As Featured in The Map Is Indestructible

On Brainwashing

O.G. Rose
11 min readApr 30, 2024

Considering a Notion

Photo by Lea L

The word “brainwashing” has an unclear meaning (distinct from “learning” and/or “changing view”), and it tends to be a subjective debasing of someone who begins to change his or her views into something the person using the word doesn’t like. Furthermore, we could really only call something “brainwashing” if we knew “the truth” which the person was being “brainwashed” relative to and away from. But even then, calling someone “brainwashed” isn’t nearly as productive as proving to the person the “truth” (which we need to know to use the word “brainwashed” legitimately), which could motivate the person to choose to step out of “the loop” in which they are (in our eyes) “being brainwashed” — what value adds the description and judgment, then?

To start, what does it mean to be “brainwashed,” exactly? Often, I find that the word is used to refer to someone who has been indoctrinated into believing a falsity as truth, but if this is the case, it would seem that knowing if a person is brainwashed requires first knowing reality. If someone has taught me that the object-toothbrush is the object-rabbit, to know I have been tricked, you would have to know that the two entities were not the same. In these “little matters,” determining if a person is brainwashed seems much more possible than in “big matters” (like overall ideology): if I believe you are brainwashed because you are a Capitalistic, I would have to know that the theory of Capitalism was false (which requires an incredible amount of work). Paradoxically, the claim “you are brainwashed” is usually used against people because of their overall worldview, not in “small matters” — exactly opposite of what could increase the probability that the term “brainwashed” is used meaningfully.

In a sense, all learning is “brain-washing”: learning “cleans the mind” of falsities or else perhaps washes the mind away. Everyone seems in the business of “brainwashing” to some degree, not just the propagandists. How do we identify a “propagandist” from a “teacher” then? Conservatives could think colleges are full of liberal propaganda, and Liberals can think rural areas are Conservative bubbles. “Propaganda” often refers to teaching that we don’t agree with (even if we’re actually the propagandists), and the word “propaganda” can imply “intentional brainwashing,” that the teacher knows the truth and is intentionally directing students toward a particular ideology of the teacher’s choosing. This is problematic, for even in Nazi Germany, the teachers easily believed in Nazism and weren’t directing students toward an ideology they knew was false. Perhaps people would argue that I am wrong about what “propaganda” implies, which I believe is similar to what “brainwashing” implies, and perhaps they are correct. Even so, I believe most people perceive these words as implying “an intentional and conscious directing away from the truth toward a falsity (ideology),” and this being the case, I think the words should rarely if ever be used (they cause more trouble than they are worth). At the very least, they shouldn’t be used causally — a lot is at stake.

Maybe the concept of “brainwashing” isn’t prevalent in our society today directly, but I would argue that indirect appeals to brainwashing are widespread. If someone says, “You can’t think for yourself”; “You are too close to the situation to see it clearly”; “You as an x can’t understand what it’s like to be a y”; “You’re blinded by love”; “You’re just an academic”; “You’re unconsciously biased”; “You’re manipulated”; “You aren’t listening to God”; “You live in an urban/rural bubble”… — these kinds of statements are degrees of saying, “You are brainwashed” which disqualify certain people from having a view about certain situations. Is there a time for such disqualification? Perhaps, but I think such times are rare.


If someone unintentionally teaches us a falsity as truth (because the person believes it is true) is that really “brainwashing” or just a mistake? If “brainwashing” and “mistake” are similes, the word “brainwashing” lacks distinction and perhaps should be discarded to avoid confusion. To be distinct, the word “brainwashing” must mean something like “the intentional and conscious teaching of falsity as truth.” Perhaps this isn’t what people mean when they use the word, but if not, then the word not only fails to add distinct value, but it also tends to confuse. Moving forward, I will use “brainwash” to signify “the intentional and conscious directing away from truth,” and personally, given this definition, I’m not sure if the word and concept are ever worth using, for two main reasons. First, if someone is brainwashed, the person lacks the capacity to know he or she is brainwashed, and so little can be gained by claiming this of someone, for even if it is true, the person likely cannot believe it is true lest he or she believes that which means he or she is incapable of telling what is true. Second, I think it’s fair to say that only evil people truly brainwash others, and even if evil in a deep sense exists, I believe most people are a mixture of good and bad versus bluntly evil. “Pure evil” is rare even if possible, which means “true brainwashing” is rare as well.

The claim and concept of brainwashing is rarely useful, to any degree, and in the situations where it may accurately describe what has happened, even then, I would argue that the construct is likely to cause more trouble than it is worth. If someone has been brainwashed somehow, telling the person this likely won’t make a difference (the person has been brainwashed into thinking he or she isn’t brainwashed, as all brainwashing seems like it must or else we would change). We likely have to show the person the truth indirectly, through argument, testament, or something else. Similarly, if we are dealing with an evil person who is knowingly brainwashing others, telling the evil person this is to tell the person something he or she is aware of (little will change). Hence, when the word “brainwashed” rightly applies, even then, using the world or thinking of the situation through its conceptual lens will add little if not negative value.

Often, I think when what we may call “brainwashing” occurs, it is actually unintentional, and those doing the supposed “brainwashing” genuinely believe in the message they are sharing; in other words, what we call “brainwashing” is actually “the unintentional spreading of a falsity as a truth” (assuming we know the truth). This is certainly not a good thing, but stopping this isn’t a matter of “stopping brainwashing” so much as it is learning to think and discern clearly and rightly about ideology and competing worldviews. In my view, the notion of “brainwashing” can hinder us from mastering this art and threaten our capacity to handle our Pluralistic Age. The construct should be deconstructed; again, even when the word is accurate, it seems useless.


Whenever we meet someone who thinks different from us, it can be difficult for us not to think of that person as an ideologue. Likewise, whenever someone is taught to believe something that we believe is false, we can easily think that the person has been brainwashed. We don’t tend to think of the teacher as guilty of a genuine mistake, or the teacher sharing an ideology we don’t agree with but can respect, but rather we can naturally think the teacher is “indoctrinating” or worse. It is hard for us not to think in extreme terms: it seems unnatural for us to respectably disagree but maintain dignity. Why? Perhaps it is because there is something within us that cannot help but think the worst of those who teach that which we believe is false. Necessarily, it seems, if someone teaches what we don’t agree with, we think the teacher is spreading lies, and if the teacher is mistaken, we still can’t seem to help but think of her as guilty of a moral injustice or at best immoral carelessness.

If we believe x, we can naturally believe that reason leads people to believing x (often not realizing that “reason” is relative to “truth,” as discussed in “The True isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose), and hence if a person doesn’t believe what we believe, that person mustn’t be reasonable. And why else would a person refuse to be reasonable unless he or she was an ideologue? Hence, whenever we encounter someone with whom we disagree, we can almost naturally come to see the person in “brainwashed”-terms. Using “brainwashing” seems natural — suggesting why we should be skeptical of it.

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that we necessarily think of everyone who thinks differently from us as “brainwashed,” but I do mean to imply that we are always very close to taking that incredibly dangerous step. We seem naturally poised for it, always “one step away” from it, and considering how useless “brainwashing” is as a term even when accurate, that means we are all “one step away” from using a construct that can have incredibly negative consequences, and very little to show for it. But why exactly is “brainwashed” such a dangerous construct? A few reasons:

1. If we think of someone as brainwashed, we think of that individual as incapable of reasoning and thinking for his or herself, and yet in need of a change of mind. Only force can square this circle.

2. If we think of ourself as brainwashed, we can think of ourself as incapable of judging reality accurately: we can’t trust our own thoughts, discernment, confidence, convictions, etc. We become incapable of believing we aren’t brainwashed, for brainwashed, we are incapable of trusting what we believe, potentially leading to a mental breakdown.

3. If we think of someone we disagree with as “brainwashed,” we necessarily think of the view that person supports as having little and even no truth to it, hence freeing us of the need to investigate it or criticize our ideology in light of it.

4. Whether or not a person is brainwashed seems unfalsifiable unless we can prove a person has intentionally been led to believe x (by another or his or her self) when knowing all along that x was false. Since intention is very difficult to prove, the construct can set people up to engage in an endless investigation that leads nowhere.

5. The construct can turn a relationship from one between equals to one between a savior and someone needing saving, which can lead to alienation and destroy the relationship (“for good”).

To be brainwashed seems to mean we are incapable of knowing we are brainwashed, and to call others “brainwashed” might hurl people into incredible existential tension, disqualify ourselves from needing to understand their worldview, and/or frame us as “the knower of truth.” To claim that another is “brainwashed” can create a hierarchy, one in which we are at the top, and it can also be used to establish a “normalcy” which everyone must follow or “be brainwashed” (which might suggest we are actually brainwashed…). We have learned from Postmodernism and Derrida that we need to deconstruct structures that push out “the other,” and yet the concept of “brainwashing” can precisely be used to exclude and disqualify others and new ways of thinking from, impoverishing us all.


In line with “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment” by O.G. Rose, one who is worried about being “brainwashed,” being in a cult, not being able to understand reality clearly, etc., is a person who will easily start suddenly seeing lots of evidence confirming such to be the case. Likewise, so it goes if we start worrying about someone else being brainwashed, in a cult, unable to discern, etc. Considering how useless the concept of brainwashing is, this is especially tragic, for the idea traps people in a prison that they might gain nothing for being stuck in. Considering how calling someone “brainwashed” can prime them to make this mistake, considering how it can impact how we see ourselves, and considering how rarely useful the concept is, we should take the utmost care before using any degree of the concept of “brainwashed” in our thinking or daily lives (even if we don’t say anything and only use the term inside our minds). Frankly, we probably should never use it at all (not even privately, to ourselves).

If we really wanted to, all learning could be called “brainwashing,” which means the learning we dislike can always be critiqued. When someone learns that which goes against what we believe, our entire worldview can be threatened, and such a threat can bring out the worst in us. It is tempting at such times to accuse the other of being “brainwashed,” but this is one of the most destructive acts people can do to one another. It turns a person’s worry against their self, and since worry is a self-justifying system (as discussed in “On Worry” by O.G. Rose), that person could begin seeing evidence everywhere that leads that person (“objectively”) toward his or her own self-entrapment, self-disqualification, and even self-destruction through overwhelming existential destabilization. To say, “You are brainwashed” can be to arrange another to use his or her mind as a weapon of self-destruction, and though this doesn’t mean a person can’t be brainwashed, it does mean that only under the most extreme circumstances should the word be used (especially considering how rarely the word is appropriate or even useful).

To conclude, the concept of “brainwashing” seems to do more harm than good, and it is better to show people their errors through rational debate, changing “conditions of possibility,” etc. than to hurl the claim, “You are brainwashed,” at them. The notion can threaten Pluralism, and again for this reason it should be discarded. Even if dealing with a member of a cult, calling a person “brainwashed” will probably only cause the individual to put up defenses: we should instead present the person with a view, work of art, etc., create a “clearing” in which the person can see things differently for themselves (a change in “conditions of possibility”), and then come what may. Furthermore, if “the map is indestructible,” all of us are prone to “self-brainwashing,” and calling others “brainwashed” might increase the likelihood that we fail to be self-critical (the claim necessarily entailing in the background a belief that we know the truth to know who, relative to that truth, is brainwashed).

We might argue that we have never called others “brainwashed,” and that’s great, but please note that this paper is focused not just on the direct and explicit word but the construct: we shouldn’t even think of people as brainwashed, or use language which suggests it. Even if hypothetically others actually are, being aware of this isn’t helpful: it can hinder how we relate. “Brainwashed” is a concept and way of thinking about others and oneself that is very dangerous: we either disqualify ourselves from living well or disqualify others from thinking. If the word “brainwashing” applies fairly anywhere to any capacity, perhaps it is in claiming that, “We have all been ‘brainwashed’ by ‘brainwashing’ as a construct,” which is to say in us undergoing social training to treat “brainwashing” as a useful construct. It is not. Let us wash the brainwashing away.




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O.G. Rose

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