The Assault Upon Identity

“From the beginning Dr. Vincent was told he was not really a doctor, that all of what he considered himself to be was merely a cloak under which he hid what he really was. And Father Luca was told the same thing… Backing up this assertion were all of the physical and emotional assaults of early imprisonment: the confusing but incriminating interrogations, the humiliating ‘struggles,’ the painful and constricting chains, and the more direct physical brutality. Dr. Vincent and Father Luca each began to lose his bearings on who and what he was, and where he stood in relationship to his fellows. Each felt his sense of self becoming amorphous and impotent and fall more and more under the control of its would-be remolders. Each was at one point willing to say (and to be) whatever his captors demanded.
Each was reduced to something not fully human and yet not quite animal, no longer an adult and yet not quite the child; instead, an adult human was placed in the position of an infant and stronger ‘adults’ or ‘trainers.’ Placed in this regressive stance, each felt himself deprived of the power, mastery, and selfhood of adult existence.
In both an intense struggle began between the adult man and the child-animal which had been created, a struggle against regression and dehumanization. But each attempt on the part of the prisoner to reassert his adult human identity and to express his own will (‘I am not a spy. I am a doctor’…) was considered a show of resistance and of ‘insincerity’ and called forth new assaults.
Not every prisoner was treated as severely as were Dr. Vincent and Father Luca, but each experienced similar external assaults leading to some form of inner surrender – a surrender of personal autonomy. This assault upon autonomy and identity even extended to the level of consciousness, so that men began to exist on a level which was neither sleep not wakefulness, but rather an in-between hypnogogic state. In this state they were not only more readily influenced, but they were also susceptible to destructive and aggressive impulses arising from within themselves.
This undermining of identity is the stroke through which the prisoner ‘dies to the world,’ the prerequisite for all that follows.”
Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, A Study of “Brainwashing” in China.


There is much in this quote of interest for many of mindful ecology’s concerns. Abused children are prisoners of their circumstances every bit as much as the unfortunates who find themselves behind bars during a political revolution, for example. The mass media, and the consumer culture generally, make it all too easy to remain little more than an adult-child hybrid monstrosity our whole lives. Waking up in the age of limits, mindful ecology’s little tag line, suggests we are suffering from a hypnogogic, trance-like condition; one whose spell is broken when we being to consciously wrestle with the reality of our ecological situation. It is, however, the point about how autonomy and identity are related that will concern us as our discussion of subjectivity continues.

“Our existence is not a crime,” read a headline in my Sunday paper. It was for a story about immigrants and captured a foreigner’s simple insistence on the equal value of their subjectivity. (Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard the whales and worms, Redwoods and Mayflies, echoing, for the record, “Our existence is not a crime.”) Deportation and racism are evoking a response, at least in some, in which the very existence of the human beings being targeted feels as if it is threatened.

It is an interesting headline in light of the totalitarian ideology Robert Lifton studied. The Communist ‘re-education’ prisons and schools of the early 1950s implemented thought reform on behalf of the Maoist revolution with an enthusiasm, pervasiveness and strictly controlled set of techniques unlike anything any dictator had tried before. The rationale given was that the bourgeois were enemies of the people, tainted by thought crimes which made them unworthy to exist. Communism had come to save the laboring class from the exploitations of the imperialists. Those who could not be re-educated, or not given the chance, were killed. It is estimated two million were killed in the terror against counterrevolutionaries. Those who survived to build what is now modern China were the true believers, the products of ‘re-education.’

It was not enough for Mao that the people go about their lives conforming to the party’s dictates. As George Orwell explained in 1984, the power driving totalitarians is not satisfied with outer conformity. Whether they are religious or political, these authoritarians insist on something more. Wilson, the protagonist in Orwell’s novel, is tortured in the final scene. All the power of the state has been brought to bear, he must be taught to really believe that if the party says 2 + 2 equals 5, it does. He must ‘willingly’ give his autonomy over to those who have broken him. This is what is at stake in subjectivity. I have argued that the ecological crisis stole the optimism we once had in progress through technology and science. This left us exposed. The heartlessness of technology turned against mankind’s innermost sanctum is what Orwell’s genius captured so disturbingly: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face – forever.”

Robert Lifton’s study of “brainwashing,” today known as the study of undue influence, confronts us with an uncomfortable fact about our subjectivity – it can be molded to serve the interests of others. So far, that is little more than a truism, but here’s the rub: it can be done, to one degree or another, against our will. Think about this a moment, it is frightening. The brain of the Homo Sapien Sapien can be infected, programmed with double binds that act as viruses which will attack the very sense of identity by which that brain functions. Viruses seek to reproduce themselves, whatever the cost to the host, just as ideologies among populations do. To one degree or another, and no one is quite sure where the final lines lie, each and every human being is susceptible to these ‘re-education’ techniques and their aftermath.

If we are to grasp subjectivity it helps to understand how it can be perverted. The first step, Dr. Lifton explains, is an assault on a person’s identity. The quote opening this essay is from this section of his book. It is identity that is at stake in subjectivity. “Our existence is not a crime,” cries out the victim. “Oh contraire,” insists the destroyer, “your being is flawed.”

There are great dangers here. The will Schopenhauer discussed becomes complicated. What are we to make of this evidence that there exists a difference between what we might want to call the true will of an individual’s identity, and this programmed, robotic thing?

What if subjectivity is the most important thing in the universe? It is not inconceivable. The size of our galaxy is astonishing but its complexity is rather lower than that which is found in the brain, from one point of view anyway.

It is a fools game to insist one part of our universe is ultimately more valuable than any other. Interdependence, and an eye that appreciates the beauty of individuality, subverts any simplistic approach to ordering values in a hierarchy. Yet, due to having the nature I have, willing what it is I will, a universe without subjectivity would, it seems to me, be profoundly incomplete. It would be as if a necessary half were missing; not the right side, or left side – but the inside.

We see nature producing individuals by the trillions, seemingly unconcerned about the fate of any particular one. More specifically, in light of evolutionary theory, the fate of any one particular mating pair and their offspring does not receive more care and attention than any other. Chance rules (but the tinkerer remembers!). Still, as one of those many trillion of individuals, it has come to pass within me that what I care about most are a few other individuals whom I have come to know well. It is their individuality which I treasure. Which is just exactly what the outstanding fecundity of nature seems to show us has little worth.

What if what we experience on the inside, in our love and compassion for other individuals, is more real than what we experience on the outside, where chance seems to rule our fate? More accurately, what if the combination of will from the inside, meeting resistance on the outside, is exactly the friction needed to sustain consciousness at all? World-Soul making. What if subjectivity is the most important thing in the universe, or at least, what if it is as important as what we encounter objectively? What then of these crimes against the integrity of the self which we have been examining in the various techniques of mind manipulation, thought reform, and undue influence?

We have recognized crimes against humanity. Perhaps we have yet to recognize them all.

I want to be a caring human being; one whose daily activities nurture and support the earth on which I rely and the fellow human beings in which I come in contact. My needs are few and simple and yet the physical reality of my environment, mostly man made, does not make that possible. To survive in that environment I have been taught to be a competitive hard-nosed realist instead. After years of introspection, I am still not that clear about how voluntarily I chose this molding of my identity. My will includes the fierce power of the thunderstorm, as well as the fierce beauty of the tiger and the lily. Like a guardian angel it looks out for my survival. I am clear that when I took my seat on compassion, however, I swore to defeat that which lied to me, about me; whether I found it within or without.

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