The Defector’s Syndrome

Fabrizio d'Agostini

... or rather: what do apostates of a movement suffer from?

by Fabrizio d'Agostini — The ‘defector syndrome' refers to the behavior, considerations and reasoning of individuals who, having left a group, party, religion, denomination, turn against their past friends and comrades and recount negative facts or events in which they have participated, making criticisms and becoming witnesses to a variety of accusations.

The syndrome does not affect all former members, in fact proportionally very few.

With reference to religious movements, which appear to be the most studied and monitored trend groups, and in which the turnover is greatest (statistically, participation or affiliation lasts two years, both incoming and outgoing), the defector’s syndrome affects about 15% of the 2%.

The nature, the content and, so to speak, the pattern of the syndrome, appears in full light when it has as its object a 'strong thought', 'political ideologies or compelling religious doctrines', and it is a reasoning that allows the defector to continue to be right despite everything and allows him to blame his former comrades. It is a formal, pure, transcendental scheme and it is always the same. For the defector suffering from the syndrome it is largely a matter of personal survival and is also and consequently the basis of his credibility with third parties.

Incidentally, the syndrome is immediately recognized, favored and used as a proof or a document by the opponents of the group, party, association or denomination, who turn from being enemies as they were when the defector was in the group, party, association or denomination, to 'friends' of the defector himself whom they use as 'proof'. On the other hand, the defector affected by the relative syndrome immediately seeks to establish relations with the former opponents and to establish relations at least of existential and social contiguity: he needs to be believed.

There is therefore a logical, structural, systematic and social profile of the syndrome, which are closely linked.

The reasoning is based on a few axioms that are immediately obvious to everyone.

  1. my judgment in its fullness, if the data and perceptions I receive from the outside world are correct, is 100% infallible;
  2. I am able with my judgment to verify and control the data and perceptions I receive from outside;
  3. on the basis of judgment and having checked the available data and perceptions I am able to solve my problems and achieve my goals;
  4. my aim in life is to always be better or as good as possible.

In essence, everyone believes they are 'right' and are only willing to question their judgment when they do not have control over external data and perceptions, and when the doubt does not fall on the capability of judgment, which remains perfect, but falls precisely and only on perceptions or data. With the consequence, for the identical reason, that everyone thinks they are able to control and verify the data at their disposal. If data and perceptions are under control, then judgment is absolute. No one doubts the color of the sea or that it is made of water if he is in front of the sea and sees and touches it because, in that case, he has control over perception.

The question posed is therefore typically, classically gnoseological and existential, and does not concern the content of the group, party, association or denomination, be it ideological, theoretical or pragmatic, which is irrelevant.

If the thought, the doctrine, the ideology is 'strong', 'engaging', the conduct is the same whether it is a question of new religious movements or the Catholic Church or Opus Dei; whether it is a matter of terrorist groups or historical political parties. The content of the object of reasoning is not important, but rather the form of the reasoning.

In fact, when he joined the group, party, association, or denomination, the former member has exercised judgment on the basis of the data and perceptions available to him, which he has also checked and evaluated in a way he considered sufficient to decide why he considered the ideology, doctrine and practice proposed as better for him than any other known or available to him or known to him and, according to him, following that doctrine or practice would accomplish his aims in life, that is, make him feel better. The greater the adherence, the greater the identification of life improvement with the ideology or with the denomination or with the doctrine.

In essence, adherence to an ideology occurs because the subject believes it to be 'true', 'just', 'strong', 'decisive', better than any other.

When he leaves it, the paradox (para-doxa) in front of which he finds himself is the following: if ideology was the "true", "right", "strong", "decisive", better than any other" I was wrong to leave it, I committed a serious error of judgment. But I left it because it is not true that it was the "true", "right", "strong", "decisive", better than any other"; on the contrary, since it is a "particularly" negative ideology, I made a very serious error of judgment when I joined. This error of judgment also lasted the whole time I was in the organization, group, party, church, denomination.

The paradox "have I been wrong now or have I been wrong then" directly affects the assumptions indicated under 1, 2, 3 and 4. In other words, it undermines the individual's capacity for judgment, the one that is one hundred percent accurate and capable of verifying perceptions and external data. This crisis is unacceptable to the individual. That is to say, a reason must be given at all costs for the error of judgment which, naturally, for the defector was committed then, when he joined the movement, organization, group, etc.

The justification is always the same and is almost always made up of two competing elements, a more or less significant attenuation of the capacity of judgment dependent on external factors, on an overload of perceptions, which occurred then, when the subject approached the group, an attenuation of which others voluntarily or involuntarily took advantage, and, on the other hand, an appearance that does not correspond to reality, i.e. a falsification of the data and perceptions received.

So, when I joined, I did it because first of all I approached the group conditioned by the love towards a relative, a friend, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a lover, or a series of facts or events happened in my life that strongly conditioned or depressed me, people dear to me were missing, the girlfriend, the boyfriend, the husband, the wife left me, I had serious collapses, I was not physically well, I saw everything black, I thought I was solving a relationship problem... that is, a series of events such as to justify an attenuation of the judgement capacity, that now, instead, has returned full (this part of the justification serves to value the present judgement on the one of the past and explains why the subject has approached something so "terrible": if his capacity for judgement had not been weakened he would never, ever have even approached it).

However, since the defector we are talking about is harshly attacking publicly or within himself, the group, movement, party, religion or denomination to which he belonged, neither love nor depression is almost never sufficient to justify such a serious error of judgment, both of which may well justify the initial error, but which also reduce the reliability of the subject with respect to himself, and on which it is therefore not possible to put too fine a point on it (if his judgment was influenced by external conditions then, what external influences does he now suffer? And, on the other hand, justification remains in the area of subjective states, so how can this be objectively relevant?). It only serves to explain the initial approach. So the approach that is already a mistake was made possible by the subjective state, but in reality I was given data and perceptions that were not in line with reality, they were illusory, apparent, I was made to see  - with words, smiles, behavior, flattery and recognitions –  a light that indicated something else, it indicated “candles for lanterns.”

Only in this way can those who were only 'candles' and not 'lanterns' be harshly attacked. It was all false, they were all crypto-motivations, the purpose was negative, disreputable, the interest was only together or alternatively, exploitation, money, power, prestige... Everything was deception, everything was evil.

It is not an easy situation for the defector, it is a dramatization that can reach absolute levels, become a choice between life and death, requiring the outcome of sleepless nights to 'do something' so that others do not fall into the trap.

In reality, the reasoning is pure, formal, because it is aimed not so much at expressing a judgment on the movement, religion, organization, party, group, but at reaffirming the 100% correctness of the subject's capacity for judgment in its fullness, which has become trapped in the paradox of two judgments on the same things, situations, events that are diametrically opposed and irreconcilable.

The formula therefore is:

at the time of the approach

attenuated judgment for external historical facts that are no longer there or have been superseded;

at the moment of adherence

deceptive, illusory or distorted data and perceptions;
consequent positive judgment.

now that you have come out

100% recovery of judgment;
negative judgment.

Socially, the 'defectors' accredit themselves as trustworthy because they have been present, they were there, they participated, they saw, they know and, now that they have recovered their judgment, revisiting what happened in the past, they judge negatively what they judged positively then.

Civil society also knows perfectly well and has interiorized axioms 1, 2, 3 and 4. The judgment capacity of each member of society is perfect and so is its judgment capacity as the sum of the perfection of each member if the judgment capacity is provided with exact and not illusory data (it is in this mechanism that the whole force of advertising lies, which is then a systematic conditioning: I do not provide you with exact data, I provide you with my data, those that I am interested in you taking as your own and that will push you to do what I want you to do).

The formula of the “defector’s syndrome” can be used with the notion of “psychological conditioning”. But the substance of the formula is the suggestive fact of the claim that one's own judgement is being replaced by that of another subject or subjects.

By providing illusory, erroneous external perceptions, it is said, the judgment of the provider deliberately replaces that of the perceiver, and the resulting conduct is no longer free in the sense of the perceiver, but is that induced by the provider of the perceptions.

So, although I am 100% capable of judging, I am not to blame, I have no responsibility. I have been through a lot, but I am a victim, the responsibility lies with those who gave me wrong and illusory perceptions that prevented me from judging what was right and what was wrong. And this is the only way for the defector to absolve himself.

But since my judgment is very powerful, capable of 100% correct judgments, I deduce from this that the external perceptions, the data I was given and believed to be true were wrong, this being the only possible explanation.

It is this deduction that finally accounts for the entire logical content of the syndrome from both an individual and a social point of view.

In conclusion, the effort of the defector to recount negative things, to criticize doctrines, situations, programs, groups, organizations, has nothing to do with the object of criticism: it is the content of a retrospective deduction aimed at safeguarding the defector's capacity for judgment and, at the same time, necessary to enable him to absolve himself.

As time goes by, if he does not manage to break out of his dramatization, his assessment of past ideology, doctrine and thought will have to become increasingly negative: the extent of his personal recognition of his regained capacity for judgment appears to him to be directly proportional to his criticism. The more the criticism is refined and deepened, the greater the recognition of the regained capacity for judgment.

The mechanism is as follows:

  1.  initially the negative judgment falls on the specific group of persons to which one has belonged, the group, the unit, the congregation, the organization and not on the ideology or doctrine;
  2. to this is added in sequence the negative judgment on the conduct of the group or organization of which one has been a member, conduct which is initially considered in violation of doctrine or ideology;
  3. then the negative judgment shifts to content and becomes generalized. In this phase one's own understanding of the ideology or doctrine one considers "authentic" is often contrasted with that of the group one considers "perverted";
  4. finally, the negative judgment also involves the theorists, the promoters, the ideologists, the founders and the whole doctrine, ideology or thought.

Often he does not realize it, but it is really and only a deduction. A logical scheme within a simple syllogism.

On the other hand, this deduction works so badly, that it forces the defector even for years, if not for a lifetime, to insist on it.

It is a real 'syndrome': it seems clear that one can have been part of groups, organizations, denominations and parties and come out of them with no need to criticize, on the contrary, remaining faithful to everything or ceasing to be faithful by virtue of a historical rethink.