Note: This piece appears in Dwutygodnik.com / Biweekly.pl at the following URL: https://www.dwutygodnik.com/artykul/9395-300-silowa-perswazja-i-kurs-na-zwyczajnosc.html
Coercive Persuasion and the Alignment of the Everyday
What does electoral politics have to do with intimate partner violence?
A few days ago, I listened to the newly minted president of the US, on a cold bright winter’s day, look out over the national mall in front of the Capitol building and say, “There is truth, and there are lies.”
You know you’re in some trouble when even politicians feel the need to assert these kinds of claims this plainly.
Listening to these words, I recalled in my body times I have needed to assert that reality exists, and the conditions that made that assertion necessary. I have never been involved in public life. My experiences of needing to climb out of fog, to reestablish that basic facts are, in fact, basic, come entirely from personal life.
And yet I, too, have felt the need to set the world back to rights in this way, to state realities plainly (lying… exists! some people… lie!) that ought to already have been plain.
I have had to reestablish such moments of clarity for myself, because I have encountered people who would try to erase them.
Under what conditions do truth and lie become so blurred together one loses track of whether external reality exists? When reference points are lost, when one forgets there ever even were external reference points to recall, one of a few things may be happening. When truth and lies become impossible to disentangle, one may be in a cult, one may be living in a totalist regime, or, alternately, one may be in an abusive relationship.
I’ve been reading a book, Terror Love and Brainwashing by Alexandra Stein, which has been very helpful in clarifying some thinking. The book, authored by one of the foremost experts on the dynamics of cults and brainwashing, came out in 2017 and I have been going back to it ever since.
Like most people, I had heard, generally, that brainwashing can occur. I remember when the story of the Moonies captured the popular imagination and the basic fact became public knowledge that brainwashing occurs. Until recently, however, the mechanics of coercive persuasion (a more formal term for the same thing) were obscure to me: lots of theories, very little data.
If there’s anything I love doing it is taking a vaguely understood process obscured in fog and learning what it in fact is so we can take a good look at it clearly.
The book brings readers up on current neurological and social psychology research. To my deep satisfaction, it turns out the attachment system is involved.
I am a cultural theorist by training, and wrote an essay and then a book about the relationship between neurological and cultural elements of attachment. When I learned that the attachment system is involved in the sociological process of brainwashing, I was transfixed.
Before I try to sum up the book’s careful, precise discussion of how coercive persuasion functions, I want to highlight what for me was striking new information
The passage that jumped out at me reads:
“Brainwashing takes place within a wide variety of social situations. It occurs in cults, […], in cultic organizations where political violence is an organizing principle, in totalitarian movements and in totalitarian states where, as Hannah Arendt put it, terror has achieved state power. On the other end of the spectrum, brainwashing can occur in very small or even one-on-one cults: relationships of one leader and only one or two followers. Similar mechanisms and structures of control can also be found in certain cases of highly controlling domestic violence or abuse.”
What is the relationship, I want to ask, between intimate partner violence and electoral politics?
As the events of the last four years unfolded in the United States, I tried to write this essay many times. I must have scrapped a half-dozen half-begun versions, some no longer than a line, because every time I tried to begin, I found it hard to think.
My usual process is to draft in the open, in discussion with readers. I often post half-formed thoughts in an informal blog I keep for this purpose. I began that space originally to have a place where I could hear my intuition, one small low stakes space where the boundaries were 100 percent mine to determine, where no one else’s mind would be. Even there, I found I was unable to begin. I could not hear my intuition through the fear.
The most recent attempt was still open and abandoned in my browser when I received an invitation from Anna Smolar, acting as guest editor of biweekly.pl. We had been introduced a year earlier through mutual friends, and she asked if I would write a piece about cultural gaslighting.
I was born and have only ever lived in Canada, but I know from their stories that my family lived in Poland for many generations until the war. This invitation was intuitively healing. What’s more, the challenge pushed away my doubts, and pushed me through writer’s block. I began, once again, drafting this essay about coercive persuasion, moving up and down the scale from the level of domestic partnership to the level of the state.
(Also, the magazine is paying me in złotys. This will be the first time I am paid for writing in złotys. It is impossible to not say this word out loud. How could I say no?)
A cult, a country, or a couple
As I mention above, Stein observes that coercive persuasion takes place in situations ranging from “political and religious terrorism on the world stage to the intimate terror of controlling one-on-one personal relationships.” In other words, brainwashing can occur in a cult like the Moonies, in a country, like North Korea, or in the context of a couple, a tiny “cult” of two people. Stein notes: “while controlling domestic violence may sometimes erupt, […] more often it is silent and hidden, yet [it is] commonplace.”
Indeed, as the book elucidates, “totalist groups, cults, totalitarianism, even controlling forms of domestic violence, are set apart – not by the fact of religion or ideology – but by the nature of the relationship between leader and follower[s],” which is characterized by a disorganizing environment that conditions those subject to it into a disorganized attachment. Stein is unambiguous that when it comes to brainwashing, the determining factor is “situation, not personality.” A disorganizing, disorienting environment acts on those it targets, no matter their original or prior attachment experiences.
In sitting with this research, I find myself asking an additional question. What can be learned by moving up and down the scale, of country, cult, and couple? What can be illuminated, what can be clarified by examining the same process at points along the scale?
Behind every seemingly ‘fast’ social transformation are decades of organizing against seemingly impossible odds. Popular social change gains ground in moments of crisis, when those with power are forced to reckon with and hear previously suppressed perceptions. Movements reach a critical mass and then one seeming minor change – a pop culture icon speaking up, say, or a new law passed – and suddenly the fabric of the culture shifts. Almost overnight, it may seem, it becomes wrong to be transphobic, or a bigot, or a homophobe. The cells, or filaments, or crystalline structure that compose the fabric of human relationality line up differently, reverse polarity or forge a new grain. Whose safety is noticed, whose wellbeing matters, can turn suddenly in favour of the underdog against what seemed insurmountable odds.
Since coercive persuasion rests for its effectiveness on social power, I want this same sweep of change, a rippling and realigning of the grain, a polarity switch that will result in the fabric of this culture becoming knowledgeable about the nature of coercive persuasion, and informed about how to stop it.
What is coercive persuasion?
As Stein reports, brainwashing entails a recognizable set of circumstances that can occur in many different kinds of social contexts. The conditions are:
- Structural factors that engender a requirement to maintain a good relationship with the source of the danger.
- Creating “fear without solution,” where the source of perceived safety is the same as the source of fear. This activates the attachment system through cortisol regulation, which motivates proximity seeking to a perceived source of safety. But since the source of perceived safety is also the source of danger, the attachment system is activated continually, without that need for security and comfort ever being fully met. In a truly safe, nurturing, and responsive bond, the seeking of proximity would rebalance the body’s production of cortisol and endogenous opioids, and return the system to a state of homeostasis.
- This disorganizing bond intermixes fear and ‘love,’ or the promise of belonging, a promise that is perpetually offered but never fully met. The fear can be of an enemy, of invasion, fear of abandonment or isolation, fear of losing the relationship, or losing one’s belonging in a group; it can be a pure physical cortisol response from exhaustion, hunger, and overwork, or it can be fear of the leader or group itself. Any kind of fear will do, but the follower feels fear continuously, fear that is never alleviated by the disorganizing attachment.
- Intermittent alleviation of the fear is then misrepresented or misinterpreted as ‘kindness,’ ‘care,’ or love, while the underlying danger and violence remains. For example, an abuser might ‘allow’ their victim food that week, or might ‘choose’ to ‘let’ them pick their own clothes, and this so called indulgence can then be defined, inside the logic of the abuse, as ‘kindness.’
- The simultaneous activation of fear and attachment and the rewriting of meaning is disorganizing. No matter the attachment pattern of the target before the disorganizing encounter, this manipulating of the attachment system is a causal factor in creating disorganized attachment, and ultimately dissociation, in its target.
- The impossible double bind of fear and attachment inhibits the function of the orbitofrontal cortex, dis-integrating the connection between the newer, verbal, thinking left hemisphere and the older, nonverbal, feeling right hemisphere. The inhibiting of the orbitofrontal cortex disconnects abstract cognitive reflection from the feeling right brain, and in turn from the limbic area and brainstem, which are wired in through the right brain. This disconnection results in what Stein calls a “cognitive collapse.” The person who cannot use either fight or flight, and cannot calm their attachment system through seeking proximity, will move into a state of dissociated collapse during which they cannot think about their circumstances, or recognize the true source of the fear. A dissociated person in this state of cognitive collapse literally cannot think their way clear of the problem.
- Stein makes clear this dissociative collapse will be specific to the disorganizing context; the person may be otherwise high functioning, and can be quite capable in other areas of life, able to carry out work and life tasks, even able to think more precisely about other areas. Attempts to think clearly about the frightening, disorganizing situation, however, will inhibit the functioning of brain areas including the orbitofrontal cortex, and render such thought all but impossible. Thinking about this dissociation is, in turn, also inhibited, which means a person in this situation may be unable to notice that there are areas of their life they cannot think about. The part of the brain that would think about the danger, or that would notice the inability to think about it, is “washed out” and cannot function to do this thinking work.
- It is in this state, Stein notes, that targets become vulnerable to having another’s thoughts or values replace their own, when their own ability to think clearly about the problem is inhibited. In the case of a totalizing system the reinforced thinking that comes to replace their own may be state propaganda. In a cult, the reinforced values may be total adherence to the desires of the cult leader, no matter the harm they cause. In an abusive relationship, this may take the form of adopting the abuser’s world view about self and others, or about what is reasonable to expect in a relationship. Not only thoughts and beliefs but one’s very five senses perceptions can be rewritten in this way, when the integration of sensory and cognitive function have been dis-integrated.
- The target then is subject to totalizing sources of information in which it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from untruth. For example the target may be subject to a labyrinthine confusion of deceptions and dishonesties that frequently contradict, or lies that contradict the direct perception of what is taking place, or claims that are incoherent together presented as though they are coherent. The effect of lies and contradictions is to keep the target disoriented and confused, impaired by continual cognitive dissonance. Over time the disorientation and the attempt to make sense of confusing statements that have no internal ethical logic wears down the ability to resist. In the state of continual cortisol arousal and disorientation it becomes difficult to remember what logical and ethical thought even is; trying to create coherence out of lies and confusing incoherency becomes so exhausting it can become easier to give in. Stein describes moments in which it comes to seem there is no truth to look for, nothing external to even remember or seek.
- Meanwhile, the abuser may encourage fear of the larger world and work to increase the idea in the target’s mind that only the abuser can protect them from the ‘frightening’ larger world. The more the cortisol system is activated through fear, the more the target’s limbic system is activated to seek proximity, and the more alternate attachments may be broken or disrupted. Unlike in the comfort and security of an organizing relationship, proximity seeking with the source of danger activates additional cortisol release which is never balanced by the reset and the return of endogenous opioids in the system that would occur in a securely connected relationship, which would facilitate a return to exploration and independence.
- Instead, the target comes to see their abuser as their protector, and to feel physiologically as well as cognitively that they could not live without him, even when clearer thinking would clarify that the source of danger is in fact the person the target runs to for protection. The carrot on a stick of trust, belonging, or genuine caring attachment are indefinitely deferred.
- This creates very powerful chemical bonds between target and abuser, bonds based in the powerful attachment system, that are extremely difficult to break. An inability to leave, even to protect oneself or children from danger, can therefore be due to the powerful “chemical lock” that the attachment and fear systems generate. This chemical lock binds the target to the abuser, while a dissociated state of collapse blocks the target from thinking clearly about their predicament.
- Stein is very clear that this form of coercion is unrelated to the original attachment orientation and emotional experiences of the target prior to the disorganizing experience. There is nothing inherently ‘brainwashable’ about the targets. Brains are malleable, and attachment patterns can be rewired even in adulthood. As Stein describes, a disorganizing and disorienting social environment can rewire targets into disorganized attachment even in those who were securely bonded, healthy, independent thinkers before encountering the disorganizing relationship.
- Powerful, but superficial relationships are then formed with tightly knit but disposable others, who may spend many hours in close contact but display a striking lack of empathy towards one another. These relationships may seem close but often depend on continued participation in the brainwashing dynamic. Because they cannot be deeply trusted, and because those in these bonds know they may be discarded when they are not useful, as in when they experience illness, or when they begin to question the totalizing narrative, these powerfully bonded but interchangeable others cannot act as alternate safe havens, attachment figures with whom to resolve the distress and reintegrate left and right hemisphere, which would be needed to work out the source of the danger and escape.
What inoculates or protects people from brainwashing?
What protects people is precisely the opposite kind of relationship. Even one genuinely trustworthy nurturing truly secure attachment, in which people can talk with trusted others who are informed and able to name the problem, can provide the protection and inoculation that people need to be able to think their way clear of danger.
Stein observes that “the weaving together of left and right sides of the brain takes place […] during conversations with others, or with oneself when engaging in internal dialog, and during other, collaborative, language-based communication such as telling stories.” Trusted other intimates who are aware of what is taking place, and can speak with each other in clear thinking ways about the nature of the brainwashing or manipulation being employed, are the way targets get clear themselves. Talking with others who know and recognize manipulative actions and behaviours can connect verbal areas to relational limbic areas and can therefore help targets see the source of the danger clearly and contain it, shut it down, or leave.
For each of us, knowledge about coercive persuasion, and how it is a form of abuse, is power. As mentioned previously, Stein is very clear that anyone can become a target of brainwashing. This means, as Stein argues, that the general public growing our knowledge of these coercive processes is protective. Stein stresses in particular that youth who get involved in political organizing may want to learn about these processes to better protect both themselves and those around them.
Those close to the abuse may have their own conditioning that blocks them from recognizing this form of manipulation, with the result that they may contribute to the brainwashing of the target without knowing they are doing so.
This is why it matters that the general public become skilled and able to distinguish between conflict, harm, and abuse. As bay area organizer Emi Kane has cogently argued, they are not the same thing, and each needs a different toolkit and a different set of responses. Using the tools for conflict or accidental harm when there is more serious manipulation occurring does not work and runs the risk of compounding the effects of coercion, forcing the survivor back into cognitive dissonance, wordless terror, incoherence: in essence forcing them back underwater. It is important to be able to understand and recognize the signs of coercive persuasion and identify these (frequently hidden or naturalized) forms of manipulation that constitute brainwashing, to be able to take a stand for and protect those directly affected.
Since coercive persuasion’s effects are partly subcortical, located in brain stem and limbic areas, using language together can help. Activating from the left hemisphere of the neocortex to the right brain and down to the limbic areas via language, while connecting and forming secure, trusting relationships, can reconnect the language and thinking areas of the brain with the emotional and survival areas, and bring the orbitofrontal cortex back online, which lets targets reflect consciously on their experience. This reintegration of thinking and feeling can help facilitate an exit from the fog and incapacity caused by the abuse. Put succinctly, seeing and speaking together with other people who are familiar with these processes inoculates against coercive persuasion and buffers one against its effects.
What this means is the more our culture is aware, educated, and informed about the process of brainwashing, how it looks when brainwashing is taking place, and how to protect people from it, the more places there will be for people to turn to who are escaping it, whether these behaviours crop up in a workplace, a political party, or a partnership.
What can we learn by sliding up and down these scales?
While the neurological aspects of brainwashing are essential to forming a clear picture of its operation, brainwashing (or its equivalent term, gaslighting) is “primarily a sociological process,” as Paige L. Sweet’s American Sociological Review article “The Sociology of Gaslighting” notes. As Sweet observes, “gaslighting is consequential when perpetrators mobilize […] structural and institutional inequalities against victims to manipulate their realities.” In other words, brainwashing is reinforced and empowered by social structures that create power imbalances that coercive persuasion relies on for its force and effectiveness.
Existing research on domestic violence, and the concatenation between the personal and social structures of oppression, may provide perspective, therefore, on what we are seeing take place on a national scale, in the country to the south of me, and in the resurgence of forms of authoritarianism in many countries.
Alternate secure attachments protect communities from not only the ‘extraordinary’ forms of totalism that emerged under 45, but also from the forms of totalism that are normalized and everyday in Western culture, and that continue under this new, ‘normal’ administration. As Kai Cheng Thom writes, for those for whom society is the source of trauma, “there is no safety, only trust.”
For those who are direct targets of this society, the culture itself may be disorganizing. When the institutions that speak of themselves as protector are in fact the source of danger, the effect can be that society itself is a disorganizing, traumatic experience. When institutions structured with a monopoly on violence, such as police and prisons, are a source of danger, the effect can be disconnection from the attachment and belonging that human beings need within society. When disorganizing relationships occur within organizations that people are structurally required to rely on for income, health care, or other forms of safety, the attachment system can be affected in underestimated ways.
Developing the knowledge and ability to recognize coercive persuasion in the myriad environments where it takes place – in the sphere of intimate partner violence, in workplaces, in schools, in publishing and in universities, in prisons and policing, in borders, citizenship systems, and settler-colonial states, and in other political structures – increases the likelihood that more of us will be able to provide and find what Stein calls ‘escape hatch’ bonds. These are relationships of genuine safety with ethical people who are knowledgeable about the effects of coercive persuasion and are able to perceive, describe, and disrupt these dynamics where they exist.
And even for those who find themselves relatively comfortable within Western society, the dangers of totalism are very real. Stein writes, “social isolation or atomization is an increasingly generalized situational fact of contemporary life. […] social isolation [is] a generalized, situational [characteristic] that affects nearly all of us at some point or another.” Stein adds, “it is, in fact, a healthy response to atomization to seek to join up with others. As humans we are social animals. […] The danger arises if, in that effort, one encounters a totalist group.”
While I don’t want to oversimplify or flatten what is in fact a precise phenomenon that needs careful thinking, the slide away from collective or community life and towards isolation and individualism in Western societies, despite its attendant freedoms for the individual, can also come to resemble or reproduce some of the features that render whole societies vulnerable to totalism. Internet echo chambers, suburbanization, the so called post-truth phenomenon that is not so much ‘post’ truth as a coercive manipulation of and denial of same, all bear striking similarities to the conditions that render people vulnerable to brainwashing. The fear of the other, of losing power, the fear and pressure caused by the combination of rising living costs and stagnant wages, and the emboldened presence of both overt and covert white supremacy, affect even those with accrued privilege. As Mia Birdsong writes in How We Show Up, “the people winning at the American Dream are some disconnected, unsatisfied, lonely people.”
The kinds of relationships that protect people from the risk of totalism are the kinds formed of people who can be genuine with one another, believe one another, and count on one another, turning towards one another and offering meaningful protection from danger. The choice to turn towards one another with curiosity, the ability to take a stand and protect one another, and the skill to recognize coercive persuasion taking place, may be a path towards a more resilient culture.
In other words, the stakes of our relationships are greater than we may think. Cultivating relational fabric in which we create conditions of believing and of protection for those who face this form of coercion, may provide not only day to day protection from intimate partner violence, but also inoculation from totalism.
This is part of what it means to be careful with each other so that we can resist together. Those who have these skills to name coercive persuasion together are more able to resist the danger of totalism and dissociation together, even when that danger comes in the form of the pomp and celebration of a new inauguration.
Thank you to Anna Smolar, Alexandra Stein, Kim Trainor, Chelsey Rhodes, Eve Rickert, Emi Kane, Tamaso Johnson, Simon Dougherty, Sara de Hond, and Lisa Maltzberger, who contributed ideas, suggested readings, and/or offered feedback that informed the shape of this essay.
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