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Pills of logic: The myth of 'brainwashing is a myth' debunked in two moves

Luigi Corvaglia

Massimo Introvigne (1993), who proposes a dichotomy between a secular anti-cult movement and a religious counter-cult movement, has found the most ingenious way to propose the concept that anti-cultists believe in a magical phenomenon, that is mind manipulation. Namely, he combines the division 'secular-religious' with a division into 'rationalist' and 'post-rationalist' movements. Rationalists, according to the author, are those who believe that 'cults' recruit their followers through deception. Deception is not supernatural, ergo rational. So there will be both anti-cult and counter-cult rationalist movements. Introvigne writes:

Anti-cultists emphasize the secular features of the fraud (e.g., "bogus" miracles) and the counter-cultists its religious elements (e.g., "manipulating" the Scriptures), but the fraud explanation remains prominen

Instead, movements that imagine superhuman or supernatural intervention to explain cult success are called post-rationalist. Post-rationalist counter-cult movements theorise the intervention of Satan. The devil is the supernatural explanation favoured by the religious. Regarding secular critics, whom he calls anti-cults, the author writes:

For their secular counterparts of the anti-cult movement, "cultists" have the more-than-human power of "brainwashing" their victims, but, as it has been noted, "brainwashing" in some anti-cult theories appears as something magical, the modern version of the evil eye

An extraordinary coup de théâtre! First we are presented with a dichotomy that is simplistic but loaded with meaning. This is then articulated in a further division that produces four boxes: two for the rationalists and two for the post-rationalists, as if there were two floors of a building in which one flat is occupied by religious people and one by secularists. Introvigne describes the tenants of the first floor, the rationalists, as very similar because they use explanations of the same kind; but he claims to perform the same operation with the tenants of the second floor, the supposed post-rationalists, who do not resemble each other in any way. Only a very low critical alertness can let this analogy pass. Satan's intervention is indeed a supernatural idea, mind manipulation a scientific theory. It is true that neither hypothesis is universally accepted, but the first is not because it is not falsifiable according to Popper's definition, while the second is up for debate precisely because it is falsifiable; therefore it is a scientific hypothesis.

Most remarkably, however, the normal logical processes are reversed in the description presented here. Instead of arriving at the conclusion that the manipulation theory is irrational through a series of successive logical steps, the discourse merely spins the argument by setting this irrationality as a premise! Thus a tautology is realised that cannot prove anything.

This kind of mind game is made possible by the vague presentation of the concept of undue persuasion and by the malicious depiction of manipulation as a kind of magical technique as seen in the film 'The Manchurian Candidate'. No one believes in the induction of a human automaton state.

Let us start with the concept of undue persuasion. We often hear that anti-cults want to limit something natural, necessary and all-pervasive in every human relationship, namely persuasion. The biggest mistake in the discussion on this topic is to define persuasion as a construct consisting of only one dimension. It is necessary to introduce another dimension that is not taken into account, namely the dimension of the persuader's interest. This is a construct that we can schematise on an axis whose two poles are egoism (self-interest) and altruism (interest in the other). The introduction of this new dimension greatly expands the range of connotations and expressions of persuasion (Corvaglia, 2019). These can be mapped spatially by crossing two axes in the tradition of circumscribed models commonly used in psychology (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 (graphic processing by Spike robinson)

If we place persuasive engagement on the horizontal axis and attitude towards one's own personal benefit on the vertical axis, we get four quadrants. If we imagine persuasive engagement (or work of influence) growing to the right along the horizontal axis and selfish motivation growing from the bottom up along the vertical axis, the quadrants in the left half of the picture represent the area of minimal persuasive engagement. We call this the area of disengagement or non-influence. In fact, the combination of high egoism and low influence on the other (upper left quadrant) leads to indifference, which is the negative version of disengagement ('I do not control you because I do not care'). Then there is another quality of disengagement, which we might call 'altruistic disengagement', which is an expression of respect for the other ('I do not control you because I respect you'). We see this illustrated in the left quadrant below. The right-hand side of the figure is the area of influence, for it describes the work of persuasion, both benign and malign. The former is the combination of selflessness and concern for the other. It is the quadrant of education or care (below). Parental education, which is directed towards the education of the offspring, but also the care of the educators, are expressions of this. The various forms of proselytism and religious or political education of groups sincerely directed towards social or spiritual care and improvement also find their place in this benevolent quadrant.

The upper right quadrant, created by the combination of high persuasion and self-interest, is the area of control. This is where the various forms of conversion and indoctrination aimed at mental control and membership of closed, totalitarian groups are located. This is the quadrant that encompasses the behaviour that can be called 'undue persuasion'. This self-serving persuasion can be assigned the term mind manipulation, which can be understood as a metaphor for this conversion aimed at exploitation. At the same time, mind manipulation is the use of persuasion techniques that are not specific to totalitarian cults to achieve this goal. This drops any argument of 'you want to limit persuasion'.

Finally, the portrayal of mind control as a magical technique serves to paint the image of the person who denounces undue persuasion as someone who spreads superstition detached from any scientificity. Ultimately, those who question the 'magical' idea of mental manipulation, in good or bad faith, are fighting a non-existent enemy. A strategy known as the 'straw man argument'. It is a trick used by those who want to win an argument without arguing about its content. It works by attributing an argument to the opponent that the opponent never made. The thesis, of course, must not only be false, but also patently absurd, grotesque or ridiculous and therefore easily refuted. In the case of the apologists, the puppet is 'brainwashing'. No one has ever argued this point. Not as they describe it. What constitutes an abusive and totalitarian group is not some magical technique, but the deliberate building of a system to select and lead followers in slow and gradual steps, playing on guilt and shame (Corvaglia, 2020). This may not be 'brainwashing', but it is certainly manipulation, certainly undue persuasion, because it is aimed at exploitation. This cannot be denied by claiming that it is a myth that has been disproved by science. We are talking here about mechanisms known to neuroscience, social psychology, behavioural economics by Kahneman (1979, 2011) - who won a Nobel Prize for revealing the systematic errors (biases) and irrational heuristics of our brains used by marketing and propaganda - and cognitive linguistics by Lakoff (2004), which emphasises the persuasive nature of language. As Zimbardo (2002) wrote as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in a well-known editorial,

Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes. It is neither magical nor mystical, but a process that involves a set of basic social psychological principles.Conformity, compliance, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, guilt and fear arousal, modeling and identification are some of the staple social influence ingredients well studied in psychological experiments and field studies.

Anyone who denies this must be very ignorant or very malicious.

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