The metaphor of ‘brainwashing’ is best understood as a social weapon which provides a “libertarian” rationale for the suppression of unpopular social movements and belief systems.

The notion of ‘brainwashing’ is an ideal social weapon because:

  1. (1) it implies that authorities are not trying to suppress opinion, as they are not concerned with the content of a belief but rather with the way in which it has been induced;
  2. (2) its applicability can never really be disproved (how is the presence of free will established?); and
  3. (3) it implies that religious devotees are passive recipients of social conditioning rather than seekers of meaning and commitment exercising constitutional freedoms.

The utility of the brainwashing concept as social weapon derives in part from its implication that concern is being directed not at the content of a belief or opinion but at the manner in which this belief has been developed (i.e., via brainwashing).

Allegedly it is not what one believes but how one believes and how one has come to believe which is being scrutinized. Utilizing this rationale, one can apply pressure to religious and political movements and even subject their adherents to forcible confinement and counter-indoctrination without conceding any intention of suppressing a point of view.

Deprogrammers and anti-cult activists assert that the relevant issue is not freedom of religion but freedom of thought; that is, freedom from the insidious mind control to which cults are accused of subjecting their members.

But candidates for deprogramming are generally assumed to be brainwashed simply by virtue of their affiliation with
a certain religious sect. When deprogrammers, outraged parents, and anti-cult activists have their way, adult cult
converts are subject to deprogramming without prior hearings in which they may contest allegations of their
incompetence and without prior psychiatric examinations.

More importantly, a deprogrammee’s mind is considered to be liberated from conditioning only when he actually recants his beliefs. There does not seem to be an expectation that deprogramming might transform a rigid Moonist into a thinking Moonist. It appears that cult devotees are viewed as brainwashed more or less by definition; i.e., formal affiliation with a group and adherence to a belief system is made the essential criterion for determining whether one is mentally competent.

The implicit claim by anti-cult activists not to be engaged in persecution of opinions cannot seriously be maintained.

A sociologist who is interviewing parents who hire deprogrammers told one of the present writers that there is indeed substantial concern with the content of their children’s new beliefs. Joe Alexander, senior deprogrammer at the Freedom of Thought Foundation, has acknowledged trying to convince his subjects that their religious involvement is not “of God.”

Dave Gressler, a successfully deprogrammed former Moon convert, recalls that deprogrammers “tried to prove that Moon’s theology was wrong and a ripoff.”

Whether or not extreme brutality is used, the conclusion appears warranted that deprogramming is essentially coercive suppression of deviant beliefs, and that the protest against brainwashing is in part a protest against the adherence of persons to certain beliefs: Moonist, communist, etc.

The essential subjectivity of brainwashing and mind control notions lends itself to exploitation as a weapon of
repression. It is always possible to argue that this or that monastery or commune intertwines rituals and doctrines in such a way as to lock converts into rigid thought patterns. Somehow it is only foreign communists and
domestic religious minorities who use mind control techniques. This selectivity ought to make one suspicious of
brainwashing allegations as essentially ideological. Indeed, Marxists and radical social critics maintain that we
are all “one dimensional men” brainwashed via capitalist “ideological hegemony” over the media.

The subjectivity of brainwashing notions renders them invulnerable to falsification. “Free will” is hardly a very tangible or empirical concept. In the absence of tangible physical coercion, what shall be the criteria for inferring a washed brain or an imprisoned will?

It is impossible to disprove allegations of mind control. If, for example, one reminds a deprogrammer, as one of the authors has, that many potential Moon converts do not return after sampling a weekend workshop, or that many converts find it possible to drop out of the movement without benefit of deprogramming, one merely elicits the reply that Moon’s mind control technique, which depends on exploiting the victim’s hidden guilt complexes, only works on certain personality types; but it is not therefore any less of a coercive technique of psychological kidnapping. But this sounds like a free choice situation: an advertiser, politician, or guru presents a stimulus and some fish bite and others do not, depending upon personality and social background factors.

While one can never decisively disprove or falsify allegations of brainwashing, it is easy to present “facts” which appear to sustain such allegations. One can cite the fact that sectarian communes are frequently in relatively
inaccessible places and are thus allegedly difficult to leave.

One can present valid evidence of dissimulation and manipulation by cults, especially the Unification Church. Finally, one can report heavy-handed and systematic indoctrination processes and the application of intense peer group pressures to potential converts. But is the presence or absence of free will a fact epistemologically equivalent to whether or not Guru X has a Swiss bank account?

Impervious to strict criteria of falsifiability but easy to “prove” by assembling facts in an epistemological void, mind control and brainwashing are ideal conceptual tools for legitimating repression.

Psychologists and psychiatrists who approve of deprogramming generally tend to typify sectarians as manifesting various psychopathological states such as ego regression, blunted affect, or lack of creativity, and then assume that such effects can be viewed as entirely socially induced. Thus, at a celebrated 1977 custody hearing in San Francisco, Dr. Margaret Singer (who had previously been an expert witness in Patty Hearst’s defense) and Dr. Samuel Benson testified that Moonies they had examined exhibited blunted affect, defective memories, limited vocabulary, deficiencies in their knowledge of current events, and “artificial happiness.”

Dr. Singer conceded that this pattern did not fall into any standard classification of mental illness, but called it a syndrome associated with coercive persuasion, a term which was used interchangeably with brainwashing. Dr. Singer and Dr. Benson’s testimony was contradicted by the testimony of Dr. Allan Gershon, who interviewed and administered multiple tests to the same Moonist subjects and reported that their scores were within the normal range. A valid objection might also have been made to a notion such as “artificial happiness,” as if “happiness” were an objective state rather than an intrinsically subjective feeling (thus, if one feels happy, one is happy, although conceivably one ought not to be happy spreading the authoritarian message of Rev. Moon).

If, however, we take the Singer-Benson “findings” at face value, what can we really infer about brainwashing?

Data relating to the psychological state of a subject says nothing in and of itself about how the subject developed this state. Under certain conditions it may be reasonable to attribute responsibility for developmental states to captors or experimenters, but such responsibility cannot simply be assumed without a context of either a controlled experiment or raw physical coercion without any formal choice element. But even if we were to assume that responsibility for developmental pathological states can definitely be attributed to the subject’s involvement with a cult, this still hardly warrants an inference of coercive persuasion. It is conceivable that conversion to a rigid and dogmatic ideology may have the consequence of reducing intellectual flexibility and creativity. Cognitive rigidity may indeed be the consequence of voluntary conversion to certain movements and meaning systems, and need not imply that converts have been coerced.