Brainwashing With A Light Touch

I’ve been reading Kathleen Taylor’s book “Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control” lately, and have learned some interesting things which I think are relevant to the project of understanding Confucius and Chinese philosophical thought in general. According to Taylor, the origin of the term “brainwashing” comes from (guess what!) the Chinese term xi nao, which described a process of “thought control” used by the Chinese Communists, and which US captives were subjected to during the Korean War.

This revelation prompted me to write this post, as I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately. In a post a few days ago, I talked about the difference between Aristotelian “virtues” and Confucian “dispositions” (for lack of a better term) as turning on the lack of reason as necessary support for Confucius. What is important for Confucius is that one have certain dispositions, not that one have them supported by any particular reasons. This, of course, raises the question of how one comes to gain dispositions one does not already have. The Analects and other Confucian literature is deeply concerned with this. It is the central question: how do we cultivate good dispositions? For Confucius, gaining such dispositions is a complex task, and requires surrounding oneself with others who have the desired dispositions, being open to instruction and deferent to one’s superiors, avoiding people without the desired dispositions, and strictly adhering to ritual (li), which includes integrating oneself fully into the community–becoming ren, (remember Analects 12.1–ke ji fu li wei ren). In addition, Confucius seems to think that it is helpful to have a ruler with good dispositions in order to cultivate these in the people. Many passages in the Analects attest to the moral importance of the ruler. He is to act as the “pole star” around which others orbit, setting an example for others. Indeed, Confucius says that if the ruler is virtuous, the people will simply become so, with no particular effort on the part of the ruler. It is the de of the good ruler which causes the people to rectify their own behavior, rather than any actions the ruler takes.

Confucius speaks similarly about how one manages to gain ren (“humanity”). Analects 4.1, for example, suggests that li ren (“being in the vicinity of ren) is instrumental to gaining ren. How does this process work? It seems to me that in both cases (being in the midst of ren and the ruler as moral example) what is working here is a kind of psychological habituation. This is a well known phenomenon in psychology–and even us non-psychologists know that we tend to be like the people we run with. We always advise the addict to cut their old ties and surround themselves with people who avoid their drug of choice and are supportive of their new lifestyle. This is also the case with moral cultivation, for Confucius. We might take the Analects to be recommending a kind of moral rehab. And the moral rehab, like its substance abuse cousin, isn’t in the business of reasons.

So what’s really going on here? I think that the practice of “brainwashing” offers us a useful analogy. Robert Lifton, in his book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism”, describes what he sees as eight indicators of thought control regimens, carried out by totalitarian groups. All eight of them seemed very familiar as recommended to some extent by most of the classical Chinese philosophers I’ve studied. But three of Lifton’s indicators in particular struck me as very Confucian:

mystical manipulation–evoking certain patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that they seem to be spontaneous…the demand for purity–the belief that elements outside the chosen group should be eliminated [or avoided] to prevent them from contaminating the minds of group members…sacred science–viewing the ideology’s basic dogmas as both morally unchallengeable and scientifically exact, thus increasing their apparent authority…” (from Taylor).

With some change in wording, these principles could have come right out of the Analects. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the term ‘brainwashing’ originated with Chinese practices. The ancients endorsed it. We might call what sages like Confucius advocated as “Brainwashing with a Light Touch.” Certainly Confucius would have thought something had gone wrong if one had to resort to torture or other harsh methods in order to “reform one’s thought”, but it is not so clear that he would have rejected the basic methods of brainwashing in order to bring about good dispositions. It is, after all, in the Confucian Xunzi (a better Confucian than Mencius, I think), where we see a great deal of “expedient means” style teaching, which becomes even more apparent in the work of Xunzi’s most brilliant student and (I think) the only one who truly realized the inherent power of the Confucian “method” (even though he clearly ignored other bits of Confucian teaching). It’s always seemed to me that “brainwashing” is an extreme version of habituation anyway, in which the process of habituation is sped up through a variety of means.

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