Those of you who follow this post know I'm in the middle of a Lifton series about thought-reform. As part of that sequence, today I offer you a link to a post by a colleague who is very tuned into this situation. Enjoy!
Those of you who follow this post know I'm in the middle of a Lifton series about thought-reform. As part of that sequence, today I offer you a link to a post by a colleague who is very tuned into this situation. Enjoy!
Robert Jay Lifton noticed that totalitarian organizations devised another purpose for language: to terminate thought. This doesn’t mean eliminating imagination so much as steering it through cliche’-ridden “interpretive shortcuts” that reduce complex situations to something easy to grasp, emotionally charged, and capable of conveying a sense of absoluteness. When Chinese communists in the 1950s were language loading, they used phrases such as “imperialist”, “exploiting classes”, and “bourgeois” to inflame followers and create a sense of righteous indignation. When Newt Gingrich sent out an advisory word list for his republican colleagues to use against their democratic opponents in the 90’s, that list encouraged the repeated use of words such as “betray”, “corruption”, “decay”, “pathetic”, “sensationalist” and “hypocrisy”. Media sound bites containing Gingrich’s words and other emotionally evocative, divisive words still saturate the air waves in the U.S. because the media has embraced this approach, knowing that the use of such language sells their products more because it appeals to our baser instincts..
Language loading has become so culturally pervasive that a person has to battle, day in and day out, against the passivity it encourages. This battle has 3 fronts: 1) Imagination itself. The best way to control imagination is to steer language towards belief. Loaded language is laced with beliefs that eliminate any sense of irony and imaginative uncertainty: the best quality of imagination, the one that gives us pause in order to protect us against coming to premature conclusions. 2) Surrogacy. The purpose of slick advertising/marketing campaigns is obviously not to lead us to any “truths”: it’s to make us think they are doing this. Ads replace the natural process a person would take in discovering what’s real with high influence projections that prey on unconscious insecurities and desires. 3) Isolation. There are two primary ways people individuals isolate themselves from the world: through comfort, and/through seeking out likeminded people to fan mutual flames of indignation about anyone not sharing their belief system. Contrary opinions don’t find any opportunity to be heard inside silos of either sort. If they accidentally make an appearance, they are quickly met with narcissistic rage that fiercely resents any threats to the false identity a person constructs when he had lost his capacity to engage life directly.
Manipulating imagination, redirecting people towards shadows that look like something they aren’t, and distorted conclusions reached in isolation are made all the stronger not just by society’s extreme overemphasis on its’ image-making machinery, but by a lack of commitment to a rigorous educational system and by the internet illusion that convinces us that greater access to information has meant more opportunity to engage in contrary ideas when in fact most people use this tool just to engage in confirmation bias.
Language loading only succeeds when we become dissociated from the experiences life puts in front of us. In ideological contexts, life experiences are rigorously controlled and become increasingly predictable. What must a culture do to put loaded language to the side and find the way to genuine individual expression, alternative ideas, and balanced political judgments? A clue from Prayer, a poem by Rabdranath Tagore
“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but
to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies on life’s
Battlefield but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be
Saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward,
Feeling your mercy in my success alone,
But let me find
The grasp of your hand in my failure.”
There are a lot of battles in the world a person could focus on right now: ISIS vs. the West, Republicans vs. Democrats, industrial greed vs. ecological survival. Do they all have something in common?
They do indeed. And Robert Jay Lifton’s 5th insight into totalitarian strategies makes it clear: sacred science. When Lifton interviewed people who had been imprisoned by the Chinese in the 1950s, he worked out something so critical about how ideologies work ( something a contemporary of his, Hanna Arendt, was also discovering) that it’s worth quoting directly:
“The assumption here is not so much that man can be God, but rather that man’s ideas can be God: that an absolute science of ideas (and implicitly, an absolute science of man) exists, or is at least very close to being attained: that this science can be combined with an equally absolute body of moral principles; and that the resulting doctrine is true for all men at all times.”
Human beings, in other words, fall most deeply in love the not with people, but with ideas. When they do, they are capable of shaping everything around them to conform to those ideas. When NSA Chief James Clapper lied to Congress - normally a crime punishable by losing your job(at a minimum) and/or imprisonment(at a maximum), he in fact faced no consequences. How is that possible? Because the law he broke is less important than the sacred idea he was supposedly protecting: the idea of a threatened national security. Contrast that to the prosecutorial threats the U.S. government has made regarding whistle blower Edward Snowden. The power of Snowden’s main idea - freedom from government surveillance - pales in comparison with the fear engendered by any notion of a national security threat.
Elevating an idea to the status of the sacred and then benefitting from the power of belief that follows has always been with us. Consider a central idea all religions have utilized - an idea whose persuasive clout has kept people submissive for centuries: the idea that the hardship people endure is either deserved or signifies that a lesson must be learned. When religious authorities utilize this idea to shame their followers into submission, it lays the groundwork for the corruption they then engage in - usually in the form of cover for religious authorities who prey on their followers’ bank accounts, their bodies, and/or their labor.
Karen Armstrong’s brilliant book, The Battle for God, shed further light on the power of elevating an idea to the level of sacred science when she spoke about how even really bad, simplistic ideas can work this way if people become antinomian about them; i.e. they conclude that faith in an idea alone is what leads to salvation. This shortcuts the need for religious observances, for critical thinking, and for paying any attention whatsoever to anyone besides one’s self. Faith alone in the mind of a person with no capacity or interest in critically assessing different sides of a situation makes it incredibly easy for people to behead others, to start wars, or to send “undesirables” to concentration camps (Eichmann in Jerusalem) without so much as a sliver of conscience standing in their way.
What do most people have faith in the most these days? If you think it’s the Koranic verses ISIS spouts off from time to time to justify their actions, think again. If you think it’s the freedom extolled by billionaire capitalists trolling the planet for profit, you should also give pause. And although national security might seem a bit closer to the mark, this too ends up being just a cover story wrapped in different national flags.
The real Sacred Science culprit these days is the core belief underpinning all ideologies that succumb to fundamentalist extremism: a fear for survival itself . A fear that leads people to conclude it’s every man - or group - for himself. The fear embedded in millennial, nihilistic perspectives that we are doomed to perish, that the world as we know it is ending. This fear can justify greed, violence, totalitarianism, and any evil imaginable. It underpins ideological arguments by the right and the left. It is just as capable of finding its’ way into into western parliaments as it is into Middle Eastern mosques, fringe health movements, extremist activist groups or Wall Street board rooms.
So what is the “science” of these apocalyptical visions? It’s seldom the science of data gathering, experiments, rational thinking and hypothesis testing. Instead, it’s the fear-based, jump-to-conclusion, often highly exaggerated hysteria that gives up on life. In its hopelessness it retreats, lashes out, and closes down and off. In doing so it puts extraordinary pressure on 1) our impulse towards self-knowledge, 2) our creative development, 3) genuine, transparent, and heartfelt expressiveness and 4) the capacity to distinguish between what’s sacred and what’s profane.
And it is the pursuit - and valuing - of these 4 very human dimensions of life that points our way out of the messes we create when we ignore them.
Have you ever been an audience to someone who tells you something that has been causing them great distress - perhaps something they’re ashamed of - and seen the relief they experience in getting that information off their chest? This impulse to confession was exhaustively explored by Robert Jay Lifton in his study of Chinese totalism in the 1950s. Lifton coined the phrase “cults of confession” to describe how terribly twisted our instincts to unburden ourselves and understand ourselves can become in the hands of the wrong audiences to those confessions.
As discussed in the last post, vulnerability is a double-edged sword. Whether our vulnerability leads us to meaning and healing or to damage and despair depends to a large extent on where and how we choose to land our secrets. Those who conclude that sharing secrets with no one is the best option ultimately find themselves in self-referential gordian knots, trying to make meaning without the benefit of the creative, perspective-giving power that comes from being listened to with respectful attention. Those who leak their secrets to everyone they meet eventually discover the untrustworthiness of many of their audiences, and harm that ranges from vicious gossip to irreparably damaged lives.
Organizations intent on using personal information to their benefit either don’t want people to think about what they’re sharing (the NSA reading our e-mails, Google/Amazon/Facebook algorithmically targeting us to turn higher profits), or, in the cases that Lifton studied, want to deceive us into thinking they’re a trustworthy source because their ideology will unburden you of the pressure a person with a powerful secret experiences in containing it.
All of this puts a premium on an individual’s capacity to discern who is trustworthy and who isn’t: one of the hardest psychological skills for a person to develop. Why is it so hard? Because our striving for meaning, our desire for healing, and our nature as a social species are all so incredibly strong. They all prompt us to confess at times, and the result is usually mixed: sometimes it leads to lifelong friendships, sometimes it ends what you thought were lifelong friendships.
The wedge used by high influence organizations to get people to confess are the promises they offer: promises of purging, purity, and healing. Because the initial experience of unburdening one’s self of a pressurized secret can feel so physically and emotionally good, people can quickly conclude they’ve landed in a safe harbor where those promises are being kept. What they haven’t understood is that revealing private information always carries with it a component of risk, and that risk often appears much later down the road. As discerning a person as you may think you are, determining that risk with 100% certainty simply isn’t possible.
The “urge to purge” is particularly risky, whether done publicly or in seemingly contained environments. When those environments don’t turn out to be safe, a psychological cycle is initiated that begins with confusion: why has the invitation to disclose resulted in an untrustworthy reaction to the private information? Confusion gives way to suspicion. That suspicion usually grows to an generalized mistrust about who to trust when, and builds up extraordinary internal pressure to not tell anyone anything. Totalist organizations know, however, that this pressure competes with the isolation a person is also feeling from the expectation of relief and belonging they thought confession would bring, and that they can appeal to their promises of community to encourage more confession. They apply more pressure in a variety of ways, as Lifton notes:
“There is a demand to confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed.”
By then, the train has left the station. Small, incremental and seemingly innocuous invasions of privacy are expanded, used as leverage points to increase the influence and control of the organization, and to encourage the passivity of the confessor. These invasions are based on the highly immoral position that no individual needs to retain his own ideas or emotions: a sentiment Lifton referred to as a desire on the part of an organization to have “private ownership of the mind.”
What, then, are we to do to honor our inner experience - including the secrets we hold - in ways that don’t lead to us compromising our sovereignty? How do we find that magical and powerful zone of experience where confession actually does unburden us, allow us to heal, and move forward beyond any shame or guilt that might be associated with the confession?
This age-old question has captivated us for centuries without providing a uniform prescription for how to proceed - and it truly is an individual matter. We need to learn from our experience who to trust and when; what is appropriate to share and what is not. This arena of life is complicated when technology gets involved, because we can mistake inviting language on social networking sites as a surrogate for respectful listening so easily. We do the same thing in person, however, so it’s not just the technology.
What matters is how fined tuned our ability to know when we’re in a place where healing is truly valued, or where meaning can be genuinely and respectfully sought. Our social nature will always push us to find such places, but if we’re to avoid “cults of confession” we’d be well-advised to pay close attention to who has the privilege of knowing about our innermost secrets.
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.
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”.
Robert Jay Lifton is not a household name, and that’s unfortunate. Lifton’s studies of Chinese intellectuals at “revolutionary universities” (and Westerners in Chinese prisons) during the 1950s gave everyone interested in ideological totalism, dogma, and mind control the case studies, insights and theoretical foundations that are still referred to today whenever anyone is trying to understand extremism. His still vibrant ideas bear re-examination, and I intend to do that in this and upcoming blogs by revisiting the “8 psychological criteria” Lifton believes should inform any in-depth conversation on thought reform.
The first psychological criteria is that of “milieu control”. Lifton viewed this as the most basic feature of thought control: the control of human communication. When most people think of communication control in an organization or in society, they usually only consider external communication. Lifton’s research went well beyond this, revealing the devastating effect that takes place when the internal communication of a person is impacted - when ideology successfully penetrates consciousness and weakens that person’s sovereignty over his life. Both aspects of milieu control are possible when an organizational authority has power that is virtually omnipotent. As Lifton put it in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism,
It is probably fair to say that the Chinese Communist prison and revolutionary university produce about as thoroughly controlled a group environment as has ever existed.
Sometimes people confuse milieu control with privacy infringement. They may, for instance, consider the recent evidence confirming that the NSA is listening into the private communications of American citizens (and leaders abroad) as the former rather than the latter. Yes, being spied on is creepy - but the NSA’s stated purpose is finding terrorists, not influencing the people it listens to. Lifton’s insight was to detail how the insidious practice of controlling external and internal communications puts a person’s autonomy under threat. This is the intent of conversion-oriented ideologies. As the journalist H.L. Mencken said in describing the Puritans,
The objection to Puritans is not that they try to make us think as they do, but that they try to make us do as they think.
In order to penetrate inner communication to the extent Mencken is referring to, Lifton points out that it is necessary to disrupt the balance an individual feels between the outside world and his inner world. His self-expression, his struggles to learn the truth, and his independent judgement are all compromised the more thoroughly milieu control is exercised.
But here’s the confusing thing about our contemporary world: milieu control is simply much harder to achieve in today’s information-rich world than it was in 1950s China - even in China. And that same information-rich world has made it possible for people to challenge and refute ideologies of any variety much more easily. Religious and political ideologies, the two most prominent sources of ideological extremism, are today susceptible to much more ferocious, widespread and public criticism than they ever have been exposed to before, simply by virtue of how easy it has become to obtain information that challenges their core beliefs.
Not only that, but the two environments where milieu control is most likely to be practiced - religion and politics - hold much less interest for the younger generations if a recent Pew Reseach Report is to be believed. Millennials are less likely than previous generations to be affiliated with a religion, and less than half of them consider themselves to be “a patriotic person.” Consider this data alongside a yearly freshman survey given to UCLA students pointing out that in 1966, 86% of freshman felt that it was important to have a meaningful philosophy in life. In 2013, on the other hand, that number goes down to 45%. Success is much more in the foreground of the millennial generation, most likely attributable to the much more severe economic environment they face.
Lest we prematurely berate a sigh of relief about the decline in the more insidious dimensions of milieu control, however, it’s important to remember this: the capacity of commercial, political, and religious organizations to influence and persuade us remains robust. The daily advertising and marketing bombardments we are all subjected to - finely-tuned, repetitive, and aggressive - continue to stimulate appetites which can never be totally quenched, and which steer us more effectively than ever to “make choices” the sponsoring organizations behind them want us to make.
Is this the evolution of milieu control? I wonder what Lifton would say…
No I’m not, although I admit “singing the praises” is a bit of an exaggeration meant to keep you reading until the end of this piece. Like many in my generation, part of my youthful rationale for opposing the war in Viet Nam, for instance, was based largely on the notion that authority should not only be questioned but challenged when it abuses power.
Nothing I write today will contradict that notion. I firmly believe if we’re to successfully stop the fabric-ripping consequences inherent in such issues such as climate change, terrorism and institutional corruption, we need to be anything but obedient towards authorities seeking to further the destruction wrought by all three of these trends.
Having said that, I would add this: the world is not so simple that opposition to authority can be applied as a universal principle. In fact, I’d say my respect for certain skillful applications of obedience reflects in part my aversion to absolutism: that’s a far more malignant cancer at the core of fundamentalist thought. Obedience, on the other hand , has 3 aspects where it serves a crucial role in advancing our consciousness and strengthening our psychological muscle. The first is the area of restraint. I go into detail about restraint in a previous post, but the gist of what I say is this: When the aim of restraint is simply to win a battle, it’s nothing other than a disingenuous means of obstructionism that undermines the skillful use of this quality. Skillful use of restraint allows for the deepening of relationships and the discovery of new possibilities that is sometimes only possible when we hold back our initial impulses to “defeat our enemies.” Obedience to a restraint principle such as acknowledging how complex the world is and thus resisting the temptation to jump to conclusions prematurely in a heated argument is a sorely needed attribute in our world. What’s more, it’s extremely powerful when a person’s able to pull it off.
The capacity to exercise restrain requires a second element of obedience which I think has value: self-discipline. Although self-discipline is often seen as a subset of restraint, it is more than that. Obeying the dictates of your conscience, for instance, will sometimes involve restraint but at other times will mean expressing your opinions in circumstances that scare you (confronting your boss when he behaves unethically, for instance); doing so leads more often than not to making your life harder, at least in terms of your external circumstances. But obedience to one’s own internal wisdom merits a medal in my opinion: one we should award to anyone brave enough to act on his conscience irrespective of the circumstances he may subsequently face.
Obedience to conscience is the third and final peg of my argument in favor of well-chosen acts of obedience. My awareness of this was heightened recently when a member of a monthly discussion group I participate in (a transpartisan group that includes radical left-wing environmentalists, tea party activists, and others with strong beliefs) commented on her shock when she first discovered that honesty, as a value to be respected and followed, no longer had such an elevated status in the mind of many in the world. It had slipped offed the radar in a number of environments, replaced by success, self-advancement, and vanquishing one’s foes. Whether you agree with this notion or not it can certainly be argued that honesty, along with virtues such as transparency, loyalty, mercy, sanctity, commitment, and compassion are the fruit born when we endeavor to place conscience in the center of our awareness. Obedience to conscience is anything but easy, but ranks as one of the most powerful weapons each of us has at his disposal to combat the destructive social trends around us, trends that at times make even the sturdiest person around want to give up.
If working agains such trends means following our conscience, disciplining ourselves appropriately to do so, and restraining our impulse to fight anything we don’t put in the category of a favored belief, then obedience will have served us well. The notion that it can do so without compromising the mettle we will still need in opposing authority most of the time doesn’t diminish this role for obedience at all.
When John Kerry called Edward Snowden “dumb” in the press the other day, my reaction was mixed. My first response was to remember how inspired I was when Kerry appeared in front of a congressional committee in 1971 to eloquently denounce the Vietnam War
Those of us who opposed that war were moved and emboldened by Kerry’s testimony. I believed him and worked harder than ever to bring the war to a close.
I also believed Edward Snowden when he exposed how pervasive and pernicious the reach of the NSA had become, compromising both privacy and freedom.
In my estimation, Snowden’s whistleblower remarks were remarkable not only for their content, but for their ability to “cut through” in a media age where doing so is about 10,000 times harder than it was when Kerry made his testimony in 1971. Snowden, like Kerry, was touching a fundamental chord in our collective zeitgeist, one that made us all sit up and take notice.
It’s at this point in our public narrative - the point where our inspiration could really take us somewhere substantive - that we all (especially the media) succumb to a much more facile instinct: we indulge in superficial character judgements about the protagonists. Has Kerry sold his soul to the system? Is Snowden really a traitor? These questions are more than just distractions. They reflect the sabotage of our public dialogue. They depoliticize us all, encouraging us instead to become passive, cynical consumers of life.
How can this this trend be more fulsomely described…. an abandonment of our critical thinking?…an entertainment detour reflecting our obsession with personality-based popular culture?…an overwhelmed citizenry too overtaken by survival needs to engage in the rigor of political thinking? There’s truth to all these notions. But behind each of them is something more foundational: the deeply seated, utopian notion we have that we should be “perfect”. A notion first drummed into the American psyche by the Puritan Ethic, but alive and well in a celebrity-based, hyper-individualistic culture that can’t seem to create community outside of like-minded Facebook Groups and church congregations clutching onto people with similar beliefs while simultaneously pointing the finger of righteousness at everyone else.
That’s why we deflect ourselves from issues that affect us all and instead become obsessed with whether Martin Luther King slept with prostitutes, or why Gandhi didn’t allow his wife to take antibiotics when she was at death’s door, or how Mother Theresa’s acceptance of tainted money for her work with the poor was hypocritical. I’m using “older” examples here deliberately, because at the time these renowned leaders were changing the world, we paid more attention to their ideas than to their personal failings: why is that? Partly, I think, because we didn’t have the easy access to information then that we have now. But also because the ideas of each of these icons captured us with their notions of societal perfection: civil rights, self-determination, a world where the poor are embraced. Noble, inspiring ideas: but oriented towards perfection all the same.
So am I suggesting that we abandon these ideals? That we turn our back on economic inequality, climate change, sexual violence, political corruption, and all the other problems of the day?
Of course not. When we think something is wrong and see the likes of of John Kerry and Edward Snowden opposing it on our behalf, we put fuel in our tank and strength in our voice. That’s needed now more than it ever has been for the simple reason that there are so many more of us, and so all our problems amplify and spread much more quickly.
But how we oppose things really matters. Can we have the courage not just to passionately believe in something but to change our most deeply seated beliefs about things? Can we live for our country as well as die for it? Can we build on the efforts of so many incredible people in our collective past to forge societies less obsessed with perfection and more with kindness, respect, and an acknowledgement of our interdependence?
One of the attractions of ideologies - particularly religious ideologies - is that people will find community and belonging once they join. Given the growing levels of loneliness and isolation that result from the Western embrace of the Frontier Meta-narrative’s extreme emphasis on individualism, community and belonging have great appeal. Some social scientists, such as Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind), make an evolutionary psychology argument that our capacity for group collaboration reflects something unique and powerful about human beings. Haidt believes this capacity is evolving to more sophisticated levels all the time.
Group collaboration as it currently plays out, however, anchors itself almost entirely on shared purpose linked to shared belief. A sport’s team’s purpose of winning a competition is more likely to be achieved if it is intertwined with individuals on that team believing in themselves, in each other, and in their leadership. The ideology of a sport’s team is most compelling captured by what Vince Lombardi, former coach of the Green Bay Packers, said long ago: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Of course the ideology of sport is considered to much less consequential than the ideologies underpinning religions or politics. But as Lombardi’s expansive quotation implies, it’s important that we recognize that the wholehearted embrace of a belief system in any environment promotes a way of functioning that has broad impact, no matter how significant the activity being considered is perceived to be.
The reason for this is simple: when we base our actions on belief to the exclusion of direct awareness, we often ignore vital factors that could lead us to a more elegant, beneficial, and enduringly useful decision. For instance, the belief in the justice system of many American states that the state should punish a murderer with the death penalty overlooks how DNA evidence might exonerate that person in the future, or that the state may lack the capacity to execute a person humanely. The pitfalls of adhering dogmatically to strongly held beliefs include 1) Ignoring evidence, 2) Ignoring other strongly held beliefs, and 3) Cultivating habits of narrow-mindedness, conformity, and simplistic thinking.
Which brings us back to the question of how “evolved” we truly are in our group interactions with each other.
The abstraction of experience through technological filters is a concern that first captured the public imagination with Marshall McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media. As the prophecies captured by that book continue to unfold at an ever-increasing pace, it’s useful to consider 3 factors - purity, specialization, and expertness - and one example - how we educate ourselves - that inform us of how excessive abstraction can erode our direct experience of the world.
The first factor, purity, is not the central focus of French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-first Century. But Piketty illustrates the pitfalls of purity powerfully when he says that divorcing economics from politics by considering the former to be “pure science” ends up turning both politics and economics into folly. Economics, of course, is not the only place purity seeks to dominate: it's part and parcel of most religious and spiritual practice. In that environment, it often binds adherents to the dictates of the puritan meta-narrative. Purity is never achievable, but genuine advancement is - and the latter would be much more straightforward if the former would get out of its' way.
Specialization is a factor that has captured the concern of philosophers for centuries, from Leonardo da vinci to Buckminster Fuller. Perhaps Robert Heinlein wrote about the perils of specialization best in his book, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
What about expertise? While it's something we all aspire to and depend on, its' fallibility continues to remind us not to rely automatically on people we think are experts. You needn't go further than the Chinese protestors bemoaning the competency of the Malaysian government in accounting for their relatives on Flight 370 to see that premature, unthinking faith in experts is frequently heartbreaking or worse.
This is not to say that purity, specialization, and expertness are not useful - they all have a place in human experience. But when they dominate both our landscapes of action(what we do) - and our landscapes of consciousness(what we think about) - they can dramatically undercut the value we place on direct experience. How does that work?