Monday, May 06, 2013

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Jay Lifton

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'brainwashing' in China.  Chapel Hill NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 2012 and 1989.  ebook, 525 pps.

In the preface to Thought Reform, Robert Jay Lifton notes that he now views his seminal work as "...more an exploration of what might be the most dangerous direction of the twentieth-century mind-- the quest for absolute or 'totalistic' belief systems."  He lays out a simple definition of groups which take over the lives of their followers [popularly known as "cults"].  
     There is an inspired text or group of writings which are pedaled as the sole and only truth for everyone whether they accept it or not. The leader or head of the group exploits the resources [which may include sexual, physical, intellectual, emotional, social, financial resources] of the followers. 
     There is an active discouragement against consulting outside sources along with psychological measures designed to stop independent thinking.  Confession as used by the group induces a split between the old ways of being and the lifestyle deigned optimal by the groupMethods may employ separation of the followers from their loved ones and friends who don't subscribe to the group, imprisonment or isolation from general society, and prescribed activities.
     There is finally a military or military-like fierce mandate to crush the perceived or actual enemies of the ideology which may or may not involve nuclear warfare.  There may be talk of taking over a government or a people or a planet.  The more political groups may have actual plans in place.  The more religious groups may look to a leader to set a nuclear cataclysm into motion in order to achieve something like an apocalypse.

In the fifties and sixties, Communist China actively campaigned for the people to be educated into Chinese Communism.  This started with the students.  Universities had required trainings which then escalated into longer periods of isolation for the students and the faculty members.  There was at first a bonding of the groups within their living facilities.  Then deep confessions were required with a heavy emphasis on denouncement of the old ways-- which included giving the axe to filial duties and other things central to the Chinese family-- and indeed a denouncement of one's own family.  The confessions were not automatically accepted.  The students and faculty spent long days re-writing them until they reflected exactly perceived wrongful thinking which had created individualism among the People.  Those who were able to escape afterwards did so.  Some were forced to remain in now Communist China.  Some converted to Chinese Communism and wanted to stay on.

But there were also prisons.  Westerners were imprisoned along with Chinese nationals.  The treatment at the prisons was harsh.  Again there was a living group-- now the inhabitants of a prison cell-- and confessions.  The older prisoners would try to cue the newer ones into how to confess.  A few resisted mightily at first, but since the punishment for this resistance was physical and severe any sort of protest tended to die away.  Thus Christian missionaries, Roman Catholic priests, and other Westerners were forced into compromising positions.  There was sleep deprivation too-- at times for several days on end-- with the other prisoners taking turns at night to ensure that the target prisoner remained awake.

Lifton's study began in 1955 and 1956 in Hong Kong with newly released Westerners and Chinese.  Lifton was able to follow-up long-term with many of the original ex-prisoners.  Thought Reform is a record of what he found.

sapphoq reviews saysI found Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism to be an excellent and scholarly read.  Lifton combines historical events with personal accounts of some people who lived through them and searching opinions.  Although a few critics are quick to pronounce that Lifton was against his book being used as a study in the "new religions" [read: religious and also quasi-religious groups which coerce their followers into a party line and employ various techniques of stopping independent thinking], Lifton himself indicates in his preface his acceptance of the wider implications of Thought ReformHighly recommended.



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