Every two Wednesdays at Fashions! Quirks! Panic!Luke T. Harrington examines one of the random obsessions that have gripped the public mind in the recent past and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
IIn 1950, there was a war going on in Korea, and it wasn’t going very well for the United States. Grabbing the headlines, in particular, was the bizarre and (to most Americans back home, anyway) inexplicable behavior of U.S. POWs. POWs confessed to long lists of war crimes, pleaded with the US government to end the war, and, in at least twenty-one cases,refusing repatriation.
What could have driven these brave American heroes to abandon everything they had fought for? People looking for answers found what they were looking for in a phrase coined by journalist Edward Hunter: « brain washing. »
Hunter’s description of brainwashing was a mixture of Cold War paranoia and good old fashioned Orientalism, attributing the POWs’ behavior to vaguely defined « ancient Chinese techniques » that broke willpower and turned humans into mindless puppets who would do whatever the Red Menace commanded them. Why Hunter chose to call it « brainwashing » — not a phrase that makes much sense, come to think of it — instead of something more direct, like « mind control, » isn’t clear. He apparently translated it literally from the Chinese expression xi-nao (« to clean the brain »), but the colorful expression ended up making the whole thing sound much sexier to American ears than it actually was.
If anyone can be brainwashed, it is the God of the universe, and he is not. Which he probably tells you. . . something.
Because, of course, in a sense, the North Korean armies Done they have ancient secrets to control people, but those « ancient secrets » were just what normal people call « torture ». And they were all fairly normal torture methods, too: food and sleep deprivation, standing restraints, solitary confinement, and a smattering of waterboarding (which is just ancient and Chinese if « ancient » means « Renaissance era » and « Chinese » means « Spanish »). And while there are certainly heroes out there who can stand up to torture, they are few and far between; studies have found that even normal, non-torturous interrogation techniques result in false confessions almost 30% of the time, so you can guess how effective actual torture is. When people are scared for their lives and unhappy, they. . . they tend to do what you tell them to.
Still, it was the 1950s. Freud had just been dead for a decade and the whole world was convinced that psychology is pure magic, so people took this chinese and communist brainwashing threat extremely seriously. And the lesson we learned from the (highly questionable) reports wasn’t « We’d better end the brainwashing »; was “We better figure out how to brainwash people even better than the Reds do. »
Thus was born the CIA project MCULTRA, which I’m pretty sure is named after an arcade game from the 90s and where the CIA did their best to figure out how to control people’s minds. You know, like the Reds did. But . . . we would use this power forever. Obviously.
It should probably go without saying that the CIA didn’t have a clue what they were doing, so they took the « Throw it all against the wall and see what sticks » approach; unfortunately, many of the things thrown against the metaphorical wall were human lives. The CIA has recruited everyone from its own agents to prisoners, prostitutes and drug addicts – I’m using the word « recruit » loosely here, as much of this has been done without their consent or knowledge – and has tried just about everything on them, from sensory deprivation to hypnotism to electroshock therapy to direct administration of LSD. These experiments yielded nothing that anyone would mistake for results, but there’s no question that they resulted in interesting stories being told in after-hours bars.
IIf this potential for brainwashing was appealing to the government, though, it absolutely was irresistible to advertisers, which is why there was quite a sensation when market researcher James Vicary announced that he knew how to skyrocket movie theater snack sales with mind control. During a screening of the aptly named 1955 film Picnic, Vicary claimed he did messages flashed « Hungry? Eat popcorn » and « Drink Coca-Cola [presumably regardless of whether you’re thirsty or not]” on the screen several times. The messages passed too fast for the conscious mind to register, but sales of popcorn and Coke increased by 57.8% and 18.1%, respectively. Vicar, curiously, consumers are expected to be happy from the results: advertisers no longer had to waste our time with thirty-second commercials! They could be controlling our minds in fractions of a second! The real reaction was. . . unenthusiastic.
Apparently, the masterminds controlling the CIA were one thing, but most people saw advertisers controlling their minds as a bridge too far. Bills were quickly introduced in Congress to ban subliminal ads, and while they didn’t become law, the FCC finally banned the practice in 1974, write“Whether effective or not, such broadcasts are clearly intended to be deceptive. »
The emphasis should have been on « don’t, » because contrary to Vicary’s study, there is no evidence that brainwashing or subliminal advertising ever worked. Not only has Vicary been accused of falsifying his data, he couldn’t even prove that he actually did the experiment; nor has anyone ever been able to duplicate his findings. For all the panic, there has never been any evidence that « brainwashing » or « subliminal advertising » is a thing. The will, as far as one can tell, remains basically free.
I I realize that the various factions of Christianity perpetually disagree on what exactly the phrase « free will » might or might not mean, and I’m not really interested in wading through that morass right now, but it’s telling that even God himself doesn’t seem like it. so interested in curbing the human will in Scripture. The very first thing it does, in the Eden narrative, is give humans a real moral choice. So they make the wrong choice, which isn’t surprising if you’ve ever met a human being, and God doesn’t stop them. If anyone can be brainwashed, it is the God of the universe, and he is not. Which he probably tells you. . . something.
Of course the caveat here is that exercising your agency can affect others, I’m looking You, Korean Communists who used to torture people, which can be kind of a disadvantage, but the good news is, it can also be an advantage. You can choose to go ahead and do the good works that God has prepared in advance for you to do this.
So, yes, you have free will. Congratulations, I guess? Use it for good, instead of bad. Or use it to do something stupid, just to prove you can do it. I mean, I’m not your father.