbitrarily, and without concern for the effects of their decisions, actions, and statements on those around them.

I will now relate this topic to a possible interview with the media there in the UK, where there is interest in a new member who is being stalked by his relatives in an effort to snatch him away from us.

When talking to the media (or anyone for that matter) it is important to know where that person is coming from, in order to know how to word your comments, questions, answers, etc. If you have developed a habit of listening carefully to feedback clues, you can quickly pick up where the interviewer is heading with the questioning. And if you are sensitive to lessons learned in past incidents, you will be able to anticipate some dangers before you actually fall into a trap. The way you word your responses is all important in an interview, and you can't just say, "I'll tell them the 'truth' and that will work," because the truth can be expressed in a hundred different ways.

This particular new member in a letter he wrote to me, said: "The system is trying to pin me down, but with God's help, I can escape it." That's reasonable enough when expressed amongst ourselves. We know what he is talking about. But if he was to say something like that to the press, we would have no end of flak. It comes across as classic paranoia.

The press reports that have already come out there in the UK supposedly quote two of our leaders as saying that this new member "belongs to us now", and that he's not his mother's son any more. Sure, we know that this is a distortion of what was really said, if not an outright lie. But when you become aware of the way the opposition thinks, then you start to see how certain topics have to be dealt with extremely sensitively right from the start. You need to relate to the system, without compromising our message.

They will call us a dangerous cult before they've even got the first scrap of evidence, and from there on, they will create whatever hysteria they can, based on our actions and statements. Because we are extreme, we must not go too far to deny it. At the same time, we want them to get it into perspective.

To start with, the only legitimate reason the media should have for interviewing a new member should be to determine whether he or she really is the glassy-eyed, sunken cheeked, brainwashed zombie that distraught parents say he or she is. New members cannot and should not be expected to answer questions with regard to our beliefs... even though they obviously have some idea about what we believe. They are not experts, and they are not aware of the intricate delicacies of various arguments against what we believe. They will be out of their depth if pitted against cult-busters, who are experts in confusing the issues and distorting the truth, and who would consequently make mincemeat out of them.

Interview topics should be more around non-religious subjects, such as the new member's hobbies and interests, his or her health, whether or not the new member has freedom to disagree with leaders, etc. (if the media is genuinely trying to determine whether the person is sane, rational, and balanced, and whether he or she is being abused within the community). They will probably want to know how our latest new member spends his day. But even with questions like that, he should be entitled to ask them why the question is being asked, and to ask what difference it makes one way or the other how he spends his day. In other words, there needs to be a clear understanding about what constitutes a "right" answer and what constitutes a "wrong" answer, rather than what usually happens, where they take either answer and pick on some irregularity in it until they finally get you rattled.

When people ask me on the streets which church I belong to, I ask them which church they think I should belong to. This throws the onus back onto them to come up with a "right" answer to their own question. Obviously there is no right answer, and thus the question becomes pointless. If possible, that is what you would want to do with many of the questions that the media might ask you. Question them as to whether there is a right answer.

If they ask you how you spend your day, you could say something like, "If you mean, do we boil babies and eat them, the answer is no." This emphasises that a clearly "wrong" answer will not be forthcoming. Then you should emphasise the more systemy things that you do... although admittedly the number one systemy thing that most systemites do on weekdays is just to go off to work. Nevertheless, you could say, "Well, I go to the toilet, brush my teeth, comb my hair, wash my face, get dressed, and usually go for a run before having breakfast, reading the mail, and having a Bible study. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for?" Of course it's not, but let them expose themselves as the muck-rakers that they are. What they are looking for is something unusual, and preferably something they can turn into something sinister.

At some point, you could refer to "going off to work". By using a system phrase like that, you show that what we do is not so different to what others do. Exactly what kind of "work" you do each day could vary. Some days you join the others in handing out Christian literature on the streets. But other days you stay back and study, or help with cooking and cleaning. Try to emphasise how routine it is, but also how inspiring it is just knowing that what you are doing is all related to getting out the Christian message of faith in Jesus Christ. Be just as churchy as you like in talking about the gospel, about Jesus, about love, etc. The less you use non-churchy words the better, because as soon as you use one of our terms (e.g. forsaking all, the system, distributing, etc.) it gives them a chance to veer off onto some extreme interpretation of that term.

With every one of these questions, however, it pays to remind the interviewer (and yourself) that you have only just started living with us, and what you are doing now is not necessarily what you will always be doing. Then suggest that they interview one of our leaders if they want a fuller picture of the sort of things that the group does, etc. The leader could then go into things like free work, travel to India, etc. to give a fuller picture if the interviewer is really interested.

Sensitive subjects are money and sex. Basically, there are no right answers in either of these areas. You can, for example, be damned for living on thrown out food or you can be damned for dining out at an expensive restaurant. You can be damned for not having any money, and you can be damned for making money. You can be damned for forbidding homosexuality, and you can be damned for condoning it. You can be damned for forbidding masturbation, and you can be damned for condoning it. Because these topics are more or less forbidden topics in the system, just getting us to say anything on either of them makes us controversial.

It helps to keep comparing what we do with something a bit more respectable in the system. With media reporters, you can often turn it back on them and ask them questions relating to what they are seeking about yourself. Suppose it has something to do with how much money you make. You could say, "And how much money do you make?" Doing this helps to illustrate that such matters are personal, and neither wealth nor a lack of it should be used as grounds for condemning someone. The same goes for questions about sex. You might also ask the reporter what the correct answer should be to such personal questions. Ask what he or she believes with regard to sex, and point out that there are no answers which are acceptable to everyone.

In all of this, however, don't forget to zero in on what the reporter is really driving at.

You can be sure that at some point our critics will make some big deal about you being a puppet, and following orders. We have covered a lot of that in the article, United We Stand. You must not let them destroy our unity, at the same time that you try to steer them away from viewing it as robot like "control". It helps with all of these loaded words (cult, brainwash, manipulation, control, etc.) to get them to question a bit what the word means, and to get them to apply the same word to themselves and other more "respectable" groups. Ask them what the difference is between a so-called cult and any other small Christian denomination. Ask them what the difference is between so-called brainwashing and the propaganda that is dished out every Sunday morning in churches all over England, or the stuff that is served up in the press. Why is it "education" when they do it, but "brainwashing" when we do it?

I usually find it best to not be defensive about distributing literature, and to just relate to them (at least at the start) on the grounds that "selling" comic books is my "job". It's a very rewarding job because I really believe in the message in the comic. (It helps to point out that the comic includes the entire King James Version of the Gospel of Luke, along with cartoons illustrating each of the stories in it.) If you get a chance, remind them that you often give literature away for free, although a lot of comics are usually thrown on the ground when that happens. But don't worry if you do not get a chance in such an interview to explain the finer points of our real motivation for distributing. With luck, they'll bring the question of motivation up when you talk about selling the comics, as they'll see that as a contradiction of our claim that we don't believe in working for money. If that happens, then you can point out that, if you were really interested in making money, you would be in some other line. What you're interested in doing is getting people to think about the teachings of Jesus. It just happens that the general public takes more interest in what we have written when they give a few cents for the privilege of reading it.

With regard to your relation to your system family, let them know that you love your family, and that you do not wish to embarrass them in any way; however, you are an adult, and as such you have certain rights. One of them is that you should not be held prisoner by overprotective relatives who have become convinced that they must forcibly rescue you from what they believe is a dangerous cult.

It is important not to get excited, and if you show any emotions at all, let them be compassion and sadness with regard to the way your family has reacted, and happiness about the life that you are living now. Any time you can turn something into a joke or a little laugh at yourself, it usually helps to destroy the zombie argument. Fanatics are rarely able to have a laugh at themselves... and this includes most cult-busters!

I would argue against an interview with parents present, because they are likely to take over the whole interview by being pushy and by using their authority role as parents to keep the new member on the defensive. If you are put into a situation where you have to compete with someone else to make yourself heard, then you will either come across as a nothing (if you say nothing) or as a fanatic (if you have to shout to make yourself heard). Such interviews should definitely not be on at the moment.

Back to the topic of the new member's relationship to leaders in the community, you need to stress that the group leaders are much more experienced than you are, and that there is no need for you to prove to anyone that you are independent of them or opposed to them, because you are not. You may admit in principle to the fact that none of us agrees totally on everything; but do not be drawn into being specific about things that you disagree on. Challenge the interviewer to go on air stating their disagreements with their employer if they try to get you to do something like that. It shows them that they believe that disagreements (if there are any at all) should not be flaunted publicly.

You could let them know that there is a grievance system within our community, by which you can approach anyone, including the leader, with a disagreement, and you can get the disagreement dealt with to your satisfaction. If it is not dealt with to your satisfaction, then you can get two or three others to go with you and hear you out in your disagreement. Ask them if they have something like that with their employer, pastor, or priest! It's almost certain that they do not; because, for all of its talk about democracy, most system churches have very little grass roots democracy at all. This is even more true with regard to most employer/employee relationships!

It's important to correct them any time they refer to you being "ordered" or "required" to do anything. Everything that you do in our community must be in accord with your own conscience. Group teaching is that we operate democratically on most matters, i.e. with the group following the will of the majority. However, we also teach that in matters of conscience, each member has a moral obligation to follow their conscience. Theoretically it could lead to expulsion from the community (if the community felt that you were just using the teaching as an excuse to be selfish), but even if it did, the important thing is to follow your conscience. Again, it helps to ask if their church or employer teaches anything like that. Keep throwing it back at them and make them compare what they are accusing you of with what they consider to be acceptable practice in their own groups.

There is so much more that I could say. I hope I've said enough to give some idea of the incredibly complex task that confronts you in a media interview. You must learn to be alert, and sensitive to where the interviewer is coming from. Do not be taken in by the "friendly chat" idea either, because it's not just the interviewer you are talking to. You are talking to thousands of readers, viewers, or listeners who are all trying to determine whether you are sane, brainwashed, or whatever. A lot of them will have a secret desire to believe that you are all of those things (because then it exempts them from having to consider the rest of what you are saying).

Pray for wisdom, and stay humble.

Love, Dave

(See also Forsaking Your Parents, A Letter to Jon Ronson, and The Narrow Way.)

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