Brainwashing is a term which, if people think about it at all, is solely associated with cults. And people’s idea of cults is still vastly underdeveloped, but that’s another issue. In this, I want to concentrate on the topic of brainwashing as it relates to the family unit.
It may seem bizarre to people for me to associate brainwashing with families. Brainwashing involves taking a human being with their own values and beliefs, and replacing those with the cult’s values and beliefs. This cannot happen with children because, as childism tells us, children do not have thoughts of their own, and when they do, they are trivial and irrelevant.
So I understand if people who do not already agree with me about the harms of childism also do not agree with the premise of this entry. But from the anti-childism perspective, I think we can say that children can be brainwashed. After all, children do have their own values and beliefs, and they are not irrelevant. They may be irrelevant from the perspective of a parent who seeks to impose the alignment paradigm on their own children, but they are not irrelevant to the child, or to anyone who is on the side of the child. The brainwashing is most obvious in the case of religion, but I think we should seriously examine brainwashing from the framework of the family unit as a whole.
The most well-known model of brainwashing (or as it’s called academically, thought reform) is the BITE model by cult researcher Steve Hassan, which is composed of Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control.
Behavior control includes everything that can be done to regulate people’s behavior: control where and how people live, their finances, their sleep, their diet, their leisure time, instilling obedience to strict rules, demanding permission for any activity not directly relevant to the group, and so on. This is directly relevant to the extreme control that parents have over their children’s lives. Parents do decide on where and how children live, as well as everything they do, especially at an early age (the time where most child indoctrination takes place). They do so operating under the unspoken assumption that the child is their property and that therefore they have the right to make these decisions. This is not much different from the assumption that the cult leader knows what’s best for his followers because he is “enlightened,” especially since adults believe they have “intelligence” and children do not.
Information control includes deception, minimizing access to outside information, encouraging spying on other members, and extensive use of information generated within the group. Many of these don’t really apply to the family unit, as family units don’t generate media of their own, but parents do extensively control the information that their children are exposed to, under the pretense that “children can’t understand.” Parents will also try to minimize children’s access to information they judge to be counter to their objectives.
Thought control includes requiring members to internalize group doctrines, the use of loaded language, thought-stopping techniques, the rejection of critical thinking and questioning, and the labeling of alternative belief systems as evil. I think that, while parents do demand that the child internalize the parents’ beliefs, they generally are so confident in their ability to control the child that they will not usually care much for controlling its thoughts. The main exception would be parents who are fanatical about some particular ideology (religious, political, or whatever) and who cannot stand the idea of their children thinking differently.
Emotional control includes labeling certain emotions as evil or selfish, emotion-stopping, victim-blaming, promoting feelings of guilt and fear, and inducing phobias about disobedience or leaving. I’d say most of these are also things “normal” parents do to children, especially young children. While we think it’s wrong for adults to do this to each other, we see nothing wrong with making children feel guilt for not doing or believing what their parents want them to, making children fear punishment, blaming children for their own abuse, or trying to censor their emotions when they make us uncomfortable.
All in all, I would say that the family unit definitely fulfills the behavior control criterion, fulfills the information control and emotional control criteria to some extent, and do not universally fulfill the thought control criterion (although some family units do fulfill it as well). So, are family units also thought reform groups? Yes, insofar as their doctrine is the alignment paradigm (i.e. that children must be made to conform to the requirements of “success”). Families brainwash their children to follow the paradigm and believe in it unquestioningly, at the expense of their own values and desires. Of course, many other families brainwash their children in many other things, some of which are deemed necessary for the child to be “normal” and therefore more likely to be “successful” (e.g. gender, religion, nationalism, “intelligence,” to name only those)
Now, although brainwashing is perhaps the most salient attribute of cults, we cannot say that the family structure is itself a cult, simply because we evaluate cults by comparing them from their surrounding society. Since families are defined as “normal” by society, we therefore cannot evaluate them as cults or non-cults. The tests that we have simply don’t work. However they do share many attributes of cults. For example, Robert Jay Lifton frames the most important characteristics of cults as:
* A charismatic leader.
* Coercive persuasion or thought reform.
* Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
The family unit definitely fulfills at least two of these three requirements. Western families nowadays do not generally exploit their children economically or sexually, although many children are still being exploited in those ways (not to mention other forms of psychological, religious, or ego exploitation). Some kinds of families definitely qualify as cults (for instance, I don’t think any expert quibbles about calling the Quiverfull movement a cultish movement). Others, not as much. So I would prefer to shelve the issue of “are family units cults?” and keep the conclusion that “whatever else they are, family units are thought reform groups.”
If you look at families as social units that serve the purpose of molding children to the purposes of society, then you could argue that being a thought reform group is actually the main purpose of the family unit. It certainly seems uniquely suited for that purpose. And it seems uniquely unsuited for its theoretical purpose of helping children grow up and mature in a healthy manner. And as I’ve said before, if the way an institution is organized doesn’t seem to fit its theoretical purpose, then look for what it seems to be fit for.