Lessing and Shaw on Being Brainwashed and more

A book that has helped me get my brain clear after years of self-hatred and fewer is Doris Lessing’s series of lectures in her book entitled Prisons We Choose to Live Inside.

Juxtaposed to this work, I’ve enjoyed George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara, which sees the conversion of Barbara, the daughter of an arms manufacturer. First she is a staunch member of the Salvation Army, and then she loses her faith in those ideals when her practical and subversive father teaches her how the world actually operates.

I thought I would share some quotes with you that have spoken to me especially about my time in the Evangelical church and the Ex-Gay Movement (and my time in the LGBT community and with Quakers today.)

On Being Brainwashed

We are all of us, to some degree or another, brainwashed by the society we live in. We are able to see this when we travel to another country, and are able to catch a glimpse of our own country with foreign eyes. There is nothing much we can do about this except remember that it is so. Every one of us is part of the great comforting illusions, and part illusions, which every society uses to keep up its confidence in itself. These are hard to examine, and the best we can hope for is that a kindly friend from another culture will enable us to look at our culture with dispassionate eyes. (Lessing)

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

…there is a researcher who has discovered that he can take a true believer–let us say, a Christian Scientist, but it doesn’t matter what–or a person who is sure the world is flat or that the world will end on Friday the 13th of next Leap Year, and using classical brainwashing techniques, turn this faithful one, first into a Seventh-Day Adventist, then into a Stalinist Communist, then into a Liberal, then into a feminist, then into a hard-line atheist. When all these changes have been accomplished, and they can be done in a a space of a few days, and while this person is feminist, Stalinist, convinced capitalist, that is what she or he is, absolutely and definitely and finally, and prepared to die for it. But when all these changes have been gone through, the hapless one is returned to his or her former faith, let us say, convinced that the world will end on Friday the 13th. His or her brief periods as atheist, capitalist, etc., are now regarded as the merest whimsies on the part of the researcher, and the present faith, whatever it happens to be, is the true one: anyone who does not believe that the world will end on Friday the 13th is at best misguided, but probably a liar, wicked, morally disgusted, to be avoided.

The natural reaction of almost everyone hearing this particular bit of social research is to assert, silently or loudly, “Of course I would never succumb like that silly person, I would be immune.” And, whether said aloud or silently or said at all, we can also hear the implicit, “Because my beliefs are the correct ones.” But no, alas, alas for all of us, every one of us would succumb, that is unless we were suffering from certain types of schizophrenia. The more sane we are, the more likely we are to be converted. But we may comfort ourselves with this: that brainwashing is usually not permanent. We may be brainwashed–by conscious or unconscious manipulators, or we may brainwash ourselves (not uncommon, this)–but it usually wears off. (Lessing)

On Giving Public Testimony

The cast of Major Barbara at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Pak Han.

The cast of Major Barbara at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Pak Han.

Then there is the nasty lying habit called confession, which the Army encourages because it lends itself to dramatic oratory, with plenty of thrilling incident. For my part, when I hear a convert relating the violences and oaths and blasphemies he was guilty of before he was saved, making out that he was a very terrible fellow then and is the most contrite and chastened of Christians now, I believe him no more than I believe the millionaire who says he came up to London or Chicago as a boy with only three halfpence in his pocket. (Shaw, preface)

On Self-Reflection

I believe that people coming after us will marvel that on the one hand we accumulated more and more information about our behaviour, while on the other, we made no attempt at all to use it to improve our lives. (Lessing)

I think novelists perform many useful tasks for their fellow citizens, but one of the most valuable is this: to enable us to see ourselves as others see us. (Lessing)

You will be taught to read history, so as to learn how short-lived ideas are, how apparently the most irresistible and persuasive ideas can, and do vanish overnight. You will be taught how to read literature, which is the study of mankind by itself, so as to understand the development of people and peoples. Literature is a branch of anthropology, a branch of history; and we will make sure that you will know how to judge an idea from the point of view of long-term human memory. For literature and history are branches of human memory, recorded memory. (Lessing)

On Poverty

The crying need of the nation is not for better morals, cheaper bread, temperance, liberty, culture, redemption of fallen sisters and erring brothers, nor the grace, love and fellowship of the Trinity, but simply for enough money. And the evil to be attacks is not sin, suffering, greed, priestcraft, kingcraft, demagogy, monopoly, ignorances, drink, war, pestilence, nor any other of the scapegoats which refermers sacrifice, but simply poverty. (Shaw, preface)

BARBARA [bewildered] The seven deadly sins!
UNDERSHAFT. Yes, the deadly seven [Counting on his fingers] Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children. Nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted. I lifted them from your spirit. I enabled Barbara to become Major Barbara; and I save her from the crime of poverty.
CUSINS. Do you call poverty a crime?
UNDERSHAFT. The worst of crimes. All the other crimes are virtues beside it; all the other dishonors are chivalry itself by comparison. Poverty blights whole cities; spreads horrible pestilences, strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound, or smell of it. (Major Barbara, Act III)

On Laughter

Fanatics don’t laugh at themselves; laughter is by definition heretical, unless used cruelly, turned outwards against an opponent or enemy. Bigots can’t laugh. True believers don’t laugh. Their ideas of laughter is a satirical cartoon pillorying an opposition person or idea. Tyrants and oppressors don’t laugh at themselves, and don’t tolerant laughter at themselves.

Laughter is a very powerful thing, and only the civilized, the liberated, the free person can laugh at herself, himself. (page 44)


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