Indoctrination: Non-religious examples

Propaganda poster showing a member of Mao’s Red Guard with children (late 1950s).

In my previous post on this topic, I suggested a list of criteria that might be identified with the pejorative sense of the word “indoctrination”. I realize there are non-pejorative definitions of this word in use, and perhaps I ought to have used “brainwashing” or some other word instead. However, for the sake of continuity I will continue to use the word “indoctrination”.

Here, for convenience, is a reproduction of the list of criteria. I’ve made some minor changes, shown in bold. Not all criteria need necessarily be met simultaneously.

  1. Start as early as possible.
  2. Persistently teach and praise the desired doctrine over a long period of time, preferably years.
  3. Demonize alternative views and/or insulate the child from them.
  4. Teach the child that he is not capable of making decisions about beliefs for himself (i.e., that obedience to authority is paramount).
  5. Make the child believe that he owes it to you to uphold your worldview. Make him believe he has a debt to pay. In short, use guilt.
  6. Discourage doubt by characterizing it as a weakness.
  7. Immerse the child in a social environment composed only of people with the same beliefs.

The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that indoctrination, as defined above, is not exclusively a religious phenomenon. To do this, I simply provide some examples of non-religious indoctrination in recent history. Here they are.

Nazi Germany (see here)

These boys and girls enter our organizations [at] ten years of age, and often for the first time get a little fresh air; after four years of the Young Folk they go on to the Hitler Youth, where we have them for another four years . . . And even if they are still not complete National Socialists, they go to Labor Service and are smoothed out there for another six, seven months . . . And whatever class consciousness or social status might still be left . . . the Wehrmacht [German armed forces] will take care of that. (Adolf Hitler, 1938)

In Hitler’s quote, we see the following elements of indoctrination:

  • Start early (children were 10).
  • Demonize other worldviews and people (Jews, obviously).
  • Lavish praise on one’s own worldview.
  • Instill obedience instead of critical thinking.
  • Tight control of youth’s activities, steering them through pro-Nazi organizations.

Mao’s Communist China

The Cultural Revolution in China saw a number of features of indoctrination. Youth were encouraged to join the Red Guard, where they were instilled with party propaganda. At one point, all children, starting from primary school age, were required to read Mao’s “Little Red Book”. Many schools were closed, and urban children sent to the country to work the land under peasant farmers.

Here, we have the following characteristics of indoctrination:

  • Start early
  • Lavished praise on one’s own worldview.
  • Discouraged critical thinking (e.g., by shutting down schools)
  • Encouraging youths to join the Red Guard, thereby ensuring that most of their time is spent carrying out party policy.

Present-day North Korea (see here and here)

North Koreans appear to be indoctrinated quite heavily. The list of “brainwashing” techniques mentioned in the first link above have much in common with my criteria for indoctrination, including isolation and persistence over time.

Military Indoctrination

New recruits into the military are, in a sense, indoctrinated, since they’re trained to obey their commanders, to place their allegiance strongly in one worldview, and sometimes to demonize others. They are discouraged, to some extent, from thinking for themselves.

A case might, however, be made that some elements of military indoctrination are necessary elements of a well-oiled, efficient military. The pejorative nature of the term “indoctrination” might therefore be a little strong in this context. A more detailed analysis of this situation might be interesting – perhaps I shall return to it later.

In the meantime, the above examples should demonstrate that negative forms of indoctrination (as delineated by my criteria) are found in non-religious settings.

I would, however, argue that the most pervasive form of indoctrination in most parts of the world today is religious.


5 Responses to Indoctrination: Non-religious examples

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    I spent time in China & Taiwan twice: once in the early 80s and once in the late 90s (a year, then). The propaganda was thick. Loud speakers blared jingoistic aphorisms throughout the day. It reminded me of the deafening calls from my local mosque when I lived in Pakistan.

    I am amazed at the stuff my kids are indoctrinated with at our public schools: history, politics, patriotism etc. But that happens in every country I have lived in.

    We all indoctrinate — but it is a matter of degree for sure.

    The younger we do it and the more we surround our kids with only like minded believers and the less we encourage questioning, the more successful the teachings (“indoctrination” — putting doctrines (teachings) in).

    Recognizing the log in one’s own eye is an important principle. If we can’t see our own faults, how can we expect others to listen to us when we point out theirs.

    I agree with you: indoctrination is far from being a religious phenomena. It is a successful method to nurture a culture. That is why it thrives.

    I think the important place to begin is to encourage critical thinking — all other attacks seem easy to deflect. For most people would want to think that “critical thinking is important”. However most of us do the other qualities:
    (1) start early
    (2) lavish praise on one’s own worldview (thus demonize others)
    (3) Tight control of a child’s activities

  2. L.Long says:

    Yes Sabio much of what the public schools do can be considered in a broad sense indoctrination but that is easily worked around by you the parent questioning your kids, paying attention to what is being taught and then teaching the kids how to question it and get better answers.
    But the schools are not going to change their procedures because YOU (Mr Public person) don’t want to pay for it. You want schools open for 10hrs/day 6 days a week for most of the year? As an Xteacher I can tell you that just to get all the minimum stuff covered and making sure ‘no child is left behind’ (there’s a con for you) there are not enough hours in the day. So yes we ‘indoctrinate’ them because it allows the minimum to be covered and mostly learned. But this is not the same thing as seen in chinese schools by a long shot.
    So yes agreed ‘indoctrination’ or ‘rote learning’ is not necessarily a bad thing.

  3. Sabio Lantz says:

    Yes, L.Long.

    I taught High School, Undergrads and University undergrads for many years. I know the issues.

    Yes, the indoctrination is not the same that the Chinese got back in the day and even today.

    But, as my comment says, it is not because they:
    (1) start early and we don’t
    (2) Lavish praise on one’s own worldview, and we don’t
    (3) Tightly control children’s activities, and we don’t

    Those AREN’T what make condemnable “indoctrination” which seems what Keith is really after.

    So I am pushing for a more careful analysis, measured thinking and applications to more than one data set in test a theory — basic principles of science.

    What do you and Keith think *definitively* separates bad indoctrination from normal indoctrination? If those particulars are clearly identified, we can drop the political term and focus on measurable activities.

    Certain, imprisoning for voicing out against the propoganda should count — or other coercive actions. I imagine we could come up with others. THEN, Keith’s mission (IMHO) is to tell us how some Christian groups do those differently than others. Certainly not all Christians do what ever he detests. And “indoctrination” shouldn’t come down to just “teaching what I detest”.

  4. Impressive discussion and ideas here, Sabio…

  5. YinOva Center

    Indoctrination: Non-religious examples | coming of age

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