Brainwashed?: Polygamists & Terrorists

HawkgrrrlAnti-Mormon, Asides, children, Discrimination, faith, FLDS, Government, inter-faith, international, marriage, media manipulation, Mormon, news, obedience, politics, polygamy, questioning, religion, thought 17 Comments

Are teens who practice polygamy devout or brainwashed?  Are teen terrorists devout or brainwashed?  When is a teen old enough to be held accountable for crimes, but not old enough to make his or her own life decisions?

An article in Newsweek this week poses these questions.  What is the real age of accountability?  Are age limits arbitrary?  The article compares two recent cases:  YFZ Ranch raid and Omar Khadr.

  • Adults treated as children.  The article states that the actions of the Texas CPS were based on assumptions that didn’t hold up in court:  1) the original complaint call was a hoax, 2) the assumption of the TCPS was that the beliefs of the FLDS were inherently dangerous (the court failed to uphold this), and 3) the belief that the polygamous women were too young to consent (15 of 31 were legal adults, one as old as 27).  The court found that being “sober, conservative, religious and married . . . doesn’t necessarily make them victims of abuse.”  A case of treating adults like children.
  • Children treated like adults.  The article contrasts this with the case of Omar Khadr, a 21-year old Canadian facing a life sentence who has been held at Guantanamo Bay for six years.  At age 15, he was charged with throwing a grenade in a fire fight in Afghanistan, killing one U.S. Soldier.  His lawyers state that, as a child soldier, he should be protected and rehabilitated as a victim.  The judge in the case has overruled that argument and stated that he will be tried as an adult.

In this example, both cases have completely different outcomes.  Is this evidence that the courts are lenient on pacifists but harsh on warmongers (make love, not war)?  Or is this evidence of protecting our own (fanatical Americans) but not protecting others (fanatical Canadian citizen/Islamic terrorist)?

Both cases are examples of what average Americans might call adults brainwashing teens to accomplish their own religious ends.  Or you could argue they are both cases of young adults with fanatical devotion for a religious cause.

The term “brainwashing” is liberally applied these days and experts question whether religious brainwashing is even a reality.  The term originated in 1950 to explain why so many GIs defected in the Korean war after being POWs.  They were subjected to psychological torture such as sleep deprivation to systematically break down their feelings of autonomy and individuality.  Efforts to prove religious groups, cults or NRMs have conducted “brainwashing” or persuasive coersion have been largely fruitless at explaining the shift in fundamental beliefs for converts.  With children, there is no actual shift in belief since they are raised to believe this way.  So, beliefs we don’t like (Jihad and polygamy) are brainwashing, but beliefs we like “being a [insert political party of choice]” or “the American dream” are not brainwashing.

The term adult is also difficult to define.  Various societies consider the age of adulthood to be as low as 13 or as high as 21.  The majority would put that age between 15 and 18.  What are the characteristics of adults?  A list proposed on Wikipedia includes the following characteristics: 

  • Self-control – restraint, emotional control.
  • Stability – stable personality, strength.
  • Independence – ability to self-regulate.
  • Seriousness – ability to deal with life in a serious manner.
  • Responsibility – accountability, commitment and reliability.
  • Method/Tact – ability to think ahead and plan for the future, patience.
  • Endurance – ability and willingness to cope with difficulties that present themselves.
  • Experience – breadth of mind, understanding.
  • Objectivity – perspective and realism.
  • Decision making capability – as all of the above correspond to making proper decisions.
  • Based on this list, I’m not sure I know any adults.  Maybe Ray.  In any case, each item on this list is more of a subjective continuum than a yes/no.

    So, what do you think?  What is an adult and what is brainwashing?  Are polygamist teens and terrorist teens unable to make their own choices?  Are they 1) victims or 2) perpetrators or 3) adults responsible for their choices?  Were they brainwashed by their religions or have they made a choice?  How can we legitimately tell the difference?  At what age should people be held accountable and considered adults?  Do we overprotect those we see as victims while we underprotect those we see as victimizers?  Discuss.

    Comments 17

    1. Is age 8 old enough to decide to get baptized? When do we ever make decisions that are well informed and thought out? The way we raise our children is an attempt to mold them into the type of humans we think they should be – even if we think the type of humans they should be is independant critical thinkers. Generally, society decides what is acceptable teaching and behaviour – but we often make poor decisions that favour our own ideas without regard to others.

      So yes. According to my ideas, these people are brainwashed into a particular ideology and behaviour that is unacceptable in the world that I wish for my children.

    2. Omar Khadr made a conscious choice to kill. A possible consequences of that choice is death. It seems obvious for child or adult that if you decide to kill someone because you don’t like them, your enemy can make the same choice and kill you. James McDonough’s Platoon Leader tells of a 8 yr old Vietnamese kid pulling a revolver from behind his back, shooting–point-blank, and killing the smiling village mayor who had bowed to greet the child. Both these examples are conscious choices made within the child’s environment.

      The idea of “brainwashing” is bogus. Its liberalized usage has rendered the word to mean “you believe something so foreign to me that I don’t understand why anyone could believe that thing unless they were under a spell by some wicked witch.” I don’t understand why anyone would drink Perrier, they must be brainwashed.

      The environment behind these decisions might help explain why the child did what they did, but it does not excuse it. Call it Light of Christ, conscience, or whatever. We all have some portion of morality.

    3. Are 19 year old missionaries devout or brainwashed? Is it really a proper age to be sending them out? Jesus wasn’t even baptized until he was 30. I never really questioned anything until after my mission. That is when the brain is finally fully developed and one can think critically and make rational decisions. It has been my observation that most people I have spoken with go through the crisis of faith in their mid to late 20’s because they have experienced enough life and have brains capable of seeing past the mythology.

    4. “Is age 8 old enough to decide to get baptized?”

      Yes – for some kids; No, for others.

      “Are 19 year old missionaries devout or brainwashed?”

      Many are devout; very few, if any, are brainwashed.

      (Fwiw, I HATE the way that the term is used and what it has come to mean. It’s been twisted as much as “homophobic” has been.)

    5. From the perspective of a guy who is ABD psychologist (that means that if I ever finish my dissertation, I’ll be a psychologist; not a clinical psychologist, but a highly trained observer of human behavior and motivation), brainwashing has a very specific meaning. 99% of the cases out there do not meet the criteria.

      I think the best example of brainwashing I’ve seen in popular culture fiction is the show ‘Alias’ where the ‘bad-guys’ (hard to tell who that really was in that show, which is why I liked it so much) essentially spent months keeping a character locked in a small room, tortured, degraded, confused, and hopped up and a strange pharmaceutical cocktail until she forgot her real name, and could only remember the name they were calling her by, and the story that they were telling her of her past life.

      In theory this would work. It’s similar to the premise of the Jason Bourne stories–you take a person and abuse them severely until their mind is severely confused and then in the process of healing you feed them a series of believable lies. From a psychological perspective that’s brainwashing and it is theoretically possible. Whether or not is has been done by anyone with reliable results is not well-documented in the scientific literature for reasons that should be immediately obvious (all current journals of research will pretty much refuse to publish anything that has serious ethical violations built into the design of the study).

      As a scientist, I’m going to say this: if there is no abuse involved, I’m going to say it is not brainwashing. A persons beliefs may be severely misguided as the result of a series of lies from well-meaning authority figures, but that is not the same as brainwashing. Now, in the case of certain cults where the person cannot leave, and is abused sexually if they try to, then it may well be a weak form of brainwashing. Or it may be that the course of several years can accomplish with lesser intensity what would take an intense effort to accomplish in just a few months.

      My point is that brainwashing is not simply teaching someone with kind and gentle words what you believe. It requires careful control over their environment and a lot of effort. Exposure to other ideas can ruin that quite easily.

    6. I have to agree that the term, “brainwashing,” is often both misused and overused. That said, we end up using it to describe thought/behavior manipulations that we don’t seem to have a better word for at present. Usually, we use the term when we see someone being strongly convinced of something we don’t think is correct, particularly if it happens in a short amount of time and without an acceptable foundation of evidence.

      For example, when I went through basic training with the U.S. Army, I recognized a number of training tactics which I recognized as manipulative. Yes, I called it “brainwashing” at the time. Many of these tactics were apparently aimed at dehumanizing putative enemies (at that time “the enemy” was identified as “Charlie,” as in radio-speak for the letter “C,” which was the first letter in “Communist”). I later learned from an NPR broadcast that U.S. soldiers have been increasingly unwilling to kill “the enemy” since the time of the Vietnam War, and our military training has quite intentionally attempted to overcome this natural reluctance, through exactly the behavior I witnessed. (By the way, if you really want to frustrate a drill seargent, make it clear that you get that there’s a psychological game going on!) The interesting thing, for me, was watching my fellow recruits. Those who were particularly young and/or undereducated absorbed the “desired” attitudes very readily. Specifically because I recognized the tactics, they didn’t affect me in the same way. Then again, if I had gone on to face active combat with these young men, who would have been better equipped to survive?

      This idea of training applies to other settings, as well, where we can begin to wonder whether the “students” are being manipulated, rather than enlightened. Even during my time as an extremist Mormon, I had a huge discomfort with the Primary program. (Don’t scream “blashpemer!” yet…hear me out.) On the one hand, instructors were simply doing their best to prevent violent anarchy among large groups of children, many of whom hadn’t been taught by their own parents to behave better in public than barely-housebroken animals. Clearly, from a believing LDS point of view, the activities were intended to teach the children true principles, which would bring them happiness in this life and salvation in the next. On the other hand, I saw what I considered manipulative methods, which could teach children to unquestioningly accept and obey the teachings and directives of church leaders. To some, that was a wonderful thing. To me, it was a horrific thing, even when I believed firmly in Mormonism. (If my view of the “training tactics” is offensive to you, I ask that you consider how you might react if you walked in on a Scientology class for small children, being conducted in the same manner.) One of the prominent images of this manipulation, for me, was seeing and hearing children chanting (singing?) “Follow the prophet! Follow the prophet! DON’T GO ASTRAY! Follow the prophet! Follow the prophet! Follow the prophet! HE KNOWS THE WAY!” The gravitas, the repetition, the wording—all of it disturbed me, even when I believed that everyone should “follow the prophet.” To be honest, it always conjured up in my mind the scene from “The Wizard of Oz,” where Dorothy’s companions reach the witch’s castle, and see the soldiers marching and chanting—and that scene always sort of freaked me out as a child. Even if you are teaching/training individuals to know “THE TRUTH ™”, isn’t there a line where teaching/training crosses into mental/emotional manipulation and conditioning? Then again, I’m sure there are many LDS Primary leaders/teachers, who believe they are actually training children to survive a literal “combat” between “good” and “evil.”

      So, while several people here are quite correct that “brainwashing” is an overused, misused term, let’s seriously address Hawkgrrrl’s point, rather than what label she places on the manipulative behavior she refers to. When does one cross the line between teaching/training to what Hawkgrrrl calls “brainwashing?” I don’t think it’s just a matter of observer prejudice. Rather, I think teaching/training is an effort to lead another person in their effort to gather, compile, and evaluate information, whether that information is scientific, religious, etc. Training/teaching can involve persuasion, when the instructor helps the student see why a particular point of view is more correct than other points of view. Legitimate trainers and teachers do not attempt to condition their students into uncritically adopting a certain viewpoint or set of behaviors.

    7. Excellent comment, Nick.

      Given that definition, however, most of what occurs in schools is not “teaching / instructing” but more manipulation. (and that applies to MANY colleges, not just elementary schools) It is a very difficult line to establish when part of the “learning” must, of necessity, include “fact drilling”.

      This type of instruction is the default practice in many classrooms for a reason – a good reason. Some kids simply won’t “get it” in some areas (particularly math) unless they memorize it. Some simply can’t “see the concept”, so they need to “learn the facts”. Also, many kids (most) need to hear something (or be exposed to it) multiple times (at least 7 times, according to most research) in order to internalize it. Therefore, if a teachers is to reach ALL kids and try to ensure that they understand something, it is necessary to repeat it in some kind of drilled fashion multiple times.

      The issue is how that method is perceived **by those who do not need the repitition to get it**. Since it is unnecessary for them, they often assume it is unnecessary for others – which leads to seeing it as manipulation or, in extreme cases, brainwashing.

      That’s how I view the “Follow the Prophet” song. I also hav ereservations about taking it a blind obedience extreme, but it really is an effective way to try to make sure ALL kids remember the concept. My biggest issue is not with the literalness of Primary instruction; it is with Sunday School and/or Seminary classes that don’t add nuance to that view for the teenagers. Luckily, our ward has excellent SS and Seminary teachers (due to a focus by our bishop on those classes as his first priority), but I know that’s not the case in many units.

    8. I am at the opinion that the term “brainwashing” is underused and I know that I am in the minority on that one, and that is fine. When people hear the word “brainwashing” they cringe, but I have come to embrace it in a way.

      Brainwashing is simply the systemic break down and rebuilding of a person’s thoughts and ideals. This can be applied to any institution, or even a spouse. There are degrees of brainwashing, so some people are more brainwashed than others.

      It really depends on what your idea of brainwashing is. I do not consider the specific clinical meaning of the word, as most people do not.

      I always heard the term but never knew what brainwashing was or how it was done, but now realize that it is quite easy to control people by intentionally creating an institution where new people are constantly love bombed initially, they are promised the world, that all their dreams will come true, they are given a rigorous schedule and deprived of sleep and food and leaving the group is the absolute worst thing that they could do and terrible things would happen if they leave. If they do not conform their ideas with the group, the unconditional love is cut off by the group until they get their act together. The institution cuts them off from the rest of the world by trying to control their access to information or limiting their access to information. It doesn’t really matter what the doctrine is, that is besides the point. The more money and time the institution requires of the individual, the more dedicated the person is because they have invested so much that in order for them to be a rational person, it must be true. After indoctrination, they are sent out to recruit others. People can be controlled and they do so willingly because they want to feel part of a group and something bigger than themselves.

      This can be applied to college institutions, Military, corporations, religion and any institution. Some have greater degrees of intensity, but all use the same brainwashing methods.

    9. Zelph #6 – I have to wonder how much poverty plays a role in one’s willingness to accept radical ideologies (even the willingness to join the US army and kill).

      SilverRain #7 – I think you are right on the money.

      Benjamin O #8 – Your Bourne thought makes me wonder (spoiler alert) why he would voluntarily subject himself to brainwashing? Was he brainwashed before he volunteered (or he would never have volunteered)? Because the activity of “brainwashing” changes ones ideologies. But perhaps he was just convinced in his cause (not brainwashed), volunteered, and then was brainwashed to be an awesome, effective killing machine. And forget he had a nice girlfriend back home.

      Nick – your comments are similar to what I have heard from a friend of mine who was Spec Ops in Desert Storm. He is still able to discuss killing very callously in a way that almost makes me physically sick. I think your summarizing point is a great one: “Training/teaching can involve persuasion, when the instructor helps the student see why a particular point of view is more correct than other points of view. Legitimate trainers and teachers do not attempt to condition their students into uncritically adopting a certain viewpoint or set of behaviors.”

      A note on the song “Follow the Prophet” (which is a really really annoying song musically IMO – now I can’t get it out of my head, so thanks for that). We were in Europe sight-seeing, and we weren’t sure where to go partly due to language barrier, so we kept telling the kids “Follow the crowd, they know the way!” to the tune of that song. I told them, “That’s a version of the song you’re not going to hear in church!”

    10. Zelph (#11) :–

      Perhaps it would be helpful to differentiate “mind control” from “brainwashing”. Brainwashing could be the harsher tactics as described resident mind-scientist Benjamin O (and as practiced by Josef Mengele). Mind control could be the softer definition which goes on everyday and in everything and which permeates every organization (including the Mormon Church proper).

      If this were the case, I would have to agree with Zelph that mind control is very pervasive, that most people do not recognize the techniques, and that most of us are subject to being exploited thereby (myself & Zelph included).

      In my study of the magical arts, prestidigitation, and legerdemain, I have come to know certain mind control and thought control techniques which can be used with varying levels of success to manipulate behaviors, attitudes, etc., in something as simple as a common discussion (but the techniques are more successful when the dialogue is “guided”, as in the magicians’ patter during magic tricks).

      I had a friend that spent the summer at Strugis learning “5-step” confidence man techniques. He was able to get shop clerks to give him items without his paying for them. They would think the transaction would natural and valid until a few minutes after he left. Your mind is left in a kind of confused fog or stupor immediately after the ploy. People don’t want to think they’re in the process of being ripped off, so they repress that realization because of the confidence and reassurance exuding from the artist, and they generally cannot come to the realization until after the confidence artist is out-of-sight.

      I have used Mengele-style techniques only a few times with alcoholic roommates that I was about to kick out into an Oxford House (like the you-will-love-me-(eventually)-if-I-hate-you [tough love] psychological trick).

    11. Derek, I see your point in differentiating the two terms to avoid confusion. However, in my case I personally don’t see the two as black and white, but shades of the same color, just one is more intense than the other. It is like trying to differentiate between a cult and religion, at what point does a religion become a cult, or at what point does a cult become a religion and where do the two intersect? That is how I see things.

    12. Try this for a good fit:

      The fit is whether Mengele was himself brainwashed, and as such lacked sufficient mens rea in legal parlance to be guilty of what his “front alters” DID, in pursuing his Master’s goal to subjugate others.
      I knew a lovely Mormon girl 30 years ago, long before I met Mengele, which is a clue  that you should start thinking his death in 1979 was a faked death to allow him to contribute longer into the dark designs of what we now fear as Monarch Programming. Not only might he or his creations lack culpability, legally, but the WORK, Monarch Programming has been pursued voraciously by Western agencies ever since at least, in the supposed (by me) forlorn hope lives may have been saved…but both arguments are specious if you THINK about it. Tim Baber

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