May 21, 2013
The Examination of Evil
Posted on Aug 4, 2011
By Tom Artin
Click here to see a “Witness to an Extreme Century” excerpt published on Truthdig.
The “extreme century” of psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s title refers not strictly to either the 20th or the 21st, but to the near hundred-year span he personally has weathered and scrutinized. One of the major themes of “Witness to an Extreme Century” is Lifton’s abhorrence of “totalism,” his term for universal systems, whether political, religious, intellectual or medical, that purport to explain everything, demand absolute obedience and more or less ruthlessly suppress dissent and innovation.
The book is more a professional than a personal memoir, structured around the four topics that have occupied him most, and for which he is best known: thought reform, particularly as practiced in revolutionary China; survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima; Vietnam veterans; and the Nazi doctors. “My thought reform study became a leitmotif for all of my work,” he writes. “Everything I’ve done since connects somehow with totalism and mind manipulation, and all too frequently with expressions of apocalypticism.” From the start, his research has centered on intensive interviews with individuals from whose separate personalities and histories he has distilled general psychohistorical principles and overarching conclusions regarding the social and interpersonal consequences of the phenomenon under study. “Most of all, I had a tested research method, which centered on individual interviews but included a mosaic of historical and cultural influences. … Through my psychological interviews in particular, I was convinced that I could arrive at truths that could not be obtained by any other method.”
The coercive thought reform techniques employed by the Communist Chinese government were the earliest target of Lifton’s research. This thought reform was used to re-educate insufficiently submissive citizens, in part by undermining the social structure of ancestor worship. Surprisingly, he found the effectiveness of thought reform to lie not only with the coercive power of the agency imposing it, but also with an apparently deep-seated human need for such control. One of the most intriguing and instructive cases is that of a French Jesuit missionary priest who had been jailed by the Chinese. “Crucial throughout was his strong personal inclination toward totalism, toward issuing what he called a ‘blank check’ to a belief system.” The priest was torn between two antithetical belief systems, each of which he subscribed to: the dogma of his Jesuit order, and that of his Communist Chinese captors.
In 1962, Lifton began his study of survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. His initial interview is a powerful and affecting instance of the emotional stresses his research method imposed on him. Completely unprepared for the intense horrors his subject had recounted, he returned to his inn that evening, still shaken, and wrote in his notes, “I had … sought out this reality: It is the subject of my research. But at the same time I felt myself so shocked by it that I wished to deny and reject it.”
“After a few more similarly searing interviews with survivors, I found myself becoming anxious, uneasy, preoccupied with images of death, unable to sleep.” A few days later, though, his anxiety began to lift spontaneously, he became calm and focused, and he could pursue his “interview protocol” efficiently and without further personal turmoil. To allow him to process rationally the stories he was gathering, his natural empathic response to them had shut down. He came to call this involuntary process “psychic numbing,” and he likens it to the requisite detachment of a surgeon approaching a patient on whom he is to perform a delicate operation.
Despite distancing himself emotionally from his subjects in a commitment to scrupulous research, Lifton has not been dispassionate. Over the years he has increasingly channeled his acute moral sensibility into political activism. His investigations into these four horrific, arguably exemplary eras of modern history have led him to overt opposition, including civil disobedience, to nuclearism and both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Lifton has also been an active member of Physicians for Social Responsibility since 1962, and has served on its board. He is a founding member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Lifton’s activism forms a continuous parallel thread throughout his memoir.
In the Vietnam War, his activism assumed the lead over scholarship, though the tether between them was never sundered. The revelations in November 1969 of the My Lai massacre tipped the balance. “I was telling myself that any research and writing I now embarked on had to be directed toward exposing truths about the war in the service of opposition. The activist tail was wagging the scholar dog, even if that dog insisted on carefully probing psychological and historical evidence. I was groping for ways of expressing, in my work and in my life, deeper opposition to what America was doing and becoming.”
Beginning with a U.S. soldier at My Lai who had refused to join in the shooting of civilians, Lifton gathered data from veterans of the war, mostly members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The My Lai massacre led him to the concept of the atrocity-producing situation: “an environment so structured, both militarily and psychologically, that an average person—‘no better or worse than you or me,’ as I was fond of putting it—upon entering it, could be capable of committing atrocities.”
Lifton’s work on Vietnam, both investigative and activist, led to his participation in a program dubbed irreverently “vets and shrinks,” weekly meetings with veterans of the war characterized at the time as “rap groups” in preference to the more formal and hierarchical “group therapy.” The program lasted nearly three years, and was to Lifton’s mind the most significant and impactful of his efforts with respect to the Vietnam War. The data he gathered and the conclusions he reached were distilled in his 1973 book, “Home From the War.”
Lifton’s experience with “vets and shrinks” seems to have crystallized his evolving modus operandi, balanced in the tension between scholarly objectivity and emotional involvement. “Now I was going further in overcoming professional distancing—still focused on psychological motivation but bringing that focus closer to the vantage point of the veterans themselves. I could closely share their death encounter and their survivor mission of exposing and ending the war. I was becoming a very different kind of professional, one who could permit himself to combine specialized knowledge with passionate plunges into moral and political realms. I don’t think I’ve ever changed back.”
It was his study of the Nazi doctors, though, that represented for Lifton the greatest test in holding emotions and moral judgment at arm’s length in the interests of science. The inherent difficulty of this subject was intensified by the fact that it was his own field, medicine, on which he would be focusing the microscope. He unhesitatingly applied the word “evil” to the behavior he was seeking insight into: “There is no better word to evoke extreme transgression producing extensive death and suffering.”
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