Lessons from The Hunger Games 5A – Dystopian Dynamics, Totalitarian Tactics, and Lifton’s Criteria for Identifying “Cults”

5. How Do We Discern Dystopian Dynamics and Totalitarian Tactics? POST SUMMARY: This post introduces and overviews Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria for totalitarian thought reform (“brainwashing”) systems. It also gives some learning exercises for two groups: survivors of spiritual abuse and their personal network, and organizational designers/leaders who want to develop healthy and sustainable ministries. Note: I have split this material into three parts so readers can receive the best benefit from it.

Part 5A prepares our thinking with a review of previous points in the series for discerning an abusive/dystopian system, thoughts on totalitarian tactics from The Hunger Games trilogy, and the “before” part of the learning exercise.

Part 5B summarizes Dr. Lifton’s system for identifying “cults” and how the various elements work together. It then explores the first four of his eight criteria, dealing with: communications, motivations, absolutism, and confession.

Part 5C explores the final four of Dr. Lifton’s eight criteria: ultimate vision, language, ideological conformity, and ostracism. It also gives the “after” part of the learning exercise, and draws out three key issues for putting “brainwashing” into perspective.

If you’d prefer to have a printable copy, I have compiled this three-part mini-series into a PDF on Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Identifying Authoritarian Cults. I reformatted the material so each of his criteria begins on a new page.

Thought Control, Toxic Churches, and Lessons from

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy

5. How Do We Discern Dystopian Dynamics and Totalitarian Tactics? ~ Part A

Perhaps you expected to read far more of my analysis of The Hunger Games by now. I can understand that frustration. But as I’ve come to see, there are layers of complexity to how social control is created and maintained, and the way this series unfolded, it seemed better to give some background concept frameworks first, to build understanding rather than to just dive in. Meanwhile, I have inserted a few thoughts and questions about The Hunger Games along the way. Persevere! Your diligence will be rewarded, I trust! We’ll be getting to some really good, direct Hunger Games stuff, starting in just a few more posts:

  • Social coercion and control woven into the everyday cultural fabric of Panem’s Capitol, outlying districts, and District 13.
  • Various ways that both Panem and District 13 manipulate the tributes and victors for political purposes.
  • Transgenerational dynamics of dystopia – how totalitarian controls become permanently implanted over a span of several generations after they are first implanted, and how dissent is deterred through propaganda, public punishment, and mind control.
  • Sources and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and different ways that Hunger Game victors respond to the pain of trauma by avoiding it or recovering from it.
  • “Cultural capital” in a family or other social group that generates the “DNA for dissidence and discernment” in next generations.

I find all of these topics fascinating, with their relevance to thought control techniques. In fact, The Hunger Games may be one of the best contemporary media sources to mine for nuggets of insight on how toxic churches demonstrate the techniques of totalism. We’ll get there soon.

Review and Preview

Meanwhile, since we’re about midway through the series, I thought this would be a good place for a review. So, let me restate points from earlier posts what I’ve observed as characteristics of a dystopian organization or society that perpetuates totalitarian control over people. After that, I’ll preview the eight criteria for identifying an organizational “cult,” as described in psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s groundbreaking book from 50 years ago, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. So, here are key points from previous posts. To reinforce them in your thinking, you may want to read them aloud. (Granted, this doesn’t work for everyone, because of learning style differences, but you may want to give it a try anyway!)

Post #2 – Characteristics of Dystopian Societies

  • Dystopias always seem to be about bullying.
  • Dystopias have some kind of social hierarchy with over-classes of privilege and under-classes of marginalization, servitude, and/or poverty.
  • For bullies and over-classes to elevate themselves, they must also actively devalue, dehumanize, and overlord others.

Post #3 – Actual Totalitarian States

  • Totalitarian systems restrain the thought-life of their subjects through psychological control tactics physical violence, and/or social manipulation. These techniques keep people constantly busy, bored, or off balance.
  • When younger generations feel abandoned and/or betrayed by their society’s “elders,” they may reject the older generation’s systems and form a “sibling society” where the opinions of their peers count for more. Such disconnection and alienation can be manipulated to create further social chaos and control.
  • Dystopias deal with classic questions of good, evil, and redemption, but they focus on the social aspects of these issues rather than on individual salvation.

Post #4 – Fictional Dystopias Like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four

Dystopias typically manifest:

  • Hierarchical control structures with a small number of elite power holders, who govern all major goals and forms of resources: people, products, time, etc.
  • Surveillance methods that condition people to repeat the party line and say nothing critical of the regime.
  • Communication control, especially through “loaded language” (for instance, Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrimes) that conditions people to “groupthink” whatever propaganda they are fed.
  • Totalism can target for take down any aspect of being human – beliefs, emotions, and/or creative imagination.

Throughout this set of posts and points, I’ve implanted seeds that lead directly to Dr. Lifton’s eight criteria of “cult” organizations and societies. And by “cult,” we are talking here in the sociological sense – namely, a group, organization, or society that seeks to extend total control over its participants or subjects – not in the theological sense of a religious group or sect that holds to doctrines that are not “orthodox” Christian faith and practice.

Now, onward to introduce the eight criteria and where they came from, then focusing in on the essence of “thought reform” and how it relates to spiritual transformation, and instructions for the “Before” section of the learning exercise.

Background and Overview of Dr. Lifton’s Research

The word brainwashing was coined in the early 1950s to describe the radical results from a set of re-education techniques. They were noticed in the West when P.O.W.s of the Korean conflict were freed physically from captivity, but still proved to be prisoners mentally. They had endured indoctrination, propaganda, social isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation, and various types of physical and psychological torture. These traumatizing experiences left their thinking and behavior so radically changed that they didn’t seem to be themselves any longer – much like Peeta Mellark after he was “hijacked” by the Capitol and his memories altered through injections of tracker-jacker venom that targeted the fear center of his brain. At least temporarily, they acted the opposite of who they normally were known to be.

[Sidenote: There is a fascinating five-page section on “Hijacking and Psychological Torture by Fear” in Lois Gresh’s book, The Hunger Games Companion: The Unauthorized Guide to the Series (pages 122-126). She explores cutting-edge research into neuroanatomy, and the biochemistry of fear and memories, and applies it to the brainwashing experiences of Peeta Mellark by the Capitol.]

Dr. Lifton began his studies on “thought reform” in the mid-1950s. He was then a therapist for the U.S. military, and originally worked with prisoners of war from the Korean conflict. This shifted and he began working with men and women who survived Communist China’s “re-education programs.” He interviewed 40 of these former prisoners of the communist China regime – 25 Westerners and 15 Chinese. From their case studies, he pulled out a set of eight elements that were common pattern in what they experienced and how it affected them.

These criteria for identifying a totalistic paradigm and the thought reform techniques that sustained it were published in the groundbreaking 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China.

The initial phrase is the exact title Dr. Lifton uses to name the criterion, and the description that follows it is my ultra-brief summary. We’ll get into specifics in the next post.

  1. Milieu Control – restrict what communication modes are allowed.
  2. Mystical Manipulation – appeal to some higher purpose, as set by the leader or organization.
  3. The Demand for Purity – require purity of thinking, that is, with a black-and-white mentality where every view our group holds is absolutely correct.
  4. The Cult of Confession – use a radical level of personal confession to unburden people from their crimes (real or imagined) against the organization and realign them with its principles.
  5. The “Sacred Science” – promote our moral vision as ultimate: Our way of life is the only right one.
  6. Loading the Language – create code words and insider jargon that reduce complex problems to simplistic solutions, and condense categories into judgmental labels.
  7. Doctrine Over Person – require people to conform to our perfect system of truth so that individuality is eradicated and sublime conformity is the sacred norm.
  8. The Dispensing of Existence – exercise the “right” to decide who has the right to exist in public and who needs to be isolated or excommunicated.

His criteria have since been applied over the years to political organizations and movements – like the cult of Mao in China. They have also been applied to spiritual/religious groups – like the cult of Jim Jones and The Peoples’ Temple. His approach to understanding totalitarian systems is relevant wherever extreme social coercion is applied to force people toward social conformity. Unfortunately, this includes toxic churches and malignant ministries, where a dystopian paradigm of authoritarian power, fear, and demands for compliance dominate.

“Thought Reform” and “Conversion”

In Chapter 22 of his book on thought reform, Dr. Lifton devotes several pages to each element in his set of criteria. In the next post, I’ll summarize each element, and select quotes that illustrate the principle he saw at work in social systems of totalism. (Note: I’m using the W.W. Norton 1963 version, so page numbers may not be the same in other editions.)

If you think you might be interested in reading the entire book, you might want to secure a copy before working through the next post. It is available in several print editions, as well as a Kindle version and a Nook version.

Whatever edition you choose, I’d strongly recommend that you read Chapters 1 and 2 before reading Chapter 22. They are short, but give invaluable background on how Dr. Lifton got into this area of study in the first place, the kinds of Chinese and Western subjects he conducted his in-depth interviews with, and important notes on “brainwashing.” Here is his summary description of that term

“As I proceeded with the [interview] work, I realized that one of the main causes for confusion about thought reform lay in the complexity of the process itself. Some people considered it a relentless means of undermining the human personality; others saw it as a profoundly ‘moral’ – even religious – attempt to instill new ethics into the Chinese people. Both of these views were partly correct, and yet each, insofar as it ignored the other, was greatly misleading. For it was the combination of external force or coercion with an appeal to inner enthusiasm through evangelistic exhortation which gave thought reform its emotional scope and power. Coercion and breakdown are, of course, more prominent in the prison and military programs, while exhortation and ethical appeal are especially stressed with the rest of the Chinese population; and it becomes extremely difficult to determine just where exhortation ends and coercion begins” (emphasis in the original).

Dr. Lifton goes on to describe the Chinese government’s own view of their use of these tactics. He notes that they believed that “All crimes have definite sociological roots” which involve “evil ideology and evil habits” of the old society. “Thus if we are to wipe all crimes from their root … we must carry out various effective measures to transform the various evil ideological conceptions in the minds of the people so that they may be educated and reformed into new people” (page 14).

Wow … when I read this last sentence, I shuddered as I thought how easily such perverse concepts of coercion have been adapted into spiritual abuse – under perverted “lamb-o-flague language” that hijacks the words of Scripture, like “be renewed in the spirit of your mind,” or “new nature,” but uses them deceitfully for their own agendas. In such cases, God’s Word has too often been misused to divide people from the truth and isolate them from healthy relationships, not lead them into spiritual growth or vibrant participation in a community of saints.

Perhaps as frightening was Dr. Lifton’s conclusion that “In all of this it is most important to realize that what we see as a set of coercive maneuvers, the Chinese Communists view as a morally uplifting, harmonizing, and scientifically therapeutic experience” (page 15, emphasis in the original). I have a couple of thoughts about why I find this scary, as relates with spiritual abuse.

First, in my experiences, spiritually abusive leaders never, ever acknowledge that what they do is coercive and damaging. At best, they appeal to the truth that “nobody’s perfect,” or deflect responsibility by giving a generics-filled non-apology like, “IF I ever did anything that might have been offensive, I’m sorry.” At worst, they find ways to increase the pressure on you to extinguish criticism, “submit” to their authority, and align with their doctrine. Or they kick you out of the church and make sure you continue to remember their power through their “leading” the rest of the congregation to shun you.

Second, “brainwashing” may be meant for “conversion,” but it cannot bring Christlike transformation. The techniques of brainwashing are not the same as genuine teaching, counseling, mentoring, overseeing, and/or ministering that is designed to bring about personal growth, creativity, individuality, and social contributions to community. Instead, brainwashing involves intentional, insidious pressure for conformity through confession and re-education. Its indoctrination is designed to manipulate people into a conversion of values, beliefs, and behaviors that overthrow the individual’s identity, will, and natural network of connections, and to embrace an imposed paradigm of philosophy/faith, practice, family, and unassailable authoritarian leaders.

Finally, if you decide to go on and do other background reading on the subject of brainwashing and cults of totalism, you’ll find a range of academic perspectives and controversies. There are questions as to whether any form of religious “conversion” is actually “brainwashing,” and whether “emerging alternative religions” are always cults, and whether “cult deprogramming” tactics are too similar to those of brainwashing, even though for an opposite purpose. These are important questions with implications for identifying malignant ministries and toxic leaders. But, so much of the discussion eventually resounds back to Dr. Lifton’s work that this is the book I’ve chosen to focus on here.

Do This Exercise to Prepare for Studying Dr. Lifton’s Criteria

Before we get into the specifics of Dr. Lifton’s criteria in Part B, I’m going to suggest that you do at least one of the following “Before You Read” exercises to get your mindset ready. (At the end of the Part B post, once you’ve gone through Lifton’s list, there will be an “Afterward You Read” part of the exercise to analyze things and consider some applications.)

Before You Read Dr. Lifton’s Definitions and Criteria

For both survivors and organizational designers/leaders:

Be aware as you can of your being while you read and consider these points, to see what specific items seem to be impacting you the most.

  • When do you notice you stop to focus, and perhaps either stop your breathing or breathe rapidly?
  • Do any items or illustrations cause your heart to beat faster?
  • Which one(s) make you shift around in your seat?
  • Are there other physical and emotional signals that might be indicators that something has disturbed you or caught your attention or brings memories to the forefront of your thinking?

For those who are survivors of spiritually abusive/toxic organizations and their family, friends, and advocates:

Take some time to remember what happened to you (or to the family, friends, advocates you care about) in an authoritarian organization. Jot down what comes to mind about the following issues – and don’t worry about taking time right now to analyze them – save that process for later.

  • How would you define social coercion, thought reform, and/or brainwashing?
  • What kinds of things were done in that organization to control the ways people thought, felt, and communicated?
  • How did you feel stifled?
  • What happened to relationships you had within the group?
  • In what ways did leaders/bullies there work to instill fear in people?
  • How did they seek to manipulate your emotions?
  • How did they use verbal abuse and/or manipulative speaking to get their way?

Go through the introductory list of Dr. Lifton’s eight criteria and jot notes on anything that strikes you about each item – what happened to you, how that particular element seemed to be used, how it made you think and feel, what it did to those around you, etc.

  1. Milieu Control – restrict what communication modes are allowed.
  2. Mystical Manipulation – appeal to some higher purpose, as set by the leader or organization.
  3. The Demand for Purity – require purity of thinking, that is, with a black-and-white mentality where every view our group holds is absolutely correct.
  4. The Cult of Confession – use a radical level of personal confession to unburden people from their crimes (real or imagined) against the organization and realign them with its principles.
  5. The “Sacred Science” – promote our moral vision as ultimate: Our way of life is the only right one.
  6. Loading the Language – create code words and insider jargon that reduce complex problems to simplistic solutions, and condense categories into judgmental labels.
  7. Doctrine Over Person – require people to conform to our perfect system of truth so that individuality is eradicated and sublime conformity is the sacred norm.
  8. The Dispensing of Existence – exercise the “right” to decide who has the right to exist in public and who needs to be isolated or excommunicated.

For those who are organizational systems designers and/or leaders:

Get spiritual abuse systems back in mind:

  • If you ARE a survivor of spiritual abuse yourself, go through the survivor’s exercise above first.
  • If you are NOT a survivor of spiritual abuse yourself, read my futuristguy post on “Strategies and Tactics of Leaders Who are Abusive.” Then, you should find someone who is a survivor and interview them, using the questions above as guidelines.

Consider your current organization or your plans for a forthcoming church or ministry:

  • How would you define social coercion, thought reform, and/or brainwashing?
  • What preventive measures does your organization have in place already so that no leader, member, process, or procedure can fall into such evil actions?
  • How do you handle accusations of bullying in your organization?
  • What happens to those found to be bullies, and to those found to be shielding, helping, or enabling them to harm others?
  • How do you train new staff and members of your organization about harassment, bullying, verbal abuse, coercion, legalism, etc.?
  • Is it part of your regular schedule as an organization to conduct internal reviews of your systems for health versus harassment?
  • Do you use only internal monitors, or do you use qualified outside people as evaluators and monitors?
  • What procedures do you have in place for filing a grievance against another member of your organization?

And now, on to Part B, and specifics of Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria for identifying organizational “cults.” There we’ll go deeper into detail, and finish by bringing things together

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