The United States is a breeding ground for cults. Restrictions there are about as low as they can possibly be, even granting tax-exempt status to some of them (like Scientology). “Religious protection” is a huge part of that, in that cults can easily masquerade as religions, and opposing anything that looks like a religion seems to elicit profound fear in American governments at all levels. There is also this irrational belief in a peculiar version of American “individualism,” which holds that people’s decisions about their personal lives are beyond criticism.
Whatever the reason, the United States is littered with people whose lives have been broken by cults, and the process continues unabated. But other countries take a more proactive approach. For example, France has made brainwashing illegal as part of the About-Picard Law passed in 2001. This law prohibits:
[F]raudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness of a person, either a minor, a person with particular vulnerability due to their age, illness, handicap, physical or mental deficit, or pregnancy, visible and known by the abuser, in a state of physical or psychological subjection as a result of the exercise of heavy or repeated pressure or the use of techniques likely to alter a person’s judgement, to induce that person to act or refrain from acting in a way that is seriously harmful to themselves.
Translation of article 223-15-2 of the French penal code
This is a pretty complicated run-on legalese sentence, but basically it identifies brainwashing as getting a person to act against their interests through heavy or repeated pressure. The second paragraph, which I didn’t translate, gives provisions for organizations to be sued on this basis also.
The term “brainwashing” (or as it’s more commonly called by experts nowadays, “thought reform”) is controversial because people have a lot of misconceptions about it. Brainwashing is not connected to hypnotism (although there are certain similarities), it doesn’t turn people into zombies, and it’s not necessarily about manipulating vulnerable people (as this law seems to presume). Therefore they conclude that brainwashing does not exist.
But anyone who’s studied cults can tell you that brainwashing does exist. We have so many testimonies, not just of people who have been brainwashed, but of people who used to work in various cults who were in charge of setting up brainwashing conditions, like setting up rooms or directing “courses.” And brainwashing has existed for centuries, and its techniques have been refined since then.
Any study of brainwashing has to begin with a study of Christian revivalism in eighteenth century America. Apparently, Jonathan Edwards accidentally discovered the techniques during a religious crusade in 1735 in Northampton, Massachusetts. By inducing guilt and acute apprehension and by increasing the tension, the “sinners” attending his revival meetings would break down and completely submit. Technically, what Edwards was doing was creating conditions that wipe the brain slate clean so that the mind accepts new programming. The problem was that the new input was negative. He would tell them, “You’re a sinner! You’re destined for hell!”
Dick Sutphen, The Battle For Your Mind
The concept of using trance states in undermining people’s critical barriers and making them more suggestible is nothing new, but the techniques have been refined over time. More recently, Scientology upped the game on brainwashing, creating many techniques which have inspired LGATs (Large Group Awareness Training, a relatively new form of mass brainwashing especially popular in the United States) and other modern cults.
I only have one problem with this law, that it only applies to vulnerable people, when brainwashing actually potentially works on everyone. Even experts who know how trance states work can get dragged along with it! That’s because trance states and brainwashing are not consensual: they operate at a subconscious level and through mechanical means, and you could never tell the techniques being employed unless you already understood them.
Laws against brainwashing must be adopted in the United States in order to stem the tide of lives being destroyed by flourishing cult organizations like LGATs and MLMs. Every week people are being brainwashed into abandoning their values and serving the interests of big national and multinational corporations (just like being a capitalist, am I right?), alienating themselves from friends, family, and loved ones, giving away their money, working every day to meet a quota or recruit more people. And when the hypnotic euphoria goes away, the money doesn’t come in, or there’s nothing left in their lives to ruin, people sometimes kill themselves.
One obvious “tell” that someone has been brainwashed is that a person will hold a value and its diametrical opposite with ease. Cults condition people to have huge blind spots towards the organization itself, doctrinal contradictions, or contradictions between the doctrine and the real world. So for example you have fundamentalist Christians who both profess an abhorrence of slavery and support Biblical slavery, or the Scientologist who claims to be able to communicate with anyone on any subject but was forced to disconnected from his family and is so collapsed into himself that he can barely talk.
Cognitive dissonance is the main crack in brainwashing and usually provides the means to undo it (although unlike the popular idea of deprogramming, most people actually leave cults of their own impetus). Even under the most total brainwashing, the individual still retains their original values, as shown by the fact that those values come back after leaving. So the issue of one of mental suppression of the pre-brainwashing personality, and of subsequent doubts.
It is therefore no surprise that cults have adopted a variety of suppression methods. By far the most commonly used is thought-stopping; although this is a crude tool, it can be very effective if one desires passive followers. Cults also program their followers to not look at outside information, under a variety of pretenses. They also hype themselves up as the one solution to the world’s problems and motivate you to not want to look at outside information. Loading of the language also makes it harder for people in a brainwashed mindset to assimilate outside information. And when that doesn’t work, there’s always threats, physical isolation, and so on.
The issue of cult is as pressing as ever, but I can’t help thinking that brainwashing laws could be applied to a much wider scope of activities and institutions. Parenting is one obvious example. Plenty of parents use repeated pressure to alter children’s judgment in ways that are harmful to themselves, although most people would call those ways perfectly normal and not directly harmful to the child.
Still, most brainwashing done in cults is not directly harmful, either. The point is not to harm, but to exploit. In that sense, parents are just as guilty of it as cults. In fact, that seems to be a good definition of pedagogy: repeatedly using pressure on children so they “come out right.” While they disagree on the nature of the pressure, whether pressuring children to be “free,” to study hard, to be more “normal,” or to be obedient, the result is the same.