BRAINWASHING (Religious Movement

Most people find certain actions, such as becoming a member of a fringe political or religious group, both shocking and unexplainable. The Romans believed that only witchcraft could explain why anybody would join such a bizarre cult as Christianity; later, when in power, Christians applied the same rationale to so-called heretics. In later centuries, the theory, which attributed conversion to ‘strange’ religions to witchcraft, became somehow secularized under the scientific name of mesmerism or hypnotism. Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and the more enthusiastic among the Protestant revival movements were among the religions accused of ‘mesmerizing’ converts. For Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), religion is the attempt to remain at a childish stage fixated on pleasure, rejecting pain and, with it, the real world. The religious illusion, however, does not arise spontaneously. On the contrary, Freud insisted that religion is instilled through manipulatory techniques that fix an individual in a permanent state of infantilism.

Around 1920, three members of the innermost circle of Freud’s students, Paul Federn (1871-1950), Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), and Erich Fromm (1900-1980), extended their teacher’s critique of religious indoctrination methods to conservative politics and national-socialism. For these authors, belief in a totalitarian worldview is the product of a combination of three factors: authoritarian childhood education, the influence of popular culture and religion, and a cunning ideological indoctrination process that relies on this influence to manipulate followers for its own purposes. The debate on how the working classes could be indoctrinated into fascism was crucial for the formation of the Frankfurt School, a fusion of psychoanalysis and Marxism. The Nazi regime persecuted the leaders of the Frankfurt School both because they were political antagonists and because they were Jews; most of them migrated to the United States and continued their research there.

After the United States had replaced its anti-Nazi alliance with the Soviet Union with the Cold War, research on indoctrination focused on Communism. Frankfurt School theories on the authoritarian personality were further developed by Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-94), another Austrian-born psychoanalyst who coined the word ‘totalismo’ (totalism), in order to designate a black-and-white vision of the world divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’. According to Erikson, the unresolved crises of childhood development, coupled to an authoritarian education and ideological manipulation, play a key role in the origin of totalism.

American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1926-) a friend and student of Erikson, published in 1961 Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China, the results of his study of twenty-five Westerners who had been detained in Chinese Communist jails, and of fifteen Chinese who had also undergone ‘thought reform’ processes, although outside of prison. Lifton did not present the Chinese Communist results as infallible, or even magical. Out of the forty subjects he studied, only two retained, after their release, a more favorable attitude toward Chinese Communism than they had before their indoctrination. Lifton also applied the result of his study of Chinese Communist indoctrination to religious ‘cults’, concluding that the roots of conversion to both these religions and Communism are to be found in the interaction of three elements: a ‘philosophical motivation’, a psychological predisposition, and totalitarian manipulation techniques.

In addition to Lifton, the work of Edgar H.Schein (1928-) was also influential. A US army psychologist, Schein was sent to Korea in 1953 to examine US prisoners of war who allegedly had been subjected to brainwashing (a word both he and Lifton eventually rejected). Schein concluded that most prisoners had only stated that they believed in Communism, simply in order to survive, without experiencing a ‘genuine’ conversion. Schein’s main work on the topic was published in 1961 under the title Coercive Persuasion, and included Chinese thought reform processes together with Korean POW cases. The book discussed whether ‘coercive persuasion’ as practised in China or (North) Korea, differs from forms of indoctrination that are customarily accepted and practised in the West in schools, prisons, military academies, Catholic convents, the marketing of certain products, and corporate life. For Schein, in fact, the difference revolves around the contents of indoctrination much more than around the method of persuasion. ‘Chinese Communist coercive persuasion’ Schein concluded ‘is not too different a process in its basic structure from coercive persuasion in institutions in our own society which are in the business of changing fundamental beliefs and values’ (Schein et al. 1961:282). Faced with Chinese practices, we claim to disapprove of a method of indoctrination, while in fact what we disapprove of is actually the doctrine inculcated through this method.

The word ‘brainwashing’ was coined during CIA efforts to use its own popular version of the totalitarian influence theory for Cold War propaganda, based on the reference to ‘washing clean’ the minds of the citizens in the well-known novel 1984 by George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-50). Orwell’s fictional account made a deep impression on Edward Hunter (1902-78), later a CIA agent whose cover job was that of reporter, first with English-language publications in China and later at the Miami Daily News. The expression brainwashing was first used by Hunter in the Miami Daily News on 24 September 1950, and later expanded on in many books. As Schein demonstrated in his 1961 book, ‘brainwashing’ does not translate from any Chinese expression related to thought reform, and Hunter coined it based on his reading of Orwell. For Hunter, there is no defense against brainwashing, and it can change anybody’s ideology.

The CIA was aware that it needed scientific justification for theories originally put forth by a simple newspaper reporter. It researched the publications of European psychologists and psychoanalysts, such as Joost Abraham Maurits Meerloo (1903-76) from the Netherlands, and directly supported further research on the subject, inter alia by psychiatrist Louis Jolyon ‘Jolly’ West (1924-99,) who later served as a link with the anti-cult movement. Although researchers such as Meerloo tried to be careful, the CIA simply claimed that it had obtained ‘scientific’ confirmation of its propaganda. The CIA also commissioned expensive experiments in anticipation of a possible military and intelligence use of brainwashing, led by Donald Ewen Cameron (1901-67), a distinguished Montreal psychiatrist. In 1963, however, the CIA ended the controversial project, having concluded that by using the ‘brainwashing’ techniques, it was only possible to create individuals suffering from constant amnesia, who spent most of the day in a state of psycho-motor block, these ‘vegetables’ being thus totally useless for espionage or counterespionage purposes. Indeed, it might be possible to ‘wash’ the brain until it loses its ‘color’ and becomes ‘white’, but it is not possible to ‘recolor’ it with new ideas contrary to the previous ones.

English psychiatrist William Walters Sargant (1907-88) first applied brainwashing models to religion in his 1957 book The Battle for the Mind. According to Sargant, the leading precursor of modern brainwashing techniques was John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of Methodism. Sargant also offered other examples from both Catholic and Protestant preachers. He was interested in religious conversion in general, rather than in differentiating between mainline religions and ‘cults’. In the late 1960s, however, the Anti-Cult Movement quickly adopted brainwashing as a convenient explanation of why apparently normal young Americans were joining ‘bizarre’ cults. Prominent in this campaign was Margaret Thaler Singer, a clinical psychologist who had collaborated with Schein, and was adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She often appeared in court cases and, in a sense, invented a new profession as a psychologist in the service, for several years almost full-time, of anti-cult lawsuits and initiatives. Based on the brainwashing arguments, private vigilantes started kidnapping adult members of NRMs on behalf of their families, and subjected them to a sort of ‘counter-brainwashing’ technique which they called Deprogramming. The largest organization of the American anti-cult movement, the Cult Awareness Network, was often accused of referring families to deprogrammers, although courts were initially comparatively tolerant of the practice.

A frequent counter-expert (in the opposite camp of Singer’s) in US court cases, forensic psychiatrist and NRM scholar Dick Anthony, persuasively demonstrated that while Singer claimed to apply to ‘cults’ the controversial but scholarly Lifton and Schein theories of totalitarian influence, she was in fact using the discredited CIA ‘robot’ model of brainwashing. Anthony was joined by the large majority of NRMs scholars, including Eileen Barker, who in 1984 offered an influential critique of brainwashing theories with respect to the Unification Church (see Unification Church/Moonies) in her book The Making of a Moonie. Criticism of the brainwashing model was also offered by the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association (APA). In 1983, APA accepted Singer’s proposal of forming a task force, DIM-PAC (Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control) for the pur-pose of assessing the scientific status of these theories. On 11 May 1987 the BSERP (Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology) of the APA, issued a Memorandum rejecting the DIMPAC report on the grounds that it ‘lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur’. This rejection, and scholarly criticism in general, even-tually reversed the trend in US courts. The decisive battle between the two camps took place in the US District Court for the Northern District of Cali-fornia in 1990, in the Fishman case, where a defendant in a fraud case offered as a defense that at the relevant time he had been subjected to Scientol-ogy ‘brainwashing’ (although Scientology had nothing whatsoever to do with Fishman’s fraudulent activities). On 13 April 1990, Judge D.Lowell Jensen rejected the testimony of Singer and anti-cult sociologist Richard Ofshe from the case, quoting the APA position and Anthony’s research. Jensen concluded that, while Margaret Singer claimed to derive her brainwashing theory from Lifton and Schein, in truth she was much closer to the non-scientific CIA and Hunter theories.

Although some later decisions devia-ted in varying degrees from it, so that the Fishman ruling did not spell out once and for all the death of the brain-washing theory, an important precedent (still relevant today) had been set in the United States that later triggered a chain of events which led to the end of deprogramming and even of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). Caught red-handed in the act of referring a family to deprogrammers, CAN was sentenced to such a heavy fine that it was forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1996, the court-appointed trustee-inbankruptcy sold by auction CAN’s files, its name and its logo to a coalition of religious liberty activists led by Church of Scientology members.

Whilst in US courts the brainwashing theory lost its momentum in the 1990s, the suicides and homicides of the Solar Temple in 1994-5 gave it new impetus in Europe, where it influenced parliamentary reports (largely unaware of the complicated history of the US controversy) and even resulted in a controversial amendment to the French criminal code in 2001. In North America, a vocal minority of scholars who supported the anti-cult movement to varying degrees, including sociologists Stephen Kent and Benjamin Zablocki, tried to create a new respectability for the word ‘brainwashing’ by referring it not to conversion, but to difficulties created by NRMs for those wishing to leave them, by means of maximizing their exit costs. Although only a handful of academics accepted these theories, brainwashing explanations remain popular in some European political milieus and among the media, while acquiring a new currency to explain suicide terrorism in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001.

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