"The rubbish that ends up on paper"

An English translation of the original anonymous CESNUR Press Release dated April 22, 1998, on the controversy concerning "brainwashing". This document, originally published on the official CESNUR Web site, on August 29, mysteriously, disappeared without a trace...

1. The GRIS Web site (Group of Research and Information on the Sects [Cults]) has published an article signed by Alberto Amitrani and Raffaella Di Marzio and titled "Brainwashing" in New Religious Movements: clarifying some issues. This item contains a series of heavy accusations against CESNUR and the 'experts' (a word always put between quotation marks) - Massimo Introvigne, J. Gordon Melton and PierLuigi Zoccatelli among the others - who deny the existence of brainwashing. Their main - or rather their only - accusation is that those 'experts' have "manipulated" a "small Memo, that relatively unimportant note" by the American Psychological Association (APA) dated May 11, 1987 to uphold the inconsistency of the theory on brainwashing. The GRIS authors believe it's just a neutral and waiting stand. In fact, they say: "This therefore is the truth, and it is quite different from what we were told : APA (...) has never taken a clear and official stand on theories of thought reform and mind control as applied to New Religious Movements." Now, thanks to the brilliant genius of the two GRIS representatives (but not without the little recognized and official help given by one of the most popular representatives of the American anti-cult movement, Michael Langone, and by Professor Benjamin Zablocki, who's debating a controversy against some of the CESNUR scholars inside the columns of magazine Nova Religio), the "secrets" have been "revealed": "it is not the 'licence of an expert', but documents, which make the difference!". Such accusations of forgery were repeated during a radio programme, with vulgar personal attacks that human charity imposes to skip.

2. As people attending the CESNUR initiatives know, CESNUR has so far avoided attacking GRIS (unlike other similar organizations) and has even put up, with the patience reserved for bothersome people, a number of attacks against individuals or the organization as a whole. That thanks to the fact that the GRIS founder, Monsignor Giovanni Marinelli, is held in high esteem and affection by the CESNUR leader, and that, among GRIS members, lot of people carry out a disinterested and useful service in favour of the Church and the community. The written or radio-broadcast incivilities alone are unlikely to produce a change in this attitude, since they are rather the result of  personal psychological problems of the people who have stated them. Problems which CESNUR is hardly interested in. Also a general accusation such as being pseudo-experts or "experts", between brackets, and coming from world-famed "experts" like Alberto Amitrani and Raffaella Di Marzio - whose writings are known to fill international libraries and scientific journals - wouldn't deserve, alone, any consideration. Of course, the fact that people and the environment of GRIS are sliding towards anti-cult positions, particularly on a delicate and dangerous issue such as brainwashing, raises even more serious problems which, anyway, CESNUR has preferred to face discussing the theories of the original players of this debate rather than the often inaccurate repetitions offered by improvised epigons. On the contrary, stating an accusation such as that of manipulating documents and hiding the "truth" is worth some short notes which - without prejudice to most GRIS members - fall within the headword of self defense.

3. Let's start from a secondary though interesting note. The authors quote Benjamin Zablocki's article "The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion", published on Nova Religio, no. 1, year I, p. 96-121. Professor Zablocki (along with Professor Stephen Kent, Professor Benjamin Beth-Hallahmi and Doctor Richard Ofshe) is one of four scholars of social sciences of religion - out of  several thousand studying new religious movements - who, in different ways, uphold the theory of brainwashing. Reading that article, even the text and the context alone evidently show to deny the thesis by Alberto Amitrani and Raffaella Di Marzio. Indeed:

a. Zablocki complains that the upholders of the brainwashing theory have been "slandered, ridiculed or ignored" by the "unyielding majority" of "sociologist of religion" (p. 107). Zablocki affirms that who keeps on upholding the theories of brainwashing or mental manipulation is right when feeling to belong to "an ignored or ridiculed minority" (p. 108). Zablocki is aware of the fact that his theories are those of a really small "ridiculed" and "slandered" minority. Then, the thesis assuming that brainwashing applied to new religious movement is a mythological notion is not, as the two GRIS representatives write, a "current in sociology and psychology which opposes a different view of the problem, upheld by other scholars...". This stand is shared by such a majority that - at least in the English-speaking World (and leaving apart a certain psychiatry from the Italian or French provinces belonging to "the second row" of this debate) - that the minority shouts "black listing" and "persecution". Thus, the article by Zablocki, confirms what is stated in the writings of the CESNUR representatives criticized by Amitrani and Di Marzio, that's in the English-speaking scientific circles the brainwashing theories are, indeed, "slandered, ridiculed or ignored" by the great majority of scholars. The reason why these scholars ridicule or persecute these theories is subject to some Zablocki's conjectures. This issue will be debated on Nova Religio no. 3, which is about to be published, through a symposium which shall be introduced by Timothy Miller with a lead article by Massimo Introvigne.

b. Said persecution must not be that terrible, seen that one Zablocki's writing is housed by Nova Religio. The scientific committee of this journal includes, inter alia,  (in alphabetical order) Eileen Barker, Massimo Introvigne, J. Gordon Melton, who are all members of the CESNUR Board of Directors. For more references, we suggest our GRIS friends to read the second part of Zablocki's on Nova Religio no. 2 (dated April 1998) the reply to Zablocki by David G. Bromley (p. 250-266) and the counter-reply by Zablocki (p. 267-271: evidently, so wicked are the "persecutors" that they leave Zablocki the last word). From this debate they will realize that Zablocki doesn't agree with the "crude" theories of brainwashing as an explanation of the conversion to new religious movements, but suggests a new "moderate" theory according to which the hypothesis of brainwashing doesn't definitely pretend to explain the reason why one is likely to join a new religious movement but only the reason why one is likely not to leave it, cause some new religious movements are particularly skilled in maximising the costs to get out. Also this "moderate" theory, as Bromley explains in his reply, can be widely criticized and denied by a number of empirical analyses. Anyway, the "moderate" theory is different from the "traditional" theory on mental manipulation (whose "fathers" are Louis J. West, Margaret Singer and Richard Ofshe, indeed criticized by Zablocki) upheld by anti-cult movements, particularly in Europe.

3. Let's go to the heaviest accusation, according to which the CESNUR scholars allegedly manipulated the APA Memorandum of 1987 and untruthfully represented the APA stand in general. The meaning of the APA Memorandum could be discussed for ages. For example, Amitrani and Di Marzio let to believe that APA and Margaret Singer (the anti-cult movement representative whose theories were disapproved by the 1987 Memorandum) said goodbye to each other as good friends. In fact they quoted the courteous formula, at the end of the Memorandum, used by APA to thank Singer for the work done. But things are not exactly the way they appear. In fact, as a consequence of that episode, Singer summoned to Court APA, accused to be part of a "cults" plot aimed to destroy her work and her image. Just for information: Singer lost the lawsuit.

Luckily - but unluckily for Amitrani and Di Marzio - the problem of the meaning of the APA document has already been thoroughly dealt with and settled in an appropriate place: a court of law. On April 13, 1990, Northern California US District Court issued its verdict in the case United States of America v. Fishman, today unanimously considered a turning point in the US jurisprudence vis-à-vis new religious movements. The defendant in the case, Steven Fishman, was accused to be responsible for a series of frauds. His defense - supported by the witnessing of Margaret Singer and Righard Ofshe - claimed that the accused was not responsible at the time he acted, because he was a Scientology member, which (although it had nothing to do with his frauds) produces on its members a permanent state of "brainwashing" that makes them unchargeable. The case - involving a broad examination of literature regarding anti-cult movements and Scientology - was decided on the base of a topical issue. The Court asked itself if the theories on brainwashing applied to religious movements were accepted by the "scientific community" and in particular by its representative associations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Sociological Association (ASA). The case turned into a fierce discussion over the 1987 memorandum and the APA stand in general (as well as over parallel issues concerning ASA)". Stakes were high, and that problem has been analyzed for months. It's worthwhile quoting the Italian translation of the whole Court's reconstruction in the part regarding APA (copy of the original English version of the whole order, including stamps, can be requested to CESNUR):

[Note to the reader: the following is translated from the Italian version]

"A much more significant barometer of the prevailing opinions inside the scientific community is offered by professional associations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Sociological Association (ASA). The evidences gathered by the Court, as we are going to explain in detail, show that neither APA nor ASA agree with Dr. Signer and Dr. Ofshe's thought reform theories. 

In the middle of the 80's, APA considered the scientific value of Singer-Ofshe stand over nonphysical coercion. In particular, APA asked a Task Force to study and then write a report on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control. APA assigned to Dr. Singer the direction of that Task Force. Before the Task Force guided by Dr. Signer had completed its report, though, APA officially declared its stand over nonphysical coercion which disagreed with that propounded by Dr. Singer. At the beginning of 1987, APA, together with some individual experts in Behavioural Science and in Social Science, issued a Memorandum (amicus brief) regarding the case of two individuals who had been subject to nonphysical coercion in order to get their membership and permanence in a religious cult. The case, Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn. for the Unification of World Christianity, 46 Cal. 3d 1092 (1988), was then pending before California Supreme Court. The APA memorandum stated that, in the Molko case, the Court had righteously excluded Dr. Singer's witnessing as an expert, since her theory on brainwashing was not a meaningful scientific concept.

Short after the Memorandum had been filed with the California Supreme Court, APA withdrew its name from the list of the signers. In this respect, the accused pretends that the withdrawal of APA  from its involvement in the Molko case means that it denied the Memorandum objections to Dr. Singer's theories. Indeed, the withdrawal was due to procedural and not to substantial reasons. The documents before this Court show with absolute certainty that before taking any stand over nonphysical coercion, APA decided to wait the report of Dr. Singer's Task Force. In fact, the motion by which APA withdrew its signature from the Memorandum clearly stated that, through this initiative, APA definitely didn't mean either to uphold the stands opposing to those stated in the Memorandum or exclude to undersign the stands stated in the Memorandum later on. That is meaningful; at the end, APA rejected Singer Task Force report on Deceptive Persuasion when it was submitted to its examination, on October 1988 [sic]. APA decided that Dr. Singer's report was lacking of scientific merit and that the studies which supported her conclusion were lacking of scientific rigour.


As synthesized above, the records of this case establish that the scientific community refused the Singer-Ofshe thesis applying the brainwashing theory to religious cults".

4. Quod erat demonstrandum. What the GRIS representatives call a "small Memo, ...that relatively unimportant note" was indeed - with reference to previous initiatives regarding the Molko case (and of which no mention is made in the writing by Amitrani and Di Marzio) - a conclusive element in the most important judicial case of recent US jurisprudence with respect to new religious movements. In fact, since the Fishman case, most Courts - based on this verdict - have excluded the theories on brainwashing in the examination of cases involving new religious movements, just because these theories aren't shared by the "scientific community", with particular reference to APA. Consequently, the accusation of having abandoned the "truth" can be just send back to sender. Anyway, if Amitrani and Di Marzio disagree with our reconstruction (which indeed is taken for granted by a dozen articles on this issue) of the Molko-Singer-Fishman episode, they can always blame the Northern California US District Court, accusing it of being a bunch of liars or may be a group of "judges" between brackets.

As far as we are concerned, we share Amitrani and Di Marzio's idea stating that "it's not the 'licence of an expert', but documents, which make the difference!". So, we invite the anti-cult traffic control authority to confiscate the driving licence to the couple Amitrani-Di Marzio. We further kindly suggest that - if these are the new recruits of anti-cult movements - it would be better to keep the old guard a little longer. They at least read Court sentences and sometimes - not always - they even respect good manners rules. Anyway,  with respect to the Fishman sentence, "the rubbish that ends up on paper"! This proverb, considering how down the tones of this debate have gone, appears to be particularly appropriate.

[see the Amitrani and Di Marzio's reply, ALL SMOKE and no fire]

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