Are You Brainwashed?

Are You Brainwashed? February 26, 2024

Are You Brainwashed?

”Brainwashing” has been a topic of conversation and controversy for decades now. I think the first time I encountered the idea was when I heard about some American soldiers who, during the Korean War, allegedly spoke sincerely and publicly against America from Korea where they were prisoners of war. Commentators said they had been “brainwashed.” Ever since then, the term and the concept “brainwashing” has been commonly discussed and disputed.

Now many pop psychologists and others claim that we are all brainwashed.

What is brainwashing? There are many definitions. What I mean here, now, is simply this: Influencing people to believe things without valid inter-subjective reasons. Brainwashing escapes critical thinking. People are brainwashed insofar as they are influenced by outside forces, whether with persuasion or coercion, to believe things they would not otherwise believe. Typically, beliefs brought about by brainwashing are held firmly in spite of lack of evidence or reason.

Are you brainwashed to believe things that are not reasonable, that do not hold up under critical scrutiny, that you would not believe if someone did not fool you into believe by some means of which you are not aware? (You might be aware of the medium but not of the method that is used to bring you to believe something you would not otherwise believe.)

Philosophers like Slavonic Zizek believe we are all brainwashed; ideologies prevail over all of us. We are all under the spell, so to speak, of ideologies (a concept he defines very broadly).

I tend to agree but note that if this is true there does not seem to be any way out of brainwashing. To quote theologian Karl Barth: The greatest illusion is that we can disillusion ourselves.

If possible, though, how might we go about de-brainwashing or unbrainwashing ourselves in this age of ubiquitous subtle disinformation disguised as truth?

1) Get educated. Good education has the effect of teaching persons to doubt messages that are doubtful. If you can’t get a good education, read widely and deeply various kinds of literature. Reading re-wires the brain to think critically. Read, read, read. RIF!

2) Expose yourself to different ways of thinking than your own. You can do this through reading and through watching Youtube video documentaries. But, as you do, keep suspicion in mind. Do not go with feelings. Use reason. Does the message hold up? Does it make sense? Does it contain contradictions? Does it contradict experience? Is it trying to influence you unduly?

3) Practice suspicion, even of your own beliefs. Whose vested interests do they serve? What methods are being used to inculcate beliefs in you? Where do your beliefs come from? Did you embrace them freely without any coercion?

4) Avoid influences that are one-sided and ideological and pontifical, that don’t allow critical thinking, that don’t ever question their own beliefs.

5) Sometimes take a “vacation” from your beliefs in order to become familiar with alternative beliefs and actually engage with their adherents in dialogue. Listen to the best of their advocates. Meet someone who seems intelligent who holds the alternative beliefs and listen to them and consider them, give them the benefit of the doubt and ask yourself “Could they be right?”

6) Avoid “true believers” who refuse to question their own beliefs and who seem intent on converting you to their ways of thinking and who won’t engage in critical conversation about beliefs.

Over the many years of my life I have had numerous occasions seriously to consider critically beliefs with which I was raised. I began asking critical questions early in life. I discovered quickly that I could not trust people who would not engage me in critical and constructive dialogue about their beliefs and who based their valuation of me on whether I agree with them or not. I began to avoid such people. I also made a decision to take people seriously who asked me why I believe things and not to attempt to coerce anyone into agreeing with me.

I have come to the point of seriously questioning, in my own mind, all the messages that bombard me daily in the media, advertising, politics, religion, etc.

A lot of my resistance to brainwashing arose from reading primary sources rather than just believing secondary sources—especially in theology (my chosen field of study and research). I discovered that many of the people who told me things about theologians, for example, had never read them. One example is Karl Barth. I was told numerous times that he was theologically liberal, did not believe in the Bible as God’s Word, was unorthodox, was to be avoided. “Barthian” was an insult. Then I read Barth. I realized the people who tried to brainwash me against Barth had not read him or had read him with a hermeneutic of suspicion that was not open to correction by what he actually wrote. Their minds were already made up by secondary sources (against Barth) and never checked those sources against Barth’s own words.

That’s just one example of many I could cite from my own experience.

Yes, I suspect we are all brainwashed, but I believe there is hope of resisting brainwashing at least partially. Would that more people would join me in such resistance.

*Note: If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures or links.*

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