One of the stories in the news today highlighted the fact that an ardently dogmatic, wealthy, and politically influential Christian organization - the American Family Association(AFA) - is paying for a trip to Israel for top Republicans in the RNC (Republican National Committee). On the surface, these seems a typical exercise in political lobbying.
What makes it different - dramatically different - is the belief of the AFA that freedom of religion, a constitutional right in the U.S., should not be applied to people who are not Christian(this first came to people's attention during the 2012 presidential campaign, when AFA supported Rick Perry over Mitt Romney because they viewed Mormonism as a cult, not as a form of Christianity). The irony of a Christian group sponsoring a trip to Israel for Republicans when Jews would not be considered free to worship according to their own faith in the US if that group had its way has not been lost on observers.
It’s also a good illustration of Robert Jay Lifton’s eighth and final principle of totalitarian organizations: the dispensing of existence. The gist of this idea is that totalitarian regimes, be they political or religious, ultimately decide who can exist and who can’t. This is not just hubris on the part of such organizations; it’s part and parcel of any group claiming to have secured a “true path” to however that group defines salvation.
In his interviews with former members of Chinese prison camps, Lifton learned that many political prisoners in the 1950s were sentenced to executions scheduled to take place in two years - unless they converted to communism and showed concrete signs of “reform”. There is only one way, and to be considered a person you must follow that way. The most dramatic illustration of this concept is, of course, historical attempts at genocide: Rwanda, the Armenians by the Turks, and Hitler’s death camps.
Logically, fundamentalism ideologies have to move beyond the dismissal of experience discussed in the previous blog post to this utopian, absolutist framework as a means of definitively confirming how the truths they espouse are absolute truths. This gives a fundamentalist group a powerful sense of identity and the fire of righteousness it needs to fuel its' conversion attempts. Most importantly, it exposes the violent impulse at the core of fundamentalism.
The AFA does not have to call for Jews, or Hindus, or anyone else to be eliminated to be engaging in the dispensing of existence - that is at the extreme end of a continuum. Lifton points out that totalitarian groups are more likely to push this extreme end early in their existence, when group identity benefits most from absolutist statements. What’s equally important to recognize, however, is how less extreme points on that same continuum can quickly become full-blown in the right circumstances. That recognition is facilitated if you can remember a time in your own life when you were so convinced of how right you were that you began to lose control of your anger. This is a common human experience and usually doesn’t lead to violence: most people will grab hold of themselves and walk away, change the subject, or employ some sort of cooling down strategy. But if a person is not psychologically stable, or if other factors are present -such as an ongoing high influence context, a charismatic leader, a fervently like-minded community, and the boldness that comes from manufactured rituals leading to in-house “peak experiences” conferring a group's sense of superiority - then that person’s susceptibility to swing towards the extreme and potentially violent end of that continuum accelerates rapidly. Just ask the student guards in Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment how quickly this happens, and how shocked they were when it did.
So how can a person prevent or at least slow down such rapid acceleration? Lifton believes questions such as these must be asked: Did the person have sufficient trust in his early home environment to gain some measure of individual security? Was that early environment sufficiently non-chaotic? How skillfully - or not - did that person’s carers/parent use the authority of their position to respect his vulnerability rather than dominate him? Did he get the support he needed to navigate through his identity crises? Was he subjected to intolerable levels of shame?
Very few if any of us can answer all these questions in a psychologically robust way. Yet as a species, we spend the longest period of any creature on the planet in the helpless and dependent state of childhood, so there’s plenty of time for things to get out of whack. Most of us neglect the psychological work we need to do to clean that mess up.
That’s precisely why the wisdom Lifton gave us in delineating these 8 core factors of totalitarian organizations are so important. They remind us of how important our psychological solidity is, because there are plenty of organizations in the world eager to prey on the rips all of us have somewhere in our psychological fabric.
Lifton's 8 reminders of how totalism works are as important today as when he first noticed them over half a century ago. They remain a legacy for which he will rightfully long be remembered.