Repost: Brainwashing vs. Indoctrination

Here’s another post from back when Throne and Altar was getting ten hits per day:

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.

7 Responses

  1. This seems a problematic way to draw the distinction. Shame is learned, and in a decent society is an ally of virtue. And it is learned in what you say is the bad way. Multiplication tables are largely learned via “do this or else” sorts of arguments, which would also seem to be brainwashing. Con men use seemingly rational arguments to brainwash. I am pretty sure the truth of what is being taught is, in fact, part or all of the distinction. It’s a very modern sounding argument you are making. Would Rousseau agree?

  2. An excellent distinction.

    In my tangles with the mass media the most striking thing is that ‘brainwashing’ is now compulsory – nobody makes even the slightest attempt to do anything other than brainwash by association, and nobody calls them on it, and apparently nobody notices that it is happening (in the public arena).

  3. @ Bill: There are (at least) 2 dimensions of teaching: methodological, and substantive. Falsehoods can be taught with arguments that compel the assent of the intellect, and so can truths; both truth and falsehood can be taught by brainwashing. So there are four combinations.

    Shame is indeed taught by brainwashing, but it is supported by an implicit reasonableness. The parents who inculcate the shame may not themselves be capable of expressing the moral arguments for the proscription of shameful acts, but in a decent society there will be a parish priest nearby, or some other such authority, who can. Such brainwashing is not wicked, any more than it is wicked for a mother to caution her daughter against cooking eggs at too high a temperature without herself understanding and teaching her daughter about the chemistry of cooking, or a father teaching his son how to use a pinchbar without himself understanding the physics of leverage.

    Rational argumentation to truths is the most ethical form of training. Second most ethical is conditioning or brainwashing employed to inculcate truths. Third most ethical is rational argumentation to falsehood. Fourth is conditioning employed to inculcate falsehoods.

    Learning the multiplication tables by drilling seems to me to be an altogether different sort of thing. That’s just learning a skill; like practicing scales, or target practice, or training for a marathon or boxing match.

  4. Shame is indeed taught by brainwashing, but it is supported by an implicit reasonableness.

    Yes, that is my point. Shame is good if the object of the shame is bad. Shame is bad if the object of the shame is good. The normative goodness of teaching shame (via brainwashing) is dependent on the truth of the statement “the object of the shame is bad.”

    Rational argumentation to truths is the most ethical form of training.

    Surely, once in your life, you have met a stupid person. Surprising to you, perhaps, but half of all people are of below average intelligence. And, in my experience, people of average intelligence have grave difficulty telling a good from a bad argument. The “most ethical form of training” condemns most of the world to a life of moral confusion.

    Showing overt concern for stupid people is a shameful, status lowering activity in our present society. This shame is learned and is evil (but not because it is learned via brainwashing!).

    Learning the multiplication tables by drilling seems to me to be an altogether different sort of thing.

    What if I teach 2 times 3 equals 7? See, the method is much less important than the content.

    Method choice is largely a prudential matter, which isn’t to say an irrelevancy, of course. For example, do you know that American schools often/mostly don’t teach the multiplication tables any more, by drilling or any other method? I’ve had to teach my children myself. Instead, they teach the “meaning” of multiplication, which is to say that they teach consecutive addition. Multiplication is consecutive addition, of course, so they are trying to teach using what you consider the best method. It’s a sucky method in almost the same way that whole language reading instruction is.

    And, of course, it is only largely a prudential matter. Presumably, we could agree that some methods of training are just evil in themselves. But brainwashing isn’t one of these.

  5. Hi Bill,

    First, teaching by appeal to authority is different from brainwashing. It does appeal to a rational principle (the reliability of that particular authority) and not just subrational mental association.

    Also, if one taught multiplication only by memorization, and never, say, added three two times and two three times to show what it all means, that would be extremely poor pedagogy.

  6. I would reserve the term “brainwashing” for one very specific means of inducing conviction, and not use it as an umbrella term denoting all non-rational noetic techniques. As developed in the USSR, brainwashing always aimed at political recantation and re-education, so that a brainwashed subject must undergo “conversion.” American children indoctrinated by years of television haven’t been brainwashed, since there never was a time that they consciously disbelieved what they now believe. The basic technique, as I recall, is to infantilize the subject, place him in circumstances of acute distress, and then introduce a “friend” whom the subject will wish to please. It basically plays on (a) fear of abandonment and (b) our disposition to “fit in” by believing what our friends believe.

    I believe something like brainwashing can occur when young men and women go off to college. They are at first helpless, disoriented, and very much in the market for a friend. If “fitting in” with some new friends requires dramatic adjustments in their political, religious, and moral views, these adjustments will be made.

  7. […] to describe any influencing of peoples’ attitudes by conditioning.  On the other hand, he suggests a case where brainwashing proper is taking place […]

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