Beware of rhetorics: you are being brainwashed

We are being brainwashed all the time. Fortunately for us, the brainwashing is not focused and we are capable to resist. How to fight manipulators effectively? We will discuss below. For further reading you are welcome to visit here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Who tries to manipulate us?

Brainwashing is so common, that we stopped noticing it. We are being brainwashed by everybody we know.

Politicians and activists want us to take a stand and vote, not necessarily for what benefits us.

Salesmen are after our wallets. They want us to buy stuff we do not really need and then recommend all of our friends also buy some.

Our friends and family are not so obvious. When they try to make us do things, they might actually believe they take care of own our interests.

Were people always so manipulative?

In ancient times people used to be much more direct. They did not see many people, and those people they knew could use direct force or authority. People did what they had to do.   If you want to see how direct were people 100 years ago, simply learn the history of advertisement.

The manipulative individuals were a cautionary tale, something that people had to be warned about. Today nobody will warn you of manipulations, as they are self-evident and ubiquitous.

Rhetorics as a sign of manipulation

One of the things common to manipulation is the usage of rhetorics. If you are expected to be true to yourself, there is no reason to supply anything beyond information and emotional support.

When somebody wants us to step out of the comfort zone, they will probably use rhetorics. They will use all the tricks in the book to move us.  There will be great storytelling, compelling context, refined language and so on. Our greed and fear will be addressed with limited times deals, successful role models and empathic language.

True motives

To be fair,  very similar tools will be used by those whose only wish is to entertain themselves and us, and by those who want to motivate us to achieve our goals. We should always try to find the motives, the reasons for the use of particular language.  The motives are typically pretty clear once we move beyond the rhetorics.

Honestly, it can be very difficult to look for the hidden motives, when we are emotionally overwhelmed or when we read at the speed of machine gun.  It makes sense to take timeouts to clear the thoughts in this case.

To fight or let go

Just understanding that we deal with manipulation is not enough. Rhetorics move us either way. The reasoning behind the rhetorics will also be compelling. Moreover, the messages will repeat and occasionally pass our guard.

If the consequences are not very bad, we might as well go with the rhetorics and let it motivate us. Otherwise, we should probably find the rhetorics of the opposing side: be it minimalism, political satire or financial planning. Fortunately,  there is equally strong rhetorics pro and con each major decision. It is best not to handle the compelling reasoning on our own without proper support.

Memory quirks

If we decide to handle rhetorics on our own, we need to face our own memory quirks. The memory may act against us. If we get the same message over and over, it will look more reasonable and believable, because we already were exposed to it before. This is how brainwashing works: it finds cracks in our armor that we do not notice.  The more and better we remember, the more vulnerable we become to the one-sided storytelling. Thus it is crucial to learn both sides of every controversy to keep the freedom of choice.

Implicit bias

One of the things that rhetorics may establish is bias. We may have stereotypes embedded in us as associations. Even if we understand mentally that these stereotypes are plain wrong, we still need to fight them each step of the way. I am ashamed of the stereotypes embedded in me when I was a child. Everybody is.  Cultural norms change. We can be super liberal and accepting, yet our first automatic reaction will be influenced by early stereotypes. At the very least it will be slower, as stereotypes and values collide.

Times of vulnerability

We are especially susceptible to brainwashing in certain times of weakness. Childhood is the longest period of weakness, and our education may contain a huge amount of brainwashing.  Any religion most of us have including atheism is probably a result of such brainwashing.  I think the mature response is questioning anything that cannot be proven one way or another.

Various cults use the periods of great personal crisis: loss of a loved person, loss of social status, severe depression or existential status. During times of weakness, we look for strong people who appear to have all the answers.  If we feel pain, we may need something to forget.

When we are strong and overconfident we may do another kind of mistake, trying to experiment with things that should not be touched. For example, when traveling people tend to take gambles they would not take at home. If we get a promotion at work, we are likely to buy something we do not really need as a reward.

The biggest issue with this risks: results of impulsive actions  tend to follow us for life.

Figures of power

Another aspect of weakness is something a regular person feels near someone with power. The president of the United States can say whatever he wants, and we will treat it as something meaningful, either truthful or at least worth mentioning. The leader of most cults is a strong charismatic figure, and the leadership itself is a symbol of power.

Near the figures of power, we always feel weak. We do not ridicule the ideas of our parents, even when these ideas look ridiculous. In fact, if our parents will ask us to vote some way in elections or choose a specific diet we will seriously consider it. Even though we know they have no relevant experience. Ridiculous… Yet, this is true for all of us.

Is rhetoric art of manipulation?

In ancient times the ability to formulate yourself when addressing public was a form of art. It was taught in schools and respected. People used it as a form of self-expression and expressing complex cultural ideas, thoughts that changed civilization forever. Consider Cicero and his speeches…

Now, how would we react if in times of our deep humiliation someone we trust and respect gives us a speech? Like the figure of Uncle Ben in Spiderman. This speech if rhetoric is not a form of art, but a form of influence. It cuts deep into one’s sole and generates stereotypes. It can be filled with unconditional and unreasonable love or hate, and we will feel obliged to reciprocate.

Rhetorics in books

Anything we see many times eventually feels credible, no matter how stupid it is. Most people think the time machine can be created because they see time travel in science fiction. If they are smarter they may cloak this superstition with some interesting remarks about the event horizon of the black holes, quantum phenomena or wormholes. If we read too many books that formulate a certain line of thought we will start to feel it. In Stockholm’s syndrome, hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors.  When we read a book, our attention is captivated by the author, and we often start to identify with his values. I think reading the books of enemies is dangerous because of our instinctive need to identify with the author. At the very least, this will make us question our basic responses.

Emotion as rhetorics

Quite often the rhetorical behavior of the author is caused by a deep emotional need not backed up by scientific information or ability to act. When we choose to read a book that resonates with our emotions, we are vulnerable to mirror some of the author’s views. If someone asks us to feel empathy, we are pressed to feel it.  The emotional manipulations are hard to avoid, as no amount of reason can neutralize them. We can use sports or meditation, but probably no reason. Emotions tend to be even more contagious, as people in our social circle often share the same emotions. Thoughts are not facts. A strong emotional response is not a deep truth, it is a warning sign.

Illusion of freedom

Are we really free? Not when our focus is captive. It is very hard to detach when we read a great book, or our friend asks for our attention. This is a good thing, as long as a part of us is watching and asks critical questions.


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