or, "How to recognize a potential cult or fascist/totalitarian political movement from quite a long way away."
Online excerpt from a book by Robert Jay Lifton, who's well worth getting to know. The eight criteria of ideological totalism.
Note that the content of the ideology itself is largely irrelevant; the group/belief system could be "about" literally anything, and in fact if you go to the homepage of the hosting site, Rick Ross Institute for Study of Destructive Cults, you'll see that the database covers the entire political and religious spectrums as well as a number of groups that don't really fit either category. It's not primarily about the beliefs or ideas, iow. It's about the behavior. The interpersonal dynamic. To wit:
1 milieu control (controlled relations with the outer world, this leads among others to lack of relevant information)
2 mystic manipulation (events are orchestrated to appear miraculous or spontaneous)
3 confession (strong pressure to make a person confess past and present "sins" i.e. acts that do not help the group or the ideology)
4 self-sanctification through purity (pushing the individual towards a not-attainable perfection)
5 aura of sacred science (beliefs of the group are sacrosanct and perfect)
6 loaded language (new meanings to words, encouraging black-white thinking, thought-stoppers)
7 doctrine over person (ideology and the group are more important than the individual)
8 dispensed existence (insiders are saved, outsiders are doomed)
More fleshing-out of these at the Rick Ross site:
1) The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads or writes, experiences, and expresses), but also - in its penetration of his inner life - over what we may speak of as his communication with himself. It creates an atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.
Such milieu control never succeeds in becoming absolute, and its own human apparatus can - when permeated by outside information - become subject to discordant "noise" beyond that of any mechanical apparatus. To totalist administrators, however, such occurrences are no more than evidences of "incorrect" use of the apparatus...
[me] This includes not just formal censorship by governments and such, but use of some of the other techniques (following) to strongly discourage reading material or talking to people outside the "approved" circle.
3) The Demand for Purity
In the thought reform milieu, as in all situations of ideological totalism, the experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood of stern moral judgments. All "taints" and "poisons" which contribute to the existing state of impurity must be searched out and eliminated.
The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity is attainable, and that anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral. In actual practice, however, no one is really expected to achieve such perfection. Nor can this paradox be dismissed as merely a means of establishing a high standard to which all can aspire. Thought reform bears witness to its more malignant consequences: for by defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition.
At the level of the relationship between individual and environment, the demand for purity creates what we may term a guilty milieu and a shaming milieu. Since each man's impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment - which results in a relationship of guilt and his environment. Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracism - thus establishing a relationship of shame...
[is any of this ringing any bells for anyone here, per chance, Dear Readers?...]
6) Loading the Language
The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.... And in addition to their function as interpretive shortcuts, these cliches become what Richard Weaver has called "ultimate terms" : either "god terms," representative of ultimate good; or "devil terms," representative of ultimate evil....Totalist language then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling's phrase, "the language of nonthought."
To be sure, this kind of language exists to some degree within any cultural or organizational group, and all systems of belief depend upon it. It is in part an expression of unity and exclusiveness: as Edward Sapir put it, "'He talks like us' is equivalent to saying 'He is one of us.'" The loading is much more extreme in ideological totalism, however...
[The classic example of this is, someone asks "what do you mean by such-and-so?" and the response is, variously, -crickets,- "oh, god, if you HAVE TO ASK," or some kind of tautological nonexplanation that only makes sense if you already buy into the belief system].
7) Doctrine Over Person
This sterile language reflects characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine. This primacy of doctrine over person is evident in the continual shift between experience itself and the highly abstract interpretation of such experience - between genuine feelings and spurious cataloguing of feelings...The underlying assumption is that the doctrine - including its mythological elements - is ultimately more valid, true, and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience.
...Rather than modify the myth in accordance with experience, the will to orthodoxy requires instead that men be modified in order to reaffirm the myth.
8) The Dispensing of Existence
The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.
Are not men presumtuous to appoint themselves the dispensers of human existence? Surely this is a flagrant expression of what the Greeks called hubris, of arrogant man making himself God. Yet one underlying assumption makes this arrogance mandatory: the conviction that there is just one path to true existence, just one valid mode of being, and that all others are perforce invalid and false. Totalists thus feel themselves compelled to destroy all possibilities of false existence as a means of furthering the great plan of true existence to which they are committed.
For the individual, the polar emotional conflict is the ultimate existential one of "being versus nothingness." He is likely to be drawn to a conversion experience, which he sees as the only means of attaining a path of existence for the future. The totalist environment - even when it does not resort to physical abuse [emphasis mine]- thus stimulates in everyone a fear of extinction or annihilation... Ultimately of course one compromises and combines the totalist "confirmation" with independent elements of personal identity; but one is ever made aware that, should he stray too far along this "erroneous path," his right to existence may be withdrawn...
To sum up:
...What is the source of ideological totalism? How do these extremist emotional patterns originate? These questions raise the most crucial and the most difficult of human problems. Behind ideological totalism lies the ever-present human quest for the omnipotent guide - for the supernatural force, political party, philosophical ideas, great leader, or precise science - that will bring ultimate solidarity to all men and eliminate the terror of death and nothingness. This quest is evident in the mythologies, religions, and histories of all nations, as well as in every individual life.
The degree of individual totalism involved depends greatly upon factors in one's personal history: early lack of trust, extreme environmental chaos, total domination by a parent or parent-representative, intolerable burdens of guilt, and severe crises of identity. Thus an early sense of confusion and dislocation, or an early experience of unusually intense family milieu control, can produce later a complete intolerance for confusion and dislocation, and a longing for the reinstatement of milieu control. But these things are in some measure part of every childhood experience; and therefore the potential for totalism is a continuum from which no one entirely escapes, and in relationship to which no two people are exactly the same.
It may be that the capacity for totalism is most fundamentally a product of human childhood itself, of the prolonged period of helplessness and dependency through which each of us must pass. Limited as he is, the infant has no choice but to imbue his first nurturing authorities - his parents - with an exaggerated omnipotence, until the time he is himself capable of some degree of independent action and judgment. And even as he develops into the child and the adolescent, he continues to require many of the all-or-none polarities of totalism as terms with which to define his intellectual, emotional, and moral worlds. Under favorable circumstances (that is, when family and culture encourage individuation) these requirements can be replaced by more flexible and moderate tendencies; but they never entirely disappear.
During adult life, individual totalism takes on new contours as it becomes associated with new ideological interests. It may become part of the configuration of personal emotions, messianic ideas, and organized mass movement which I have described as ideological totalism. When it does, we cannot speak of it as simply as ideological regression. It is partly this, but it is also something more: a new form of adult embeddedness, originating in patterns of security-seeking carried over from childhood, but with qualities of ideas and aspirations that are specifically adult. During periods of cultural crisis and of rapid historical change, the totalist quest for the omnipotent guide leads men to seek to become that guide.
Totalism, then, is a widespread phenomenon, but it is not the only approach to re-education. We can best use our knowledge of it by applying its criteria to familiar processes in our own cultural tradition and in our own country.
That last part's (hell, you may find all of it) a bit abstract-seeming, I know.
How I read this is: everyone has tendencies in this direction, to "totalize," to become part of a merged supraorganization. And yes, it's personal as well as political, in the sense that you can look at both individual family (and so on) histories) as well as bigger cultural and social trends, in terms of who's gonna be relatively more attracted to such things.
And, but: it's important to learn to recognize what this dynamic is, and to find another way; because this is ultimately going to be toxic and inimical to human growth--both personal and political.
Lifton's obviously very influenced by Orwell, p.s., particularly "Politics and The English Language," as well as his resistance to all orthodoxies. Which is not the same as never joining a movement, not taking a stand on anything, holding no beliefs or political positions, etc.
Oh, yeah, one more thing. One of the trickiest parts about such groups, movements, whatever, is that their initial appeal is that they offer a way "out" of some -other- abusive system/environment. It's sort of on the same principle of the abusive significant other at first seeming to offer a blessed escape from an abusive family; what you don't realize till much later is that in fact you've made -superficial- changes (i.e. the S.O. may on the surface seem to have no personality or physical resemblance to the abusive parents, etc.), but the -dynamic- is the same, because you've never quite tweaked that -that's- the -real- problem.
So in other words, you could leave one abusive and controlling group for another, or even an "anti-that-group/ideology" group that turns out to be quite controlling and dogmatic itself; it just makes the other group/worldview/whatever itself the "enemy" instead of whatever "enemies" that the previous abusers had doomed to badness (and which probably included you yourself, which is why you're trying to get the hell away from them in the first place).
or, more often, the group in question defines itself against the mainstream, which is itself deemed to be oppressive, controlling, terrorizing, etc.--everything the group itself is, in other words. But since the people attracted to the group -did- experience whatever aspect of the "mainstream" as terrorizing, oppressive, etc., the group is, at first at least, going to make a lot of sense--to them.