My Book Club about how Propaganda Works is Getting Underway. How about yours?

Cover of The Manipulated Mind, by Denise Winn (1983)

This week I’m beginning a book club which is  entirely focused on the theme of propaganda and the human susceptibility to mind hacking.  Why? Because there has been an abysmal lack of self-awareness on this topic among the general public.  And that’s a shame because the less aware we are of the trickery involved in social pressure and psychological manipulation, the less immune we are to those things. But when you learn how and why people blindly conform to destructive behaviors, it’s like learning the magician’s tricks.  You can get beyond the illusions of political correctness, propaganda, and advertising.  That’s not to say you won’t still be susceptible, but building public awareness can really help cut through and challenge the political correctness we are barraged with in modern life.

Our club is going to read a lot of titles, mostly non-fiction, but I hope also to include some fiction. (The dystopian novel “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin is high on my list.  That’s the book that influenced George Orwell to write 1984.)  I offered a short list of titles in my Federalist article “Ten Resources for Hack Proofing Your Mind.”

But I’ve decided to start the club off reading Denise Winn’s book “The Manipulated Mind” because  that book serves as an overall primer on many different aspects of psychological conditioning, indoctrination, and brainwashing.  At just over 200 pages, it’s relatively short and introduces the reader to many of the theories and scholars who have studied conditioning and social psychology, including Ivan Pavlov, Stanley Milgram, Solomon Asch, and numerous others.  Here are a few  of the questions I offer for pondering if you read this book:

  1. What parallels can you detect between political correctness and the 10 brainwashing processes discussed in Chapter Two? (For example, as used on college campuses, or in the media, or in Human Resources departments.)

2.  Why is the threat of social rejection so central to getting people to conform to an agenda? And what makes some people more vulnerable than others?

3. What do the Milgram experiments (“Obedience to Authority”) tell you about how ordinary people can commit unthinkable acts?

  1. Given the information you gleaned from this book, what qualities would you conclude are necessary to keep a society free?

I’d love to hear about more and more folks starting book clubs like this to jump start these kinds of discussions.  If you know people who are interested, why not get together and start reading with them? Spread the word!

Do you Know the Difference Between Real Education versus Coercive Thought Reform?

Margaret Thaler Singer (1921-2003)

Every college student should get acquainted with the chart below. In fact, all thoughtful citizens watching the spectacle of the zombification of college students – as they protest against what they don’t understand and shout trendy slogans to promote what they don’t understand – should be familiar with the chart.

Margaret Thaler Singer, the 20th century’s preeminent expert on cults, put together this excellent table called the “Continuum of Influence and Persuasion.” It shows how various forms of persuasion stack up against one another.  She lists five forms of influence, starting with the most open, true education, and ending with the most tyrannical, “thought reform” (also known as brainwashing or coercive persuasion.  You can also find this chart in Singer’s excellent book “Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace.”)  Take a look:

As you can see, Singer identifies five major methods by which people can be influenced.  The most open and honest of them all is true education.  Education exposes us to many bodies of knowledge and allows for civil discourse in which students feel free to ask questions openly.  They are therefore able to develop their ability to think clearly and independently.  In an environment of real education, students are respected as individuals with minds of their own.  The aim is to transfer knowledge about our common reality.  There is no deception in true education.

Thought reform or brainwashing, on the other hand, is the most deceptive and authoritarian form of persuasion. The subject is unaware of being manipulated to promote a hidden agenda.  The main purpose of thought reform is to turn the subject into a deployable agent to recruit others to agitate for that agenda.  As you watch today’s student protests, there can be little doubt that they are acting as agents for elites pushing various agendas. When interviewers ask them basic questions about the meaning of their protests, they tend to hem and haw, exposing their ignorance of the subject at hand. Their collectivist mindset tells you that they have had little in the way of meaningful education.

There are various other methods of persuasion that differ in their structure, level of deception, and other factors.  Singer identifies them on this continuum as advertising, propaganda, and indoctrination.  But the main takeaway from this chart should be a clearer understanding of the difference between education and thought reform.

Congress will soon take up reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  Let’s hope that Congress overhauls it.  If education can not get back on the road to its true meaning, its institutions will only continue to be centers of coercive persuasion, not learning.