Brainwashing Techniques Used in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
There's a dark truth lurking behind our perception. We know that if we command a muscle to flex, it will flex. If we choose to say something, our mouths will respond. To our imperfect minds, free will is self-evident. But many scientists believe that all of our choices, even if they appear to be conscious, are actually the product of outside stimuli--things like conditioning and environmental factors.
Nobody is sure how much of this is true. We know that the illusion is real, but we don't know to what extent. We could be like computers, incapable of taking any action that wasn't already programmed into us, or we could operate on a combination of learned behaviors, instincts, and physical autonomy. That's not something we can test without delving deeper into the human mind. Either way, we can be brainwashed, and we would never know it was happening.
Instead, we'd a giant revelation crashing down on our heads, shattering our old preconceptions. We could find ourselves on our knees, sobbing and begging the Lord for forgiveness while a man in a pulpit tells us how to live. We might encounter an extraordinary individual--some might say a messiah--or a special group of friends--people with a common purpose.
It's been said that brainwashing doesn't exist, and in a sense, it doesn't. The idea comes from an American journalist, Edward Hunter, who wrote a 1950 article in the Miami Herald about tactics being used by the communist regime in China. They called it xinao (pronounced hsee-now) meaning 'to wash the brain.' Americans saw many things that they didn't understand during that time--people who were willing to commit senseless acts of violence, even against members of their own families. They were buying into strange ideologies, and nobody could understand how anyone could possibly be persuaded to do such a thing.
This was a paranoid time, just three years into the Cold War, and fascist ideology was beginning to take hold across the world. People were afraid. They believed that communist leaders had found a way to turn their citizens into mindless automatons. The American government responded with a series of covert studies, hoping to crack mind control using methods like psychedelics and talk therapy, but nothing worked. They couldn't figure out what was going on.
Still, rumors persisted, and as the years went by, the public became more and more convinced. They'd hear stories about how Charlie Manson indoctrinated the Family with LSD, or how Jim Jones was able to command his followers to commit mass suicide. Then there was the eastern hemisphere, which at that point had almost completely succumbed to propaganda. There were men who could bring entire nations to their knees.
The psychological community quickly joined in. There were taskforces and groups of researchers, bent on understanding the various tactics used to influence others. Subliminal messaging and hypnosis came up quite a bit, especially during the 60s and 70s when crackpot doctors started buying into strange beliefs. They realized that brainwashing is not universally effective. Most people who come into contact with groups like the People's Temple and the Manson Family walked away. They didn't want any part in it. The followers that did stay were malleable. They needed to belong, and that need drove them to accept their chosen form of indoctrination.