by Jon Atack
Brainwashing – The Art of Cleansing the Mind
There are many names for manipulation, some more emotionally loaded than others. The name with the most negative sense is “brainwashing”, which was popularized by journalist Edward Hunter, a CIA agent.
Hunter’s sensationalist 1951 best-seller was called Brainwashing in Red China, and it exposed the Chinese “thought reform” camps, where millions of citizens and foreigners were subjected to an intense remodeling of their beliefs, often spending years imprisoned in awful conditions. Hunter was writing at the height of the Korean War, where Communist China was seen as the arch-enemy of freedom, while in the US, the House Un-American Activities Committee waged a witch-hunt against the ‘Red Menace.’
The term “brainwashing” derives from hsi nao, a traditional term in the Taoist religion, meaning the “cleansing of the mind.” It was adopted by the Communists who wanted to root out “imperialist thinking.” At the core of Chinese brainwashing was the transfer of loyalty from the family to the Communist Party.
The Chinese used torture, sleep deprivation, enforced confessions and prolonged bouts of screamed verbal abuse to break down resistance. These were interspersed with feigned acts of kindness. Robert Jay Lifton interviewed victims of the program for his seminal book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
Brainwashing quickly entered the language, and has come to mean pressurizing a person until they accept a belief. In general conversation, it can mean simply a blinkered view: if someone was brought up to believe something disagreeable to the commentator, they were “brainwashed”.
The debate has raged since the term was first used. Some academics deny that there is any way to overwhelm another person’s reasoning. This view is to found particularly among some sociologists, who believe that we simply comply with social pressures.
Others believe that the term is accurate. For instance, Oxford University neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor called her fascinating book Brainwashing: The science of thought control. Social psychologist Alexandra Stein’s excellent examination of “total conversion” Terror, Love and Brainwashing, where she says, “the process whereby these regimes [China and North Korea] used methods of indoctrination to neutralize opponents of the regime and, in many cases, to convert them to sometimes enthusiastic support. This process involved the alternation of assault and leniency, of threat and apparent safety, within an isolating environment.”
Masoud Banisadr differentiates between “mind control” and “brainwashing” in his work. For him, mind control is the seductive first part of the process of indoctrination, and “brainwashing” is comparable to the aggressive Chinese process. Masoud was subjected to such techniques in the Iranian terrorist group MEK.
At Open Minds, we accept many terms for “brainwashing”, including manipulation, coercive control and undue influence.