Prisoners of Higher Ed: What Can We Learn From the United States POW Resistance Training Manual?
This is a continuation from last week’s essay, Prisoners of Higher Ed: Part 1, which lays out the ways in which higher education creates conformity in the professionals it trains.
I’ve been fortunate in my lifetime to have had zero first-hand experience of war, but if war broke out around me, I feel fairly confident that I would know it. And I’m pretty sure that if I were physically captured, I’d know that, too. You probably feel the same way.
But what about psychological war, psychological capture? Jeffrey Schmidt’s book, Disciplined Minds, reinforces my personal belief that almost all of us have been captured at some point in our lives by programming we didn’t ask for and have no conscious awareness of, regardless of whether we’ve gone to grad school or not.
It may seem like a stretch to some — probably ridiculous to those professionals who believe they are immune to such forces — to refer to professional training (virtually all graduate school programs) as “brainwashing.”
Schmidt defines it as:
“activity that pushes people toward unquestioning acceptance of any ideas and away from critical thinking.”
That’s what’s going on in most graduate programs. If you have doubts, I recommend reading his book; Schmidt provides a plethora of first-hand examples. And if you have doubts about whether we’re all brainwashed to a certain extent, stay tuned for a subsequent essay.
For now, I’m going with it. We’ve all been brainwashed.
And given that we carry around in our pockets the most powerful tool for brainwashing ever created by humankind, it seems vital for every human being on this planet to understand how the process works and how it’s used by social hierarchies to create conformity.
Because don’t we all, at some point, find ourselves wanting to resist something that a group is trying to coerce us into?
Before I get to Schmidt’s helpful guide to resistance, I want to look at how organizations achieve their uniform thinking and obedience goals in the first place.
Based in large part on Robert Jay Lifton’s study of brainwashing, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Schmidt describes eight themes you’ll find in “totalist” organizations, groups that push people toward unquestioning acceptance of an overarching ideology.
In examining totalist groups, Lifton found that the same themes kept recurring among the many tactics these organizations use. Not every theme was present in every group, but most of them were — in varying degrees.
Without even reading the list of themes, we can probably all agree that certain groups are clearly totalist: almost all religions, and for sure, the military. If you don’t agree, see how you feel after reading the list.
I will say, my mouth fell open as I read it. I started seeing the themes in just about every major organization — in academia, the corporate sector, the medical establishment, and the media. You may, as well. (If you do, please feel free to share your findings in the comments!)
What really struck me, and what prompted me to write this essay, was the preponderance of themes I saw in governments’ handling of Covid, particularly the vaccination campaign.
Just to be clear: I’m providing quotes and articles not because I want to convince you of anything regarding the vaccinations themselves. Plenty of other people have taken that on.
I want to illustrate, in real time and with real life examples, what brainwashing can look like. I don’t know about you, but my conception of it was two-fold: either it was done by long-ago despots shouting from grainy black-and-white newsreels, and therefore not relevant to my life; or it was always hyper-theatrical — an evil genius in a white lab coat putting electrodes on someone’s head and making them watch an endless loop of commands — and therefore not relevant to my life.
Schmidt’s book helped me understand that pushing people toward unquestioning acceptance of an overarching ideology is much less entertaining, much more common, subtle, and relevant to my life than I might have realized.
See what you think:
- Big promises. The group offers “a new and appealing identity: that of a self-actualized person doing work of supreme importance… you will do big things, for yourself and for the world.”
Getting vaccinated “is the most patriotic thing you can do,” — President Joe Biden, 7.4.21
- Milieu control. “They isolate members from the outside world and often encourage or require them to live or socialize only with other group members.”
“Dr. Fauci Says Don’t Invite Unvaccinated Relatives Over for the Holidays,” msn.com, 12.23.21
- Unquestioned authority. “…total commitment precludes questioning. And without questioning, an organization can have no internal mechanism that limits its leaders’ use or abuse of authority.”
- Guilt tripping and shaming. “The leaders spell out the model good person’s behavior and use guilt and shame to push members in that direction.”
“Maybe you go home and kiss your grandmother and wind up killing your grandmother.”
—former NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, 5.3.21
- Total personal exposure. They “push their members to reveal everything possible about themselves — their personal relationships, activities, thoughts, likes, dislikes, personal goals and plans.”
“Surprising Things the US Government Knows About You” — 24/7 Wall St., 8.12.19
- “Scientific” dogma. “The group’s doctrine, being sacred rather than scientific… is a higher authority than experience… [and] always comes with a set of thought-terminating cliches… Hence, new points of view or troublesome events do not provoke reflection but are quickly explained and dismissed.”
“Follow the Science.” “Flatten the Curve.” “Safe and Effective.”
- Taking away true self-confidence. “Whenever a world event or personal experience appears to contradict the organization’s dogma, those without the self-confidence necessary to listen to their own intuition, let alone stand up to the leaders of the group, will discount their observations and stick to the doctrine.”
Canadian actress who got Bell’s Palsy two weeks after vaccination says she would do it again. — Jennifer Gibson’s Instagram post, 7.19.21
- The only path to salvation. “…the individual, and indeed humanity as a whole, is doomed without the group and its insights.”
“Vaccines are our only way out of this.” —Dr. Paul Offit, key member of the FDA Vaccines Advisory Committee, to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, 5.18.21
When I look at the eight themes and compare them to the vaccination campaign, I see a totalist category sweep.
Perhaps you see the same, but think “extreme circumstances call for extreme measures.” I understand that logic, but I’d submit that all authoritarian governments have used that same logic to wrest control from the people: “Sorry, we have to infringe on some of your freedoms, but don’t worry, we’re only doing it to keep you safe.”
Perhaps you don’t see any parallels at all. That’s fine, too. Back to my earlier point: don’t we all, at some point, find ourselves wanting to resist something that a group is trying to coerce us into?
“Any organization that wants people to play an ideologically subordinate role — be it a professional training program, a cult, a military unit or an employer — will use these techniques. But… the organization doesn’t always get what it wants…. The hard part is mustering the courage to fight them.” —Jeffrey Schmidt
So let’s focus on how to do it.
Fortunately, Schmidt provides a handy guide. Or rather, the military provided it to him, after he contacted them in search of something that could help him resist mind control. The manual, entitled “Prisoner of War Resistance,” is a wealth of information.
The second edition, published in 1989, is a classified document. “We don’t want the people who potentially will hold our individuals captives to know what we teach them to do to deal with it,” said Lt. Col. Bruce Jessen, PhD, who at the time Schmidt contacted him was head psychologist at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Agency (SERE).
Jessen, after identifying the most effective torture techniques and the psychology behind them, went to work for the CIA. (Surprise!) With a handful of other former SERE employees, he formed Mitchell Jessen and Associates, a company devoted to reverse-engineering what he had learned in order to create “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
These techniques, described by the acting CIA general counsel as “sadistic and terrifying,” were used in the interrogation and torture of CIA detainees at so-called black sites, located outside the US because the torture practices clearly violated US law.
The CIA paid Jessen’s company 81 million dollars for their services. Our tax dollars at work. But I digress.
How does the Army Manual train soldiers to resist brainwashing? Here is a boiled-down guide:
- Knowing What You Are Up Against
“The indoctrination process may be gradual… They know that a person who convinces himself that something is right or wrong, good or bad, is a better and more lasting convert than one who has ideas “stuffed down his throat.” Your captor… wants to make you, the captured soldier, both the propagandist and the object of propaganda.”
This makes so much sense to me. One evening, after only one semester of theatre and performance studies grad school, I found myself arguing with my husband after we watched a play in which women had been cast as some of the male characters. Even though my visceral experience of that substitution had been the same as his — it pulled me out of the moment, over and over — I spouted intellectual justifications for its use, using jargon like “the performativity of gender” with the fervor of the newly-converted.
It took me a long time to recognize (years), and admit (more years), that without my even realizing it, I had become both the propagandist and the object of propaganda.
- Preparing to Take Action
“Training should… make the soldier self-reliant and a team worker. He must understand that both are needed for success… Teach him not only to reach deeply within himself for courage and initiative in times of stress, but to reach out to his fellow soldiers to help them…”
I love this. All of us need to develop internal resources, to shore up our own instincts and connection to self, AND learn how to work as a team. It has to be a balance.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you all you do is sublimate yourself to the will of yet another group, how is that resistance? And if you focus on self to the exclusion of the needs of others, how can you and your fellow resisters band together enough to ensure mutual survival?
- Working with Others
“Prisoners of war must present a united front to the enemy… Keep your differences to yourself; work them out quietly. If you don’t your captor will try to exploit them.”
The doctrine, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” has lasted centuries because it works, in a purely practical, geopolitical sense.
Anyone who has kids can probably relate. Not that we considered our children in any way to be “the enemy,” or our family to be a geopolitical microcosm, but the truth is… my husband and I learned quickly that if we didn’t present a united front, especially on unpopular decisions, the kids would quickly figure out which one was the weak link and besiege him or her. Usually her. 🙂
- Resisting Subordination
“Do not allow your captor to establish himself as the audience upon whom you depend for establishment/reinforcement of your self-image… Remember: If the enemy doesn’t like you, you’re doing well.”
One of my most authoritarian professors despised me. At the time, it was infuriating; now, I see it as evidence of my effort to retain my individuality and I take it as a point of pride.
I find the idea of not depending on “your captor” for reinforcement of your self image so significant. It’s tremendously difficult to do, however, when you are firmly embedded in a program — like grad school, or any large organization that has a strong ideological culture — because your self-worth is often so tied in to your community: “the group likes me; I must be okay.”
As I’ve made choices that go against prevailing opinion, I’ve been forced to develop internal resources, to “reach deeply within” as Point #2 stated. Fortunately, I’ve been participating in a program (I know, how ironic!) called BeLovedNow that continues to support my diving deeper and deeper into meditation and self-sovereignty.
The more I cultivate inner guidance, the more I feel just fine about myself, regardless of whether any group bestows upon me a gold star of approval or not.
“Try to win a victory over your captors every time you can, no matter how small. Then, pass the word to your fellow PWs as quickly as you can. Every victory you win will be a great morale booster… In a PW compound, a small victory is really a big victory.”
The small group I helped start, United for Health Freedom, created a group chat to share information. The small victories that people post always strengthen my resolve and give me hope.
If you don’t have a group — in-person or online — Substack is now home to a slew of journalists and authors (many of whom I recommend) who are ringing the alarm bells for what they see as a dangerous slide toward authoritarianism.
Their comment sections are often filled with personal stories of small victories. I can attest: reading through them when I’m feeling demoralized is a guaranteed galvanizer.
“Gripe to your captors at every opportunity, about every aspect of your treatment.”
This is a tough one for me. I had a crusty, unsympathetic track coach in middle school who was of the “tape it up!” “walk it off!” philosophy, which dovetailed nicely with my upbringing, particularly my Germanic roots, which instilled in me a kind of stoicism, a “don’t complain about it; just deal with it or fix it or walk away from it” mentality that I find hard to shake.
I do admit, I believe there’s some benefit to that attitude. Resilience is built that way. But context is everything, no? My coach wasn’t trying to infringe on my rights; he was trying to toughen me up.
I have a friend who is really, really good at griping. She has absolutely no qualms about complaining, loudly and clearly, to anyone who’s attempting to squelch her personal freedoms. I’m not so good at it, but inspired by her, I am training that muscle slowly.
“Your captor does all he can to make you feel humble and unworthy… Don’t take it personally!… Ridicule them in private; Assign ludicrous nicknames… mock the enemy… make him the butt of your humor and jokes.”
“Keep a sense of humor. Humor is a highly effective weapon. Use it…. Humor drives away fear; it gives spirit to the dispirited, courage to the discouraged, strength to the week, hope to the ‘down and out.’ Humor is an invaluable PW weapon.”
Yes! Perhaps like me, you’ve nicknamed oppressive teachers, coaches, or corrupt political leaders behind their backs. Didn’t it take away the sting of their actions and reduce them to pint-sized villains, not to be feared?
Comedian, actor, and director Mel Brooks created the musical theatre number “Heil Myself” (it’s genius) within “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden” in his movie, The Producers.
“Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.”
He’s right. That’s why tyrants and tyrannical organizations can’t stand humor — they know it’s kryptonite.
“If you recognize the enemy is using a technique for exploitation, let all the other PWs know as soon as possible.”
Which brings me back to my earlier comment about the active network of Substackers. It often feels like I’m connected to an early-warning system, an independent version of what journalism used to be, before it was corporatized.
As I am writing this, I realize why the writers I follow mean so much to me: they do much of what Schmidt and the Army Manual teach: they gripe, they poke fun, and they act from their own code of beliefs. They support one another. They also admit when they’re wrong.
I don’t always agree with the writers I follow, but I believe that most of them are sincerely trying to foster open dialogue as they question the status quo. That’s my intention, too.
This process of sinking into Schmidt’s book and writing these essays has given me a new lens through which to view my own experiences. I can see now how some of even the most well-meaning trainings I participated in used tactics to create obedience and suppress dissent.
None of these environment were hostile; I never thought of my “superiors” as “the enemy.” There was often a lot of positive language about asking questions, open dialogue, and freedom of choice. But was it real? In retrospect, I think it was a kind of happy, hollow talk that probably obscured to me the reality of my situation: I was being molded, kindly, and if I didn’t want that, well, there’s the door.
There’s a lot of that going around these days.
Starting January 2023, Harvard University is requiring all on-campus students to be vaccinated with the bivalent COVID-19 booster in order to register for the spring term, and threatens holds on enrollment if students don’t comply.
Two weeks ago, I published a short poem entitled, “School.” An amuse bouche for these “Prisoners of Higher Ed” essays, it was intended as a metaphoric expression of what writers and philosophers like Noam Chomsky, Neil Postman, and Aldous Huxley have all warned us about: systems we are born into can be dangerous, particularly the ones whose very familiarity renders them invisible.
I am grateful for their writings, and for Schmidt’s, as well. He makes visible the system of professional indoctrination, ending his book with his own admonition:
“…if you want to stand for something and avoid vanishing as an independent force in society, you have no choice but to resist. Certainly, resisting the system carries some risk, but not resisting is a far deadlier course for your individual identity.”
And Anon Wellesley student says this:
“On some level, then, ongoing vaccine mandates like Wellesley’s represent the decay of American academia and show where its real loyalties lie. Educating and forming students is, for college administrators, secondary to being part of the “right” ideological crowd (whether or not that ideological crowd is right).”
My mother went to Wellesley, and so did both of my sisters. My father went to Harvard, undergrad and law school. I went to Stanford.
In preparing to move, I let go of hundreds of pictures of my mother. But I’m keeping the one of her at the top of this essay. She is seated at her senior class supper, surrounded by her classmates with their almost-identically coiffed hairstyles, makeup, and outfits — the very picture of conformity.
I’m keeping it to remind me of where I came from, and how easy it is to want to remain or return there, safe in the prison-bosom of accepted thought.
This article was republished from the author’s Substack
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