Sunday, February 5, 2012

Coming to a Deeper Understanding of the Unwritten Rules of a Group: Oral Tradition, Oral Law, the “Hidden Curriculum”

Informally, we all first come to understand the social rules and mores of a group within our own families as our parents who reward our good behavior with smiles and kisses as well as when they send the darts of disapproval at us through non-verbal communication in response to undesired behavior. Formally, among the earliest and in depth discussion of mores (the accepted, moral, traditional customs of a social group) that I recall took place in my Sociology 101 class with a not so engaging instructor. I developed a new, greater, and deeply personal appreciation of this topic when I began to study the literature concerning spiritual abuse which highlights the abusive patterns of the informal and unwritten mores within a spiritually abusive group.

Just this week, I learned of resources about the more optimistic side of how mores can work in positive and beneficial ways. Reminded of what I already understood, I found the balance of the new perspective of optimism quite refreshing. I even learned a new phrase to describe them: the “hidden curriculum.” In the back of my head I thought, “Why didn't I think of that term myself? It's so obvious!”

Unwritten Rules (the “Hidden Curriculum”) in Cultic Groups: A Review

A few years ago, Voddie Baucham contacted me, and his correspondence presented such an excellent example of this dynamic in a system of spiritual abuse, I wrote a blog post entitled Why Doctrinal Statements Tell You Nothing of the Unwritten Rules of a Manipulative Group. The concrete examples it contains are well worth reading. The topic of family integrated churches illustrated well the disparagement between what adherents tell you about the topic, but they conveniently leave the unpleasant bits unspoken. (Voddie has a reputation as a master of this type of avoidance and equivocation.) The average person finds out about the hidden rules when they are either disciplined, usually in an informal way, for violating rules or when the restrictive nature of the abusive system presses in on them. They are the informal, unwritten rules which are often communicated indirectly through a host of propaganda techniques and fallacies including but not at all limited to unstated assumption, vagueness, and problems identifying proper cause. Often, no one ever directly states the rules plainly or clearly which allows for plausible deniability, but reasonable people definitely comprehend them. They develop an organic and covert understanding of the rules, even if the are unable to identify their specifics which is often why they are so powerful until someone else wraps words around them. The story of the Emperor's New Clothes offers a great example of the hidden curriculum at work.

Johnson and VanVonderan's The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse refers to this manipulative influence as a set of “deeply ingrained spiritual codes that control and condemn” members. And here we find the difference between social mores that provide for an orderly and polite society that fosters respect for all individuals and groups which use their own created social mores and spiritual codes to exploit and control members within a social group. The authors note that such groups conceal the unwritten rules from people during the “honeymoon phase” of recruitment and involvement, because chances are that if given true informed consent about the rules, most people would politely decline participation.

While concealing the true nature of the system's hidden curriculum in the early phase of group involvement, those members begin to invest personally in the life of the group through participation and social relationships. These connections to the group build what Johnson and VanVonderan call “sweat equity.” Just like abandoning the developed equity builds by paying on a home mortgage would be difficult for the financially responsible and prudent person, likewise, most people find it difficult to abandon their personal investments in manipulative groups, even after they learn the unpleasant specifics about the hidden curriculum.

The Positive Role of Curriculum

While chatting with Rafael Martinez, the director of about this phenomenon, he used the term “hidden curriculum” to describe the abusive unwritten rules of cultic groups and also referred to them as a group's “oral traditions.” I tend to think of oral traditions as a separate feature of a social, but I had the epiphany that the unwritten rules of a cultic group are very much a part of them, too. The term “oral traditions” connotes something quite positive for me, but the dynamics of cultic manipulation in spiritually abusive groups twist oral traditions into something quite negative.

Lawrence Richards
Rafael referred me to the writings of Lawrence Richards on the topic, specifically to his writings on education including Christian Education: Seeking to Become Like Jesus Christ. (Consider his related work as Sociology 101 for Christians, if you like. I think that my short discussion about the book was more profitable than my whole semester in my own intro class almost thirty years ago!) 

Richards talks about the power of the “hidden curriculum” as the powerful teacher of situational content and context which is learned not through didactics but through socialization through living. We use the hidden curriculum to build good habits of living, a very popular topic at this time of year as people come up with their New Year's Resolutions. Richards teaches that skill training and attitude building should be harnessed to reinforce and solidify formal learning into a synthesis in a way that benefits faith and well-being for people within a group or an educational setting.

From Richards in Christian Education:
It is in the design of the hidden curriculum that the heart of the educational ministry actually lies. And the primary emphasis of training in Christian education (in fact, in training for any ministry), ought to be the sensitizing of the educator to the hidden curriculum issues and elements, and to principles for their design. Theological considerations . . . the nature of the Christian faith, the nature of the Church, the process of growth toward transformation which discipleship involves . . . all these give us guidance enough to provide just this kind of training for the future leadership of the Church, and enough practical hints for significant change in our practices today. (pg 322)

For manipulative groups who harness the powerful influence of the hidden curriculum so well, they must rise to the challenge of abandonment of the misguided and flawed principles and abusive means. By refocusing on the essentials of the faith rather than the hobby horse doctrines that prove their specialness before God (as Henke explains through several of the dynamics of spiritual abuse), aberrant Christian groups can create a positive “process of growth toward [positive and healthy] transformation” rather than fostering conformity through domination, control and an exploitation of the hidden curriculum through deception.