Psychotechnology as a social weapon

Krishna Consciousness and Religious Freedom
Statement by Dr. Stephan Chorover (Professor of Psychology, M.I.T.) at an Harvard Symposium


Dr. Chorover develops the concept of using derogatory and pseudo-scientific labels such as "brainwashing", "mind-control", or "madness", as a social weapon aimed to invalidate the motives of discriminated members as their own.


I am mainly interested in the controversy that has arisen surrounding the questions of "brainwashing", "mind-control" and "behavior control" on both sides of the Hare Krishna question because as a psychologist I've taken a considerable interest over the past several years in questions related to what I tend to call 'Psychotechnology'. And they grew out in a curious sense, in psychology, from work which is, of course, well know from the Harvard laboratories here, primarily the work of B.F. Skinner, who were he here, I suppose, would challenge very strenuously in his own way assertions to the effect of freedom of choice and other matters that have been articulated around this room, I think quite properly. He would take exception, I think, quite improperly. Because it is one of the contentions of the kind of psychology that we owe largely to him that questions about 'will' and 'choice' are really illusory and that all of us have our behavior profoundly, and perhaps unwillingly, conditioned by events in the environment in which we grow up.

This general view has allowed a large number of people operating under the ostensible mantle of science--psychological sciences, psychiatry and the rest--to view as some sort of bizarre abnormality the behavior of people who, although they are products of an environment that most of us share, end up by behaving differently than most of us do, whether in manners of dress, or speech or comportment. Psychology thus transformed into a kind of psychotechnology becomes, as it has become in the case of the Hare Krishna devotees against whom it has been used, a social weapon. And it's the use of psychology as a social weapon that has been concerning me over the last several years. And I think that the incident before us, at least from my perspective, should be seen in a broader context in which behavior that is different, whether seen as an instance of diversity or deviance (that is, as something which is merely different or something that is different and bad), is very easily labeled as a character disorder, a behavior disorder, as a neurosis or as a psychosis. That, and what happens to the behavior once it has been so labeled, is what I'd like to say a few words about now.

What happens when behavior is labeled as 'sick' is something worth pondering. When you talk about someone as being 'mentally ill' you might say that that person is 'sick' or that that person is an invalid in some sense. And the word 'invalid' contains the key to the meaning that I want to point out. When you label behavior as 'sick', you in effect invalidate it. That is to say, you deprive it of the legitimacy it requires to be respected for the integrity of it's meaning.

Now, in a time in which only a few years ago we saw agents from the White House breaking into Daniel Ellsburg's psychiatrist's office, it shouldn't come as any surprise to us when we find psychology being used as a political weapon to invalidate people's behavior. I wonder how many people have thought seriously about what the Watergate burglars were doing in his psychiatrist's office. It seems to me that they were looking for some psychological grounds on which to invalidate Ellsburg's claim that he was acting as a political person out of motives that he understood to be correct. If it could have been shown that he was in some sense crazy, paranoid, a drug addict, a homosexual, or whatever else might have been used to discredit him as a person, this could have been used to invalidate the behavior which he held to be his own will.

This is not a new phenomenon by any means. My favorite example is still the case of a mental illness called 'Drapetomania' which some of you may have heard me talk about from time to time in various contexts, because it always seems to be a good illustration of the point. If you have a medical dictionary and you look up 'Drapetomania'--it's still there--you will find it defined as 'the insane desire to wander away from home.' Drapetes is, in fact, the ancient Greek word for 'runaway'. But the illness was discovered, or rather invented, in 1850 under circumstances which begin to make sense once you understand the paradigm of psychology as a political weapon, by a group of Southern physicians who were appointed by the Louisiana State Medical Society to look into the diseases and physical peculiarities of the Negro Race. And they discovered what was already very well known to people, namely, that there were certain slaves who had a tendency to run away (laughter). Now the fact was well known to everybody, but it was thought by some people that the runaway behavior of those slaves was a kind of political statement, a statement about their view of the conditions of their lives in slavery. 'Not at all!' was the view of these physicians. Working from the hypothesis that blacks were, after all, essentially inferior to whites, were the white man's burden and had to be kept in slavery 'for their own good', it was just a short step to making the assertion that obviously the slave that runs away is violating his or her essential human nature and hence is 'crazy'.

Now, whatever else one may think about it, that argument, to the extent that it proved persuasive, was an extremely powerful political weapon because it  enabled people to view the behavior not as a symptom of something profoundly wrong in the social system but merely as a symptom of mental derangement in certain individuals. When the authority of science and medicine can be brought to bear in that way, what in effect is being done is that the symbolic potency of one of the strongest method of inducing belief in this society is being brought to bear to invalidate behavior which the society would prefer to remain seriously unexamined...

As far as the term "brainwashing" is concerned, you have to realize that the term is not, I mean there is no way of "washing" brains. "Brainwashing" is a phrase that is used to describe forms of behavioral change of which the people who are looking at them disapprove. And "deprogramming" is  a word which is used to describe behavioral change induced in a more or less coercive manner. To the extent that "brainwashing" implies more or less coercively induced behavioral change, I think it might be argued that what is commonly called "deprogramming" resembles it a bit more closely than does the behavior change manifested in the Hare Krishna people who have been talking here this evening...

Psychology thus transformed into a kind of psychotechnology becomes, as it has become in the case of the Hare Krishna devotees against whom it has been used, a social weapon.

 

 

 

 

 

When you label behavior as 'sick', you in effect invalidate it. That is to say, you deprive it of the legitimacy it requires to be respected for the integrity of it's meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

If it could have been shown that he was in some sense crazy, paranoid, a drug addict, a homosexual, or whatever else might have been used to discredit him as a person, this could have been used to invalidate the behavior which he held to be his own will.

 

 

 

 

 

They discovered what was already very well known to people, namely, that there were certain slaves who had a tendency to run away.

 

 

 

 

 

Working from the hypothesis that blacks were, after all, essentially inferior to whites, were the white man's burden and had to be kept in slavery 'for their own good', it was just a short step to making the assertion that obviously the slave that runs away is violating his or her essential human nature and hence is 'crazy'.

 

 

 

 

 

It  enabled people to view the behavior not as a symptom of something profoundly wrong in the social system but merely as a symptom of mental derangement in certain individuals.

 

 

 

 

 

To the extent that "brainwashing" implies more or less coercively induced behavioral change, I think it might be argued that what is commonly called "deprogramming" resembles it a bit more closely than does the behavior change manifested in the Hare Krishna people.

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