...that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
The same cannot be said, however, about the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Few of you are likely to be familiar with Dr. Lifton's work, but he's one of the few remaining articulate voices of his generation (1926-- ) who actively sought out the worst of what was happening on the planet in order to document and understand the verities of evil up close and personal, both from the standpoint of victims and victimizers.
Lifton's remarkable work began with his interviews of American servicemen who had been held captive during the Korean conflict and undergone "thought reform," along with some Chinese nationals who had similar experiences of "brainwashing" in Mao's China. Lifton realized that regimes like Mao's had a psychology all their own which he called totalism: The effort of a powerful few to rigidly explain and control the complexities of life for others in such a way that all needful questions are answered; all relevant behaviors are prescribed or tabooed; and all this is targeted toward some glorious, transformational end. In addition to his "eight characteristics of totalistic regimes" (see http://www.ex-cult.org/General/lifton-criteria), perhaps my favorite aspect of this line of inquiry includes what Lifton called the thought terminating cliche'. Lifton explained that totalistic environments encourage the use of trite terms and phrases where
...the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis (Lifton, Robert J. (1989). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. UNC Press. p. 429).
Some of you are likely to recognize such cliche's in the speech emanating from various political and (especially) religious contexts. Some examples from the religion I was raised in would include such oft repeated phrases as "...the enabling power of the atonement of Christ..." or "knowing the Church is true." These cliches' are used as punchlines to explain complex phenomena in ways that don't invite further questions or scrutiny.
Lifton then went on to turn turn his attention to the survivors of the bombing in Hiroshima, noting that "...one of the troubles with people's attitude toward nuclear weapons is that they are simply unable to imagine the consequences of such weapons..." (Lifton,. Robert J. (2011) Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. Free Press, p. 101). Those pitiful few who were able to survive such an ordeal manifested what Lifton came to call psychic numbing, where a survivor's emotions seemed to literally be switched off, despite--or perhaps because of--the grotesque dying and devastation all around them. Indeed, Lifton came to realize that it was not only survivors who experienced this numbing, but he himself experienced the anesthetizing effects of psychic numbing resulting from mere interaction with such individuals. Lifton later studied Viet Nam veterans who has either witnessed or committed wartime atrocities. They too exhibited this same sort of numbing. But here again, Lifton elucidated a further nuance contributing to the commission of evil--the atrocity-producing situation. These are circumstances which are structured, both militarily and psychologically, such that an average person--"no better or worse than you or me", as he was fond of putting it--upon entering it, could be capable of committing atrocities (Lifton, 2011, pg. 171). Certainly, Milgram and Zimbardo's work were informative here, but Lifton spoke of these phenomena with a freshness and clarity that seemed to bring a new appreciation to the problem of toxic situations.
Finally, and perhaps most substantially for my work in Objectification Spectrum was Lifton's study of Nazi doctors--those who has sworn an oath to protect the dignity and alleviate the suffering of all human beings. Yet, these same individuals played an instrumental--even vital--role in the implementation of the Third Reich's Final Solution, in which over six-million Jews were murdered. In his The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986), Lifton underscored the essentially biological rationale for such a genocidal project: killing in order to heal. On an emotional level, this book was indeed a difficult read, one which led to a number of bad dreams, as I recall. At the outset, I had assumed that at least some of the individuals Lifton interviewed at great length--men who had acted as doctors in concentration camps, men who had repeatedly engaged in the dreaded "medical experiments" and "selections", men who had decades to self-reflect and experience the world's outrage over Hitler's campaign of systematic murder--would have broken down in front of him and wept great tears of remorse and guilt. This was not at all the case. Lifton said it this way:
[Alexander Mitscherlitch] said that most Germans of his generation--the Nazi generation--could not psychologically confront the evil they had been part of, that the human psyche is incapable of inwardly experiencing its own involvement in evil of that magnitude. [...]Alexander accurately anticipated my experience with the Nazi doctors. It turned out that not one of them was able to say to me that he had been part of something evil that he deeply regretted (Lifton, R. J. (2011). Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. New York: Free Press, p. 244, emphasis added).
This speaks to a chilling truth about us as a species, I think (and perhaps about the male gender in particular): We are capable of such air-tight compartmentalization and rigidified self-boundaries that decades of time for potential self-reflection, and millions of voices consistently condemning our actions, may not be enough to penetrate the protective edifice built around the self. Lifton's work helps us appreciate this depressing reality more deeply, and provides further evidence that genuine change is a very complicated, difficult process.