Almost every headline in the news these days is a glaring reminder of the nation’s deep political divisions. Gun control, voting rights, abortion, police violence, climate change, economic policy, immigration—the political, cultural and generational divisions around these issues appear to be harder and harder to overcome.
However, there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: the other side has been brainwashed – by Fox News or the lying liberal media, by “woke” social justice warriors or right-wing demagogues, by Republicans, or Democrats, or conservatives, or progressives.
But when we call someone “brainwashed” what exactly are we accusing them of? And does the term have a place in our current political discourse?
In this personal audio essay, writer and audio producer Boen Wang goes looking for answers. He always thought his mom—an immigrant from Mainland China —was brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party. His mom, on the other hand, thinks he’s been brainwashed by the New York Times and CNN. To break the deadlock Boen interviews his mom about the evolution of her political beliefs—which are on the opposite end of the spectrum from his.
Boen learns about her experiences growing up during the Cultural Revolution in the 60s and the influence Chairman Mao had on her childhood. “I [felt] that I’m part of this whole process. So I want to do my best, I want to gain glory for my country,” his mom tells him.
As she opens up about coming of age in Beijing in the 80s, and settling into the U.S. as a new immigrant in the 90s, Boen begins to understand how her life experiences—not brainwashing—have shaped her views. In the process he is forced to look at his own political views in a new light, and reconsider what exactly made them shift during the Obama and Trump eras.
More from Immigrants in a Divided Country: Journalist Rong Xiaoqing reports on the shifting political affiliation of New York’s Chinese immigrant community and examines the impact on the city’s political landscape.
As he learns more about his family and himself, Boen discovers the surprising history and etymology of the term “brainwashing”—which goes back to the last Chinese empire and is deeply rooted in American Cold War-era anxieties about the rise of communism. In the end, he emerges with a new understanding of the use and misuse of “brainwashing” and shares his thoughts on how people with opposing views can live with their differences.
This story was produced as part of Immigrants in a Divided Country, a multimedia online magazine series by Feet in 2 Worlds that explores the current political landscape from the perspective of immigrants.
To listen to earlier episodes of A Better Life?, visit abetterlifepodcast.com.
A Better Life? and Feet in 2 Worlds are supported by The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, an anonymous donor, and readers and listeners like you.