Book Review - La persuasione socialmente accettata

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1992, Volume 09, Number 1, pages 126-128. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - La persuasione socialmente accettata, il plagio e il lavaggio del cervello (Socially Accepted Persuasion, Plagio, and Brainwashing).

M. DiFiorino. Psichiatria e Territorio, Forte Dei Marmi (Italy), 1990, 270 pages.

This rather long book, based on a conference held in September 1989 in Forte dei Marmi, Italy, examines various aspects of psychological manipulation. Its chapters are organized under the following sections: Plagio Between Reality and Denial; Dynamics of Plagio and Induced Psychosis; Religious Conversion and the "New Cults": Myth and Reality of Brainwashing; Manipulation in Therapeutic Relations; and Manipulation and Mass Media.

The book revolves around the concept of plagio, a word I have refrained from translating because I don't believe it has an exact English equivalent. In Italy plagio was a crime that was declared unconstitutional in 1981.

The crime of plagio consists of . . . an absolute psychological -- and eventually physical -- domination of a person. The effect of such domination is the annihilation of the subject's freedom and self-determination and the consequent negation of his or her personality. (p. 15)

Crimes of plagio have rarely been prosecuted in Italy, and only one person was ever convicted. The court that declared plagio unconstitutional found the concept to be imprecise, lacking coherence, and liable to arbitrary application.

Plagio seems to have been what some anti-cult activists lobbied for in this country during the late 1970s and early 1980s, that is, a law against "mind control" or "brainwashing." Plagio, however, appears to be even more extreme than mind control, which is why participants in the Forte dei Marmi conference distinguished between plagio, manipulation, and brainwashing. The closest thing to plagio in U.S. law is probably the concept of "undue influence," which is much more nuanced and flexible in its application than plagio and is applicable in civil, not criminal, law.

The conference participants, most of whom were mental health professionals, appear to have wrestled with many of the same issues that have troubled their North American counterparts. There is the common-sense recognition that some people, especially those who are suggestible, can be manipulated and exploited to a high degree. The neuropsychiatrist, Mario Gozzano, identifies the following situations that can result in extreme subordination of one person to another: amorous relationships; dependency relationships such as teacher-pupil; the psychological influence attendant upon relationships based upon religious faith or political commitment; patient-therapist relationships; and parent-child relationships. The difficulty with Gozzano's list is that such relationships would almost never reach the level of absolute psychological domination that characterizes plagio.

A superficial analysis might indicate that the problem could be easily solved if plagio were made less absolute, for example, if it were defined as "a high level of control of another person." However, as soon as the legal definition depends upon a continuum, specific criteria must be enunciated in order to determine precisely where the behavior becomes criminal. Rosedale (Cultic Studies Journal, 6(1), 1989) addresses this inherent conflict in the law between the need to espouse conceptual absolutes and the need to apply these absolutes to situations that fall on a continuum. He argues that the extreme forms of manipulation seen in some cult conversions demand an explicit acknowledgment of the social values implicitly underlying legal judgments and, therefore, challenge the legal system to become more explicit in its condemnation of behaviors in which, as Gozzano says, "the relationship of dependency can reach diverse levels until it arrives at that state of suggestibility which the Penal Code defines as the crime of plagio." If the law demands an absolute, an either-or, it runs into the problem the Italians faced when they declared plagio unconstitutional: what constitutes total psychological domination? If the law doesn't demand an absolute, it runs into the problem of experts disagreeing about which point on the continuum is severe enough to warrant the appellation "crime."

As with experts in the U.S., the Italian experts at this conference disagreed about this issue. However, unlike any conference or book that I know of in the U.S., Dr. DiFiorino's book addresses the full range of phenomena associated with the continuum of psychological manipulation. In addition to a number of chapters specifically dealing with plagio (the extreme pole that draws attention to the continuum), this book includes chapters on the following subjects: exploitation of the legally incompetent; the relationship of magic, suggestion, and plagio; the use of the Rorschach test to investigate cases of plagio; case studies of induced psychosis and plagio; psychological and psychopathological aspects of seduction; philosophy of the "new age" and psychopathology; psychiatry and brainwashing; insidious aspects of psychological manipulation in a therapeutic community; practical, clinical observation and critical consideration of plagio, fraud, and seduction; Mesmerism; formation, information, and persuasion in psychiatry; membership in emerging cults: conversion and/or plagio; and the problem of manipulation in controversial religious movements.

My understanding of Italian is not sophisticated enough to provide detailed summaries of the many chapters. Thus, I have focused on what I believe is the heart of the book: the notion of plagio. I hope that this modest and inadequate review gives some readers a better appreciation of two facts: (1) cult-related problems observed in the U.S. exist throughout the developed world; and (2) many thoughtful people have pondered these problems in languages other than English. This places English-only speakers at a disadvantage. Due to different standards of education and the demands of internationalism, our counterparts in other countries usually have some knowledge of our work, while we rarely know anything about what they are experiencing and doing. A noble goal would be for us to learn foreign languages. More realistic, perhaps, is to realize that we will only come to learn about the theories, studies, and accomplishments of our counterparts around the world if their work is translated into English. As editor of this journal, I will do my best to facilitate this international flow of ideas.

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Editor, Cultic Studies Journal

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1992