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|Robert Jay Lifton|
Robert Jay Lifton}}
| May 16, 1926|
Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. (born May 16, 1926) is a prominent American psychiatrist and author, chiefly known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence. He was an early proponent of the techniques of psychohistory.
Lifton was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Harold A. (a businessman) and Ciel (Roth) Lifton. He studied medicine at New York Medical College. From 1951 to 1953 he served as a United States Air Force psychiatrist in Japan and Korea, to which he later attributed his interest in war and politics. He has since worked as a teacher and researcher at the Washington School of Psychiatry, Harvard University, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he helped to found the Center for the Study of Human Violence.
He married the writer Betty Jean Kirschner in 1952 and has two children.
Lifton calls cartooning his avocation; he has published two books of humorous cartoons about bird]]
The Wellfleet Psychohistory Group
During the 1960s, Robert Jay Lifton, together with his mentor Erik Erikson and MIT historian Bruce Mazlish, formed a group to apply psychology and psychoanalysis to the study of history. Meetings were held at Lifton's home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The Wellfleet Psychohistory Group, as it became known, focused mainly on psychological motivations for war, terrorism and genocide in recent history. In 1965, they received sponsorship from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish psychohistory as a separate field of study. A collection of research papers by the group was published in 1975: Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers (see Bibliography; Lifton as editor).
Lifton's work in this field was heavily influenced by Erikson's studies of Hitler and other political figures, as well as Sigmund Freud's concern with the mass social effects of deep-seated drives, particularly attitudes toward death.
Theory of thought reform
Lifton's 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China was a study of coercive techniques that he labelled thought reform or "brainwashing", though he preferred the former term. Othes have labelled it also as "mind control". Lifton describes in detail eight methods which he says are used to change people's minds without their agreement:
- milieu control (controlled relations with the outer world, this leads among others to lack of relevant information)
- mystic manipulation (events are orchestrated to appear miraculous or spontaneous)
- confession (strong pressure to make a person confess past and present "sins" i.e. acts that do not help the group or the ideology)
- self-sanctification through purity (pushing the individual towards a not-attainable perfection)
- aura of sacred science (beliefs of the group are sacrosanct and perfect)
- loaded language (new meanings to words, encouraging black-white thinking, thought-stoppers)
- doctrine over person (ideology and the group are more important than the individual)
- dispensed existence (insiders are saved, outsiders are doomed)
His name became further popularly associated with those terms when he testified as a defense witness in the 1976 trial of Patty Hearst, stating that the Symbionese Liberation Army had used similar techniques to produce a temporary behavioral change in Hearst.
Contrary to popular notions of "brainwashing", Lifton always maintained that such coercion could only influence short-term behavior or produce general neuroses, not permanently change beliefs or personality. Psychologists like Margaret Singer and Steven Hassan, author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control, later loosely adapted his theories and applied his terms "totalism" and "thought reform" to the practices of certain religious groups; the American Psychological Association and American Sociological Association have stated that they do not consider such an analysis scientifically valid, but have not disavowed Lifton's original work.
Studies of war and atrocity survivors
His most influential books, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1968), Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans—Neither Victims nor Executioners (1973), and The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (1986), focused on the mental adaptations made by humans in extreme wartime environments—whether as survivors of atrocities or, in the latter case, perpetrators. In each case Lifton believed that the psychic fragmentation experienced by his subjects was an extreme form of the pathologies that arise in peacetime life due to the pressures and fears of modern society.
His studies of the behavior of people who had committed war crimes, both individually and in groups, concluded that while human nature is not innately cruel and only rare sociopaths can participate in atrocities without suffering lasting emotional harm, such crimes do not require any unusual degree of personal evil or mental illness, and are nearly sure to happen given certain conditions (either accidental or deliberately arranged) which Lifton called "atrocity-producing situations". The Nazi Doctors was the first in-depth study of how medical professionals rationalized their participation in the Holocaust, from the early stages of the T-4 Euthanasia Program to the extermination camps.
In the Hiroshima and Vietnam studies, Lifton also concluded that the sense of personal disintegration many people experienced after witnessing death and destruction on a mass scale could ultimately lead to a new emotional resilience—but that without the proper support and counseling, most survivors would remain trapped in feelings of unreality and guilt. In his work with Vietnam veterans, Lifton was one of the first organizers of therapeutic discussion groups in which mental health practitioners met with veterans, and he lobbied for the inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Theories of totalism and the protean self
Totalism, a word first used in Thought Reform, is Lifton's term for the characteristics of ideological movements and organizations that desire total control over human behavior and thought. (Lifton's usage differs from theories of totalitarianism in that it can be applied to the ideology of groups that do not wield governmental power.) In Lifton's opinion, though such attempts always fail, they follow a common pattern and cause predictable types of psychological damage in individuals and societies. He finds two common motives in totalistic movements: the fear and denial of death, channeled into violence against scapegoat groups that are made to represent a metaphorical threat to survival, and a reactionary fear of social change.
In his later work, Lifton has focused on defining the type of change to which totalism is opposed, for which he coined the term the protean self. In the book of the same title, he states that the development of a "fluid and many-sided personality" is a positive trend in modern societies, and that mental health now requires "continuous exploration and personal experiment", which reactionary and fundamentalist movements oppose.
Critiques of modern war and terrorism
Following his work with Hiroshima survivors, Lifton became a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons, arguing that nuclear strategy and warfighting doctrine made even mass genocide banal and conceivable. While not a strict pacifist, he has spoken against U.S. military actions in his lifetime, particularly the Vietnam War and Iraq War, believing that they arose from irrational and aggressive aspects of American politics motivated by fear.
Lifton has also criticized the current "War on Terrorism" as a misguided and dangerous attempt to "destroy all vulnerability". However, he regards terrorism itself as an increasingly serious threat due to the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons and totalist ideologies. His 1999 book Destroying the World to Save It described the apocalyptic terrorist sect Aum Shinrikyo as a forerunner of "the new global terrorism".
- Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, Norton (New York City), 1961. edited excerpts available online
- Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, Random House (New York City), 1968.
- Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Random House, 1968.
- Birds, Words, and Birds (cartoons), Random House, 1969.
- History and Human Survival: Essays on the Young and the Old, Survivors and the Dead, Peace and War, and on Contemporary Psychohistory, Random House, 1970.
- Boundaries, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Toronto), 1969, published as Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolution, Random House, 1970.
- Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans—Neither Victims nor Executioners, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1973.
- (With Eric Olson) Living and Dying, Praeger, 1974.
- The Life of the Self: Toward a New Psychology, Simon & Schuster, 1976.
- Psychobirds, Countryman Press, 1978.
- (With Shuichi Kato and Michael Reich) Six Lives/Six Deaths: Portraits from Modern Japan (originally published in Japanese as Nihonjin no shiseikan, 1977), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1979.
- The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1979.
- (With Richard A. Falk) Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism, Basic Books (New York City), 1982.
- The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Basic Books, 1986.
- The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age, Basic Books, 1987.
- (With Eric Markusen) The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat, Basic Books, 1990.
- The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, Basic Books, 1993.
- (With Greg Mitchell) Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Putnam's (New York City), 1995.
- Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, Owl Books, 2000.
- (Co-author) Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions, Morrow, 2000.
- Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World, Nation Books, 2003.
Lifton as editor
- The Woman in America, Houghton (Boston), 1965.
- America and the Asian Revolutions, Trans-Action Books, 1970, second edition, 1973.
- (With Falk and Gabriel Kolko) Crimes of War: A Legal, Political-Documentary, and Psychological Inquiry into the Responsibilities of Leaders, Citizens, and Soldiers for Criminal Acts of War, Random House, 1971.
- (With Olson) Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers, Simon & Schuster, 1975.
- (With Eric Chivian, Susanna Chivian, and John E. Mack) Last Aid: The Medical Dimensions of Nuclear War, W. H. Freeman, 1982.
- (With Nicholas Humphrey) In a Dark Time: Images for Survival, Harvard University Press, 1984.
- Talk on Apocalyptic Violence
- Evil, the Self, and Survival: interview by Harry Kreisler, 1999
- Bill Moyers Interviews Robert Jay Lifton: about the aftermath of September 11 terrorist attacks, 2002
- Doctors and Torture: Lifton discusses "atrocity-producing situations" in the case of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, 2004
- Flight From Death. Robert Jay Lifton is interviewed in this documentary film.
- Superpower Syndrome articles. Robert Jay Lifton on superpower syndrome, TomDispatch, 2006.
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