This needn’t be a deterrent to anyone who has invested hope, energy, and effort to build a better world. The human desire to do so - to make right what is wrong - is part of what makes our species honorable. But to work for a better world while simultaneously believing we can have a perfect one someday makes us extremely vulnerable to totalitarian influence.
This was the third major insight Robert Jay Lifton provided as part of his research into 1950s Chinese Communist camps and re-education centers. Lifton labeled the demand for purity as a major means totalist organizations use to exert control over others. The demand for purity takes root whenever people become convinced that the world is divided into good people and evil people - rather than recognizing that the potential for good and evil exists in all people. We prefer the former perspective, because when we learn of events such as the tragic beheading of James Foley by ISIS extremists we want to line up on the side of good and "extinguish" evil. Our desire for justice is over-ridden by our desire for vengeance, which makes it so much easier to inflict harm on others than recognize that we, too, have that same capacity to harm. Once we deny this shadowy part of ourselves and project it outwards, it's a short step to being manipulated by people in power - people who make a living out of generating fear and then proposing ideological, utopian, absolutist "solutions" to that fear.
Lifton repeatedly saw that opening the door to the demand for purity is most easily done if powerful individuals and organizations can activate a person’s guilt and shame. All of us feel guilt and shame from time to time. Few of us recognize the power of these feelings. Still fewer understand how avoiding those feelings provides fertile territory for people interested in having power over you.
The usual tipping point opening this door is the feeling of righteous indignation. Righteous indignation is a natural first response to events like the Foley beheading or the police shooting of an apparently unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Righteous indignation is a powerful “call to action” to change a bad situation into something fairer and more just. But for that indignation to result in actions that have genuinely constructive consequences, they need to operate outside of our individual sense of guilt and shame. That’s harder to do than it might seem.
Our vulnerability to righteous indignation is buried inside our personal history, which always carries with it memories of guilt and shame. How can a person come to terms with the usually invisible influence of such memories? We don't recognize this influence because coming to terms the personal guilt and shame they carry is extremely upsetting. Failing to do so makes us vulnerable to what Lifton and others refer to as existential guilt. Existential guilt feeds on personal guilt and shame, causing a person to descend into a fierce, ongoing doubt about their own worth as a human being, and society’s own worth given the horrible actions people regularly take against each other. Existential guilt is something everyone strives to hide, usually under the appearance of strength. “Macho posturing” is a particularly popular way to signal to others that vulnerability has been eradicated, which of course it hasn't been.
Thankfully. Why thankfully? Because even though our vulnerability means we sometimes fail to act when we know we should, even though it can lead us to committing or supporting acts of violence rather than acknowledging our own shortcomings, even though it can lead us to falsely conclude we can someday be pure and perfect, vulnerability is essetial to living a truly human life. We desperately need it. It's the foundation of our empathy, our creativity, our imagination, our humility and our capacity to love one another.
Coming to terms with vulnerability in ways that positively impact us and move us away from the debilitating impact of existential guilt, however, is a huge psychological challenge. That’s because (as all Puritanical religious leaders know) our shame tells us we are “sinners” deserving punishment. Our guilt drives us to expect to be humiliated and ostracized by other people, because we've all done things we’re not proud of in our past. Our lack of willingness, skill, or courage to face that past with honest acknowledgement and self-compassion is what drives people into ideological groups. Ideological groups fan the flames of our hurt. They promise us redemption if we’ll only help them build a perfect, pure world.
But totalitarian authorities, Lifton observed, need to keep things personal if they’re to have maximum impact. That requires authoritarian leaders to have us feel our guilt “enough” so that at just the right moment, they can “forgive” you for your sins. Forgiving someone for their sins is one of the most psychologically powerful means of securing allegiance and obedience in human relationships. It leads us to become good communists, to think there really are WMDs in Iraq, and to support horrific wars rather than engage in the reflection and psychological work we all need to do if we're to successfully come to terms with our shame and guilt.
If we can come to such terms, the folly of a pure world and the perfection it implies is exposed. We cease to automatically project our distress on perceived “evil others”. We strengthen our capacity for engaging rather than rejecting the uncertain terrain of moral complexity. We take the air out of our willingness to jump to morally simplistic, often violent remedies to circumstances that cause us such genuine distress.
Lifton and others have long understood how difficult this is to do. But resisting the demand for purity is a powerful step in the right direction.