I’m currently reading The Rape of the Mind, by medical doctor and psychoanalyst Joost Meerloo. It’s a book on the psychology of thought control and brainwashing in totalitarian states.
Title aside, it’s a fascinating read.
Originally published in the mid 1950s, Meerloo looks at the thought control techniques of Nazi Germany, Communist China, North Korea, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The work is noteworthy because Meerloo experienced Nazi brainwashing techniques first hand as a P.O.W.
Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom.
Meerloo covers all kinds of brainwashing techniques: torture, terror, show trials, isolation, fear, sleep deprivation. But one of the most powerful techniques he addresses is rather benign: the use of repetition.
Repetition works with individual prisoners where the interrogators insist on a certain narrative over and over until the prisoner starts to question their own understanding, eventually breaking down and accepting the state’s version. Interrogators might get a P.O.W. to admit to crimes he didn’t commit, convince him that his country is the unjust actor in the war, or get him to embrace Communist doctrine. And all this by incessantly repeating the lie. Often, having broken the P.O.W., the state would then broadcast the brainwashed prisoner confessing the state’s propaganda for all the world to see.
But totalitarian states also use repetition for mass brainwashing. Instead of a prisoner trapped in a room with interrogators, states use mass media, institutions of education and worship, the arts, entertainment, civic groups, and national and local political platforms to repeat their lies over and over and over again.
The really surprising thing about repetition is that even if people start out knowing the propaganda is a lie, over time most succumb, often without realizing they’ve been subdued.
I’m reminded of the child who just keeps saying, “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom …” until her parent acquiesces with, “What?!”. If you repeat something often and long enough, we all tend to give in.
Sorry, but we need you to die
David Houle is a futurist.
At least that’s what he reminds you in every single issue of his newsletter, Evolution Shift—a newsletter that was gifted to me by a buddy. (Hey, Greg!) Houle is an author best known for his book, The Shift Age, and his newsletter is all about building a Utopic future through science and technology—from a futurist’s perspective, of course. To hammer home his role, he starts many sentences with, “As a futurist …”.
Clearly David knows the power of repetition in establishing his bona fides.
And, lest I seem ungrateful for my friend’s gift, I am glad to read this newsletter. Houle is so wrong so often that it’s borderline sad, but reading his thinking helps me to keep a finger on a different worldview.
Anyway, a couple weeks ago Houle delivered a real whopper of a newsletter. It was titled:
The Sixth Big and Important Thing to Do to Face the Climate Crisis – Reduction of the Human Population to 3-4 Billion by 2100.
The email was the culmination of a series describing how we might save the planet. The boldest move? Cut the human population by more than half in 75 years. (We’re at about 8 billion right now, if you haven’t been keeping score.) Of course, to accomplish this we’d need to have a mass die off, worldwide sterilizations, as well as state control over individual reproduction decisions going forward.
Here are a few words from Mr. Houle (a futurist, I might add):
Why do we need to plan for population reduction?
Well, we know that if we stay on the trajectory we are on, there will most likely be fighting over food, water, land and medical supplies. The current 8+ billion human inhabitants will increase to 10+ billion by the end of the century. By population planning, we can avoid the horrors that will come with civilization collapse.
I guess we’re going to have to break some eggs if we want to make this omelette.
Your agreement is of vital importance
Why do totalitarian states need everyone to believe the same things, think the same ways, and say the same things? Why do they severely punish people for dissent or for promoting alternative narratives?
In short, why do these totalizing states need to control thought?
It comes down to the idea of representative government.
Eric Voegelin in his excellent work, The New Science of Politics, defines a representative government not as one representing the people, but rather as a government that represents an idea, a “truth” if you will. He argues that a government has true power and authority to the degree that it manifests an aspect of the cosmos or of reality. The more it is oriented around that truth and the more it works to order its society around that truth, the more established and successful it is. And, the more agency it can rightfully enjoy.
Apply this idea to totalitarian states and you start to see the problem.
The American founders established their republic based on the Enlightenment idea of individual liberty. They organized the state around the “truth” of the individual: individual vote for leaders, individual property rights, individual mobility beyond class, the individual freedom to pursue happiness, individual liberty to participate in free markets, and so on.
However, Marxist states, like Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union, represented a different “truth”. They built their states on the pseudo-religious belief that they could create the perfect society, a materialist Heaven on Earth, through the power of the collective state.
And so they organized their states around this “truth” and set about to bring their Utopian society into being. This meant they had to remove the liberty of the individual, eliminate economic classes, abolish the free market, and they had to accumulate all power to the centralized state. For to realize Utopia, all would have to work towards the same end and the only way to make that happen was to give the state total control.
But what happens when the “truth” your state is founded on conflicts with reality? What happens when the people are mobilized to wipe out “pests” like sparrows and it results in ecological disasters that kill millions, as Mao did as part of his “Great Leap Forward”? What happens when people can see the opulence of the political elite while their children want for food?
When your organizing ideology conflicts with reality you have no other choice but to brainwash your people—to enforce a different reality. Mao didn’t make an ignorantly colossal blunder! We have traitors in our midst sabotaging the revolution! If you don’t control thought, your grasp on power will come to a bitter and sudden end.
Just as darkness is dispelled by a small flame, so do lies fall apart when exposed to simple truth.
The Nazi state was based on a lie. The Soviet Union was based on a lie. The Chinese and North Korean communist governments are based on lies. And we’ve become so post-modernly cynical that we just accept with a shrug that our government (left and right) operates on lies.
The only way to sustain a state based on a lie is for the state to take total control over every aspect of their citizens’ lives, including control over the thoughts of every single person within those states. Citizens who think and speak the truth are like darkness-dispersing flames; a real and present danger to the totalitarian state.
And one way these states control thought is through the never-ending repetition of their alternative reality.
It hurts to think
Thinking is hard work. This is especially true of the mental labor required to understand the complex issues we face in today’s society.
Take climate change, Houle’s great concern, for example. It’s a highly complex issue affected by myriad inputs: human behavior, Earth’s flora and fauna, changes in the sun’s outputs, and even the expansion of the universe. How we do measure all that? Even if we could, the resulting collections of data would be too enormous for our minds and machines to fully process. Besides, to really grasp the issue you’d have to have fluency in a number of scientific disciplines: meteorology, chemistry, physics, ecology, and geopolitics to name a few.
Understanding climate change is no small task.
So how is it that I’ve yet to meet someone who’s told me they really have no idea what to think? Strangely, we’re all pretty darn confident in our respective positions on climate change.
Now, I know my readers are smart—some of the smartest, of course! But, c’mon guys. Is there anyone on this list, including me, that’s qualified to take a strong stance on climate change? Ask yourself, what do you actually know about it?
I suspect very little. And I include myself in that suspicion.
The same could be said for a number of the big, complex issues we’re facing today. Here are just a few:
- socialism vs capitalism
- the war in Ukraine
It’s likely that you’ve got pretty strong positions on most of these issues, if not all. I know I do.
How can that be? Are we a society of geniuses?
Not hardly. In fact, the science indicates general intelligence is dropping. We’re getting dumber. I wrote a piece on this very trend about a year or so ago.
It’s almost like a conspiracy, if you believe in that sort of thing
And this brings me back to Meerloo and repetition as thought control. Is it possible that a good deal of what we believe about the complex issues of our time is the result of brainwashing?
I hate even asking that question because I know how it sounds. But why is it a given that climate change is a crisis? And why do we accept that the world is overpopulated? After all, there is conflicting science for both issues.
Could it be that our thoughts and beliefs about these things, and many others, are based on our subjection to decades of repetition of state-sponsored narratives?
I mean, think about it. What do we know about climate change other than what we’ve been told? And how do we know that a failure to cull the population, as Houle asserts, will result in global disaster?
The fact is, people have been claiming imminent disaster since 1798 when English economist and cleric, Thomas Malthus argued in his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, that material abundance leads to population growth, which in turn leads to a decrease in quality of life. I.e., More people means worse world. Ever since Malthus, people have been claiming that if the population reaches X the world will experience catastrophic disaster. Of course, every assertion that we’re on the verge of collapse—and there have been a slew of them over the centuries—has proven to be categorically false.
And, yet, we accept it as irrefutable that the global population is a grave problem with existential consequences if someone doesn’t do something.
Conveniently, the someone in question is the state and it’s all too happy to start doing something. In fact, the state seems to be the answer to all these tough questions that we face. Is it any coincidence that most every single issue that troubles our collective hearts and minds finds its solution in the state?
It’s almost like we’re being brainwashed, if you believe in that sort of thing.
We salute you
Maybe I’m being a little dramatic. After all, for most of my readers, we’re Westerners—what could go wrong?
But the modern totalitarian state—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, China—seems to consistently kill its people by the millions. From gas chambers to ideological purges to famines, masses of people have died at the hands of these governments.
We might think, it can’t happen here, and maybe it won’t. But reflect for a moment on Houle’s widely accepted argument: We must eliminate half the current population within a handful of years while simultaneously controlling ongoing reproduction, or face the end of humanity.
Houle’s not saying anything we haven’t heard before. This is a conventional message. It’s a message we take at face value—not because we have data or facts or experience that tells us it’s true, but because it is a message that has been repeated to us over and over and over.
And now we unquestioningly accept it.
According to Meerloo, the formula for the political conditioning of the masses is simple. You mechanically repeat your assumptions and suggestions while diminishing the opportunity for communicating dissent and opposition.
Do that and you can get away with murder.
By the way, if you’re interested in a simple way to fight political conditioning, read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s essay to his followers, Live Not By Lies. Written for a former people in a former time, it’s a powerful exhortation for us today.