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TRIESTE, 5th July 2013



Overview: how the social context can lead to violations of human rights
Raffaella Di Marzio
The aim of this panel is to show how press reports and popular prejudices can violate the human rights of former and current NRM members and their children. The panel will show how media accounts that reflect popular prejudices can abuse and discriminate against current and former members. Such media presentations may reinforce popular prejudices, thereby creating a vicious circle. My presentation will provide an introduction to and overview of these issues.

One of the most common popular prejudices, which is often reinforced by the media, is the tendency to judge people on the basis of their group identities, rather than as individuals.  This can constitute an abuse of individual dignity because, for example, a current or former cultic group member is deemed to be a completely unreliable source because of the group with which he is affiliated, even though there may be much variation of opinion within groups and valid claims made by members of different groups. When people are treated as group stereotypes rather than individuals, many problems can arise, e.g., difficulty in finding or keeping a job, unnecessary strains in family or romantic relationships, ridicule or isolation of children at school, antagonism by neighbors.  Moreover, stereotyping people can easily lead to objectification and demonization, which in turn can lead to hurting behaviors that abusers would never consider inflicting upon those whom they see as individual “persons.”

Abuse that results from stereotypes may constitute a violation of the spirit, if not sometimes the letter, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 7, which begins: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Treating all former cultic group members as “unreliable sources” because they are presumed to be merely “disgruntled” or treating all current cultic group members as “unreliable sources” because they are presumed to be “brainwashed” constitutes a form of discrimination, because the individuals in question are not treated as human beings worthy of respect and individualized attention.

One of the most serious violations of human rights that may result from the objectification and demonization of one’s opponents is the suppression of free speech. Attempts to suppress free speech have been observed in a variety of settings: cultic groups against their critics, cult critics against cultic groups, and even cult critics against other critics.  Speech is endangered whenever one party believes that legal pressure, harassment, or coercion is an acceptable way of relating to somebody with whom one disagrees.

I will illustrate some of these points by discussing my experiences during the past 18 years, including my providing help and consultation to worried families, former cultic group members, journalists, law enforcement authorities, and current members of controversial religious and spiritual movements.  I will describe the suffering I have witnessed in current as well as former members.