Robert J. Lifton on Political Violence, Activism and Life as a Psycho-Historian
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.
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|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 >>|
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Robert 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 ) 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.
CE credits: 1.5
- 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.
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