For 25 years I was a member of a Bible cult.
One of the first questions people ask me when they discover this is, “How could any intelligent person get sucked in by a group like that?” Many people wonder how cult members can believe the mind-bending interpretations of their cult leader, when the reality on the ground is much different.
While there are several factors at play, the short answer is that cult leaders practice information control. This means that they prevent their followers from accessing outside information about the group, or they meticulously reinterpret outside information in ways which reflect negatively on outsiders and positively on the cult. This is part of a strategy of religious brainwashing. One of the chief ways cult leaders reinterpret negative press is by forming conspiracy theories about outsiders — theories they wholeheartedly believe (see my post on Paranoid Personality Disorder).
But cults aren’t the only groups to incorporate brainwashing techniques. All totalitarian groups or states use the same basic methods to brainwash their followers into toeing the party line in order to accomplish the goals of the leader. Dr. Robert Lifton, the 20th-century expert on thought reform, provided eight criteria for brainwashing. The first of these points was “Milieu Control,” in which a totalitarian leader limits followers’ access to outside information or people. I have written about this element in religious cults here.
How can intelligent people fall for the lies of a totalitarian leader?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has provided a fabulous example of brainwashing behavior writ large. While all reputable journalists on the ground in Crimea know that Russian troops, sans-insignia, are patrolling and blockading Ukrainian military installations, Putin and his Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, flatly deny that Russian troops are involved. Here are excerpts from a 3/6/14 article by NBC News:
“No, absolutely no (Russian troops),” Vladimir Putin’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared on Wednesday when asked whether his forces were involved.
When questioned about the Tiger and Rys armored personnel carriers seen throughout the strategic peninsula – vehicles used only by the militaries of the United Arab Emirates and Russia – Shoigu said he had “no idea” where they were coming from. Agence France-Presse reported that Shoigu also dismissed photographs military vehicles with Russian license plates in Crimea as a “provocation” and “nonsense.”
Journalists and residents have seen men in military uniforms, minus Russian military badges, traveling the countryside and beyond bases and in military vehicles using Russian license plates.
Some have admitted that they’re Russian military, not members of the self-defense militias.
In one video posted on YouTube, a uniformed man is asked: “Are you Ukrainian [citizens] or Russian?”
“Russian military servicemen,” he responds.
So what’s behind the East-West dissonance?
“It makes sense in the universe where Vladimir Putin lives,” said Dr. Igor Sutyagin, an expert in U.S.-Russian relations and nuclear arms control with London-based defense and security think tank RUSI. “His media says there are no Russian troops (and) he tries to export his media model to the outer world.”
Putin likely believes that Russia’s takeover in Crimea will work because the West won’t act decisively against him, despite the evidence that Russia has invaded another country in the “heart of Europe,” Sutyagin said.
“Putin is winning over Ukraine – what will force him to leave Crimea? Effectively nothing,” he said.
So there you have it. Some of the very same elements at work in cults who use religious brainwashing to persuade and retain followers are also at work in the Crimean Crisis: reinterpretation of reality, information control, conspiracy theories, milieu control, and totalitarian word-smithing.
The only way to deal with such totalitarian tactics is with equally assertive counter-measures which operate on reality and not on the offending leader’s muddy prevarications. Winston Churchill would flourish in such an assignment, but current world leaders have shown a remarkable lack of stomach for such statesmanship.
More’s the pity, because how leaders respond to Crimea will determine European politics for the next 25 years.