Brainwashing is Sorcery

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate? Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain. (More)

Most states have breach-of-the-peace laws that criminalize … obscene or abusive language in a public place, engaging in noisy behaviors, fighting in a public place, resisting lawful arrest, and disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting. … vagrancy, loitering, and public intoxication. (More)

Most laws are defined in relatively objective ways, so that society can truthfully say “no one is above the law”. Those who violate the law can be found guilty and punished, while others remain free.

But most societies have also included a few less objective and more “flexible” offenses, flexible enough to let the powerful more arbitrarily punishment disliked parties. For example many ancient societies let you retaliate directly against someone who previously attacked you via “sorcery”. And many societies today allow punishment for vague crimes like “vagrancy” and “loitering”.

The key difference is that such “flexible offenses” tend to be defined more in terms of how someone important doesn’t like an outcome, and less in terms of what specifically someone did to induce that resulting dislike. And a big problem is that this flexibility often lies dormant for long periods, so that those offenses don’t appear to be applied very flexibly in practice. Until, in a new period of conflict, potential flexibility gets realized and weaponized.

Our world of talk, conversation, and debate are policed by some official laws, such as on “fraud” and “libel”, and by many more inform norms. These norms are often complex, and vary in complex ways with context. We academics have an especially rich and powerful set of such norms.

While most of these norms are relatively objective and helpful, we also seem to include some more flexible offenses, such as “brainwashing”, “propaganda”, “manipulation”, “deception”, “misinformation”, “harassment”, and “gaslighting”. Again the key is that these tend to be defined less in terms of what exactly was done wrong, and more in terms of a disliked result. For example, someone is said to be “brainwashed” if they afterward adopted disliked beliefs or actions. But if exactly the same process results in approved beliefs or actions, there are no complaints.

In times of relative peace and civility, such offenses are applied flexibly only rarely and inconsistently, when particular powerful people find an opening to bludgeon particular opponents. So we don’t much notice their flexibility. But at other times of more severe, aligned, and polarized conflict, they become key weapons in the great battles. We today live in such a time.

The problem isn’t with the general idea of laws or norms, with the idea of enforcing laws, nor with the idea of shunning or shaming those who violate norms. The problem is with a small subset of especially vague norms, offering “loopholes big enough to drive a truck through”, as they say. And with periods when passions become enflamed so much that people become willing to wield any available weapons, such as flexible laws and norms.

The main solution that I can see is to work harder make our laws and norms less flexible. That is, to more explicitly and clearly express and define them. To more clearly say what exactly are the disapproved behaviors, independent of the disliked beliefs that result. This isn’t as easy as many think, as our social norms do actually tend to be subtler, more context dependent, and less widely understood than we think. Even so, it is quite possible, and often worth the bother. Especially in times like ours.

Another complementary solution is to switch from norm to law enforcement, as I’ve previously suggested. Legal norms are reluctant to allow flexible laws, and legal process is less prone to mistaken rushes to judgement.

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