On brainwashing | Inquirer Opinion

On brainwashing

The issue of brainwashing is highly philosophical. It implies epistemological questions such as “What is the source of knowledge?” “What is truth?” and “Where do correct ideas come from?” Its issue springs from the conflict between, on the one hand, “what is” and how it is represented in consciousness, and, on the other hand, how faithful representation is distorted or revised through fabricated “truths.”

A classic Latin dictum states: “Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu.” In English, it means “there is nothing in the mind that does not come from the senses.” Perception, as provided by our senses, is key to the cultivation of ideas in the mind. Furthermore, through perception, we experience the world. In other words, we learn from experience, from our perception and engagement with the world. This belief is affirmed by the philosopher John Locke who claimed that the mind is a “tabula rasa” (blank slate — although some would say that the tabula was never a rasa), and that it could only acquire ideas through experience.


Every day we encounter various information communicated to us through different media. From the whisper of a friend, to TV advertisements, to homilies, to the international news, our experience with the world enables us not only to learn but also to make judgments whether what we learn is true or not. Knowledge is not just about comprehending reality, but also judging whether such a reality is indeed real.

Where does brainwashing come in? It comes when there is a systematic distortion or revision of reality as they are represented in our consciousness. Brainwashing does not distort reality itself, but the representation of such a reality in the consciousness. For example, when the experience of 22 fishermen being rammed by a foreign vessel at Recto Bank is forcefully being revised in order to downplay and fit into the narrative of an “ordinary maritime accident,” that is brainwashing (a psychology professor explained to me that it is even an example of gaslighting). Or when the experience of the Filipino workers’ industry and hard work is distorted to give in to the story that foreign workers are more competent for local jobs, that is brainwashing.


In this regard, brainwashing has a close affinity with revisionism. Both do not just deny the truth, but also make up versions of the truth by way of counternarratives. Indeed, in the post-truth politics characteristic among populists, this is not impossible.

How about students who managed to comprehend social realities like poverty? Are they brainwashed? Far from it. They learned something from the material conditions they have experienced which they can’t otherwise deny. In fact, recent surveys stating that more Filipinos consider themselves poor (“Self-rated poor, food-poor rise in SWS June survey,” July 2019) confirm their very own experience. And when students further manage to establish causal links between poverty and their supposed root causes, that is not brainwashing, but critical thinking, an initial attempt to be scientific.

This is the goal of the liberal arts, a goal that, thankfully, is being shared by cause-oriented and progressive groups that seek to be scientific in grasping social realities. And it is never the goal of the liberal arts to brainwash. Truth is too stubborn to be manipulated.

To judge that the youth is brainwashed smacks of an arrogance that is, however, supported only by revisionist and ignorant claims. Such an accusation belittles the powerful and intelligent minds of our youth. We could only suspect that such an accusation results not from an intelligent investigation, but from a dreadful and fearful attitude toward the power of the youth to effect societal change.

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Regletto Aldrich Imbong is an assistant professor of philosophy.

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TAGS: Inquirer Commentary, knowledge, Reality, truth
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