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…