There Is No Such Thing as ‘Brainwashing’

Actress Allison Mack departs the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse after facing charges regarding sex trafficking and racketeering related to the Nxivm cult case in N.Y., April 8, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

In reporting on the NXIVM case, media outlets ranging from Vice to the Daily Beast to, just today, the New York Times have employed the term “brainwashing,” almost entirely uncritically.

The problem with that, which apparently has occurred to none of these outlets whose writers from time to time advertise their reverence for “science,” is that there is no such thing as brainwashing. It is a concept with no scientific basis, generally regarded as pseudoscience. It is mainly a literary device, one popularized by The Manchurian Candidate.

“Brainwashing” is right up there with “recovered memories,” “multiple-personality disorder,” homeopathy, chiropractic, reiki, the anti-vaccine movement, and the terror of GMO vegetables in the catalogue of voguish nonsense that has made its way at least partly into the mainstream of American life.

Everybody loves science — until they don’t.

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