Brainwashing should be illegal everywhere.

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.

12 thoughts on “Brainwashing should be illegal everywhere.

  1. Miep July 31, 2015 at 21:19 Reply
  2. Lisa Jones August 1, 2015 at 13:14 Reply

    I would click “like” if I could find the button. Concise, informative summary! Thanks for it.

  3. sbt42 August 4, 2015 at 13:49 Reply

    I imagine governments avoid considering “thought reform” as illegal, because that would require them to radically change many of their policies (military recruitment and training comes to mind, and that’s a major arm of global enforcement).

  4. unabashedcalabash October 13, 2015 at 16:25 Reply

    How does a cult differ from a religion, exactly, except that a religion has a longer history and is more widespread (and usually is responsible for a whole lot more death and destruction)?

    And I agree that to outlaw brainwashing would be to outlaw many (if not most) institutions and let go of many (if not most) dearly-held beliefs about what’s “right” and “natural” (concepts which people conflate for some inexplicable reason). We are brainwashed to categorize, pigeonhole and hate from the time we can understand language (while love is supposed to something “natural”–again that word!–which we require absolutely no instruction in and reserve only for a few special people in our lives). Isn’t this a fundamental part of the human condition? How could we even begin to change it, without a huge leap forward in our evolution?

    • Francois Tremblay October 13, 2015 at 17:51 Reply

      Well, there’s six basic criteria that distinguish cults from non-cultist groups: control over the environment (where a person is allowed to be, what a person is allowed to read, who they’re allowed to talk to, etc), the demand for purity (allegiance to the standards of the group), emotional manipulation, confession, loading the language, and infallibility of the doctrine.

      I don’t think we’re brainwashed to categorize. We do that all on our own, with very little input.

      • unabashedcalabash October 13, 2015 at 19:36 Reply

        So the only thing that sets them apart from major religions is control of the environment?

        I acknowledge it’s possible we categorize naturally, without input; and I know sometimes it’s good and necessary; often it’s reductive and stereotyping. But it’s definitely reinforced by education (over and over again), when quite often it’s actually logic-defeating (as over-generalizations so often are, and categorizing of large groups, however specific, is a form of generalization). It would be nice if people were educated about how to critically challenge all their own assumptions, learned or innate.

        • Francois Tremblay October 13, 2015 at 19:48 Reply

          Well, it depends on the religion, but generally late stage religions don’t rely on confessions (except Catholics I guess), don’t demand a great deal of allegiance, and tend to adopt a more liberal view of their own doctrines.

          • unabashedcalabash October 13, 2015 at 20:34 Reply

            And extremist religions (fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, for example–who despite being sworn enemies are so ideologically aligned it’s laughable)? They often rely on spontaneous confessions, certainly demand a great deal of allegiance, and have a very strict view of their doctrines (lots of fundamentalist Christians think all non-Christian heathens will die in a fiery storm when Jesus comes back for the rapture, unless they’re part of the lucky saved and last-minute converted, that is). I just think extremist religions are equally dangerous, if they don’t force members to live in one locale. And Catholicism is pretty rigid about its doctrines too (what about birth control for example? Its policies and preachings on birth control have led to such an increase in the AIDS crisis in Africa and the teen pregnancy/poverty crisis in Latin America). And obviously that’s just in modern times, the Catholic church was responsible for so much genocide in the past…I understand what you mean about cults, but personally I don’t think it’s that useful to differentiate so much between cults and (damaging, controlling) religions, which have more influence and are more dangerous, IMO. And just as based on story-telling rather than any form of logic whatsoever. To me the most dangerous religions are just cults with a broad fan base and even more insidious and successful methods of indoctrination. But that’s my opinion (and I know they don’t outwardly meet all the criteria of what constitutes a cult, so it’s an opinion not based in someone else’s definition…I just don’t agree with the definition).

            • Francois Tremblay October 13, 2015 at 21:03 Reply

              The reason why we need to distinguish them is because other organizations can also be cult without being a religion or very religious (e.g. Amway is a cult, Scientology is a cult, the military is a cult). There is a need to distinguish between a destructive group, which can really pertain to anything (it’s the structure that matters), and a religious group with a religious doctrine that’s clearly distinguishable from anything else.

              • unabashedcalabash October 13, 2015 at 21:12 Reply

                Ah, okay, I can understand that. So fundamentalist religions are merely one type of cult by that definition. (I was thinking more of the popular definition of a cult as a small, loony group run by a charismatic, brainwashing leader or leaders that claims it’s a new type of religion, including the magical thinking, quasi-religious beliefs of the self-help cults).

                I agree we should broaden the definition of cult to include something like the military, definitely. (Most people wouldn’t agree it’s a cult, but I absolutely do).

  5. unabashedcalabash October 13, 2015 at 20:35 Reply

    *even if they don’t force members to live in one locale…

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