All of us have been to carefully choreographed events when suddenly, something happens that seems “unplanned”, and then the main actors in this choreography handle the situation with grace and aplomb. If they do it well enough, we’re convinced their response was “spontaneous”, even though it wasn’t. Not only that but we are often awed by the response of the protagonist, and proceed to attribute qualities to them (“incredible presence”, or “wonderfully calm under pressure”) they don’t really deserve because the whole thing was planned anyway.
This is a small but significant example of sort of manipulation Robert Jay Lifton refers to as mystical manipulation - the second of his psychological criteria foundational to thought reform. We tend to think of such manipulation as harmless when it comes to us in the form of entertainment: (half time at the Super Bowl, or a clever ad on TV), and it is certainly less onerous than an audience plant in a revival tent falsely professing to be healed by the hands-on touch of the charismatic minister. But it’s the hopefulness we experience when we are mystically manipulated that makes it such a powerful force. So powerful, it is usually successful in turning our head away from the “behind the curtain” intentions of those working whatever strings they are pulling at the time. In the case of thought reform in Chinese prisons in the 50s (Lifton’s original research), the government authorities behind the scenes were omniscient in their milieu control, and justified it by the claim of being the “higher authority” of the state. Anyone not subscribing to that higher authority was seen as “backward, selfish or petty in the face of the great, overriding mission” as Lifton puts it.
Ideologies and their authorities are the repositories of that mission, and spend untold hours working out how to most effectively use mystical manipulation. Their intention in doing so is clear: to cultivate your passivity and obedience in order to shape your identity and secure your compliance.
The problem ideologies and their authorities have with this is that no matter how slick they get, a certain percentage of people will see through the con. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone gets up and “leaves the theatre”. As Lifton says when he details what happens when we get that "we’re being had", we usually do the following 1) Our trust turns to mistrust, 2) We attempt to vanquish that mistrust by adapting. “Behaving correctly” is, after all, a much easier objective than trying to overthrow an entire system of control, and 3) We often end up embracing the psychology of the pawn: merging with the tide rather than turning painfully against it. Why? Because turning against it is seen as turning against the self The self? Yes. Our self-definition has been steered, long before the con becomes apparent, towards adopting the credibility of whoever is making their false but-ever-so-hopeful claims. Unless we exercise a powerful, committed and persistent awareness, those claims gradually become how we see the world.
Fortunately, the fantasized world we adopt when we do take these claims to heart (the possibility of unlimited growth, a religion that will bring world unity, a political leader who will always protect us) runs into the reality of our direct perception: knowing in our gut that we’re being scammed. The courage to act on direct perception can, however, be slowed down. In the case of fundamentalist commitment, it can be stopped almost completely. The three most common ways we abandon ouselves are 1) We submit to the pummeling into passivity the powers behind the ideology foist upon us every day, 2) Once we submit, we start to enjoy the false community that comes from sharing ideological like-mindedness with others, and 3) We then find the prospects of turning against something we’ve invested so much of ourselves into - our newly embraced belief system - too daunting, because it means a return to seemingly endless ambiguity and uncertainty.
If you think this process is only relevant to people who are in an ideological group, think again. Part of the evolution of mystical manipulation is the way entertainment, marketing, and advertising stimulate our desires, push our emotional buttons, and create false needs for things we’ve done without just fine before. Their motive is to make money, of course: the cornerstone of the ideology of free market enterprise. But in doing so they wage a constant assault on an individual’s sovereignty. They win that assault when they can flood our reflective space with noise, offer facile substitutions for real community, and find ways to make us endlessly active on their behalf (“We’re here to serve you! Please take 10 minutes to complete this on-line survey so we can do it better! Thank you for your time!”) They have the enormous power of technology on their side, and that is significant. Smaller, less visible devices that are so “convenient”, yet open the door to insidious practices. Who is surveilling you in your daily life, for instance? This may seem innocuous when it’s just Amazon suggesting other books you may want to read. But how will it feel when the technology becomes so widespread that it’s your neighbors surveilling you, joining the faceless corporations and the government in this enterprise?
Knowing when to adapt to something and when to resist it is a hallmark of personal sovereignty. Robert Lifton was one of the first people to clearly lay out that protecting sovereignty starts with recognizing how easily sovereignty can be given away to sophisticated, omnipresent organizations using mystical manipulation to point us towards world views they want us to adopt as our “own”.