BTN is hardly an innocent selling toothpaste

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Written by CT Wong
Thursday, 17 December 2009 16:10
Hijacking the mind and feelings of a particular race for the purpose of consolidating power is so openly propagated that a realization of how individuals or groups can be deliberately primed for a malicious political purpose is simply paralyzing.

Anecdotal evidence points to the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) courses being nothing more than doses of racist poison while at the same time, its proponents defend them as “nothing wrong”. Alongside the debate on course content, we need to critically look into what really is indoctrination and whether the method is effective.

Although the misgivings were kept under the lid for years, the BTN participants who are our civil servants and students could clearly sense that something was wrong with the teaching or ‘patriotic education’.

So how to distinguish indoctrination and its concept and practice?

Max Hocutt, the emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama defined indoctrination as this: “ You were indoctrinated if you were told only one side of the story, or told that believing another side would not be an error but an evil.

“You were indoctrinated if no evidence was cited, or if evidence was tendentiously selected while contrary evidence was ignored, suppressed, or distorted by misleading or charged terminology.

“You were indoctrinated if you were made to feel not that the proposition merited belief on its own account but that doubting it would expose you to the disfavour of your fellows, the government, or the deity.

“In short, you were indoctrinated if the appeal was emotional rather than rational, or if your agreement was secured by threat of force or by fraud rather than by citation of fact.”

This means that you are banned from questioning whatever beliefs were being inculcated. Was this what happened with BTN?

Some social scientists go so far as to argue that indoctrination, even if the content is unquestionably moral, yet produces psychological, moral or ethical cripples. Crippling results when the reflective capacities of the persons involved are arrested or inhibited.

However, the real danger of indoctrination lies not so much in the mass manufacture of ‘moral’ robots or moral dwarfs but in the suppression of conscience in times of crises. The indoctrinated individual can easily become a bystander, accomplice or willing executioner in a system with unequal power differentials.

Primal thinking facilitates hostility

When we are in a life-or-death situation, our human brain as an information-processing system operates differently than in normal times. It operates on the level of what Aaron T. Beck in his ‘Prisoners of Hate’ terms “primal thinking”.

These are fundamental cognitive processes whereby the external ambiguous stimuli are rapidly processed as directed towards ‘me’ (self-reference or personalization) and the dichotomous judgment (us or them, friend or enemy) and overgeneralization is made immediately. It also carries a sense that our physical and psychological identity is under threat.

In a kill-or-be killed emergency situation, primal thinking is efficient as a situation is being evaluated rapidly so as to prepare the individual for the fight-or-flight option. Also, schemas or pre-existing stereotypes are also invoked for rapid information processing.

However, primal thinking is often inaccurate as many details are deliberately left out. When such mode of thinking is activated during normal times, it causes cognitive distortions – as what is desired for indoctrination.

Calling the opponent as “anti-Islam” or “anti-Malay” is a typical example of primal thinking. This is a black and white, oversimplistic, overgeneralized dichotomous thinking.

Indoctrination involves the invoking of primal fear that the self-identity which is welded deliberately to race and religion is under threat. The loss of self-identity has the equivalent effect of the loss or death of self. Fear of the loss of self often leads to anger and hostility towards the out-group members.

Selective memory of past wrongs

According to Beck, individuals or groups can be trapped in a prison of primal thinking. Such people surrender their freedom of choice and abdicate their rationality when their image of the Enemy creates a destructive hatred.

He argued that there are certain similarities between interpersonal conflicts and intergroup conflicts in that “…The overreactions of friends, associates, and marital partners to presumed wrongs and offences are paralleled by the hostile responses of people in confrontation with members of different religious, ethnic, or racial groups.”

Also, he argued that “ …the biased, distorted thinking of a paranoid patient is akin to the thinking of perpetrators embarking on a programme of genocide.”

His proposition explains and predicts that there are basic emotional and cognitive components underlying domestic violence, racial conflicts, genocide and war. Negative, hostile framing of one another are common among them, and they perceive and react to the threat arising from the constructed image instead of seeing the adversary as they actually are.

The image created is that of an Enemy – dangerous, malicious and evil. Also, there are selective memories of past wrongs, real or imagined and the attributions of causes of social problems in a malevolent way.

Emotions, thinking and behaviour are interlinked and mutually interact with each other. Dysfunctional and biased thinking transforms hurt to anger, and anger to hostility and hostility to violence.

The hurt feelings become malignant and vicious when the ‘victims’ mutate into victimisers who seek revenge and retaliation, at all costs and by all means. The self-proclaimed victim becomes the aggressor – be it the road bully that rams into a slow driver for holding up traffic or the invading nation attacking a weaker state for being opposed, or a dominant ethnic group embarking on a ‘cleansing’ of an ethnic minority for “asking too much”.

The path from hurt to hostility is non-linear. It is not inevitable. However, individuals or groups can be deliberately primed for a malicious political purpose.

The image of the Enemy

Humans basically find killing or hurting others repulsive. However, the natural restraint could be overcome by justification rooted in primitive beliefs of absolute right and wrong.

The self-justification isolates and stigmatizes the outgroup as ‘aliens’. An image is constructed around the Enemy as conspiratorial, deceptive, manipulative, dangerous, malevolent, violent and evil. Since the Enemy is evil, a justification is made to punish, expel and eliminate them by any means. The ends justify the means.

The moral codes are suspended. A new moral code is substituted. Hence, the cry for defending one’s race or religion or country carries a new and sinister meaning. The perpetrators of ethnic violence hijacks the mind and the feelings of its own race for their purpose of gaining or consolidating power.

The greatest tragedy of Malaysia’s mass killings of May 13 is that the lessons are not learnt, wrongly learnt and wilfully mislearnt.

Systematic, conscious and deliberate efforts are being made to create the Enemy in the public space in some of the mainstream media or government-sponsored programmes. The explicit or implicit eliminationalist ideology is so openly propagated that the normal revulsion against cruelty towards other human beings is alarmingly lacking.

Adaptive evolutionary strategies like the primal thinking that help the human species to survive during kill-or-be killed emergency situations are now seen to be deliberately promoted in the public domain without any moral restraints as if the condoning of genocidal inclinations in mass killings is just as innocent as selling toothpaste. This is a warning for humanity.


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