Indoctrination is the process of teaching or re-educating someone into unquestioningly accepting certain beliefs or values.
It occurs when a person is repeatedly exposed – either voluntarily or forcibly – to a set of ideas or ideology, taught through rote learning rather than critical analysis, or not presented competing perspectives (Taylor, 2017).
Indoctrination can happen in schools, religious organizations, political groups, re-education camps, mass media, and even families.
Indoctrination can be harmful to societies and cultures because it works to restrict the spread of knowledge, limits free thought, and discourages independent thinking and critical analysis. It has the effect of limiting people’s abilities to critique, question and reconsider assumptions (Taylor, 2017).
Indoctrination involves imparting a set of beliefs, values, or ideologies to groups or individuals in order to shape their thoughts, opinions, and even their behaviors.
From a sociological perspective, indoctrination can occur throughout a society’s institutions and social Darwinism policies. Some examples include schools, religious organizations, political parties, and media outlets.
Goffman (1961) argued that indoctrination was most effective in total institutions, which are institutions that have the ability to control a person’s life and access to information:
“A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life”(Goffman, 1961, p. 31)
Within such institutions, a person can be socialized into a particular worldview and way of life.
Indoctrination tends to be used as a tool by authoritarians for maintaining social control, reinforcing cultural norms, and ensuring social cohesion (Taylor, 2017).
- Re-Education Camps: Re-education camps are total institutions designed to place people in an information bubble until they adhere to the views of the authority figures. For example, we have seen them used against Uyghur Muslims in China to indoctrinate them into mainstream Chinese cultural and communist values (Leung, 2004).
- Scientology (alleged): Scientology has been accused of using cult-like brainwashing techniques, as well as controlled isolation, to indoctrinate and control current and potential members (Kent, 1999).
- Cults: Cults are often accused of indoctrinating young and impressionable people into embracing their worldviews, often through the influence of a single charismatic authority. One prime example is Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.
- Schools and the Hidden Curriculum: Some may accuse schools of indoctrinating children by, for example, only teaching selective versions of history or forcing them to uncritically recite a pledge of allegiance daily. This often isn’t part of the school curriculum but still takes place, which is why we call it the hidden curriculum.
- North Korean Dictatorship: North Korea’s government has complete control over media. It uses its media to spread propaganda and censorship to indoctrinate citizens. The aim is to teach them that the outside world is dystopian and evil, and ot be loyal to the Kim family dynasty (Kim, 1969).
- The Cultural Revolution: Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” in China took place in the 1950s and 60s with the intention of indoctrinating the Chinese people into embracing the country’s new communist leaders and their ideology (Leung, 2004).
- Religious Indoctrination: Various religious sects have used indoctrination through history. While the lines for when indoctrination begin and end are unclear, obvious examples of religious indoctrination would include forcing adults against their will to attend churches and to restrict them from embracing their own cultural religious traditions.
- Cambodia, 1975-1979: During Pol Pot’s tragic regime, forced labor was used extensively to indoctrinate citizens – especially artists and intellectuals – with their radical communist ideology. Today, Cambodia has museums and monuments such as the S21 prison in Phnom Penh showing how indoctrination occurred (De Walque, 2006).
- Japanese Nationalism: The Japanese government during World War II used widespread propaganda, through control of mass communications, to indoctrinate citizens in order to ensure the people embraced the imperial war (Ide, 2009).
- Westboro Baptist Church: Many ex-members of the Westboro Baptist Church, such as Megan-Phelps Roper, accuse the church of indoctrination tactics. One key tactic was denying the youths access to alternative viewpoints and repeatedly teaching them a very radical interpretation of the Bible.
1. Mass Media as a Tool for Indoctrination
Scholars from across the political spectrum have held that mass media is a tool for indoctrinating entire populations. By controlling the information flow and presenting biased positions on various issues, governments can shape the beliefs of millions of people.
From the left, we have people like Noam Chomsky who have accused corporate media in the USA of pushing an embrace of neoliberal domestic policy and hawkish international stances.
From the right, we increasingly see complaints that mass media is controlled by the “liberal elite” who push a culturally liberal agenda in the USA.
Overseas, we see mass media used as a blunt tool by dictatorships to promote official state ideology. For example, we’ve seen countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Russia, and Hungary to flush out media sources that are against the official party line so the state fully controls the media agenda.
2. Online Indoctrination
Social media platforms use algorithms to send people information they may like. As the platforms get to know a person’s likes and interests, they will send the people exclusively information that supports their cognitive biases.
As a result, people increasingly retreat into an online information bubble, leading to radicalization and group indoctrination. These people become detached from reality and do not receive pushback from their preferred worldview.
Some bad actors take advantage of this, creating pages and closed groups designed to spread their own indoctrinating propaganda, leading to the indoctrination of people into radical worldviews, entirely from their computer screen at home!
How to Hedge Against Indoctrination
1. Free Press
Advanced democratic societies embrace freedom of the press as a core democratic value.
Freedom of the press means that the government cannot prevent news sources from publishing information that dissents from the official party line.
A free press prevents any one state or media source from spreading its propaganda without pushback.
Of course, there are downsides of the free press. For example, highly biased media sources emerge that use unethical journalistic practices to appeal to a biased segment of the population.
Go Deeper: 16 Freedom of Press Examples
2. Journalistic Integrity
While a free press is a core value, it is best when it is complemented by a highly ethical journalistic class.
A core idea here is that journalists conduct detailed research and present nuanced, thought-out, and well-sourced information. They don’t shield key facts or intentionally introduce bias into their reporting.
It’s arguable that journalistic integrity is compromised in nations where some major press organizations intentionally present biased viewpoints. This includes left- and right-leaning biases.
3. Media Literacy
Media literacy is an individual strategy to hedge against indoctrination.
It involves being able to determine good from bad sources, know when you’re only sourcing information from biased perspectives, and actively reading a piece looking for flaws or biases within the media.
One framework for being media literate is to use the CRAAP concept. This involves checking content for: currency (was it recently written?), relevancy (is it addressing your questions?), authority (can we trust the author?), accuracy (fact check all claims), and purpose (is the article designed to inform, mislead, or convince? – see: author’s purpose)
4. Critical and Analytical Thinking in Education
A strong education system should teach students to think critically and analytically in order to prevent indoctrination.
This means that educators should avoid teaching people what to think but rather how to think.
To do this, educators reject the banking model of education (learning through repetition) and instead embrace constructivism (children constructing their own knowledge).
To do this, teachers encourage inquiry, project-based learning, and discovery learning.
Propaganda is a techniques used to achieve indoctrination. Whereas indoctrination is the effect, propaganda is the method.
Here is a quick summary of the differences:
- Propaganda is the spreading of biased and misleading information with the intent to influence people’s opinions. It may include posters, news reports, slogans, and so on.
- Indoctrination is the process of teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs or principles without critical questioning (Laskin, 2019). While propaganda is the tool, indoctrination is the intention.
Indoctrination can involve various methods, such as repetition, reward, punishment, and emotional manipulation.
- Repetition ad nauseum is a highly-effective tool for having people come to change their views. Humans have a propensity to change their thoughts and behaviors when information becomes habitual.
- Restriction refers to preventing alternative information from being received. By restricting alternative or challenging viewpoints, people may begin to believe the core narrative.
- Socialization refers to exposing people to a culture or society in which the majority of people around you have a shared viewpoint. Being fully exposed in the culture, you are increasingly likely to embrace their ways of thinking.
- Reward involves providing incentives for compliance with the desired ideology. This demonstrates to people that there is value in becoming indoctrinated.
- Punishment can be harsh physical pain or may simply involve social ostracism for expressing dissenting views.
- Emotional manipulation may involve appealing to fear, anger, or other emotions to influence attitudes and beliefs. As advertising companies know, appeals to emotions are highly effective in achieving change in a person’s thoughts and behaviors.
Indoctrination and critical pedagogy are two very different approaches to education.
Indoctrination involves promoting a particular set of beliefs without questioning, while critical pedagogy aims to develop critical thinking and questioning skills to challenge and transform oppressive systems.
- Indoctrination limits creativity and critical thinking while perpetuating existing power structures.
- Critical pedagogy seeks to empower students by encouraging them to question dominant narratives and develop a critical understanding of the world. This approach enables students to analyze and challenge oppressive systems, develop independent thinking, and work towards social justice (Joseph Jeyaraj & Harland, 2016).
The difference between indoctrination and critical pedagogy is their focus on promoting a particular worldview versus developing critical thinking skills to challenge and transform oppressive systems.
However, critical pedagogy has been challenged recently because it’s a threat to dominant culture. If children are encouraged to think for themselves, they might become dangerous. (However, a counterargument is that poorly-trained use of critical pedagogy might have its own biases and itself be a form of indoctrination).
Indoctrination is a way of teaching people certain beliefs without them questioning it. Examples of indoctrination can be found in the areas of global politics, history, and religious fundamentalism. Methods of indoctrination include repetition, reward and punishment, and emotional manipulation.
By understanding indoctrination, we can be more aware of how we form our beliefs and be more critical of them.
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Leung, Y. W. (2004). Nationalistic education and indoctrination. Citizenship, Social and Economics Education, 6(2), 116-130.
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Taylor, R. M. (2017). Indoctrination and social context: A system-based approach to identifying the threat of indoctrination and the responsibilities of educators. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51(1), 38-58. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12180