New Humanist feature: The Truth About Brainwashing

According to Republican senator James Inhofe, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is brainwashing America’s children. “We are going to take all this stuff that comes out of the EPA that is brainwashing our kids, that is propaganda, things that aren’t true,” he told CNN in March.

Look no further than the enticing propagandistic NewSpeak the EPA pumps out: “What keeps you warm in winter? Attic insulation!”; “Remember to compost as much as you can and help the environment by reducing waste”.

While you might feel like giving your brain a quick rinse under the tap after listening to Inhofe speak, you are not being brainwashed by him or the EPA. You might be being lied to – but that’s different. A lie is just a new bit of information. As a rule, we’re set up to accommodate that; we have the tools to examine and evaluate.

These are fairly superficial processes; buying into a bullshit Facebook story about Jeremy Corbyn might change what you think, but it probably won’t change how you think. Brainwashing is about social instincts and threat judgments. It’s not something your TV can do to you.

“Brainwashing is a fear-driven process that essentially causes a type of freezing of people’s cognitive ability, or what we can call dissociation, in relation to the system or relationship that is doing the brainwashing,” explains Dr Alexandra Stein, author of the book Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarianism.

Jonny Scaramanga, who like Stein is a survivor of a cult environment, points out that “brainwashing” is often used as a catch-all explanation when it’s too difficult to understand a person’s motivations. “We often hear ‘brainwashed’ used to mean ‘this person’s behaviour is inexplicable’. When we see suicide attacks, they are so incomprehensible that the term ‘brainwashed’ jumps to the rescue, even though in that context it rarely gets us any closer to understanding the bomber’s reasons for acting,” he says.

I’ve heard sensible, liberal parents say about their young kids: “I’ll give them all the information, and let them make their own minds up.” Behind my polite nod-and-smile, I have two responses.

The first is: all the information? You can’t; there’s too much. Perhaps you really do intend to, without bias, talk them through the worldviews of Infowars and the Scientologists and the Communist Party of the Philippines and Spiked! and the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Even then, you’re barely scratching the surface. You’ll end up filtering the information, one way or another.

The second is whether it’s desirable. Surely every parent dishes out a few basic premises: perhaps that kindness is good, that reason and rationality are helpful. Maybe they throw in a few facts too: that bees sting, that the earth is round, that cola rots your teeth. It’s hard to come up with a picture of responsible parenthood where a parent doesn’t pass on a little guidance. Parents perpetuate their own belief narratives; of course they do – who else’s are they going to perpetuate?

To think about this seriously, you need to acknowledge that people have different views. Parents have their own dumb truths and they’re going to pass those dumb truths on to their kids. To call that “brainwashing” is to misunderstand how indoctrination works.

Where do we draw the line between education and what we might reasonably call “brainwashing”? Scaramanga attended an Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) school and later wrote a PhD thesis on ACE indoctrination.

“If you go to an ACE school, you probably also go to a church that’s operated by the same people, and come from a family that holds the same beliefs,” he says. “As a result you live in this bubble where things like belief in creationism, belief that the Bible is inerrant, and speaking in tongues are just taken for granted and normal. Your compass of what is a plausible belief is completely off.

“There are all these built-in defence mechanisms in the belief system that make it immune to rational reappraisal. They’re taught that non-Christians can’t think straight because our minds are warped by sin. So the only people you can trust are Christians, and by Christians they mean ‘people who agree with us’. You’ve got a belief system that is impervious to external critique.”

“Brainwashing” is, above all, a process: of isolation, intimidation, indoctrination. It’s not about telling some people some stuff that’s not true until they simply start to believe it. It twists control dials at a far deeper level than that. It’s not about the beliefs, but about the system.

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