I have studied the psychosocial phenomenon of brainwashing for many years, and it is a blood cousin to something I also research and write about — ideological fanaticism. It took a while to see the pattern before me in our own nation, but now that I do, it’s terrifying. The tip-off was the mechanisms for maintaining control spelled out in top-level rhetoric reflected onto widespread public sentiment. Let me explain.
Indoctrination is something we all are subjected to in various ways. We pick up opinions and beliefs, and we may feel strongly about them. That’s actually not harmful and often a virtue. The danger comes from when these beliefs become intolerant absolutes and we wage war on challenges to those beliefs.
The way to seal someone’s mind and keep them stuck in their narrative is to create mistrust above all else. Not just mistrust of family and friends, but mistrust of education, experts, news, and any and all opposing views. The only trusted source or sources, no matter how incredible, are those that reinforce already embedded beliefs.
To bar the door to freedom further, this is coupled with a belief the rest of the world (country?) outside your view is actively oppressing your beliefs, your rights, and are just plain out to get you. There are always people pushing and pulling these things in a free society, but they become amplified in one direction beyond reason. The typical fanatic diet is constant exposure to anecdotal incidents that reinforce our beliefs. This diet plays out as one of the flaws of human nature — superimposing intentions and agendas onto large, amorphous groups of people. Armies of straw men and scapegoats are easy to fear and valiant to oppose.
If you can instill this fear well enough and direct it outward, you get the Charles Manson murders. Do it on a large enough scale, and you see publicly-supported mass incarceration, violent ideological purges, and even genocide.
People have mistaken such crimes and atrocities as acts of hate. But hate is only the adrenaline, not the engine driving them. The real motivation is fear, making a person’s or people’s conscience feel blameless, as it’s the other person or people who are an existential threat. It’s as if those committing these acts have no choice. And the ends always seem to justify the means, especially if the perpetrators are the victors and write the history textbooks for the generations after them.
Let me bring this point home: Ethnic and social and political prejudices didn’t cause and allow the Holocaust. That was all just kindling. The sparks and then fire was fear — fear of losing national identity, fear of conspiracies to influence and overthrow the government from within, fear of anarchy, fear of moral perversion, fear of our children being subjected to a way of life we don’t approve. And at some point, it feels justified to the bone in thought and heart to take or support actions that otherwise would be unimaginably heinous.
People susceptible to cults or radical conspiracies aren’t different from everyday people. The citizens of 1930s Germany weren’t some other species of a lower moral or intellectual breed. We assume insanity in cult followers; we ridicule conspiracists (even the reasonable ones); we think Hitler wasn’t human and everyone else was just following orders because they had to. And we do this to dissociate ourselves from such people — to allay our fears we might become or do the same things ourselves. And once we can insist it isn’t possible, it becomes possible.
But it’s problematic and messy. When you see this happening, how do you pull the fire alarm without looking like you’re doing the same thing, playing into an opposing, equally invalid fear? It can become a game of he-said-she-said. We already live in a false egalitarianism of opinions because of the Internet, where everyone’s view is equally acceptable simply because we share the same access to information and audience. Worst of all, the common man’s seeming inability to discern or critically think makes pulling the fire alarm too early a risk of starting the fire itself.
It’s also hard to call out the man behind the curtain. Love of their beliefs — often confused as “love of country” or “love” of their God (via dogmatic proxies) — prevents them from turning around to see who is holding the flashlight and making the shadows they are being told to arm themselves against. If we are afraid enough, we are grateful rather than hateful of those who, if we look closely, have agendas of power and control everyone but us is willing to see. After all, they are our protectors, and it would break our hearts to recognize them as the abuser. And we don’t want to risk losing a rose-colored promised land on the other side of an ideological battleground.
We’ve covered the weapon, the opportunity, and the motive to capture minds and hearts, but of what use? Once confronted, can we have that “Aha!” moment and snap out of it? Or will embarrassment of being duped make us double down on a lost bet, digging our heels in further, as is human nature? It is hard enough to “deprogram” people in a cult, or de-radicalize fanatics.
Faith in education, experts, the press, even free speech and assembly, have been increasingly eroded over recent years. Today, mistrust is the coin of the realm, bought and sold in daily, 280-character increments. These barriers to allowing minds to change and eyes to open have been built like a concrete wall on the borders of our very souls, separating us even from our own families. How do we get through to voting and fear-prepping citizens before sentiments and Facebook rants manifest as a historic tragedy?
I wish I knew. But I do know the right answer to this question may make or break our nation right here, right now.