Francionists as a Cult Following?

by David Sztybel, Ph.D.

I have called Gary L. Francione’s adherents like a cult as many have before me. The group think, censorship, and other characteristics are certainly obvious points of similarity. I would like to investigate this question in more detail. I am not especially a sociological expert, but I will try my hand at this analysis as an amateur in case some patterns of information might be of interest to some observers. There are some characteristics that suggest the Francionists are not part of a cult:

  1. they have a fairly well rationalized moral theory containing many good points
  2. Francione has many peer-reveiwed publications, including the book debating an opponent, Robert Garner. I hope that the latter did a better job of arguing than in his book in which he treats animal ethics. In that volume, Garner retells the traditional views and does not even draw any definitie conclusions, rather like Mary Midgley’s book, Animals and Why They Matter, which analyzes but does not conclude as to practice. To me this shows a lack of commitment and critical thinking in absentia.
  3. Gary changed his mind re his former, quasi-incrementalist approach; it is good that he can do that, but bad that he is becoming more morbidly rigid and less helpful to animals over time, now disavowing single-issue campaigns, any incrementalist laws, and the Great Ape Project as prime examples. But then, inconsistency is one of the criteria given by some commentators as characteristic of cults. You can have a cult with changing beliefs, that is, "new word" passed down from the leader that everyone is expected to follow as in these cases.

Are there mind-numbing techniques? I discuss this below with his wearing repetition of “property, property, property,” but surely this is a debatable point here. I wondered if there are odd recruitment techniques, and then it came to me that aggressive internet attacking is trying to proselytize in a domineering fashion.

I have a cousin in Atlanta Georgia whose job it is to take back cult members and de-program them. I am not sure what I can achieve in terms of trying to alert people to, at the very least, cult-like modes of operation in Francionism. Peter Singer, in his recent book, The Life You Can Save, calls internet the world’s greatest library, and I have used it extensively for this project. I have consulted the web, citing some 28 sites using the philosophy: “the truth is wherever you find it.” I have highlighted ideas associated with cults that ring true for me and that also seem to me to resonate with what many Francionists are doing. The organizing categories (Characteristics of the Leader; Mind Control Techniques) are my own, and are in no way inevitable. Some points could be placed in more than one category. Yet the sections might aid in understanding since my list of cult characteristics seems far longer than any out there that I’ve seen.

Most cult members do not realize that they are in a cult, and the leader always denies that it is a cult. Experts estimate that there are thousands of cults in the world. SITE CITE Francionism can be said to conform to an authoritative definition of a cult, more or less. Consider the analysis offered by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a secular, nonprofit, tax-exempt research centre and educational corporation. The ICSA defines a cult as a group or movement exhibiting:

  1. great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, in the way that Francionists are often fiercely devoted to Francione’s iterations perhaps
  2. empolying techniques such as isolation (censoring people from the Abolitionist Approach forum), poweful group pressures (egging on conformity on a regular basis; insulting, not taking other views seriously such as my own), information management (not least of all censorship); suspension of individuality or critical judgment (again the censorship plays a powerful role here), promotion of dependency on the group (often looking to the sayings of Francione to settle disputes rather than independent thinking)
  3. designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the detriment of the community (arguably splitting animal advocates, and making conditions worse for animals by indirectly helping to perpetuate legally allowed cruel conditions)

These are the four characteristics, adapted with minor alterations from Cultic Studies Journal 3 (1986): 119-120. SITE CITE

By these criteria Francionism is perhaps literally a cult. Some people I think would defend that thesis. I strongly hesitate, although perhaps I am mistaken in this respect. After all, Francionism shows more cult characteristics than the vast majority of lists of possible cult characersitics altogether. I have given my reasons why we are talking about something that is cult-like in many respects, certainly. I think we should be hesitant to apply the label, but lively about identifying warning signs. This way strikes a balance, enabling us to protect ourselves from harmful cult practices while not insulting others. Cults of course do not want to be called “cults,” SITE CITE not always legitimately, but Francione’s status of a scholar is the main or perhaps even only factor interferes with me calling him a true cult leader. But maybe I am just biased towards academics, being one myself. Any sort of person can start a cult, if they have an academic background, doctorate, or otherwise. It is true that he has peer-reviwed academic work published quite extensively. But perhaps the issue is not this but rather how he relates to his group of followers. The mantle of academia could conceivably be used to assert authority in a cult-like manner. Also, cults do not need to exhibit every single possible variation that is characteristic of others cults. Such reflections strengthen the perception of the Francionists as an actual cult group rather than one that is just “like” a cult in some ways. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide for himself or herself.

Characteristics of the Leader

  1. The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment; so the Francionists seem to me from their rabidity on the Abolitionist Approach forum on which I commented two blog entries ago, and to which this informal paper is a follow-up SITE CITE
  2. An authority figure is presented that everyone seems to acknowledge as having some special skill or awareness; Francione is treated like the fountain of academic wisdom on animal rights SITE CITE
  3. Dynamic leadership SITE CITE
  4. Charisma, a winning style SITE CITE
  5. The charismatic charmer is only one side of the leader’s personality; he can turn on the same person very harshly

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