The term “brainwashing” was originally used to describe the thought-reform techniques developed by the Maoist government in China. Its usage in connection with cults began in the early seventies. Stories of young people being transformed into “Manchurian Candidate”-style zombies stoked the paranoia of the era and, for a time, encouraged the practice of kidnapping and “deprogramming” cult members. Yet, despite the lasting hold of brainwashing on the public imagination, the scientific community has always regarded the term with some skepticism. Civil-rights organizations and scholars of religion have strenuously objected to using an unproven—and unprovable—hypothesis to discredit the self-determination of competent adults. Attempts by former cult members to use the “brainwashing defense” to avoid conviction for crimes have repeatedly failed. Methods of coercive persuasion undoubtedly exist, but the notion of a foolproof method for destroying free will and reducing people to robots is now rejected by almost all cult experts. Even the historian and psychiatrist Robert Lifton, whose book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” (1961) provided one of the earliest and most influential accounts of coercive persuasion, has been careful to point out that brainwashing is neither “all-powerful” nor “irresistible.” In a recent volume of essays, “Losing Reality” (2019), he writes that cultic conversion generally involves an element of “voluntary self-surrender.”
If we accept that cult members have some degree of volition, the job of distinguishing cults from other belief-based organizations becomes a good deal more difficult. We may recoil from Keith Raniere’s brand of malevolent claptrap, but, if he hadn’t physically abused followers and committed crimes, would we be able to explain why NXIVM is inherently more coercive or exploitative than any of the “high demand” religions we tolerate? For this reason, many scholars choose to avoid the term “cult” altogether.
Zoë Heller, “Beyond Belief”, The New Yorker (12 & 19 July 2021), 88.