My mother once told me a story about a Catholic grade school class. The teacher (who was a sister in a religious order) was telling her pupils about the evils of communism. In particular, she told them that the communists used their power to brainwash their subjects and tell them what to think. One student raised his hand and pointed out that the sister did the same think to her students. My mother didn’t tell me what the teacher said in reply, but I would like to reply for her. What they do in Catholic schools is not brainwashing, it’s indoctrination. The two words both have negative connotations, but they are as different as night is from day, as conditioning is from teaching, as animal is from man.
What is brainwashing, and why do we find it so objectionable? The naive thing to say would be that brainwashing means causing people to have certain beliefs, and this is wrong because it’s tyrannical to try to control another person’s mind. This, of course, is far too general. Suppose I’m teaching a physics class, and one day I derive the Euler-Lagrange equation on the blackboard for my students. At the end of the lecture, I have caused all of them to believe that I’ve shown them the correct way to minimize functionals. Have I just brainwashed my students in my calculus-of-variations dogma? Of course not. What I have done is not coercion. I have appealed strictly to their reason. With my pedagogic help, they were able to see for themselves the intelligible connection between one line of the proof and the next.
What, then, would be brainwashing? Well, suppose I make a claim to my class, say that total energy is conserved for particles moving in a potential field. Instead of giving reasons for my statement, I tell them stories about how everyone who ever doubted this claim was stupid, mean, and sexually unattractive. I tell them that if they don’t believe in energy conservation, they too will be bad, unattractive people. I show them movies with mustache-twirling villains who go around raping virgins while denying energy conservation. Instead of appealing to their understanding, I create associations in their mind; I associate Newtonian celestial mechanics with virtue. Between these two ideas, there is no intelligible connection. The connection comes purely through conditioning, from the fact of having seen the two things juxtaposed many times.
Needless to say, the example above is a picnic compared to what communists actually did in their re-education camps, which always included frightening and humiliating self-denunciation sessions and the threat of long imprisonment. Sometimes it involved sleep deprivation, beatings, or worse tortures. Here it is even more clear that conditioning rather than teaching is being performed. Rather than conditioning a man to associate two ideas, it conditions him to associate one idea (e.g. that China was better off before Mao) with fear.
There are several things to notice here. First, brainwashing concerns only the manner of transmission of a belief, not its truth. I can brainwash people to accept true beliefs as well as false ones, as my example illustrated. Nor does brainwashing have anything to do with the intensity of a belief or its consequences for its holder. A truth held by reason may lead a man to lay down his life for a cause, while brainwashing may induce a man to lead a life of ease. Also, for true teaching, i.e. indoctrination, merely acheiving consent isn’t enough. The true teacher wants the student to see the intelligible connections between ideas for himself; therefore the teacher positively discourages students from accepting bad reasons for correct conclusions. These bad reasons are false friends that risk short-circuiting the intuition the teacher wishes to share.
Classical moral education was always indoctrination, never brainwashing. The student may read, for example, about the faithfulness of Penelope or the courage of Mucius and he would see for himself the loveliness of these virtues. He would not be distracted by extraneous facts; there was no need to make all the heroes handsome and the villains ugly. This might lead students to focus on the wrong thing. Virtue is lovely in itself even with no ouside associations.
By contrast, most education today is brainwashing. This is certainly the case with movies and television. For example, the evil movie American Beauty tried to legitimate drug use (not to mention maturbation, sodomy, and other vices it endorsed) by making one of the heroes a drug dealer. The writers didn’t bother trying to show how the degrading slavery this man was peddling was actually in some way beneficial–what drugs do wasn’t mentioned at all. They just made sure to make the other characters more loathesome. It was pure conditioning–no reasoning offered whatsoever. Similarly, the movie demonizes people who object to the sodomitical desecration of the marital act. What is the intelligible connection between accepting traditional sexual morality and being a crazed murderer? There is none. No argument is made that one could counter. The intellect is bypassed, and pure conditioning does its work of convincing the dim-witted that Christians and military men are evil. Now, American Beauty was a particularly vile movie, but most of movies use similar techniques. For example, movies and television have convinced most of the young population that Christians are hypocrites and Southerners are stupid. Did they offer any intelligible reason why accepting Christian beliefs leads one to act against them? Of course not. Did they present statistics to prove that these disapproved classes have lower than average IQs or education? Why bother? Presenting reasons would awaken the intellect, lead viewers to ask how convincing those reasons are, and who knows where that would lead? Conditioning admits of no argument. Americans are evil–just watch Dances with Wolves. Every American who doesn’t renounce his culture in that treasonous movie is portrayed as utterly vile. There’s no historical argument made that America’s history is more shameful than any other. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple, and brainwashing like this comprises the entire education of most of our youth.
One of the more remarkable things about the religion represented by the sister in the story is that it so forcefully eschews the conditioning method. Consider the following:
Yes, Jews demand “signs” and Greeks look for “wisdom”, but we preach Christ crucified–a stumbling block to Jews, and an absurdity to Gentiles; but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s folly is wiser than men, and His weakness is more powerful than men.
Brothers, you are among those called. Consider your situation. Not many of you are wise, as men account wisdom; not many are influential; ans surely not many are well-born. God chose those whom the world considers absurd to shame the wise; he singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong. He chose the world’s lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something; so that mankind can do no boasting before God. God it is who hs given you life in Christ Jesus. He has made him our wisdom and also our justice, our sanctification, and our redemption.
–1 Corinthians 1:22-30
Paul is a good teacher and indoctrinator. He doesn’t “stack the deck” by comparing rich, intelligent Christians to uncouth, stupid pagans. In fact, he asks his students to consider the opposite case. He wants to draw their attention to one quality and one only: “life in Christ Jesus”. To see this one quality more clearly, he isolates it, so readers won’t be distracted by irrelevant considerations about wealth, beauty, intelligence, or fame. Paul is the opposite of our Marxist entertainment industry, not only in his message, but in the part of his listeners’ minds that he appeals to. Nor is Paul alone in this regard–for two millennia, Christians have explicitly rejoiced in the fact that Mary, the Apostles, and the saints were humble people of no special quality except for the charity God infused in them.
Again, this is a point about the method of instilling belief, not the veracity of the belief itself. One could indoctrinate, rather than brainwash, in Marxism. One would then carefully avoid sentimentality, as Marx himself generally did. One would argue, for instance, that worker alienation would continue as long as workers don’t own the means of production, even if they are contented and well-paid. The Marxist indoctrinator would know perfectly well that gross abuses in the capitalist system are no rational help to his case. His students must understand that capitalism at its best is still iniquitous; otherwise, his students will not have truly acquired the Marxist insight in its fullness. A non-brainwashing anti-Christian movie would show Christians at their best and then show that they are still bad because of something intrinsically wrong with Christianity. Needless to say, such works have not yet been produced. Until it is, I will suspect this is because Hollywood’s bigotries cannot be rationally justified.