ABSTRACT: This is the first part of a two-part article on the concept of brainwashing in the study of new religious movements (NRMs). The use of this term has become so emotionally charged that scholars find it difficult to discuss its merits and scientific utility with calmness and objectivity. I devote Part One of this article to an examination of the cultural and structural sources of an extreme polarization that has occurred among scholars of new religious movements. I argue that a majority faction within the discipline has acted with a fair degree of success to block attempts to give the concept of brainwashing a fair scientific trial. This campaign has resulted in a distortion of the original meaning of the concept so that it is generally looked at as having to do with manipulation in recruitment of new members to religious groups. Its historically consistent use, on the contrary, should be in connection with the manipulation of exit costs for veteran members. In Part Two of this paper (to be published in a later issue of this journal), I go on to examine the epistemological status of the brainwashing concept and compare theories based on brainwashing to alternative theories accounting for patterns of switching out of new religious movements.