In 1998, in the academic journal Nova Religio, sociologist Benjamin Zablocki wrote, “Many scholars deny that brainwashing exists and consider its use as a social science concept to be epistemologically fraudulent. Others make grandiose claims for the brainwashing conjecture, often using it to account for virtually everything about human behavior in high-demand religious organizations. Neither of these approaches is helpful.”
Furthermore, in her 2004 book Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, Janja Lilich wrote, “Brainwashing does not occur in every cult, and it can occur in other contexts.”
So brainwashing is a viable concept, and the context for brainwashing does not have to be a cult.
What does this have to do with anything?
Hank Hanegraaff said brainwashing has been “utterly discredited.”
While Zablocki wants to qualify and consider the use of the term “brainwashing,” he certainly does not believe the concept has been “utterly discredited,” to use Hanegraaff’s words.
Let me back up.
Late last year, after MSNBC aired a documentary suggesting that Teen Mania’s Honor Academy used mind control techniques, Hank Hanegraaff came to the youth organization’s defense. (Read a collection of related posts here.)
In his defense of Teen Mania, after the documentary aired, Hanegraaff said, in part, “Equally significant is the fact that cult mind control as a sociological model has been utterly discredited. If brainwashing techniques did not work in the 20th century reeducation camps of communist China, it is sophistry to suppose it to be effectively employed in the ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of A Lifetime) weekend retreat of TMM’s Honor Academy.”
His use of the word “sophistry” backfired. I rebutted Hanegraaff’s claims here. I pointed to Kathleen Taylor’s critically acclaimed 2006 book, Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, published by Oxford University Press. I also quoted from the book.
I challenged Hanegraaff to withdraw his erroneous statements. To the best of my knowledge, to this day, he has not corrected his error.
Hanegraaff wasn’t the only defender of Teen Mania’s Honor Academy. However, consider Lalich’s definition of a cult in Bounded Choice: “A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.”
After watching the MSNBC documentary back in November, I think many people could reasonably say that some past practices of Teen Mania’s Honor Academy were cultic and controlling in nature. Whether those practicies continue, I don’t know.