A common defense offered by COG apologists when it comes to allegations of brainwashing is that society would perhaps be the greatest force for brainwashing in existence, and therefore the conditioning people are subject to within the church’s confines is simply counter-programming to the deluge of mental manipulation practiced by world governments and the media.
There’s something to that, and the truth is, we’re all a little bit brainwashed.
Our brains learn things in patterns, which can be very difficult to drop or change. Each day people are subject to myriad different waves trying to alter these patterns into certain ways of thinking. These “broadcasts,” as Herbert W. Armstrong liked to characterize them, come from our society’s institutions, such as the government, media, advertisers, religions, educational institutions, corporations and many other sources. Instead of these messages being part of a massive satanic conspiracy though, it’s just a simple part of being members of a free society driven by a marketplace of ideas.
Everyone is vying for our brain, to appeal to our wants and needs for their own benefit.
Within this mass influx of different messages, we learn the thought patterns most useful to us, the ones that allow us to function within society, while discarding everything else. It’s all about survival of the fittest modes of thinking that allow adaptation to circles of friends, family, the work place and that mesh with what we’ve already learned and accepted within our comfort zones.
Ultimately, our thinking is conditioned by our culture and community and the many competing forces within. We accept the things most useful and appealing to our needs and biases.
But there are key differences between the mental conditioning we experience in broader society and what’s found within specific institutions, such as cults.
The most obvious difference is that of scope. Within society we receive a vast variety of different, competing messages and we have a choice of whether or not to accept them. It’s not always a choice we make consciously, but it’s one we have anyway by virtue of the fact that there are two or more different ways of thinking presented to us and our minds tend to accept one more than another.
Within cults, there is one way to think and it’s critical to accept those thought patterns in order to survive, function and be accepted into the community. Competing ways of thinking are taken away, alternative messages blocked and shunned. The spectrum is severely narrowed as the victim’s shopping list within the marketplace of ideas dwindles to just a few acceptable items.
In broader society, we typically have many different social circles and wear multiple different hats. We shift between responsibilities and identities all the time and if something stops working for us, like a job that’s just making life difficult, we have the option to simply drop that aspect and find something else that allows us to be the person we’re most comfortable being. There’s little-to-no penalty for changing the way we think and what we do.
The confines of a cult remove that freedom of mobility and limit the number of roles someone can play. Changing patterns of thinking, accepting different ideas, not conforming to the accepted language and any sign that someone’s thinking patterns are different can lead to be singled-out and ostracized, which threatens one’s survival within the group. Therefore, it’s critical to accept that stringent, directed stream of messages. To function within the cult, it’s required to accept and understand the ways fellow members communicate and when everyone else is conforming to the same thinking patterns, it’s difficult to breach the fog of assumed belief, therefore doubts and challenges are internally squashed.
Cults despise competing points of view because it breaks the thought patterns they work to construct. Built into their messages is the constant drumbeat that ideas found “in the world” are dangerous, creating a protective shield around the cult victim’s mind against the bombardment of other messages found in our information-saturated society. It’s why the COG doesn’t teach its members proper religious apologetics to defend the faith against challenging arguments, because that would necessitate knowing what those arguments are and understanding their essence. It’s why those growing up in the COG who were exposed to outside influences like public schools, higher academia and secular social circles are in greater danger of leaving the church and why the ministry tries so hard to ward-off those different patterns and temptations. It’s why the COG constantly tells its followers to “be in the world, but never of the world.”
In short, society definitely brainwashes us, but it’s a far more diverse experience that allows our minds to make many choices about the programming we accept than what’s found in enclosed institutions. It’s a difference in spectrum scope, between messages that are broadcast and those that are beamed directly and specifically into someone’s brain. Society allows us to test and experiment with different ideas to find what helps us survive better, whereas enclosed institutions have more stringent rules and higher cultural, social and organizational penalties for dissent.
Society allows us to search for truth amid its Huxley-esque information overload, whereas cults expect people to simply accept their version to the exclusion of everything else.