“Brainwashing” conjures up images of restrained captives, subjected to various kinds of deprivation and a steady rhythm of carefully designed information that leads them to embrace new ways of thinking. With varying degrees of malevolence, it is employed by cults, despotic national leaders, terrorist groups, unscrupulous business enterprises and even abusive personal relationships.
There may be reason to wonder if a not-so-subtle use of this insidious process is tilting the balance of our national consciousness in a direction that will lead to some significant and destructive consequences.
How vulnerable are we to misinformation? How much power does misinformation have in shaping our national consciousness? Do the abundant resources of interests who profit from having the public embrace certain ways of thinking really control our lives more than we realize?
Various surveys remind us that more than 20 percent of our fellow citizens believe the president is Muslim, in spite of ample clarification to the contrary. A similar number overall (but a much higher percentage in certain political demographics) believe he is not a native-born U.S. citizen. A percentage as large as many election margins (6 percent by a Gallup Poll in 1999) still believe the moon landing was a hoax staged by NASA.
Such figures testify to the power of carefully delivered misinformation to shape the thinking of a portion of our society. With recent help from the Supreme Court and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, opportunities are now in place for interests with abundant resources to provide a steady stream of information that supports those interests.
Corporations, domestic and foreign, can now contribute unlimited funds without public disclosure to buy the kind of information flow that can shape a public’s thinking according to the shaper’s will – and have the result reported as “the will of the American people.”
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The striking thing about this new level of an old process is that it is not necessary to change everyone’s thinking for this approach to be successful. The percentage of the population most likely to be swayed by misinformation is larger than the margin of most elections, so all that is necessary is to influence enough of those most vulnerable to tip the balance. Then, amid shouts that “the American people have spoken,” a mandate of support is claimed for ways of thinking that have been chosen by slightly more than half of voters in certain places.
The encouragement we have received – even from mainstream media voices – to see recent developments as a major shift in our national consciousness plays into this subtle form of brainwashing. Yes, an election has made some significant changes in the profile of our governing structure, but the percentage that produced the change was quite small – enough, but hardly an overwhelming change of the American mind.
It is at this point that I wonder if we should be most diligent. We have watched in recent months how the power of moneyed influence can shape the vocabulary and the narrative of our common life.
Words like “government” and “taxes” (necessary for our life as a people) become rhetorical demons, and labels like “liberal” and “socialist” attached to any idea produce instant and unthinking rejection. Heaven forbid that anyone sound “professorial” (forgive me for that one). Allowing such a process to “name and claim” our common narrative is a surrender of what we know to be true to little more than a louder microphone.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Richard Price, a British Unitarian clergyman, in 1789: “Whenever people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; …whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
He appears to be suggesting that an uninformed electorate is a great danger to the kind of governmental experiment they were crafting. I wonder what his suggestions would be for a context where a misinformed electorate is the problem.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.