In days of yore, when authorities wanted to change a person’s mind on a tender subject, like politics or religion, they administered the thumb screw, hot irons, whippings, the rack —that sort of thing.
“Brainwashing” was not a thing. Physical pain — that was the ticket. The theory was that if you administered the proper amount of pain to heretics, they would change their minds, change their religion, betray their king or queen, their friends and family, swear to things they knew to be false just to stop the pain.
Fears of “brainwashing,” as we know it today, started around 1946 when “the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was so worried about the spread of communism that it proposed removing liberals, socialists and communists from places like the schools, libraries, newspapers, and entertainment,” according to a 2017 piece on Smithsonianmag.com.
In 1950, journalist Edward Hunter wrote an article describing how China’s Red Army was employing “terrifying ancient techniques to turn the Chinese people into mindless communist automatons.” He called this process “brainwashing,” and it was “meant to change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet — a human robot — without the atrocity being visible from the outside.”
Hunter’s printed fears gained traction during the Korean War, especially after more than 5,000 American POWs signed confessions to crimes they didn’t commit while also urging the U.S. government to end the war.
“Brainwashing” became a topic examined vigorously by scientists, the U.S. government and the military. Horror stories of brainwashing crept into popular culture with films like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” B.F. Skinner’s “behaviorism” became a means to explain this phenomenon. J. Edgar Hoover’s “Masters of Deceit” topped the best-sellers list.
When the hysteria subsided, the scientific consensus was that the American soldiers trapped in Korean camps were “not sleeper agents” but were “extremely traumatized.” The “ancient Chinese techniques” that were deemed “brainwashing” were the result of “forced standing, deprivation of food and sleep, and repeated exposure to communist propaganda.” In short, they were tortured. Interestingly, these same techniques were favored by the Bush/Cheney administration in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, with a few added flourishes like water boarding, hosing chained naked bodies, and playing loud heavy metal music all day long.
So it strains credulity and debases language when hysterical Fox News luminaries like Eric Bolling and Sean Hannity join right-wing “wunderkind” Ben Shapiro in declaring that “close-minded, America-hating professors” are turning students into “socialists, atheists, race-baiters, and sex-crazed narcissists.“
By reinvesting the word “brainwashed” with its debunked terror, these professional “Chicken Littles” are apparently suggesting that professors are employing ancient Chinese mind-control techniques on guileless students, “torturing” them so they will renounce their inherent conservatism.
Such overheated “brainwashing in the classroom” rhetoric is straight out of Richard Hofstadter’s analysis of the “paranoid style in American politics” — inflate the evil nature of your enemies and then project your own behavior onto them.
Brainwashing believers base their views on three fallacies that, under the slightest scrutiny, evaporate in a cloud of hot air:
n College students are inevitably naive and gullible, putty in the hands of liberal professors. They are not.
n Professors are devilishly charismatic and intellectually irresistible. They are not.
n Professors possess special mind control tools and are obsessed with transforming young conservatives into activist liberals, and fledgling capitalists into socialists. They do not and are not.
Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said: “The role of faculty members is to teach students how to think, not what to think.” She stated that critics “could benefit from visiting college classrooms to see how college education really works.” Brainwashing believers would discover that most faculty want students to “think critically” — to be curious, to inquire, to do meaningful analysis and research by asking the right questions, and to document their answers honestly.
But perhaps this is the deeper issue: If students become inquisitive, they may start asking questions that challenge some of the things they have been taught from childhood. That is a legitimate concern.
People have been known to change in college. If parents want to protect their children from new thoughts, they should not send them to a university.
Universities open new horizons and possibilities for the student. Upon graduation, they have most likely developed an expanded view of the universe, a greater appreciation for the complexity and richness of human experience, and an intellectual foundation for their beliefs.
“Lux and Libertas” is the motto of UNC-Chapel Hill. There is no light or liberty where minds dwell in darkness.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”