Lessons from The Hunger Games 5B – Identifying Cults: Authoritarian Communications, Motivations, Restrictions, and Confessions

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.

Thought Control, Toxic Churches, and Lessons from The Hunger Games Trilogy

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

Introduction and the “While You Read” Exercise

Before we get into the specifics of Dr. Lifton’s criteria, I’m going to suggest that you take a moment to review what you learned during the “Before” exercise that went with Part 5A. Then read through the exercise below. (It is the same for survivors of spiritual abuse as for designers and leaders of sustainable systems.) Follow what it says in the “While You Read” section as you work your way through the overviews of the eight criteria. At the end of the post, you’ll find an “Afterwards” exercise to help tie things together.

While You Read Dr. Lifton’s Definitions and Criteria

For survivors of spiritually abusive/toxic organizations and their family, friends, and advocates; and for organizational systems designers and/or leaders:

  • How do you respond to the definitions of key terms? Do any strike you as odd, unrealistic, amazing, … ?
  • Note items that come to mind to add to your own list of coercive/abusive experiences.
  • Note items that come to mind to add to your own list of ways your current church, ministry, or organization is potentially coercive, and ways it exhibits health.
  • Assuming you have read The Hunger Games trilogy, make a list of insights and questions you have about how various of Lifton’s eight criteria apply to Panem’s Capitol, to its outlying districts, and to District 13.

Totalitarian Ways and Means (and Mean Ways) In a Nutshell …

I have been processing my experiences with authoritarian churches, ministries, and organizations intentionally for four years. I’ve been working through Dr. Lifton’s criteria for identifying totalistic systems and methods intensively for four weeks. This is complex material. It deals with ideas and leaders, politics and people, cultures and controllers. It is difficult to capture the essence of what Dr. Lifton is getting at, or select the most relevant quotes, when I’ve underlined or starred half the lines on every page!

Nevertheless, it had to be done. So, I will begin with a one-paragraph synthesis of the key topics and how I see them fitting together. Then I will look at the eight criteria, four in Part 5B and four in Part 5C. I’ll extract what I interpret as key thoughts, seek to “translate” technical material as best I can, and quote directly from Dr. Lifton when that seems the best way to deal with the material. At the end of Part 5C, I will also share three issues that are particularly important to the overall discussion how to interpret and apply these criteria.

Four last notes. First, this is meaty material. It’s okay to going through it slowly so you can really chrew on it. In fact, to broaden your learning style technique repertoire, you may want to invite some other people to join you in person on via phone or Skype, read a section aloud, and then discuss it together using the “While You Read” guidelines and any other questions or comments that come to mind.

Second, I am not only pulling vocabulary and quotes strictly from Dr. Lifton’s material in Chapter 22 of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. I draw in related ideas, applications to ministry situations, and experiences to help clarify the criteria. However, the essence of the definitions and descriptions do come from Dr. Lifton. (And when I do quote Dr. Lifton, I am using the W.W. Norton 1963 version, so page numbers may not be the same in other editions.)

Third, I am not dealing here with how-to’s of recovery for people who’ve suffered traumatization by leaders and laypeople in authoritarian systems. Also, I won’t address intervention of toxic leaders, or prevention of totalistic systems and social coercion tactics. Those are among the main subjects of my forthcoming book Safe Houses for God’s People, in which this series serves as part of the media studies section.

Fourth, I find it frightening to see how many concepts that appear in Dr. Lifton’s work could be developed oh, so very easily from contorted authoritarian interpretations of the Bible – like authority hierarchies and “confession” and “transformation.” If doctrinal interpretation and application is left in the hands of one CEO pastor/elder in a church, or even a very tight-knit cadre of doctrinaire leaders, that is dangerous beyond words and beyond the Word. The antidotes for counterfeits involve the full truth in a system that is not toxic. Much more on safe, healthy, and sustainable systems in the entire Opal Design Systems Curriculum, of which Safe Houses is the first volume.

So – finally, here is the one-paragraph synthesis/summary:

Ideological totalism is about creating the perfect paradigm of absolute truth about what everyone should value, believe, feel, do, and contribute in every aspect of life. Thought reform is about methods for getting every person to embrace that paradigm and to emulate the gurus who already embody it. Because this ideological system is the one and only true way to live, and the answer to all questions, we need to have its premises present everywhere, all around us, so we are constantly reminded of its values and re-educated to its truths. Thus we present the truth and refute error, even if it means applying restrictions to all forms of communication and even to relationships. That is because it is our sacred duty to follow this paradigm with purity and to eliminate any and all impurities. This calling challenges us to rid ourselves of personal imperfections and impurities through confession and re-education. And, sometimes, we must even contain or rid our society of those who would hold back its progress to perfection through their questions, criticism, or lack of zeal. We denounce all doubts, we uphold the truth! Whatever it takes to realign doubters with the truth, or to remove them if they repeatedly refuse, we will do, because those who do not contribute, do not count. We undertake this all as our moral obligation to our beliefs, to our leaders, to our society, to ourselves.

Reference List of Dr. Lifton’s Eight Criteria: Ideological Totalism and Thought Reform

  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 all our group thinks 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.
  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 reduces complex problems to simplistic solutions, and condenses 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.

1. Milieu Control [Communications]

“Milieu” is the cultural context in which something exists or in which an action occurs. In talking about totalistic systems, “milieu control” relates with how the social surroundings are manipulated to limit independent thought and promote “groupthink” (ideological conformity).

Milieu control involves restricting the kinds of communication modes that are allowed (promoting propaganda) and not allowed (imposing censorship). This is designed to “save” people from having the trouble of figuring out the right way (which the leaders or the Party already have worked out); all the regular people have to do is adopt the truths of the ideology and follow the leaders.

Typically, any disallowed forms of communication, like questions or criticism, are punished. This often occurs publicly, through a variety of means, such as verbal berating, hazing, and even imprisonment. When people know that such punishment is unavoidable, it serves to extinguish wrong beliefs and behaviors, and reinforces for everyone the importance of adhering to the rules about what one can/cannot say.

Also, the leaders enact the appearance of “social omniscience” where there is constant surveillance and therefore no secrets. Everyone knows that information is passed along all the time, so at any given moment, whatever you say might be overheard and transmitted to the leaders by informants. In Western forms like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, surveillance was done through technology of the omnipresent telescreens. In the Chinese form, reporting is done by people, including conditioning children to the point where they would denounce their parents, extended family, neighbors, teachers, etc., for failure to adhere to the Party’s ideology.

How does milieu control affect people? This kind of constriction on communication pressures people to polarize what they think and feel. So, they split the real (i.e., the promoted paradigm/ideology) from the unreal (everything else). This results in destruction of any sense of personal equilibrium that balances self and society/the outside world.

For many, milieu control results in increased emotional passion for the belief system that is held in common. Meanwhile, it also increases mental passivity, which decreases independent judgment (i.e., individual discernment and decision-making). Ultimately, there is no independence, only dysfunctional dependence. It burns out people’s internal regulators so that all input (all truth) is expected to come from the external controllers.

(Sidenote: This feature of external control is disturbingly presented in the classic sci-fi film, Dark City, which will be explored in another segment of the media studies section of Safe Houses for God’s People, along with three other film adaptations of core themes from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.)

2. Mystical Manipulation [Motivations]

If milieu control is about making people TALK like everyone in the group, mystical manipulation is about motivating people to ACT like everyone in the group. This is needed because the group has a unique calling and stunningly special destiny to achieve –it’s like a holy crusade – and this can only be fulfilled if everyone does what they’re supposed to! This requires trust … trust in the chosen leaders who have the amazing foresight to see and understand the way the group needs to go. Following them cannot be wrong, can it?

However, if a person loses trust in the leaders or in the magnificent purpose of the group, he or she may become a passive part of the system – remaining a cog in the gearworks, but their passion and heart are no longer in it. This means they may continue surface-level participation and even continue persuading and manipulating others on behalf of the system, in order to hide their mistrust. But they will still feel like a pawn: without power, without creative options, without self-expression or hope.

3. The Demand for Purity [Restrictions]

This demand here is not so much about moral purity, but about purity in thinking. The cult wants to reduce and restrict what people think to only and always what paradigm planks the cult teaches. The cult’s ideology is black and white, and absolutely right. This means that the leader-party-organization serves as the sole arbiter of absolute good and absolute evil. Also, all that is pure is found only inside the boundaries of the group. All that is impure is always found outside the group. Therefore, we must purge the group of any impurities – thoughts, feelings, actions, opinions, people, vocations, etc.

In a paradigm of totalism, everything is about polarization (black OR white). No thinking in paradox (both black AND white) or gradation (degrees of grey) is sanctioned. Also, there is assigning of guilt and shame to thinking whatever is evil-impure-tainted – just as perfection and righteousness are assigned whatever the cult decides is good-pure-perfect. (Sometimes what was acceptable today is bad tomorrow, and vice versa, which keeps people guessing and therefore dependent on leaders to tell them what is what.)

So, to keep thinking managed rightly and righteously on the inside requires a culture of guilt and shame on the outside.

  • Guilt emphasizes when you DO something wrong, and that you have to pay for that wrong. The debt of guilt is therefore removed by a just form of punishment, or by some other appropriate form of redemption payment. Western cultures tend to be more guilt-oriented and individualistic, and so it is no surprise that North American theologies emphasize substitutionary atonement for sin.
  • Shame emphasizes when you ARE someone wrong, and that you lose face or relationship as a result. The debt of shame means you deserve relational separation, humiliation, and/or ostracism [shunning] to remove the shame and deserve restoration. Eastern cultures tend to be more shame-oriented and communal, and so it is no surprise that their theologies emphasize the family relationships of being siblings in the Body of Christ, and restored relationship through Christ with the Father.

I would suggest that, together, the demand for purity (criterion #3) and confession (criterion #4) may prove among the easiest ways for malignant ministries to exploit the sincerity of Christians who wish to grow, but do not yet have the wisdom to discern when wolfish people are posing as genuine leaders. That is because the demand for purity and confession both hinge upon guilt and shame, and deceptive, self-serving overlords can manipulate the unwary and unwise.

  • “[T]here is no emotional bondage greater than that of the man whose entire guilt potential … has become the property of ideological totalists” (page 425).
  • “Closely related to the demand for absolute purity is an obsession with personal confession. Confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal, and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed. Such demands are made possible not only by the ubiquitous human tendencies toward guilt and shame but also by the need to give expression to these tendencies. In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for, these vulnerabilities [toward guilt and shame]” (page 425).

4. The Cult of Confession

In authoritarian groups, confession is part of the thought reform process. Followers use confession to purge personal impurities AND to self-surrender to the social group. After all, in the group (not the individual) resides all absolute wisdom, so all techniques that bring anyone more tightly into alignment with the movement are righteous acts.

However, this extreme form of confession offers a false sense of humility for those who confess and therefore feel unburdened by it. They are following orders, doing what they are told. This seeming freedom from obedience and the unburdening of self can lead to a sense of elation, even ecstasy (and who knows – perhaps addiction?). But, confession is not the same as repentance (a change of thinking and direction). Relief from guilt and shame are not necessarily evidences of transformation. The reality is, confession may or may not be based in authenticity or vulnerability, and may or may not lead to repentance.

In fact, Dr. Lifton notes three inherent problems in this purge-form of confession. They are interrelated and, unfortunately, highly relevant to the current practices of many churches and ministries being identified as toxic in the North American Church.

1. The cult of confession actually increases (not decreases) the level of secret-keeping. That may seem surprising, but here is how he says it works. Our secrets exist in an internal tension: We suppress our own awareness of them or, if we are highly aware of them, we withhold expressing our secrets to others. Either way, unmasking them frightens us. However, we may also be willing to open up to see them in ourselves if we are alone and safe, or reveal them to others if we are in a safe and loving-enough relationship to share them.

But when there is social pressure to conform by confessing, we may indeed reveal old secrets – yet at the same time, create new secrets as we hide our doubts or resentment toward the ideology or organization or movement or leaders that forced us to be unmasked. We must also hide any other aspects of our values, beliefs, and behaviors that we find fall outside what the totalist ideology allows. So, the more we learn of the doctrinaire system, potentially the more we find to hide.

2. One’s identity/boundaries become blurred. “Each person becomes caught up in a continuous conflict over which secrets to preserve and which to surrender, over ways to reveal lesser secrets in order to protect more important ones; his own boundaries between the secret and the known, between the public and the private, become blurred” (page 427).

3. It is impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility. Here Dr. Lifton refers to the Judge-Penitent character in Albert Camus’ book, The Fall. “The enthusiastic and aggressive confessor becomes like Camus’ character whose perpetual confession is his means of judging others: ‘[I] … practice the profession of penitent to be able to end up as a judge … the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.’ The identity of the ‘judge-penitent’ thus becomes a vehicle for taking on some of the environment’s arrogance and sense of omnipotence. Yet even this shared omnipotence cannot protect him from the opposite (but not unrelated) feelings of humiliation and weakness, feelings especially prevalent among those who remain more the enforced penitent than the all-powerful judge” (page 427).

It seems to me that a flawed understanding of confession probably has the most damaging effect on disciples: It makes some even more susceptible to pride if they perform this rite well externally and/or are extraverted. But it makes others more susceptible to confusion, anxiety, and bitterness if they are more highly sensitive and introverted. May the true Lord of the Church and Shepherd of the Sheep deliver us from its abuse!

Conclusion – Criteria #1 through #4

I find it intriguing to see how much space Dr. Lifton dedicated to each of the first four of his eight criteria for identifying ideological “cults.” Number of words used gives some indicator of the importance and/or complexity of each element. And he spent the most time on the cult of confession (criterion #4, 86 lines of text), the second most on restrictions/the demand for purity (#3, 71 lines), the third most on communications/milieu control (#1, 63 lines), and the least on motivations/mystical manipulation (#2, 56 lines). Hopefully I’ve reflected those priorities in the details of my attempts to explain and translate this material.

(Learning style note: For some people, such counts are meaningless. Yet, for others, this gives what they consider important evidence. It’s just another one of those things where people differ in the ways God created them to process information – and it’s okay.)

Part 5C will continue with the last of the eight criteria: ultimate vision, reductionist language, ideological conformity, and social ostracism.