This essay is by a participant of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 13-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each emerging writer has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read other essays from the 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program cohort.
My dad wrote: “I feel strongly in my spirit that you’ve been influenced by your friends and church.”
It was his response to a long email I sent my parents when I was 25. I informed them that not only was I queer, but that I now believed that God (of the Christian sort) was okay with it. Although my dad would also accuse me of blasphemy and insinuate that I might go to hell, it was his charge of “influence” that surprisingly stung the most. To be accused of being “influenced” was, essentially, to be accused of being “brainwashed.” The accusation tossed aside the decade I had spent wrestling over Scripture, tradition, and my sexuality—boiling all that down to basic “peer pressure.” In his telling of the story, I possessed little agency and was merely the passive, brainwashed recipient of ideas expressed by my secular college and progressive church—the institutions that my parents had long been wary of.
In this story, I possessed little agency and was merely the passive, brainwashed recipient of ideas.
Two months after that email exchange, Donald Trump was elected president. Both my parents voted for him; I did not. Perhaps it was my increased sensitivity, but I began noticing how often the word “brainwash” was tossed around by pundits and peers to describe the other political side. In a 2018 poll of American citizens, many Republicans told researchers that they believed Democratic voters were “brainwashed by the propaganda of the mainstream media.” Democrats offered similar comments, stating that Republicans are “uneducated and misguided people guided by what the [conservative] media is feeding them.” Among my liberal peers, these comments were rampant. While I sometimes joined in the chorus, in the back of my head I wondered: “Am I doing to my parents what I resent them for doing to me?”
The word “brainwash” was born out of the political context of the Cold War. Journalist Edward Hunter was the first to popularize the term, writing the headline, “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party,” in the Miami Daily News in September 1950. “Brainwash” was Hunter’s translation of the word, 洗脑 (xi nao), which literally means “to wash brain.” It did not have the pejorative meaning it does today. It was originally employed by Chinese reformers starting in the late 19th century who wanted the Chinese to shake off the fetters of tradition and awaken to the modern political world. It was a deliberate play on the phrase 洗心 (xi xin), a term in Confucian and Daoist contexts translated literally as “wash heart,” referencing an internal moral transformation begun by renouncing past transgressions. But for Hunter, and consequently the rest of the American public, these nuances were lost. Brainwashing became the catchphrase for hypnotic, cultish tactics that supposedly turned people into mindless automatons obedient to the Communist Party—or any party or group that you disagreed with.
As Timothy Melley, professor at Miami University and author of The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State, said to Smithsonian Magazine: “The basic problem that brainwashing is designed to address is the question ‘why would anybody become a Communist? [Brainwashing] is a story that we tell to explain something we can’t otherwise explain.”
Am I doing to my parents what I resent them for doing to me?
Instead of jumping to the quick accusation of brainwashing, what would happen if we paused and instead tried to become curious? Yes, I’m talking about curiosity oriented towards the Other: Learning about the experiences, desires, and inherited systems that have shaped the way people with different views make sense of the world and their behaviors. Why would someone actually become a Communist and take up arms for the cause (as my grand-aunt did)? Or believe that the Bible is the main way to interpret all of reality, as my parents do? To learn does not mean to agree; I’m not arguing for a moral equivocation of “both sides”—one should retain one’s sense of judgment—but for, at the very least, a disagreement grounded in mutual understanding.
Even more crucially, I’m advocating for a level of curiosity directed towards the Self: Why is it that we feel the need to frame the Other as “brainwashed,” “influenced,” and so on? Why can labeling someone as such feel, sometimes, emotionally satisfying?
Perhaps if we engage in this self-reflection, we will find ourselves interrogating the reasons for our own beliefs and discover they might be less grounded in ‘objective rationality’ than we would allow ourselves to think. As much as I would like to think that my theological conclusions were the result of a decade of intellectual study, frankly, it has been equally formative for me to witness the lives of devout LGBTQ+ Christians and other religious folks. It has been formative for me to experience the holiness being loved and to love in the context of a same-sex partnership. All these people have been, yes, a kind of “influence” to me—a cloud of saints, if you will.
Why is it that we feel the need to frame the Other as “brainwashed”?
In my efforts to empathetically imagine my parents’ story, I tell myself that perhaps for them, their implied accusation of brainwashing was a knee-jerk reaction to the initial overwhelming waves of grief. Their grief over their lost dreams, shattered by the painful truth that their oldest child, who was once “so good,” did not grow into the person they had hoped and prayed for. By pointing the finger at external influences, such as my “liberal friends and church,” they could preserve their original image of the uncorrupted child they raised, effectively privileging that image over the reality of the person that I have become. Perhaps blaming others was a way to cope with the grief and shock that someone they so intimately knew and loved could so drastically change in ways that diverged from them. After all, I used to be on their team.
Perhaps blaming others was a way to cope with grief and shock.
These days, those waves of grief—on all sides—have lessened. Apologies have been made. Compromises have been worked out. My parents and I have negotiated ways to meet each other in the middle. Instead of fighting those waves, we’ve learned to let them wash over us and wash our hearts, even our minds—to let go of old expectations and to instead embrace the person who is standing right before us.