Rule #1 of cults, according to the international society of cults, is don’t call yourself a cult.
But what if others call you that? That could undermine the whole thing, the whole big plan for world domination.
Here’s a great strategy – beat them to the punch, and make a joke about it at the same time.
Because if you were really a cult, would you be making this joke?
Why, yes, yes you would. Case in point.
I recall at least three stories being told, by three different people who were very much solidly part of the Orthodox/Kiruv cult, of how they themselves suspected that the world they were being sucked into was, indeed, a cult.
The time my father bought his parents a book about the Moonies when his older brother became religious (before committing the cardinal sin of trying to extract his brother himself). It was one of his favorite stories to tell at the Shabbos table. Beat the Kiruv guests to the punch.
“I prepared for a whole year by studying undergrad philosophy and yet after one month of debate these professional kiruv Rabbis had my 21 year old self beat, which proves they are right if they withstood my academic rigor.”
My bench mate at rabbinical school who arrived at the conclusion he was in a cult partially because he was only being fed starchy foods, and not enough of them (a classic cult move, apparently). He tried to flee early in the morning but lo, when the dust settled he was still here, becoming a Rabbi.
The moral of these stories being, “don’t worry about this being a cult, we’ve already worried about it for you” (see also the closely related classic kiruv line “really smart people already asked the same question you did”) and the implied conclusion that this really isn’t a cult, because if it were we’d never joke about it.
Cults have come a long way since the early days when you traipsed around in robes and gave out flowers at airports. Those guys were weird.
Here’s a great video from Genetically Modified Sceptic (a great channel in general) where he analyzes the six most influential cults by a variety of standards. Haredim are a respectable 3 out of 6 on the list.