Chairman Mao 1893 - 1976

Chairman Mao 1893 - 1976

Cults: & the eight psychological tools of totalism. This week’s service is a bit different: I’m going to talk about cults. Not any cult in particular, just the characteristics of cults. I think this is a pertinent subject for a few reasons. First, because we have all been subject to the techniques used by cults, to a lesser or greater degree, although we may not have recognised it as such. And so it can be helpful to name something in our past for what it was, to help us process the experience. Secondly, cults are part of the religious landscape, and therefore there is value in raising our consciousness to be aware of their activity, so that we can recognise cult techniques when we encounter them for ourselves, or through others. And third, I think it’s just a fascinating subject in its own right.

So, we should begin by trying to define what the word ‘cult’ means, as it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. The word has several definitions. It’s originally a Latin word, and in Latin, the word doesn’t have any negative connotations, it just denotes the ‘homage paid to a divinity’. So, one could talk about the cult of Apollo for example, one of the gods of Roman/Greek mythology, and here there is nothing negative implied. Secondly, the word is sometimes used in a casual way, to just describe something with great appeal within a small community. So we might talk about a band or a film having a cult following, and that again is positive usage of the term. Or finally, the word can be used, as it is most commonly used, ‘pejoratively’ to describe a ‘New religious movement’ (New in this context means less than 200 years old). There are two different ways in which ‘cult’ is used ‘pejoratively’. Either, it’s used because the user of the term finds the other group to be strange, outside of the norm, or promulgating heresy. So a very common example of this might be an Evangelical Christian describing the Mormon church as a cult, because the fundamentals of faith as the Evangelical understands them are rejected by the Mormon Church, whilst the Mormon Church continues to claim they operate in the name of Jesus, and thus they must be a cult. Or, ‘pejoratively’ in that the group utilises techniques against its members to extort them, control them, manipulate them, and so forth. In this sense, the ‘pejorative’ use of the term is justifiable in my opinion, because of how destructive and negative such techniques can be. And it is in this sense that I’m using the term this morning.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton

My principle academic this morning is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. He studied medicine in New York before specialising in psychiatry. The year following the end of World War II, the year after those two atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Chinese Communist Revolution began. It concluded in 1949, the year after Robert Lifton graduated, with Mao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of The People’s Republic of China. Instead of using his psychiatry training to be a therapist, Robert Lifton used the tools of psychology and psychoanalytical theory to study historic events. And so, entering into the life of a researcher, in his late 20s he travels to British Hong Kong to study Communist China, primarily the techniques the state used which were “thought reform”, or “brainwashing” to control their citizens. He interviewed many who had fled China, who underwent their indoctrination. A few years later, this book was the result. ‘Thought Reform and the psychology of totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China’. ‘Totalism’ is the psychological equivalent to totalitarianism. An all or nothing belief system, which encompasses everything and allows for no alternative. Totalism in the Chinese Communist context of the 50s and 60s involved the systematic remoulding of citizens’ core beliefs, to bring them into line with and accept the central tenets of Marxist-Leninism, as Mao Zedong conceptualized them.

And so, as this happened, and to a lesser extent is still happening, we can ask what psychological techniques were used to archive this ‘thought reform’, and have Chinese citizens adopt a totalising position, when it came to the ideology being foisted upon them. And, here in chapter 22 of this book, Robert Lifton lays out what those psychological techniques are. You may have already guessed where I’m going with this. Even though Robert Lifton set out to describe the techniques utilised by Communist China to achieve the thought reform of their citizens, he inadvertently described the techniques a cult would use to indoctrinate their adherents. Today, even though chapter 22 of this book is not about cults, it is regarded as one of, if not the, foundational text when it comes to thinking about cults, or rather within the world of ‘cultic studies’. And so on that note, I will briefly summarise chapter 22, with my own example.

There are 8 techniques in all.

Number 1:
Control of Communication. This is almost always where cults begin. Controlling the information. Our opinion on matters is overwhelmingly shaped by the people around us. If you’re in a room, and the consensus on any given issue is resolutely moving in one direction, there is a strong physiological requisite for you to go along with the consensus. But it goes even deeper than that. If you have reservations concerning the given issue (whatever that is), if the consensus is overwhelming you will naturally doubt whether your own reservations are actually valid, and stop yourself from expressing them. Thus reinforcing the apparent consensus even more. And this is not even a conscious act necessarily; we often naturally modify our own beliefs and attitudes to be more agreeable – we can’t help ourselves. And so this natural bias that we all have is made all the stronger when you’re able to control which people the subject is in communication with. Who’s in the room? If the people in the room are all of a similar demographic, or ideology, this effect is amplified. If, for example, we’re in the Communist China context, and you have prolonged exposure to people who fanatically support the state, and think opposing concepts like America, or capitalism, or democracy, are all by nature evil, that will have an impact on your outlook. It may in itself not be enough to change your perspective, but it will definitely raise doubts in your mind. And in the context of cults, cults often try to limit communication, by limiting communication the adherent can access to non-adherents, particularly familial non-adherents, and by limiting access to other sources of information, like the internet.

Number 2:
Mythical Manipulation. This one’s a bit more difficult to explain, but it has to do with hidden manipulation techniques in which you imply an inevitable outcome - an inevitable outcome which has an explicit or quasi mystical quality. And so what’s implied is that there is no point in resisting the message of the cult or the totalitarian state because it is as if the universe herself is conspiring with the cult or state to bring about the desired outcome. So, in this way, the trust (or faith) card is brought into play. You may not understand rationally why we’re right, you need to just trust that we are.  

Number 3:
The Demand for Purity. Within totalising ideologies, the world is divided sharply into two realms, the pure and the impure, the good and the absolute evil. It's not enough to merely recognise these two realms, you need to purge all aspects, ‘taints’, and ‘poisons’, of the evil realm from within yourself. The example that comes to mind is that within Christian fundamentalist circles you are either within the ‘saved community’, which represents the good, or you’re out in the secular realm which represents the evil. One must purge the individual within the saved community of all secular influences. I recall (within such a community) secular music being a strong target. If you’re on the side of good, within the ‘saved community’, what does it benefit you to sully yourself and listen to music created in the evil secular realm? The beauty of this manipulation technique, the demand for purity, is it can never be satisfied, and so it leaves the adherent in a perpetual state of inadequacy. There is always another influence from the “evil realm” that can be identified, whether it is a physical artefact, like a music cd, or a thought, or even an unconscious thought that one should seek to shed.

Number 4:
Confession. If we can identify a toxic influence from the evil realm, we can encourage the adherent to confess to the crime or sin of allowing said influence into their lives. Humans have a ubiquitous tendency towards feelings of guilt and shame, and if you can take possession of the guilt and shame mechanism, you’re able to assert a great degree of influence over someone. Again, this can never be satisfied; you can always identify something more to confess. Once you’ve reached this level, there is a sense in which the individual has completely self-surrendered. The cult or state can then even make the confessed sin or crime public knowledge, which further cements in the psyche the redemptive narrative. They were subject to the influences of the evil realm, but now, they have overcome that and have found their true identity within this realm, the realm of good. And this is a very difficult shift to unpick after the fact.

Number 5: 
What Lifton terms ‘The Sacred Science’. It’s not enough for the basic dogmas of the cult or state to be true within the mystical construct of the cult or state. The claims made must also be “Scientifically true”. Then the detractor is not simply trapped in his own immortality. Out there in the evil realm, they also defy “logic” and “Science”. And you find this in a lot of cults, an appeal to bunk-science, in an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of said claims. Usually this is now called ‘woo woo’. Probably the most common example of this in recent decades within mystic or cultic groups is an appeal to quantum mechanics. Whenever a mystic-type figure references quantum mechanics, you know you’re in red flag territory. We can control our reality by influencing our quantum state, etc etc… By bringing science and the mystical together in this way, you can further delegitimise those who would appeal to genuine schools of logic or science as tools to critique the state or cult.

Number 6:
Loading the Language. This one relates to Number 1; when everyone has agreed to the basic premise that the dogmas of the cult or state are true, that “fact” is expressed in increasingly sweeping terms. The consensus becomes the overwhelmingly evident truth. And to further add to the cohesion of the group, the cult or state expresses its truth with the use of jargon. To some extent this happens within every community of people. But at the most extreme end, it relates to the Orwellian concept of Newspeak. The language is such that it subverts us towards its own ends, limiting our self-expression and free will. It’s circular: the language reinforces the dogma.

Number 7:
Doctrine over person. This one is pretty self-explanatory. The opinions, attitude, and even self-worth and life of the individual, must all be subordinated to the cohesion of the whole community, state, or cult. The mythical truth of the cult’s dogma, coupled with the “Scientific truth” underpinning the claims made, simply takes precedence over any one individual’s world of meaning.

Number 8:
The Dispensing of Existence. Whether this is acted upon or symbolic within the cult or state, the world is further divided into those with a right to exist, and those with no such right. They arrive at this because the definition of ‘human’ is brought into line with the dogma of the cult or state, and so if you turn your back on said dogma, you are, as far as the cult or state is concerned, subhuman. And that’s it. Those are the eight psychological tools to manipulate someone into a totalising position. The tools used by cults and totalitarian states to brainwash.

My purpose is going through these was to show how universal these techniques in fact are. Although, I imagine you have never been subjected to ‘thought reform’ at the hand of a totalitarian state. And although you have probably never been under the spell of a cult, you would have almost certainly been subject to, and come into contact with, some or all of the techniques I’ve gone through. Techniques which can be resisted and overcome. And that’s the hopeful, positive dimension to all this.

This book changed the course of Robert Lifton’s life. Although he had gone around the world to study totalism in Communist China, when he returned to America it was recognised how applicable these traits were to certain groups in America, namely cults. Many people working their way out of such destructive communities credited Lifton with opening their eyes. Although Lifton did not set out to become the leading academic in the world of cultic studies, that is who he became. His academic focus shifted primarily to the world of cults. And so, Robert Lifton has been rightly credited for his work in helping thousands of people to see for themselves the tools which were being used against them, so that they could break the spell and be free of such cults. Today, 92 year old Robert Lifton continues to speak out against the dangers of totalism, as it rears up in its many guises.


Lewis Connolly