AntiCult Brainwashing Ideology as Totalism by Dick Anthony

anonymous anticult protester
Does the AntiCult Movement Have a Totalist Ideology of Their Own?

Excerpt from the Book “Misunderstanding Cults” by Robert Zablocki                  

“There remains one additional finding of research upon new religions, which, to my mind, the totalitarian influence approach accounts for more convincingly than does the brainwashing explanation. It is well established that a certain percentage of ex-members of new religions, primarily those who have some involvement in the anticult movement, view themselves as formerly having been brainwashed and thus as formerly having converted and remained committed to a new religion for some time against their will. On the other hand, former members of new religious movements who do not become affiliated with the anti­ cult movement tend not to view themselves as having been brain­washed. (See Dawson, this volume, for an overview of the research literature on this topic.)

“As we have seen, brainwashing is an interpretive rather than an empirical concept; it is not falsifiable, and cannot be conclusively dis­ confirmed on empirical grounds.42 This fact is consistent with the find­ing that people may be exposed to the same empirical situation – conversion to and membership in a particular new religious movement – and yet radically disagree about whether they were brainwashed or not, and also about whether their membership in the religion was intentional or against their will.

On these facts, both authors whose subject is brainwashing and NRM scholars critical of the brainwashing explanation agree. How­ever, they explain them differently. NRM scholars view these findings as an indication that the brainwashing claims of ex-members result from their socialization into the anticult movement and are adopted as an exculpatory mechanism for re-entering mainstream institutions without being blamed for having rejected them in the first place. Brainwashing authors adopt various explanations for defending the scientific accuracy of the brainwashing claims of some ex-members; for example, some members of the same group were brainwashed and some were not, or ex-members associated with the anticult movement have learned to understand their past memberships correctly, whereas those not associated with it remain in denial about why they were members in the first place.

However, I would suggest yet another way of viewing this data about discrepant interpretations of responsibility for former member­ ship in new religions. This approach is more consistent with the one sketched above advocated by new religious scholars than it is with the one offered by brainwashing authors, but it integrates the NRM reso­cialization explanation with the totalitarian influence tradition. My idea is that the anticult movement itself, and the brainwashing ideol­ogy which rationalizes it, have many of the characteristics that the totalitarian influence tradition describes as characteristic of totalistic organizations and ideologies.

For instance, like other totalitarian ideologies, brainwashing formu­lations are highly dualistic; that is, they divide the world into their ver­sion of the saved and the damned. Only non-brainwashed people are really people, whereas brainwashed people are non-people with shadow selves because they lack the essential characteristics of authentic personhood, that is, rationality and free will. (Erikson refers to this ten­dency of totalistic ideologies to dualistically divide humanity into peo­ple and non-people as ‘pseudo-speciation,’ a terminology Lifton also sometimes adopts.)

Other totalistic characteristics of anticult brainwashing ideology and the social movement for which it provides a dualistic worldview include

(1) a bias in favour of cultural uniformity and a definition of alternative worldviews as heretical, irrational and unworthy of respect (see Langone 1986; Singer 1976, 1984, Anthony 1990, Anthony and Robbins 1995a);

(2) attempts to enforce a uniform worldview within the culture by extending state power and evading the absolute protec­tion of freedom of religious belief, and

(3) willingness to use physical force to suppress heretical beliefs (e.g., forcible deprogrammings, con­servatorships, etc.). (Lifton himself has suggested that at least some of these practices and beliefs within the anticult movement are totalistic (Lifton 1987: 219).

Hunter’s original formulation of the brainwashing idea was quite explicit about this pseudo-speciation characteristic of the brainwash­ing ideology, describing brainwashed individuals as insects or machines rather than genuine people. In their published formulations, brainwashing authors tend to be more restrained in making these assertions, qualifying them in various ways to escape criticism. But even in such ambiguous publications, the robot or zombie imagery tends to leak through, although often in modified form, as in Zablocki’s claim that brainwashed people are characterized by ‘glassy eyes’ and a ‘hollow beaming smile’ (1980: 332), and that while under­going the brainwashing process converts to new religions ‘resemble zombies or robots’ {1998a: 232).”

“If I am correct about brainwashing ideology being a form of totalitar­ian influence, it would presumably serve the function of ministering to a polarized self-sense and curing identity confusion by enabling converts to it to shift responsibility for undesirable aspects of their person­alities and former behaviour onto a scapegoated contrast category, in this case the new religious movement of which they were formerly a member. As we saw above, Erikson described those individuals char­acterized by totalism as having a predisposition to undergo ‘all or nothing emotional reorganization’ of a dualistic type, and thus they tend to be relatively fickle with respect to their allegiances.”

“In addition, much research in the totalistic influence tradition has indicated that those with totalistic/authoritarian personal characteris­tics tend to be highly ambivalent towards authority even while they are conforming to its demands. What better way for a totalistic person who has affiliated with the anticult movement to act out the hostile pole of such ambivalence than by suing their former authority figures and reference group.”

“Of course, because totalism is a characteristic of individuals as well as groups, it is quite possible for one reason or another for a totalistic person to be a member of a non-totalistic group. Given the tendency of totalistic persons to undergo all or nothing emotional reorganization, and given the irrefutable, non-falsifiable character of brainwashing allegations, it is quite likely that at least some of the legal actions based upon anticult brainwashing formulations are brought by a totalistic person against a non-totalistic group. My impression is that this has been true in a number of the cases in which I have served as an expert or consultant.”

“As I have said above, even in those cases in which a totalistic person is suing a totalistic group, from the totalitarian influence perspective the essential premise of such actions (i.e., involuntary conversion and commitment) is not really present. Consequently, freedom of belief and practice should be protected by constitutional safeguards, even when it is totalistic or authoritarian belief and practice that is at issue. This is all the more obvious when it is realized that totalism/ authoritarian­ism, either that of an individual or of a group, is not an either/or characteristic, and that almost any human organization or individual is totalistic to some degree and in some circumstances.”

From Chapter 6: Tactical Ambiguity and Brainwashing Claims

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