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Recent calls to deprogram QAnon conspiracy followers are steeped in discredited notions about brainwashing. As popularly imagined, brainwashing is a coercive procedure that programs new long-term personality changes. Deprogramming, also coercive, is thought to undo brainwashing.
As a professor of religious studies who has written and taught about alternative religious movements, I believe such deprogramming conversations do little to help us understand why people adopt QAnon beliefs. A deprogramming discourse fails to understand religious recruitment and conversion and excuses those spreading QAnon beliefs from accountability.
A brief brainwashing history
Deprogramming, a method thought to reverse extreme psychological manipulation, can't be understood apart from the concept of brainwashing.
The modern concept of brainwashing has its origin in Chinese experiments with American prisoners of war during the Korean War. Coercive physical and psychological methods were employed in an attempt to plant Communist beliefs in the minds of American POWs. To determine whether brainwashing was possible, the CIA then launched its own secret mind-control program in the 1950s called MK-ULTRA.
By the late 1950s researchers were already casting doubt on brainwashing theory. The anti-American behavior of captured Americans was best explained by temporary compliance owing to torture. This is akin to false confessions made under extreme duress.
Still, books like “The Manchurian Candidate," released in 1959, and “A Clockwork Orange," released in 1962 – both of which were turned into movies and heavily featured themes of brainwashing – reinforced the concept in popular culture. To this day, the language of brainwashing and deprogramming is applied to groups holding controversial beliefs – from fundamentalist Mormons to passionate Trump supporters.
Seeking guardianship of adult children in these groups, parents cited the belief that members were brainwashed to justify court-ordered conservatorship. With guardianship orders in hand, they sought help from cult deprogrammers like Ted Patrick. Deprogrammers were notorious for kidnapping, isolating and harassing adults in an effort to reverse perceived cult brainwashing.
For a time, U.S. courts accepted brainwashing testimony despite the pseudo-scientific nature of the theory. It turns out that research on coercive conversion failed to support brainwashing theory. Several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, have filed legal briefs against brainwashing testimony. Others argued that deprogramming practices violated civil rights.
In 1995 the coercive deprogramming method was litigated again in Scott vs. Ross. The jury awarded the plaintiff nearly US$5 million in total damages. This bankrupted the co-defending Cult Awareness Network, a popular resource at the time for those seeking deprogramming services.
Given this tarnished history, coercive deprogramming evolved into “exit counseling." Unlike deprogramming, exit counseling is voluntary and resembles an intervention or talk therapy.
One of the most visible self-styled exit counselors is former deprogrammer Rick Alan Ross, the executive director of the Cult Education Institute and defendant in Scott v. Ross. Through frequent media appearances, people including Ross and Steve Hassan, founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, continue to contribute to the mind-control and deprogramming discourse in popular culture.
These “cult-recovery experts," some of whom were involved with the old deprogramming model, are now being used for QAnon deprogramming advice. Some, like Ross and cult intervention specialist Pat Ryan, advocate for a more aggressive intervention approach. Others, like Hassan, offer a gentler approach that includes active listening.
Choice vs. coercion
Despite the pivot to exit counseling, the language of deprogramming persists. The concept of deprogramming rests on the idea that people do not choose alternative beliefs. Instead, beliefs that are deemed too deviant for mainstream culture are thought to result from coercive manipulation by nefarious entities like cult leaders. When people call for QAnon believers to be deprogrammed, they are implicitly denying that followers exercised choice in accepting QAnon beliefs.
This denies the personal agency and free will of those who became QAnon enthusiasts, and shifts the focus to the programmer. It can also relieve followers of responsibility for perpetuating QAnon beliefs.
As I suggested in an earlier article, and as evident in the QAnon influence on the Jan. 6, 2021, capital insurrection, QAnon beliefs can be dangerous. I believe those who adopt and perpetuate these beliefs ought to be held responsible for the consequences.
This isn't to say that people are not subject to social influence. However, social influence is a far cry from the systematic, mind-swiping, coercive, robotic imagery conjured up by brainwashing.
Admittedly, what we choose to believe is constrained by the types of influences we face. Those restraints emerge from our social and economic circumstances. In the age of social media, we are also constrained by algorithms that influence the media we consume. Further examination of these issues in relation to the development of QAnon would prove fruitful.
But applying a brainwashing and deprogramming discourse limits our potential to understand the grievances of the QAnon community. To suggest “they were temporarily out of their minds" relieves followers of the conspiracy of responsibility and shelters the rest of society from grappling with uncomfortable social realities.
To understand the QAnon phenomenon, I believe analysts must dig deeply into the social, economic and political factors that influence the adoption of QAnon beliefs.
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Healthcare providers, reproductive rights advocates, and progressive politicians are not only celebrating the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision this week to lift a restriction on accessing abortion medication during the coronavirus pandemic but also calling on regulators to retain the policy after the public health crisis is over.
"Medication abortion just became more accessible during the pandemic," NARAL Pro-Choice America tweeted Wednesday. "Now, we need to make the change permanent."
"We look forward to working with policymakers to ensure this principle governs post-pandemic care."
—Dr. Maureen G. Phipps, ACOG
In a statement, NARAL chief campaigns and advocacy officer Christian LoBue said that "the in-person dispensing restriction—which the Trump administration fought to keep in place during the pandemic—prioritized ideology over science and endangered the health and well-being of Americans."
"The unfortunate reality is that medication abortion care remains out of reach for many due to additional medically unnecessary and ideologically motivated restrictions," LoBue continued. "We must ensure that people can access the care that they need even after the pandemic ends."
LoBue added that "we are hopeful that the Biden administration will take further action to remedy this through a comprehensive FDA review of all restrictions on medication abortion—bringing us closer to a world where we all have the freedom to make our own decisions about our lives, our bodies, and our futures."
A medication or medical abortion is one way to complete an early miscarriage or end a pregnancy, and commonly involves two drugs—mifepristone and misoprostol—taken orally. The FDA requires that mifepristone "only be dispensed in clinics, medical offices, and hospitals by or under the supervision of a certified healthcare provider." The patient can then take the medication at a time and place they choose.
Though healthcare experts and advocates have long opposed the dispensing restriction as an unnecessary barrier to abortion care, and argued for a permanent policy change, that call gained new weight during the Covid-19 crisis.
Last year, a federal court ruled that the FDA must temporarily suspend enforcement of the restriction and allow patients to receive mifepristone by mail. However, the Trump administration fought back, and the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the in-person pickup rule in January, just days before President Joe Biden took office.
In March, reproductive rights, health, and justice groups sent petitions and a letter urging the Biden administration to lift the dispensing restriction. Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock responded Monday with a letter (pdf) to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.
The FDA "conducted a literature search for studies pertinent to the in-person dispensing requirement," Woodcock wrote. "The overall findings from these studies do not appear to show increases in serious safety concerns (such as hemorrhage, ectopic pregnancy, or surgical interventions) occurring with medical abortion as a result of modifying the in-person dispensing requirement during the Covid-19 pandemic."
Dr. Maureen G. Phipps, ACOG's CEO, applauded the agency "for acknowledging the strong safety and efficacy profile of mifepristone for termination of early pregnancy" and said that "by halting enforcement of the in-person dispensing requirement during the Covid-19 pandemic, the FDA is recognizing and responding to the available evidence—which has clearly and definitively demonstrated that the in-person dispensing requirement for mifepristone is unnecessary and restrictive."
"ACOG has for years advocated for the FDA to remove the in-person dispensing requirement for mifepristone, given that there is no safety reason for the restrictions and that the restrictions were more burdensome than those placed on medications with similar safety profiles, or even those with greater risks," she noted. "Requiring the medicine to be dispensed in person, then taken elsewhere at the patients' discretion, is arbitrary and does nothing to bolster the safety of an already-safe medicine."
While recognizing that the pandemic made the FDA's restriction "not just burdensome," but "also dangerous," Phipps vowed that ACOG will keep working to make the drug accessible in the long-term. "We are pleased to see mifepristone regulated on the basis of the scientific evidence during the pandemic, rather than political bias against comprehensive reproductive healthcare," she said, "and we look forward to working with policymakers to ensure this principle governs post-pandemic care."
The ACLU—which filed suit on behalf of ACOG and other organizations last May to block the FDA's policy during the pandemic and is currently challenging it more broadly in separate litigation—responded similarly.
"This important step will ensure that abortion and miscarriage patients will no longer be forced to unnecessarily risk exposure to a deadly virus in order to access time-sensitive, essential healthcare," said Georgeanne Usova, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. "But we cannot stop here."
"The restrictions on medication abortion are outdated and have obstructed patients' access for far too long," she said. "We urge the FDA to comprehensively evaluate them to ensure that patients can get the care they need without medically unnecessary, harmful obstacles—even after the pandemic ends."
Former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has been arrested and accused of domestic violence.
Dewhurst was arrested Tuesday evening in Dallas, according to Dallas police. He faces a misdemeanor charge of family violence.
Dewhurst was arrested after police responded to a disturbance at an address near Dallas Love Field Airport and met with a woman who said she had been assaulted by a male acquaintance, police said. Officers identified the man as Dewhurst, 75, and took him into custody.
Dewhurst was released from jail early Wednesday morning after posting a $1,000 bond, according to records from the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.
Dallas police said the Public Integrity Unit will investigate the incident.
Dewhurst was lieutenant governor from 2003-15. He unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, losing to Ted Cruz, and lost reelection as lieutenant governor in 2014 when Dan Patrick beat him in the Republican primary runoff.
Dewhurst's personal life made headlines last year, when his girlfriend was arrested twice, accused of kicking him and breaking two of his ribs in one of the cases. A grand jury decided not to indict her in connection with the first incident, according to KPRC-TV. Last week, charges were dropped in the second case, which involved the girlfriend allegedly throwing candle wax at him.
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