Ethics & Religion

Inside the indoctrinated mind

Earlier this year, I wrote here about radicalisation, white Christian nationalism and how the far and extreme right-wing interface. In it, I doxxed myself pretty heavily because I used to be out there on the far right wing.

In the article, I wrote about the third stage of radicalisation being ‘indoctrination’ but stopped short of defining what that was or how it worked – the article was already too long. And, to be honest, brevity in text is not my strong point. 

But maybe my reasons for stopping there included the fact that I had fallen prey to the old thought-stopping cliche: “Everyone indoctrinates their kids somehow. That’s part of raising them.” 

People joke about how they were indoctrinated into barracking for a particular football team or undertaking house chores a certain way. It’s true that we do learn the basics of habit, values and culture from our childhood caregivers. For the vast majority of us, that’s a good thing. To call it indoctrination falls far short of what actually occurs in the context of religious or extremist indoctrination though. 

I’ve noticed recently a fair bit of chatter in the right-wing Twitterati/politisphere about indoctrination – specifically accusing schools of indoctrinating their students. It’s a big thing to throw around. Unless we do a deep dive, it’s hard to debunk it.

Knowledge is power, kids! So what is indoctrination, really, and how does it occur? There are many forms of social and emotional learning, and many mechanisms by which the complex human consciousness takes in the immense amount of stimuli it is immersed in and makes sense of it all. 

In its simplest form, indoctrination is a process through which a teacher gets a student to believe something without being able to question those beliefs. By ‘teacher’, I mean anyone leading, influencing or giving instruction. By ‘student’, I mean anyone on the receiving end of that instruction. 

While the differences between good teaching methods and unethical ones are many, perhaps the most important factor in indoctrination is that it bypasses rationality. It is not instilling in the learner any type of intellectual skill or virtue. In fact, it relies on the lack thereof. 

Stages of indoctrination

There are said to be four stages of indoctrination. Theorists really like moving in a four-step motion, don’t they! Those four stages are: 1) softening up; 2) compliance; 3) internalisation; 4) consolidation.

In the softening-up stage, new members need to be prepped to receive the group’s messages. This might involve severing or softening ties to the outside world. It might involve activities that keep them fatigued, busy or tired. They might feel uncertainty, disorientation or confusion.

A classic example of this would be physical labour in re-education camps. If you’ve read or heard of Paris Hilton’s The Memoir, you’ll be familiar with her being taken in the middle of the night. She was confused, disoriented and afraid, and on her way to a place where she would be cut off from the outside world and “reformed.” This is an extreme sort of example. But, believe it or not, it happens. 

I’d argue that a relentless devotion to the spiritual and volunteer activities of a high-demand group might create a similar dynamic. I remember once being at an intensive conference – the sort that lasted two weeks. Meetings ran from early morning until late at night, with participants encouraged (even explicitly instructed) to shout their agreement, and take notes without thinking. There was a barrage of content being fired at us, too fast to process. But we were assured our spirits would adjust to the frequency of Heaven, and we would “get it”.

I was a veteran of the network and I remember speaking to a newcomer. She was clearly tired and out of sorts. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. I assured her the click would come and that she would tune in to the so-called frequency of Heaven. She was in a foreign country, with hundreds of strangers who were all happy to shout their agreement to the doctrine. About a week in, the ‘click’ came for her. 

In truth, though, her ‘click’ was more likely a combination of the softening up stage – in which she became part of a new group and amenable to its ideas, then involved in its social and spiritual structures, and most likely volunteered before travelling abroad with it – and the compliance and internalisation stages. 

The Paris Hilton example and the new-member example are extreme, I admit. But there are other mechanisms that can be involved in indoctrination, too.

Early morning prayer meetings, excessive demands for labour, volunteerism, extracurriculars, as well as camps and immersive worship services that go for hours before intense preaching – all of these can contribute to the Petri dish of indoctrination.

In the compliance stage, new members are asked to “actively involve themselves in the belief and demands of the role as a new member”. Think worship team, prayer meetings, discipling other members, evangelism, church cleaning, social events and leadership meetings, among other things.

In this stage, a newbie is likely to be talking about and thinking about explicit and tacit demands of life as part of this group. In religious settings, there is also the layer of “thus saith the Lord” applied to it, and thus a layer of existentialism seals the newbie’s fate.

In the case of my hapless friend, the compliance stage likely started before her trip abroad. But sitting with hundreds of people where you are the only one who apparently doesn’t get it, and yelling “amen” and “Yes!” for hours every day was quite a place for compliance and then internalisation to set in in earnest.

The internalisation stage is when newbies begin to agree with the views of the group and believe they are true and real. This is where it can start to get really hard for prior friends and family to get through to the new participant. A bubble has been formed around the newbie using a complex system of social acceptance and compliance, spiritual belief, intellectual bypassing, and often things like labour, fatigue, disorientation, separation from prior relationships, and prohibition of questioning. 

Finally, the consolidation stage:

This is the merging stage where the recruit adds strength to make their membership by engaging in costly acts that make it difficult to go back to the original life.

This might involve cutting off prior relationships, offering up private assets as quasi-collateral, or perhaps physically relocating to solidify their commitment.

The net result of all of this? They likely hold negative views about those who don’t adhere to the group’s beliefs. And there is too much at stake to even question the correctness, validity or goodness of the group’s beliefs and mission. 

Some institutions are more likely to indoctrinate people than others. Certainly, schools and educational institutions bear strong responsibility to ensure they are giving students intellectual skills rather than just telling them what to think. Many, if not most, educational institutions do this well. Cults such as Scientology, the Westboro Baptist Church and others have been raised as prime examples of institutions that indoctrinate. 

In 1961, sociologist Erving Goffman posited that ‘total institutions’ – institutions that have the ability to control a person’s life and access to information – were most effective at indoctrination. He said:

A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.

Personally, I’d wordsmith that a little, but only because ‘total’ sounds oddly general when the context is so specific. Obviously, Goffman is referring to places like Waco, Texas, where a whole group of adherents lived in the one compound with David Koresh, and devoted their lives to his teachings. 

Not all cults live in compounds. Do you need to if, perhaps, you live close to other members, or close to the centre of operations? Or if you can access the teachings of the group online at any time? The world has certainly evolved since 1961. But one could definitely contend that campuses or boarding houses where people study the doctrine of a group would be particularly high risk. 

Perhaps ‘study’ is the wrong word, too. We know the thing about indoctrination is the lack of intellectual skill or virtue. It is the lack of intellectual rigour. So if you hear someone say, “It’s caught more than it’s taught,” you might be walking pretty close to the Petri dish. 

In truth, that statement sets my teeth on edge. If one has to learn by immersion and not by explicit instruction, then perhaps there is something unsettling nestled in that. Undoubtedly, we humans are social creatures shaped by our cultural contexts. Thus, perhaps indoctrination is a part of growing up within these societies.

How, then, do we scrutinise what is good and what is problematic? I think the answer is in questioning the things we take for granted – especially when it comes to buzz words or pejoratives applied to politics, theology, religious ideology, anti-religious opinions and ideas we are socialised into.

This, admittedly, might be something you need to do quietly and carefully if you are in a problematic group. Zero tolerance of criticism is a big aspect of cultism and of indoctrination. 

The methods of indoctrination

Now that you know what the process is and what the major warning signs are, let’s look at some of the tools and methodologies.

Monologicality is the first cab off the rank. This dovetails nicely with Robert Lifton’s “milieu control”. It means that influence is unidirectional. Other sources of information are frowned upon or explicitly forbidden. If you are taught to distrust your own thoughts or emotions, if you live with categories of acceptable (honouring, favourable) and unacceptable behaviour (sinful, Jezebelic, anti-Christ), you are in the monologicality space. If you are reading from a set of resources approved by or developed by a central – often charismatic – leader, then you’re in the mix. Beware.

Teaching using trance methods is one that I found quite interesting. We hear about cults that use meditation as a tool here. But scholars have also raised concerns over things like “meditation, monotonous singing, speaking in languages (glossolalia, i.e. pronouncing incoherent and meaningless sound combinations in a state of individual or group ecstasy, self-hypnosis, creating of vivid mental images”), or even controlled breathing exercises leading to altered states of consciousness.

We can also apply group pressures, confessional practices – including things like auditing in Scientology, for example – verbal manipulation and weaning from critical or rational thinking here.

When it comes to the latter, I like to remind people of thinking errors or thought-stopping cliches you might hear around indoctrination risks. Take the following for example: “Don’t listen to them. They’re a suppressive person/Jezebel/offended/out of line.” “Ah, God works in mysterious ways.” “Press beyond yourself. Go to the next level.” “His ways are higher than our ways.”

Obviously, I’m heavily skewing these statements to the ones I’ve heard or observed. But there are others. Any cliché or any short cute line that encourages you not to dwell on or pursue a thought is potentially problematic. 

Verbal manipulation is similar to something Robert Lifton called “loading the language” – the think-group jargon outsiders wouldn’t understand. It also spans what Lifton called “mystical manipulation”. This refers to complex communication tactics such as intensity, pregnant pauses, reading the emotions of the room and capitalising on them, finding weaknesses and exploiting them in a way that doesn’t seem too theatrical but plays upon the mood of those present and creates opportunities for emotional responses. Such tactics are all working with the arousal, agitation, emotion and psychological states of the targets. 

There is more, of course. There’s always more! But the big overarching themes are intellectual bypassing, monologicality, consequences for critical thought and being cut off from people or information sources that might cause you to question. 

I get that indoctrination is a bit of a buzz word at the moment. Perhaps that is predictable. We’ve just been through a time when a pandemic produced economic and psychological unrest.

In these times, people seek certainty due to our fundamental human wiring. Circumstances seem just right for people on the fringes to radicalise people into their causes. It seems easier to lead the herd towards a slogan that becomes a battlecry. It seems easier to find meaning in coincidence. And it certainly seems easier to find people out there who are battling against uncertainty, and rope them in using a shiny promise of an antithesis to the chaos they are experiencing – a chaos no one finds enjoyable, apart from TV villains.

But my observation of this time is that the people who cry indoctrination are more often the ones who seek to do the indoctrinating. Sadly, the battle against these false conflations is not easily won. And you can’t do it by firing back fact-checked information on social media – a topic for another day!. 

Indoctrination is serious. But I don’t think there’s any evidence that state schools are doing it. Christian schools, on the other hand, could be an entirely different case. 

An original version of this article appeared here on the author’s blog. It has been republished with the author’s permission.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash.


About Clare Heath-McIvor

Clare Heath-McIvor, the eldest daughter of Christian ministers, was raised in what is now known as the City Builders Church. Prior to exiting the church with her then-husband in 2016, she was part of efforts to infiltrate political parties and assert dominance from within. She then began to deconstruct her faith and began blogging under the pseudonym ‘Kit Kennedy’. The blog spawned the ‘Unchurchable’ podcast examining religious trauma, damaging theologies, and life after church.

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