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American Brainwashing

During the Korean War, a small number of American soldiers, who had been captured by the North Koreans, made public statements in favor of their captors and denouncing the United States. This was labeled “brainwashing” and led to a raft of myths about the “Pavlovian” methods being used by Communists to control the minds of their captors. There were fears that such soldiers could return to the U.S. as “sleeper agents” bent on destruction of America as in the film The Manchurian Candidate. While most of the reports of brainwashing were later debunked, the interest led to some valuable scientific research on how people became vulnerable to having their minds changed to encompass views that were diametrically opposed to what they had formerly believed. One of the most resilient findings from this body of research was that many young Americans in the late forties and early fifties had grown up hearing only one version of the world: a version that painted the American system in nothing but rosy colors and vilified the Communist system. When soldiers had been first befriended by their captors, then isolated from their peers and finally presented with alternative views of America and Communist countries, they had no defense against a viewpoint that was contrary to what they had learned. These findings led to something called “inoculation theory,” formulated most completely by social psychologist William J. McGuire. In essence, inoculation theory says that to prevent a person from being easily persuaded by counter ideas, one must first present some of those counter ideas in watered-down form so that the person can build up arguments in his or her mind against them. In other words, hearing only one side of an issue makes one vulnerable to having his or her mind changed when an alternative is presented.

I’m not worried about Americans being vulnerable to having their minds changed. In fact in many cases I would welcome it. What does bother me is that too many Americans are hearing only one side of issues and are not being exposed to alternative viewpoints. While this could make them vulnerable to persuasion if they were also isolated from their peers, frightened by their environment, alienated from leaders they were familiar with and befriended by someone who wants to change their mind (a situation that may characterize some people who are converted to become “lone wolf” terrorists), this is not likely to happen. In fact, they will continue to socialize and listen to those who agree with them and be influenced by those who push the boundaries of their way of thinking and move their peer group toward an extreme (what is called “groupthink”).

There are two prominent factors affecting how Americans think about their world. First is the relative dearth of real news about the world from our mainstream media. While the bias of the mainstream media is usually exaggerated, its restriction of news is a genuine phenomenon. A great deal of the reason for this is that American media is oriented toward the entertainment value of what it presents because that is what gets readers and viewers, and getting readers and viewers is how they get paid (mostly by advertisers) for what they do. The descent of CNN into a cable network that spends as much time on gossip and celebrity scandal and treats every issue as the occasion to bring in panels of arguing talking heads who slander each other on the air, is a prime example of this. MSNBC and Fox News present biased opinion at many times the rate of actual news and treat news itself as an occasion for criticizing whatever politicians, candidates, or points of view they oppose, employing the most inflammatory hosts and hostesses to present their messages. The network channels, who used to offer dignified coverage of news with personalities such as Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, now spend as much time on feature and human interest stories as they do on news and rarely cover anything that occurs outside of the U.S. unless it involves war, terror events, massive protests, the Pope, or a British prince. How many times have you taken a trip outside of the U.S. and found yourself listening to other countries’ news only to become aware of genuine world issues you had never heard of while in America?

Conventional wisdom is that mainstream media is so weak in the United States because of its control by corporate interests who want to shape what the American audience knows about the world. There is truth to this assertion, but the American news consumer is also to blame for his eagerness to hear information that confirms his opinions and for his lack of curiosity about the world beyond our borders, not to mention his mental laziness.

The second factor that affects how Americans think about the world is the division of much of the American public into opposing factions that occupy positions near the extremes on many issues. We’ve seen what effect this division has on our political process in Washington, which is to make it nearly non-functional. But it has also created groups of citizens who listen only to each other and refuse to consider opinions outside of those favored by other members of their group. Many of these people have given up on the mainstream media and instead read, view or listen to highly biased news sources, many of which put Fox News and MSNBC to shame in terms of substituting opinion for fact. Such sources are full of “revelations,” usually labeled as “what the mainstream media won’t tell you,” and are in actuality either entirely opinion pieces or rehashes of actual mainstream media stories. Conspiracy theories abound and these are easily given credibility by audiences who have only availed themselves of one side on most issues. The extreme opinions gain traction because, just like sensational stories in the mainstream media, they are the most interesting and entertaining. Having exposed themselves to only one side of many issues, the consumers are vulnerable to believing stories that defy reality.

Why don’t those who have fallen into extreme camps on either side of issues modify their opinions when confronted with information from the other side? The answer is that the groups into which people have aligned themselves, in the classic method of groupthink, punish any deviation from or questioning of the group’s positions. Let me name a few positions for which dissent or even questioning is now allowed: If you are a conservative—that Obamacare may have some positive factors that will allow us to overcome real flaws in our private healthcare system; that Israel may be pursuing some policies that are unethical with regard to the Palestinians, that there is room for debate on the issue of whether a woman has a right to choose abortion, that man-made climate change could be a real phenomenon, that unfettered capitalism is causing such a concentration of wealth in such a few that it needs to be regulated. If you are a progressive—that GMOs may offer solutions to some our the world’s food problems, that Israel has legitimate reasons for some of its actions in the Palestinian territories, that there could be a legitimate philosophical debate about the morality of abortion, that trade agreements may be a necessary way to do business in the world, that extensive social programs may have done damage to several European economies.

It is not just that neither conservatives nor progressives agree with the positions I mentioned respective to each, it is that NO DISCUSSION ON THESE TOPICS IS ALLOWED. Furthermore, to debate or disagree on these issues within either group is to get one attacked as disloyal, a “traitor” to one’s side and excluded from further discussions. The result is that not only does the American public become further divided into opposing groups, but also the positions of those groups become more and more poorly informed about anything except their own point of view.

This is what I call the brainwashing of America. I am stymied as to a solution to it. Any attempt to bring sides together meets with hostility. However, America is still filled with reasonable people and they just need to speak up and resist the pull to one extreme or another. I don’t mind extremes when it comes to taking action (so long as it is nonviolent and does not violate anyone’s rights), but the current situation with regard to the American conversation is deplorable and marred by strong and poorly informed opinions held by absolutely closed minds. This is not good.

Reader Comments (6)

I find myself in complete agreement with you, Casey. I have friends with whom I discuss politics, even when we don't agree, but they're not entrenched, and they're willing to listen. I've changed few minds, but I don't feel that I talk with them in vain. What I find stunning in this election cycle is that I've lost friends (not close ones, I might add) among people who identify as liberal. Americans don't want to discuss politics, whereas in every country that I've lived in or visited politics is a daily subject, discussed with great vigor and interest. In the U.S. people regard politics as divisive or, worse, boring. I think we've done a poor job of educating the nation in the importance of elected offices and the people sent to those offices to make laws, enforce them, and gauge their constitutionality. What is boring about something that will affect everything, including the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink? And why are we unwilling to talk about it?

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Thank you Anca. I also know people who refuse to discuss politics or who have ended friendships because of differing political views. I believe we all need to gain the attitude that there is room for honest disagreement about issues instead of demonizing those who disagree with us.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

I find that I have many friends on differing points of the spectrum. My only problem is too many people are unwilling to step outside of the media box, any mention of the media conditioning people is perceived as "leftist crap". It is increasingly becoming difficult to have honest, straightforward communication with people on most issues because their views are entrenched and they aren't open to hearing other ideas. Both "sides" demonize the other-- and both feel they already know their opponent based on rumors presented by media or other discussions they've had. People can no longer separate apples and oranges, or take in facts that are counter-evidence to their own belief system. If you discredit someone merely because they label themselves differently, or vote differently, then the dialogue is closed. I have a lot of views presented in my journal. I had one friend who disliked my political columnist because he's a conspiracy nut and wrote against immigrants in an issue where I published many pro-immigration poems. That was my purpose-- to shock people from their balance. I didn't endorse the views of the columnist, but he provides an interesting set of vitriol and argument that wouldn't be found elsewhere. My Facebook friends list has Randian libertarians, "classical liberals", mainstream Democrats, a spattering of Trump supporters, former Reaganites (whose views I abhor), environmentalists and civil rights activists...needless to say, I am aggravated most every day by my newsfeed.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDustin Pickering

Also, perhaps its our political structure in general making people hate each other. The two party division, the increasingly centralized motif of our governing apparatus.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDustin Pickering

Excellent observations Dustin. I admire the stance of listening to all viewpoints.

May 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

You listed excellent reasons why I gave up my TV. After some three years, I don't miss it. There is so much information available elsewhere, much of it more newsworthy than what passes for 'news' on the networks. I live abroad part of the year, so experience news in a broader spectrum. Foreigners have a great interest in American politics, and quite often are better informed of the complex issues, with greater depth than we are. The Internet is the great equalizer when it comes to information, though often it must be critically filtered, as some of it is bunk. As you say, the best defense against 'brainwashing' is healthy discussion of issues at hand, and to give the other side their say, even if disagreed with. In the case of American politics, much in the news today, the underlying principle is to give voters a chance of the outcome, even if at times we want to hold our nose. That is the fundamental success of a democracy over dictatorship, that the people decide their future. However how messy or chaotic it may seem, the democratic process in the end works out.

May 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Alexander

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