Robert J. Lifton on Political Violence, Activism and Life as a Psycho-Historian

Robert J. Lifton on Political Violence, Activism and Life as a Psycho-Historian

by Deb Kory

Famed psychiatrist, psycho-historian, writer and activist Robert J. Lifton talks about being a witness to an extreme century, combining scholarship with activism, the psychology of violence, and the next great threat to the planet: climate change.
Back to Top ▲

The Psycho-Historian

Deb Kory: Robert Lifton, you’ve long been one of my heroes, and I’m delighted to be able to interview you and share your work with our readers. For those who may not know, you are a psychiatrist, researcher and writer, and have written many books on the psychology of political violence, the effects of such violence on both perpetrators and victims, totalitarian ideologies, the traumas of war, the threat of nuclear weapons, and much more.

I’m an early career psychologist and I started my doctoral program back in 2004, just before revelations emerged about psychologist’s involvement in torture at Guantanamo and other CIA black sites. It would turn out that the involvement went up to the highest levels of the American Psychological Association, but outside of a small group of activist psychologists, nobody in the field of psychology was talking about it. You were among the few mental health practitioners who publicly denounced this collusion with torture from the very beginning. When I wrote my dissertation on this subject, I drew heavily from your writings, particularly The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, to help me understand and contextualize how seemingly normal, good people can commit evil acts.

As I came to learn through reading several of your books, your activism and commitment to social justice has been a fundamental and inextricable part of your professional work as a psychiatrist, researcher and writer.
Robert J. Lifton: Well, thank you.
DK: Your most recent book, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir, weaves together your various works with your personal life, and the ways in which witnessing atrocities—you were a teenager during WWII, for example—impacted the course of your life. In it, you call yourself a “psycho-historian.” Can you explain what that means?
RL: It means applying a psychological approach to historical events, which requires a handling of psychology that is open-ended and sometimes outside of the orthodoxies within our field. The derivation is from Erik Erikson, who used the term as an adjective—he spoke of a “psychohistorical perspective.” It’s probably better to avoid the noun. ... Continue Reading Interview >>
DK: When you say applying psychological methods, are you talking about research methods in particular?
RL:
I think that the psychological interview is a beautiful instrument if one is careful and rigorous about the context. And it’s underused, even in the profession of psychology.
In my case, I’ve systematically used a psychological interview. I believe very much in the interview method. Though I haven’t spent much of my career doing psychotherapy, I have done a kind of equivalent by means of interviews. I think that the psychological interview is a beautiful instrument if one is careful and rigorous about the context. And it’s underused, even in the profession of psychology.
DK: How so?
RL: In terms of psychological research, the interview has become much less popular—the tendency is more toward questionnaires or statistical studies these days. The interview method that I have made use of is a modification of a psychoanalytic method. I was trained in psychoanalytic psychiatry, as we used to call it, and then had some training in psychoanalysis, but there was a kind of paradox for me. I thought then, as I still do, that psychoanalysis has been a great intellectual movement; but in its more rigid and dogmatic form, it can undermine the very historical approach that one wants to develop. So I modified it quite a lot.
DK: You talked in your autobiography about studying at the Psychoanalytic Institute in Boston and how you found some similarities between the kind of totalitarian mentality that you’d found among survivors of Chinese thought reform and the atmosphere at the institute. Can you say a little bit more about that?
RL: I was careful about how I wrote about that. I didn’t dismiss psychoanalytic training and, as a matter of fact, I learned a great deal from the psychoanalytic training that I did. But I found that there was an inherent problem in psychoanalytic institutes. Many others had spoken of it, but I had studied Chinese thought reform as well as the Cultural Revolution and so had that framework. The difficulty in psychoanalytic institutes at the time was that one was simultaneously a student, a candidate, and a patient. In a sense, the same people were one’s teachers, one’s therapists, and one’s judges in terms of whether one was accepted into the profession. There was a danger of requiring adherence to the existing doctrines as a necessary element for success, as opposed to originality or a creative perspective.

So I said those things, and I made the comparison with a thought-reform like environment. I did it carefully, but it was a fairly bold thing to do at that early stage of my own work.
DK: Were you ousted?
RL: No, no, I wasn’t ousted at all. There have always been within psychoanalysis people who are more open and more critical of their own group. Erikson was like that himself, as have been many other psychoanalysts whom I’ve known over the years. In fact, over time psychoanalysts have invited me to their programs—I’ve spoken at various institutes and groups. I chose to discontinue psychoanalytic training when I received a chair at Yale back in 1962, both because I had reservations about the dogma, but also because I had no need to become a psychoanalyst in terms of the direction I was going in my research. But, still, psychoanalytic tradition has a lot to offer and has been important to me in my work.
DK: You also wrote that breaking away from the Institute and the psychoanalytic framework allowed you to approach Freud in a new way and to connect to some of his more radical ideas.
RL: Yes, that was important to me. Back then, Freud had almost a deified kind of standing at the institute, and there were constraints on criticism and open-minded thinking that might find him lacking in any way. And so it was more difficult for someone like me to really engage with his ideas in a creative way. Later when I left the Institute, I was free to do that and did so in particular in relation to death and death imagery, which I was exploring after my study of Hiroshima survivors. I found that Freud had a lot to say about these things if one could translate the instinctual rhetoric into a rhetoric of symbolization. That’s what I tried to do in relationship to death imagery in one of the books that I wrote in those early years, in 1979, called The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life. It was about those issues as they affected psychological and psychiatric thinking in general.
Back to Top ▲

Hiroshima and the Symbolization of Death

DK: Can you explain what you mean by the symbolization of death? It sounds in some ways like an existentialist perspective.
RL: I don’t call it existential or phenomenological, but it resembles that kind of approach in many ways. What I mean by a symbolizing approach is that Freud did speak of symbols in his work, but it was more in terms of one thing representing another. A pen symbolizes a penis or whatever. But a broader approach to symbolization came through Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer, symbolic philosophers. Their idea of symbolization is that the mind can perceive nothing without recreating it, at least during adulthood and during mid and late childhood. We are inveterate symbolizers. And that means that every perception includes a recreation with this wonderful and sometimes dangerous gray matter of the human brain, so that we recast every perception and have no choice but to do so.

That’s what symbolization really is. And in that sense, although Freud rightly emphasized denial of death, I could evolve making use of his work and also the work of Otto Rank, a great early psychoanalyst, the idea of the symbolization of immortality—not as a denial of death, but as a symbolization of human continuity. Because we’re a cultural animal, we need to feel a continuity with those who go before and those who will go on after what we know to be our limited life span. And that is a symbolization of immortality rather than a literal claim to it, which of course is never realizable.
DK: It sounds like a non-religious way of thinking about what happens after death. Did these ideas emerge out of your study on Hiroshima survivors?
RL:
My approach is a natural one. It’s never supernatural. But what I’ve learned is that the mind and the brain are extraordinary instruments that, in extreme situations, can go places that we find hard to imagine.
Much of this research about death and death symbolism did evolve from my work in Hiroshima. And it’s my way of developing a secular perspective—because I remain secular—that takes into account some of the insights that have been developed in relationship to death, but also in relationship to what is thought to be immortality or some kind of afterlife.

My approach is a natural one. It’s never supernatural. But what I’ve learned is that the mind and the brain are extraordinary instruments that, in extreme situations, can go places that we find hard to imagine.
DK: You have been exposed to a great deal of death imagery not only through your research in Hiroshima, but with Vietnam vets, Nazi doctors, and other research you’ve done. What do you think drew you to this kind of work and to these questions?
RL: It’s not easy to answer that question, and I don’t think there’s any single characteristic or single experience that drew me to these events. I hadn’t probed the issue of death and death symbolism until my Hiroshima study, and I came to my Hiroshima work through a certain kind of activism leading to scholarship, rather than in reverse, as we usually think about it. It was through my exposure to a group called the Committee of Correspondence in Cambridge [MA] led by David Riesman in the late ‘50s. He was an early antinuclear academic, a sociologist who probed ways in which nuclear weapons were harming our society and our social institutions.

It was because of him and others in the group that when I was in Japan subsequently in the early 1960s to do a study of Japanese youth, I decided to make the trip to Hiroshima.
I was stunned to find that nobody had ever done a comprehensive study of that first atomic bomb.
I was stunned to find that nobody had ever done a comprehensive study of that first atomic bomb. I developed a principle, which may not always hold up to scrutiny, that the larger a human event, the less likely it is to be studied. It’s difficult to study large events, and we don’t like to get out of our comfort zone, which a study like that certainly required.

I was then just beginning my chair at Yale and I was able to work out with the chairman of my department an arrangement to stay on in Hiroshima for six months to do the study. But it was the exposure to activism that led to the scholarship, and then I tried to do the work very systematically through interview methods in a modified way. The book I wrote from that study, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, was my scholarly contribution to antinuclear activism.
Back to Top ▲

Combining Scholarship with Activism

DK: You say in your autobiography, “I was groping for ways of expressing in my work and in my life deeper opposition to what America was doing and becoming. The sequence involved for me consisted of first outrage, then research to deepen knowledge, and then protest in the form of writing and action.”

Most people don’t associate psychiatry and psychology with activism. Did you feel like you were forging a totally new path? Or were there other psychiatrists doing what you were doing?
RL: I was intent on combining scholarship and activism. I didn’t call it that at the very beginning, but I came to the realization that I wanted to combine them over time. There were a few others doing it at the time and I think there always are people doing it in any given field. I think each of us who tries to combine scholarship with activism does it in his or her own fashion.

There’s great value in obtaining good training for one’s profession, in deeply learning the trade we’re doing and combining that with activism.
There’s great value in obtaining good training for one’s profession, in deeply learning the trade we’re doing and combining that with activism. One can make certain kinds of contributions through professional knowledge that enhance activism in a way that contributions without that professional knowledge wouldn’t be able to do.

There are always some people, however few, who can look critically at their profession and yet see value in its tradition. In the case of psychology, as you know, there have been quite a number of very good psychologists who have spoken out passionately in opposing the American Psychological Association’s involvement with torture.
DK: Yes, like the folks at Psychologists for Social Responsibility who kept this in the media and fought against it for over a decade, finally getting a resolution through the APA to remove psychologists from all national security interrogations last year in 2015.
RL: They’ve always been there. And one no doubt has to seek them out and work with them and find ways in both one’s training and in one’s life to combine scholarship with activism. It can be done.

Of course, institutions can be backward and can, as we saw in the case of the American Psychological Association, take dangerous directions. But mostly if one is rigorously combining scholarship and activism, one is not really that condemned and on the whole one is honored for the effort. It’s demanding and it can lead to moments of conflict and difficulty, but it’s also rewarding.
DK: Well, it requires going against the grain, right?
RL:
Every profession has an ethical dimension as well as a technical one, and it’s a good thing to be well trained in the technical aspects of one’s profession, but not at the expense of ethics.
It’s going against the grain of the mainstream, but there is much in cultural experience that goes against the grain of the mainstream. One way of looking at it is that every profession has an ethical dimension as well as a technical one, and it’s a good thing to be well trained in the technical aspects of one’s profession, but not at the expense of ethics.

I was very aware of this in relation to studying Nazi doctors. Some of my friends warned me against doing it because they thought I would simply reduce them to psychopathology and lose sight of the ethical issues. I thought that was a fair warning and decided that whatever I did, I would look to both psychological and ethical elements, never leaving out the latter.
DK: That must have been difficult.
RL: In my work on Vietnam, I talked about the scandalous moment that we reached during the Vietnam War, where the duty of psychologists and psychiatrists was to help soldiers, traumatized by what they were seeing and doing, return to duty and daily atrocities.
DK: That reminds me of the army resilience training that positive psychologist Martin Seligman has been doing at the University of Pennsylvania. Among other things it’s designed to help troops better withstand multiple deployments in places like Afghanistan.
RL: When this was happening in Vietnam, I began to study the history of the concept of “profession.” It was originally a religious concept, a profession of faith, and then with our secular age it became more and more technical. Professions became learning technical details specific to that profession, and that technicization was highly overdone at the expense of the ethical dimension. We need to newly incorporate the ethical dimension to combine it with the techniques that we learn in our profession. That idea has been a common theme throughout my work.
DK: How do you imagine the ethical dimension being reincorporated into training? It strikes me that in the ethics classes that we take in psychology training, often times we’re dealing with thorny individual situations—when to break confidentiality, what’s the best way to protect yourself from lawsuits etc.—but we are rarely taught how to break free from toxic groupthink, how to stand up against immoral ethical transgressions like what happened in the American Psychological Association, how to dismantle unethical systems that might be contributing to the mental illness of the patients we see. We’re not often tackling these larger ethical issues that are deeply wounding and affecting the people we see in therapy. It can feel like a kind of resilience training we’re doing, helping people better navigate an unjust world without tackling the injustice that brings them to us.
RL: I think each of us can question things in the world around us, but there is no perfect answer to this problem. It’s not always possible to combine one’s activism with one’s professional work, sometimes they are things you do in parallel ways. Sometimes that means working with an institution that doesn’t live up to one’s activist principles, one’s activist desires, but I think it’s a constant balance one struggles for within oneself.

In work with patients, even if one doesn’t impose on them a full expression of all that one believes about how the world should be, every patient in psychotherapy has a strong sense of the ethical and political qualities of a therapist.
Every patient in psychotherapy has a strong sense of the ethical and political qualities of a therapist.
Even when things are not said. One’s holding to these principles does make its way into the relationship. And, of course, these are things that can be discussed in therapy, though one has to use one’s judgment about that. But I’m not one to give extensive advice about therapy. It’s not an area of expertise of mine at all.
DK: What went into your choice to not become a clinician?
RL: I was trained in psychotherapy and I did some of it early on, but relatively little. I began doing research and I found that the research I did was so involving and I was so intensely bound up with it that I wanted to deepen it and extend it. Doing individual therapy in a way was a distraction from that kind of research. Individual therapy requires one’s presence and a lot of one’s imagination. It’s very demanding and it’s also very satisfying. I felt its demands and I even enjoyed it, but I really preferred to develop the research, which I did with great intensity, and that required giving up the work in therapy.
Back to Top ▲

The Nazi Doctors

DK: You’ve written many well-known books, but Nazi Doctors is one of your most well-known. When I read it, I was shocked that you were able to have so much face-to-face time with people I assumed would have been in prison. They had obviously perpetrated or witnessed a great deal of atrocity, some were still Hitler enthusiasts, and they were just living life in post-war-Germany like everything was dandy.
RL: It was the most difficult study I did. It was hard to sit down with Nazi doctors, you’re right. Most of them were not fanatical, but they tried to present themselves to me as conservative professionals who had experienced pressures during the Nazi era and tried to handle them as well as they could.

They knew I didn’t accept that self-presentation, but I worked from a standpoint of probing them and constantly asking questions and then asking more questions rather than confronting them and calling them evil or anything of that sort.

What happened in general with most of them was that they were surprisingly ready to talk to me, but behaved as though that person during the Nazi era was somebody different from the person sitting with me in the room, and that he and I were talking about that earlier figure as a third person—a kind of extreme dissociation.
Most of them were surprisingly ready to talk to me, but behaved as though that person during the Nazi era was somebody different from the person sitting with me in the room, and that he and I were talking about that earlier figure as a third person—a kind of extreme dissociation.
I studied as much as I could about the particular person I was talking to, what people in his situation with the Nazis actually did, so I had a considerable knowledge of the context in most cases before I even sat down with them.

There were one or two who remained ardent Nazis in a way, but mostly they didn’t. Still, it was very uncomfortable and partly I could manage it because I knew I would have my say in the book I would write. And I deeply valued the research enterprise, its potential to say something that other studies of Nazi behavior couldn’t say.
DK: I researched those studies for my dissertation, particularly Stanley Milgram’s studies on obedience around the same time that Hanna Arendt was writing for The New Yorker about Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, both of them coming to the conclusion that normal people can, indeed, commit atrocities. It was a big scandal to say at the time that Nazis were human beings, not monsters. Were you worried that your work would humanize them too much?
RL: Some people were worried about that. But, you know, they were human and that was the problem. They were human beings. They were human beings who did evil things.
Evil things are only done by human beings in my view, not by god or by the devil, but by fellow human beings.
Evil things are only done by human beings in my view, not by god or by the devil, but by fellow human beings. And in that sense, yes, I had to encounter all of their sides. Not humanizing them to the extent of leaving out or negating their evil, but rather recognizing and trying to probe ways in which human beings are capable of evil, or what I came to call the psychological and historical circumstances that are conducive to evil.
DK: What you call, “atrocity-producing situations?”
RL: Yes, atrocity-producing situations are those in which ordinary people may be socialized to evil. They come to belong to a group in which the norm is destructive—murderers in Auschwitz, let’s say. Or even in Vietnam. And since we are social animals and we all belong to groups, we never work totally in isolation intellectually or emotionally. If one enters into a group which holds an ideology of genocide or mass killing, one tends to internalize much of that ideology. That is a way in which human beings carry out evil projects and, of course, do so as human beings.
DK: Was one of the difficulties of doing this work that you could sort of imagine yourself in their shoes?
RL: One has to wonder that.
If I had been a German, would I have done some of the things that they did?
If I had been a German, would I have done some of the things that they did? I wouldn’t necessarily condemn myself and say I would have, but one has to ask oneself that kind of question. And one has to also come to value, as I did, those who opposed the Nazis. For instance, I became a friend of two of the few psychoanalytic heroes I know of, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, a husband and wife who were anti-Nazis and were part of the underground during the Nazis era at great risk. He reintroduced Freudian psychoanalysis into Germany after the war and was the first to expose, on the basis of the Nuremburg medical trial, the deeds of Nazi doctors.

I also met Jewish survivors of Auschwitz who had managed to remain healers while in Auschwitz. So there were people one could admire in those extreme situations and one could at least hope that one would have been among them, should one have been exposed to that sort of pressure. But who can be sure?
DK: Do you hope through this kind of research to prepare people to be among the helpers, the healers?
RL: Yes, the research is very much meant to expose the destructive behavior, the killing, and assert its opposite, the healing. In all of the studies I’ve done, I’ve looked at the alternative to the extremity of behavior that I was studying. Even in my first study of Chinese thought reform, which applied great pressure in coercing change in people, I had a long concluding section on what I called “open personal change.” All of my work is in the service of openness and healing and ultimately justice, even though—or particularly because—it studies the opposite.
DK: Do you think that people who deny their own darkness are more likely to act out in evil ways?
RL:
I think we all have a potential for destructive or evil behavior.
I think we all have a potential for destructive or evil behavior. When I completed my work on Nazi doctors, people would say, now what do you think of your fellow human beings? And most people expected that I’d completely lost my faith in humanity, but what I said was, “We can go either way.”

I haven’t lost my sense of possibility in human beings. And, yes, we do have a potential for destruction. Somebody wrote a book called We Are All Nazis and I didn’t like that kind of approach because it ceases to make distinctions. Having the potential for evil is very different than actually engaging in evil behavior. But we all have a potential for destructive behavior and it’s well to look at that.

I think that the relationship to ideology and groups that form around ideology has a lot to do with which direction we take. By ideology, I mean idea structures that have intensity and which explain aspects of the world to us. This is something we all engage in, even though we Americans like to think we’re non-ideological. The kind of idea structures we embrace and the groups that we immerse ourselves in have a lot to do with which aspects of the human potential we find ourselves expressing.
DK: Is your concept of the “protean self” a counter to this more strictly ideological way of being?
RL: Well, the protean self is a counter to the more rigid, fixed self and to the totalistic tendencies that I am averse to or even allergic to. The all-or-none kinds of totalism that I studied and wrote about in my first study of Chinese thought reform in particular. What I found is that the reverse of totalism is a kind of proteanism, which has surprising capacity for change and transformation and for a multiplicity of elements in one’s character or personality. This has its vulnerabilities, too, but at least means that we needn’t be stuck in totalitarian dogma. To the extent that we are protean, there are constant opportunities for new beginnings.
DK: Does it mean just being a flexible, open person?
RL: Yes, it does, but also more than that. It’s consistent with flexibility and openness, and a capacity for change and transformation.
Back to Top ▲

Apocalyptic Violence

DK: In your book, Destroying the World to Save It: Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, you do a study on the Japanese cult that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subways. We’re certainly living in a time of apocalyptic violence and I’m wondering what your study in this book has to teach us about it more generally.
RL: The Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, was notably apocalyptic. The guru and his close disciples believed passionately in the end of the world, and in actively contributing to that end. It was an example of what the ancient Rabbis called “forcing the end.” I write of an ancient rabbinical dialogue about whether it’s correct for people, for rabbis, to advise joining in the violence to force the end of the world and help bring about the appearance of the messiah. The rabbis decided against it, saying that only god kept that timetable.

But some of the most extreme groups do embrace violence to bring about the end of the world, as did Aum Shinrikyo. And there are certain American right-wing groups that have that intent, who have tried to destroy the government through acts of violence, and contribute to an apocalyptic vision, as well as to forcing the end.

There are confused, highly fundamentalist groups in America with an element of apocalypticism who, for instance, deny climate change. They say that only god could change the climate, that it would be impossible for human beings to be responsible for it.
But there’s also a lot of apocalyptic thinking in this country without necessarily resorting to violence. There are confused, highly fundamentalist groups in America with an element of apocalypticism who, for instance, deny climate change. They say that only god could change the climate, that it would be impossible for human beings to be responsible for it. And some of those people are in the mainstream of American political life in the Republican Party. That’s a fundamentalist approach that can also be apocalyptic. It isn’t necessarily violent, but it can be highly dangerous.
DK: Do you think that the war on terror, particularly as it was waged by George W. Bush, had elements of apocalypticism in it?
RL: Yes, it did. I wrote about this in my book, Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World. George W. Bush saw it as a war against evil and that takes on something close to an apocalyptic tendency. To destroy evil is to create an endless war against an enemy that can never be destroyed. It also is to polarize the world into one’s own good and the evil of the other. It’s that tendency that we’re seeing now with regard to terrorism.

Terrorism is real. And ISIS is a real danger. And it’s a highly apocalyptic and murderous movement. But there’s a tendency among some groups in this country to view it the way that communism was viewed in the past as absolute evil in contrast to our absolute good. That radical polarization of the world is enormously harmful and can feed violence ultimately rather than diminish it.
DK: Is that the kind of historical issue that you bring your psychological methods and moral complexity to, for purposes of understanding the “other”?
RL: That’s right. Moral complexity becomes extremely important. That’s where we psychologists and psychiatrists can have something to say.
Back to Top ▲

Climate Change and the Nuclear Threat

DK: Right now you’re working on a book about climate change and you are also making a connection between the antinuclear movement and the climate change movement. You basically never hear about nuclear proliferation these days and I’m wondering why people aren’t more freaked out by it. To my knowledge, the world’s arsenals have only gotten bigger.

RL: Yes. The nuclear threat is still very much with us and there are people who are saying this, but it has lost its visibility in a larger society. So there’s a gap between mind and threat. During the ‘80s, the heyday of the antinuclear movement, when there was the million-person demonstration in Central Park and the nuclear freeze or moratorium, there was a certain amount of fear that was useful. And there was a closer relationship between mind and threat.

I don’t equate nuclear threat with climate threat, but I look at the nuclear threat and the antinuclear movement for both parallels and differences in order to think more critically and understand the challenges of climate change.

They both are realities that threaten the human future; they both have world-ending possibilities—yet they both are movements that the human mind is capable of addressing.
They both are realities that threaten the human future; they both have world-ending possibilities—yet they both are movements that the human mind is capable of addressing. We haven’t figured this out in time to prevent enormous amounts of suffering because of climate change, and there’s a great amount of work that has to be done even to limit that suffering. Nonetheless, there is a demonstration of what I call “formed awareness” about the nature of climate change that has great value to us because it’s the basis for anything constructive that we do in that area.
DK: But there’s not that sense of imminent crisis that the threat of nuclear war gives us.
RL: The comparisons are complicated because, yes, there’s something about a bomb—it’s an entity, it’s a thing that explodes and destroys a city. We saw that in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I’ve experienced it viscerally by studying it in Hiroshima. Climate doesn’t do that. It’s a slower incremental series of changes, but what’s changed now in relation to the climate threat is that it’s become more active. We’ve had hurricanes and floods—
DK: Super storms.
RL:
Climate change has become not just something that will become much worse in the future—it will if we don’t do more about it—but also something that’s now affecting and threatening us in profound ways at this moment.
We’ve had coast lines being destroyed. It’s closer to us. The gap between mind and threat is narrowing. Climate change has become not just something that will become much worse in the future—it will if we don’t do more about it—but also something that’s now affecting and threatening us in profound ways at this moment. So, that distinction between the two is still there, but it’s lessening. And climate change is closer to us as a real threat.
DK: Well thank you so much. This has been such an interesting conversation.
RL: You’re very welcome.

© 2016 Psychotherapy.net, LLC
Bios
Reviews
CE Test
Robert J. LiftonRobert J. Lifton, MD, is a lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at The City University of New York. His books include, most recently, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 2011), Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (University of North Carolina Press, 1991 [1968]) which won a National Book Award, Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial (Harper Perennial, 1996), and The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, 1986).
Deb Kory, PsyD, is the content manager at psychotherapy.net.  She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute and has a part-time private practice in Berkeley, CA. She loves both of her jobs and feels lucky to be able to divide her time between therapy, writing and editing. Before deciding to become a psychotherapist, she worked as the managing editor of Tikkun Magazine and published her writings in Tikkun, The Huffington Post and Alternet. Currently, she is working on turning her dissertation, Psychologists: Healers or Instruments of War?, into a book. In it, she describes in great detail the historical context and events that led to psychologists creating the torture program at Guantanamo and other "black sites" during the War on Terror.
What an illuminating and inviting conversation! This is such an openminded, bold exploration of human nature and the mentality of groups and institutions. I love that Robert Lifton acknowledges how dark and destructive people can be but he still sees the capacity for growth and development. He comes across as curious and deeply thoughtful -- a shining example of the protean self he believes in. It's great to see psychotherapeutic ideas applied to other realms in such a natural, accessible way. What an enjoyable, fascinating read.
Charlotte Fox Weber
This was an interesting springboard into a thought about abortion. We know the fetus in the womb feels pain, has a heartbeart and reacts to the atrocity happening to it in the womb. It is impossible to watch on a video sonogram without wincing, yet our society doesn't question it, although the evidence is in front of us. I thought about that a lot as I read this article on challenging the societal thoughts as counselors and psychologists. What is being psychologically used on the society to further this group thought without challenge? DK: What you call, “atrocity-producing situations?” RL: Yes, atrocity-producing situations are those in which ordinary people may be socialized to evil. They come to belong to a group in which the norm is destructive—murderers in Auschwitz, let’s say. Or even in Vietnam. And since we are social animals and we all belong to groups, we never work totally in isolation intellectually or emotionally. If one enters into a group which holds an ideology of genocide or mass killing, one tends to internalize much of that ideology. That is a way in which human beings carry out evil projects and, of course, do so as human beings.
Kathy Dewbre
Add your review:


Name :

To prevent automated submissions, please answer the following:
3 + 7 =


CE credits: 1.5
Learning objectives:

  • Understand what it means to bring a psychological perspective to historical events.
  • Describe "political violence" and its use in the 20th century.
  • Illustrate the importance of bringing moral complexity to extreme events.
  • Define "atrocity-producing situation" and its capacity to affect all humans.
Order CE Test
EARN 1.5 CREDITS

  • $22.50 or 1.5 CE Points
    Add to Cart