Summary: This series of articles explores the question whether it is more accurate to refer to Stefan Molyneux’s FreeDomain Radio as a cult or as a destructive cult. According to my cult-identification flowchart, we are surrounded by cults, technically speaking. Most are harmless and some are even beneficial.
However, a small percentage of cults are actually destructive to the people who join them. Is FDR one of them?
To do this, we’ll have to peel back FDR bit by bit, identifying any characteristics FDR shares with truly destructive cults. After that, it’s up to you to make the call.
Part One begins below. I’ve identified the first set of troubling aspects of FDR: (1) FDR appears to have one set of beliefs on the surface and an entirely different set of beliefs that it actively promotes behind the scenes. (2) A number of destructive cult experts have publicly stated their concerns about FDR. And (3), there is a presence of members who appear to display cult-like behavior.
The journey into FDR
Oh, dear. Here we go.
Hard to believe that I’ve kept my FreeDomain Radio hobby going since 2008. FDR has grown to a grand place now—fresh new faces joining everyday, Stefan Molyneux conducting “celebrity” interviews left and right—re-made over as a left-libertarian gadfly.
Over time, I’ve documented…
- How Molyneux appears to be distancing himself from his true beliefs that he once stated publicly and freely.
- How his wife, who (1) claims to have been more responsible for the creation of FDR than Molyneux himself, (2) used to advertise and host “Ask-A-Therapist” podcasts on FDR, (3) used to be the go-to gal on matters related to defooing, has now mysteriously vanished from the “community” altogether along with all of her podcasts. And no explanation.
- The incredible drama of Universally Preferable Behavior (UPB), from Molyneux’s bold promise in 2005 to “win the argument from morality,” to the tensions that the development process created within the FDR “community,” to the book’s release in 2007, to the almost complete disinterest Molyneux’s masterpiece received from everyone outside of his community.
- The ethical dilemma of following a leader who creates videos entitled “Integrity as Salvation,” but is not above misrepresenting Dr. Vincent J. Felitti’s A.C.E. Study as a study on child abuse as well as misrepresenting the work of Dr. Bruce Perry (after apparently using and modifying his materials without permission)—all to prove his own “Bomb in the Brain” theories. (All documented about mid-way down in this article).
- The near-riot at FDR caused by two members who exposed the hopeless logic at the center of Real-Time Relationships (The Logic of Love).
The list goes on. And so far it’s been a fun diversion.
But I never really have taken on the big question. Is FDR a destructive cult?
Well, let’s wade into it.
Taking a walk on the dark side
I have to confess how uncomfortable it is for me to write this article.
I’ll tell you why it’s uncomfortable for me. I want FDR Liberated to be accessible to everyone, FreeDomain Radio members included.
Here’s why. I want FDR Liberated to be accessible to everyone, FreeDomain Radio members included. And the only way to do that is to be even-handed about what I say. This isn’t about good vs. evil. Molyneux is a spellbindingly intelligent man. He’s funny, well spoken, and well intentioned. I think he believes right down to his toes that he’s doing good things in the world.
I just don’t believe the net effect of his actions are always good. And the more I look into the psychological side of FDR, the darker it gets—good intentions notwithstanding.
And it is here, on the topic of undue influence, memory manipulation, individual and family psychology, etc., that the view is at its darkest and discussions about FDR become the most uncomfortable.
Because when the public isn’t paying close attention, FreeDomain Radio members are listening to podcasts that constantly ring with messages like this:
From Podcast #211 (Childhood Prisons):
28:50…Our childhoods—our collective childhoods were prisons. And I know I’m going to get even more emails about this…’Oh, I had a good relationship with my mom and dad.’ ‘Oh, they were fine.’ ‘They were this’ and ‘They were that’…
No. I’m sorry. I gotta tell you, and I hate to say it because I don’t mean to be a bully, but you’re wrong.
Or maybe this:
From Podcast #109 (But My Parents Were Nice 1):
22:40…Children are infinite slaves of their parents.
23:26…I know that not lots of parents kill or maim their children but that’s only because children comply.
The new FDR
Paradoxically, FDR today looks even more attractive on the surface than ever. Many of the darker elements, which were right on the surface a few years ago, are now buried deep within.
New people continue to drop by to sample the FDR waters and listen to the interviews Molyneux now conducts with other intellectuals. And most of those new people (as well as perhaps all of the interviewees!) are unaware of FDR’s dark side that was exposed in 2008).
But one also finds at FDR a core of True Believers who see Molyneux and FDR as something else entirely.
To them, it’s not just a Web site, it is the only community that they truly feel a part of. And they truly believe that the man leading the community is either the salvation of philosophy or the only-man-who-knows-the-way. (See the video)
That core group believes other things, as well. Molyneux preaches to them (not quite as publicly as he once did) that psychology and philosophy are inseparable. He lectures them about living lives of “integrity.” He tells them that it is “dishonorable” to associate with religious people or statists.
He tells them that their childhoods were “prisons.” That for all of them, their families were nothing more than “Accidental Biological Cages.”
Sometimes he tells them enough things that they decide to leave their family and friends with the intention of never speaking to them again. He coined a clever term for it—defoo (FOO means “Family of Origin.”)
Editorially, I don’t care about parents
Because most of the controversy about whether FDR is a “healthy” environment grows out of that practice of defooing, we must examine it more closely in this article. But before we do, I want to be crystal clear about one thing.
I got a hit recently from a forum where a member there had used this site as a reference. Tracking back to that forum, I found this comment from someone I don’t know (although I otherwise respect his writing):
“The basic argument against Molyneux by those folks seems to be that you shouldn’t break parents’ hearts.”
And with that line, he dismissed FDR Liberated entirely.
Now, skipping over the obvious responses that there aren’t any “those folks” (it’s just me!) and that the great majority of FDR Liberated has nothing to do with parents, this dismissal also misses two critical factors.
1. A defoo most often appears to be about discarding the entire extended family along with current friends. How could it be otherwise? Who would be so illogical as to painfully discard one’s statist parents but not one’s statist Aunt Mamie and one’s statist friends as well? Defoo typically means everybody.
And for those who are still completely missing the point of why that is germane, it’s this: If you think Molyneux’s practice of defooing means only the parents, you are mistaken or have been misled. That makes it easy to overlook this simple truth: the more clearly you see that defoo means everyone, the more difficult it becomes to see the difference between FDR and a destructive cult.
Telling an ancap that it is possible to control someone’s free will without some threat of violence is like telling a Christian there is no heaven.
2. This site has never been quite so concerned with parents’ hearts as it is with their offspring’s’ minds. In short, I mean the techniques of undue influence and memory revision. I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned so far. If I were going to start a destructive cult, the first place I’d think of creating it is right in the middle of a bunch of ancaps.
You see, left-libertarians, particularly ancaps, are committed body and soul to free will. We don’t want anyone telling us that we have obligations that we have not chosen for ourselves, especially when there is a veiled threat of violence behind it.
Therefore, trying to convince most ancaps of the existence of undue influence; i.e., that it is possible to control someone’s free will without some threat of violence, is like telling a Christian there is no heaven. If undue influence is possible (and I firmly believe that it is), then an ancap environment is a delicious place to start. Some can be led like lambs to slaughter while the others refuse to believe it is happening. It is mostly that, and not broken hearts, that has kept me riveted to this project for the past few years.
So while it is true that your humble narrator occasionally succumbs to empathy for the parents, editorially, I don’t care about them. My focus has never been on the effect, but the cause.
Back to the topic.
What the experts say
Before we get into my opinions, let’s spend a few minutes with the experts. You may be surprised to learn that several recognized experts on destructive cults have already weighed in on the matter of FreeDomain Radio.
As I noted in The C Word, Molyneux once tried to use a list of destructive cult characteristics that he had obtained from one expert source—FACTNet—(a group he legitimizes as “the oldest cult resource on the net”) to prove that FDR is not a destructive cult.
But as I also demonstrated, using lists such as FACTNet’s without gaining a real understanding of destructive cults may lead to unproductive results. Nevertheless, using his interpretation of that list, Molyneux made a YouTube video attempting to debunk the FDR-as-destructive-cult accusation. For some reason, he has since made that video private, although the audio-only podcast is still available.
However, I’m not sure FACTNet agrees with Molyneux’s conclusions.
You see, FACTNet also maintains on its site a shortlist of legitimate cult experts, one of whom is Joe Szimhart. Szimhart’s brief bio statement says he “has appeared on dozens of TV and radio programs worldwide and has been consulted by the media regularly, including 20/20, A Current Affair, and others.”
Why mention Szimhart? Because he recently wrote an article for Cult News about Molyneux and the FDR enterprise. The article discusses an interview Molyneux recently conducted with mental health “expert” John Breeding, Ph.D.
Breeding’s outlandish theories speak for themselves but Szimhart digs deeper to explore Molyneux’s attraction to them. Along the way, he finds yet another crackpot connection (Carolyn Myss) and more than one link between Breeding and Scientology itself!
Hmm. I guess philosophy sometimes makes for strange bedfellows.
And Szimhart is far from alone.
- Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre in Britain says that the success of Freedomain Radio is “symptomatic of a worrying trend.” Haworth observes, “I’ve seen these families torn apart by loved ones first of all accessing the Web sites of this group and then being influenced in some way by the leader and becoming—from that point on—alienated from family and friends.”
- Destructive-cult expert Rick Ross has begun tracking the activities of FreeDomain Radio.
- And finally, a search of the International Cultic Studies Association (I.C.S.A.) Web site—perhaps the largest anti-destructive cult organization in the world—turns up several instances of Stefan Molyneux and FreeDomain Radio, including this article:
….Molyneux produces hundreds of online messages, books, podcasts, and videos of himself staring into a camera and talking intensely about relationships, politics, and the economy. Callers share stories of personal alienation and bond online. Parents and former followers say FDR is the cyber version of a therapy cult.
Subscriptions to Molyneaux’s $50-per month “Philosopher King,” and payments for other levels of contact, earn him an estimated $60,000 annually. Rob Griesbach, from Virginia, who first contacted FDR at 16, says: “I was using FDR as an escape from reality.” A former member from Arizona says: “He [Molyneux] always tries to pick out abuses, reasons to be angry. Whatever problem you have, he’ll track it back to your parents.” The father of another reported that “members have been taught to perceive any criticism of [FDR] by a parent as a personal attack on the child, and it drives them further away.” A daughter who left Princeton University simply stopped answering calls and email, says her father. “We didn’t know if she was sick or dead.” After two years of marriage, Molyneux’s wife, who is also his associate, ended contact with her parents.
Molyneux, who is himself alienated from his parents, has developed and codified a philosophy and psychology to support his approach, as well as special terminology to express it. For example, FOO is family of origin, and deFOOing is leaving the family of origin….
Having said that, it’s important to note that to the best of my knowledge none of these experts have actually claimed that FDR is a destructive cult. (Nor would they label any controversial group a destructive cult, for legal reasons). All that can be said is that they are tracking FDR’s activities with concern.
And now it’s my turn at the big question
Heck, I’ve been following FDR a lot more closely and for much longer than all those guys. I’m not a cult expert but I feel obligated to express my point of view. Hence, as I mentioned above, my discomfort. But here goes. Is FreeDomain Radio a destructive cult?
I do know that no one associated with FDR—Molyneux and his wife foremost among them—wants FDR to be a destructive cult, nor would they even be aware if it is. Virtually everyone associated with FDR fervently wants it to be and fully expects it be a force for good.
Still, I’ve compared what I’ve now learned about destructive cults to what I have observed in the FDR organization, Molyneux’s teachings, his behavior, and the behavior of his strongest supporters.
I’ve looked at all the evidence in front of me—about the results of Molyneux’s teaching and actions. About the stated goals he and his wife Christina have for “the community.” About the actual impact he has had on the those who have been drawn in.
For a percentage of FreeDomain Radio members, it is impossible to distinguish between their behavior and the behavior of destructive cult victims.
And no matter how I look at it, the evidence seems clear that for a percentage of FreeDomain Radio members, it is impossible for me to distinguish between their behavior and the behavior of destructive cult victims.
It’s important to understand why I worded that sentence in that way and why I didn’t just say “FDR is a destructive cult.” You can only truly understand the FDR organization if you can see beyond the simple “it is” or “it isn’t” argument.
Consider the flowchart I created in Part 1 of “The C Word.” I believe that all of the people who join the FreeDomain Radio forum eventually distribute themselves into each of the “boxes” of flowchart possibilities, with a noticeable percentage (though not the majority) making it all the way to the last box.
This is an important distinction. If you try to tell the members of the FDR forum their relationship with FDR is “culty,” all of them would angrily respond that it is not. And most of them would be correct—for them. It is more complex than that.
Yet, a percentage of members does appear to make it to the final box. And while it may not be the majority of FDR members, it is enough to suspect that something might be wrong. Very wrong. There is simply no other way to explain the percentage of people who engage in radical behavior change, unaware that they are doing so.
I’m not surprised at the comparatively low indoctrination level compared to controversial religious groups that expect their members to go “all in.” (The Moonies, for example.) There are several other controversial groups besides those that are religious in nature, such as Landmark Forum (a therapeutic group). I get the impression that such groups are better able to support hangers-on, people unwilling to fully commit, as long as they keep making contributions.
Likewise, think of all the Roman Catholics you know. How many of them are devout and how many are so-called “cafeteria Catholics“? How many thousands of people have considered Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health to be a useful book without becoming full-fledged scientologists?
In all of these groups, there is some hope that the hangers-on will become more deeply involved. What varies from group to group is the amount of pressure applied to do so.
How are you enjoying my diatribe so far?
One of the amusing things I’ve learned while writing FDR Liberated is that no matter how fair or open-minded I try to be, as soon as I write anything critical about FDR, Molyneux’s most ardent supporters will label it “a diatribe.”
There are those who will remain determined to overlook a 14,000-word carefully researched series regarding cults and declare the carefully researched observations that follow as a “diatribe.” At some point, I just have to be O.K. with that. Still, I have to call it as I see it.
From my first discovery of FDR, I noticed something about the on-line forum that didn’t feel “right.” As I mentioned in my intro to this blog, there was a gloominess about it. It claimed to be a forum about libertarianism and philosophy but had so many people talking about their miserable childhoods. It wasn’t until I read more about cults and the Yeakley study in particular that I began to wonder about what I was really seeing.
So, I considered, does FDR provide some insights into whether its members have changed over time? Do they seem to be converging as personality types? Is there a way to determine FDR’s role in this, if it is happening?
Is there any way I have the ability—simply by searching the forum—to track the changes of individual True Believers from the time they joined until their current defooed state?
There might be. Because there is one word at the foundation of FDR that snaps everything into focus. Without listening to a single podcast or reading a single post, this single word screams at you, telling you there may something terribly wrong within FDR…
Oh, what an awful place for me to pause, don’t you think? Still, let’s explore that mysterious word and more interesting evidence in Part 2!
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