GUEST COLUMN Psychological Coercion and Human Rights: Mind Control ("Brainwashing") Exists
David J. Bardin
Mind control exists. Yet misguided academics still try to pretend otherwise. In doing so, they condone human rights abuses. A report by Professor Nancy T. Ammerman sub-mitted last fall to the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department said that cult followers “need” and “seek” what a Koresh offers and that “cult brainwashing” is a “thoroughly discredited” concept. In respectful memory of Koresh's victims, here are highlights of what Dr. Ammerman should have known.
What the Supreme Court Said
Supreme Court Justices Brennan and Marshall described mind control (psychological coercion) in 1988 when they explained “as a factual matter” why “the use of threat of physical or legal coercion” are not the only methods by which a condition of involuntary servitude could be created. They wrote:
[T]he Court does not dispute that other methods can coerce involuntary labor—indeed it is precisely the broad range of nonphysical private activities capable of coercing labor that the Court cites as the basis for its vagueness concerns . . . Nor do I know of any empirical grounds for assuming that involuntary servitude can be coerced only by physical or legal means. To the contrary, it would seem that certain psycho-logical, economic, and social means of coercion can be just as effective as physical or legal means, particularly where the victims are especially vulnerable . . . surely threats to burn down a person's home or business or to rape or kill a person's spouse or children can have greater coercive impact than the mere threat of a beating, yet the coercive impact of such threats turns not on any direct physical effect that would be felt by the laborer but on the psychological, emotional, social, or economic injury the laborer would suffer as a result of harm to his or her home, business, or loved ones. And drug addiction or the weakness resulting from a lack of food, sleep, or medical care can eliminate the will to resist as readily as the fear of a physical blow. Hypnosis, blackmail, fraud, deceit, and isolation are also illustrative methods—but it is unnecessary here to canvas the entire spectrum of nonphysical machinations by which humans coerce each other. It suffices to observe that one can imagine many situations in which nonphysical means of private coercion can subjugate the will of a servant. [United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931, 953, 955-56 (1988). Emphasis added]
That was a criminal case. Mind control also arises in civil cases under established “undue influence” concepts. For example, judges and juries must often figure out whether a deceased person was “unduly influenced” by someone else when he signed his will. The concept also commonly arises in connection with fraud.
So far from being discredited, here is what a 1988 California Supreme Court decision had to say about brainwashing (which it called a “controversial” concept): “Some highly respected authorities conclude brainwashing exists and is remarkably effective. [Citing Lifton and Schein].
Some commentators additionally conclude that certain religious groups use brainwashing techniques to recruit and control members . . . Courts have recognized the existence of brainwashing in religious settings . . . [Others] believe brainwashing either does not exist at all . . or is effective only when combined with physical abuse or physical restraint.”
Yet Professor Ammerman advised our government to disregard the factor of undue influence by cult leaders over cult followers; she said they join voluntarily to satisfy personal needs and are not “brainwashed”—a “discredited” term in her view; she observed only that “the judgment” of Koresh followers “may indeed be altered by their participation” . . . although “neither of those facts constitutes coercion.”
In taking such a position, Professor Ammerman—who claims no background in cult issues—ignored the existence of professional literature supporting the existence of mind control, and documented at length in letters to the Justice and Treasury Departments by American Family Foundation President Herbert L. Rosedale, Margaret Singer, and many other professionals associated with AFF. Nor did she mention that supposedly discredited experts (many of them these same American Family Foundation associates) have sat on panels at recent American Psychological Association meetings on the very subject. Indeed, Professor Ammerman was in conflict with another academic whose views the government sought, Professor Robert Cancro, of the New York University Medical Center, who said: “The absence of corrective feedback from a diverse environmental experience strengthens the belief system through a process that can be described as a form of brainwashing. It does not matter that this brainwashing may even be voluntary, because the operational effect will be the same.”
Lifton and Schein Weigh In
Professor Ammerman also relied on sources which claim that brainwashing is limited to prisoner-of-war or other situations of physical mistreatment. But a cursory study of the literature shows that
this is false. Robert J. Lifton, author of the famous book on Chinese brainwashing in both prison and university settings, subsequently wrote, “Some of the people I interviewed had been put through . . . no physical abuse,” and . . . “thought reform is a complex psychological procedure involving interpersonal and social manipulations.” Professor Edgar H. Schein, of MIT, another respected authority on the subject, declared: “I never attempt to suggest in my book that the system of influence used to change targets had to be applied in conjunction with prison confinement or in conjunction with physical brutality. One of the essential points I attempt to make . . . is that the effectiveness of coercive persuasion in changing attitudes and beliefs rests
on the fact that the target person is physically, socially, or psychologically constrained from leaving the situation in which he or she is actively being persuaded to some new point of view.”
Professor Ammerman's belief that followers seek out the Koreshes of the world really ignores the evidence of active recruitment by various means. How much influence the individual has in recruitment, retention, and control, how much the cult, is debatable, but it is ignorant and unsupportable to claim that there is no psychological coercion in virtually any of these cases. In addition, Professor Ammerman takes a “values neutral” stance to Koresh's relationship with his followers—he may demand “strange” commitments, may hold “unreasonable” or “illogical” beliefs— but nowhere does she see Koresh as a bad man or even a fallible doer of evil. Koresh and his followers all simply had an evolving relationship. This kind of analysis ignores the facts that Koresh prevented children from developing independent selves, enslaved them to his whims, and tore families apart. In the end, Professor Ammerman urges us to take the “long view” of human history and urges us to regard totalist groups as normal and as “widely sought” by millions of people.
To this, AFF President Herbert Rosedale responded: “We do not believe we should take such a view towards racial discrimination, poverty, or other abuses of power simply because the harm is
not great if we take a long enough view and because the number of abusers is great.” (In contrast to her non-judgmental view of destructive cults, Professor Ammerman attacked the Cult
Awareness Network for its role in providing information to the public, and erroneously implied that it provided any information to the government before the Waco tragedy.)
Mind control exists. Some people unduly influence others to a very significant degree. Most American know that. Undue influence arises in connection with fraudulent investment schemes, totalitarian cults, and all too many other situations. The Supreme Court has said that “certain psychological means of coercion can be just as effective as physical means” and “reappear with such depressing regularity.” Yet as April 19 approaches [the first anniversary of Waco], cult publicists and apologists will probably trot out all of the stock misstatements, which Professor Ammerman parroted, including her admitted misstatements. This memorandum provides information to set the record straight, hoping to catch up with Big Lies.
The author, a partner in the Washington, DC law firm of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, is Washington counsel for the American Family Foundation (publisher of The Cult Observer) and the Cult Awareness Network. His essay, excerpted here, was published in Cult Abuse Policy and Research, April 19, 1994 (the first anniversary of the Waco disaster).
The full 20-page report, including appendices, citations, and bibliography, is available from the American Family Foundation for $5.00 (USA; $7.00 outside USA).
Cult Observer, Vol. 11 No. 5 1994