The Freedom to Air, the Freedom to Err: Escaping political cultism

Let’s face it. It’s scary out there.

We live in an era in which saying or doing the “wrong” thing means
social media can be instantly deployed to issue calls for mob justice. Lies and misinformation spread so quickly that strangers can come together within the space of an hour to launch bullying campaigns against individuals and their families, through the combination of reputation damaging smears, doxing (sharing private information with the public) and public demands for an apology and a pledge of fealty to ideologically pure dogmas, under the threat of physical violence or further humiliation.

It is an age, too, in which many of us unwittingly suffer from what can rightly be called Rapid Onset Radicalization. With immediate access to a relentless stream of propaganda in legacy media and social media, we are becoming radicalized at a high velocity. Much of the content we are exposed to is often presented in highly codified, rigid frameworks that encourage us to see all of social, economic and political reality through an extremely narrow, reductionist lens. This causes many of us who are exposed to only one side of the political and social spectrum to see and experience completely different realities from that of our friends, associates, and perceived adversaries. And the result has been disastrous for social cohesion.

Whether these frameworks are coming from the Radical Right (e.g. the belief that mass migration is an intentional “Globalist” plot to erase White identity through the implementation of “The Great Replacement”); from the Radical Left (e.g. the rapid spread of Critical Race Theory’s ideological position that all of reality is structured and controlled by an all-pervasive malevolent force of metaphysical power called “Whiteness”); or from fundamentalist religious movements (e.g. the belief among ISIS radicals that killing infidels is praiseworthy in the eyes of Allah), we can clearly see the emergence of a widespread pattern of belief, which political cult expert Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has called ideological totalism, and its impact on society’s increasing polarization.

In his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1960) Lifton outlines eight criteria for the ideologically totalist environment, which can readily be seen in the echo chambers of adherents of far left social justice ideologies as well as the enclosed online environments of far right nationalist groups.

  1. Milieu control
  2. Mystical manipulation (or planned spontaneity)
  3. The demand for purity
  4. The cult of confession
  5. Sacred science
  6. Loading of the language
  7. Doctrine over person
  8. Dispensing of existence

    Though Lifton’s book was published in 1960 and based on his research of Communist Chinese indoctrination programs of the 1950’s, his study’s findings on politcal cultism are as relevant as ever in the current era. When we consider the third criterion of demand for purity, for instance, we can surely see how relevant this demand has become in the wake of shame mobs and online bullying campaigns that have emerged in recent years to keep us all in line. We can also see the relevance of the eighth criterion of dispensing of existence, which is an exact parallel to the modern punishment of cancel culture, in which those who step into ideological trouble and run afoul of the mob can find themselves “cancelled,” or to use an older term, “un-personed.”

    These two criteria of ideological totalism, along with the others, seem specifically adaptable to politicized online environments, educational programs and classrooms, and even political rallies. And these patterns can be found across the entire political spectrum.

    In his April 2018 essay, Assault on Reality, for Dissent Magazine, Dr. Lifton describes the totalist mindset in the Trump movement, and goes on to offer additional insights into the way ideological totalism operates in all politcal cults:

    The narrative was relentless: the “old society” in China was evil and corrupt because of the domination of the “exploiting classes” landowners, capitalists, and the bourgeoisie. The residual mental effects of that exploitation had to be removed not only from members of those exploiting classes, but from all who lived in the old society. As Chairman Mao put it, one had to “punish the past to warn the future” and “save men by curing their ills.”

    The reformers were totalistic in their all-or-none assertions, including claims to absolute truth and virtue. To impose those claims they created what I called milieu control, the domination of all communication in the environment (including at times the inner environment of individual selves). They insisted on doctrine over person, so that any doubts experienced concerning ideological claims were considered a form of personal deficiency, of individual-psychological aberration. Overall there was a dispensing of existence, a line drawn between those who had a right to exist (in harmony with the official doctrine) and those who possessed no such right. That “dispensing” could range from discrimination in terms of jobs and status to imprisonment and even execution.

    The coercive element that I’ve emphasized was always present but was accompanied by an appeal to high idealism: the promise of a utopian future and of individual and collective revitalization, even a sense of rebirth.

    As we can see from these passages, the patterns that arise from ideological totalism transcend time, gender, country, race, and the specifics of political and religious beliefs. The demand for doctrinal purity over the intellectual and moral sovereignty of the individual, the disdain and contempt for the previously accepted way of life of “the enemy” and anyone associated with “the enemy,” the promise of a grand Utopian future of a collective rebirth for the followers of this new way of life, and the punishment of being cancelled (or, as in the case of State-led totalitarianism, killed) for non-compliance with the precious vision of that new way of life, are present in politcal cults across the whole politcal spectrum and across all time. We now find ourselves in a large-scale situation in which these patterns are well amplified in a world dominated by the 24-hour news cycle, an outrage culture, endless propaganda, and the endless gladiator spectacle of social media battles.

    Given the complexity and the highly volatile situation confronting us, it’s understandable that many people will choose not to bother expressing any form of dissent on issues great and small, especially in public, whether in an online social media forum or in private conversations with friends who see themselves as defenders of the beliefs being questioned.

    Today the consequences are harsh for dissenters who speak truths that do not align with the values and narratives of those who hold power over a narrative and are in a positon to hurt and punish them. This rightly scares people, especially if they have children or dependents who rely on them. By not conforming to the dictates of the powers that be, dissenters face the looming threat of retribution, which often includes social isolation and a damaged reputation. One of the greatest losses incurred in principled dissent is abandonment by friends, which may come because such friends are genuinely disappointed by the dissenter’s apparent betrayal of the causes and beliefs they once shared, or because they fear being fingered as heretics, too, if they remain “adjacent” or too close.

    So what do we do with all of this? How do we navigate our way as active, engaged and conscious participants in building a workable society, when seemingly it has become over run by hyper-reactivity, misinformation, propaganda, tribalism, and extreme polarization? How do those of us in the exhausted majority [iii] survive in an environment that punishes deliberation and thoughtfulness and encourages extremism and enemy-ship? What can we actively, compassionately, wisely and efficiently do to create the kind of milieu in which difficult issues can be surfaced and addressed? What values can we promote that facilitate our ability to speak freely about what concerns us without fear of retaliation, and also enable fearless, sincere and robust dialogue with friends to help us correct any erroneous views we might hold?

    Three Practices for Engagement

    Regardless of our political or religious beliefs, many of us care about our world and strive to solve problems and relate to other people with an open mind and unjaundiced eye. Progress requires a strategy for getting the supermajority of reasonable, good faith people to re-establish our presence on the international scene, in the barroom, in the classroom, and on the social media circuit. And the only way we can do this is to reaffirm open inquiry and open-hearted engagement, which includes problem-solving that sets aside ideological commitments, grand narratives, and preconceived ideas about where others are coming from and what they are really up to. This requires adopting three main practices that make it easier for us to consider other perspectives and develop the ability to see the world and other people with more clarity, insight and empathy.

    First, we can learn to develop a healthy skepticism towards ideological frameworks that promote an us-against-them way of seeing things, especially paradigms that reduce entire groups of people to one dimensional caricatures, such as dismissing others as “deplorable bigots” and “right wing nut jobs” or as “virtue signaling cry-bully SJWs.” This skepticism can extend to recognizing our tendencies to unmindfully adopt legitimate-sounding academic and political theories that use conceptual sleights of hand, data sets, and historical events to justify hatred and dehumanization of what we and our like-minded cohort think of as opposing groups.

    Second, we can develop a healthy and robust relationship to pain and discomfort. This means that we can learn to lean into the sharp points of being around people we dislike and ideas that rub us the wrong way, so that we can develop at least some patience, perseverance and resiliency for engagement with perceived adversaries and ideological opponents. This is what Nassim Taleb has called “ant-fragile,” mode of relating to the outside world, and it’s well worth the effort if we are willing to put some time in to see how it works.

    Third, we can develop the practice of venturing outside of our echo chambers and epistemic enclosures to engage perceived adversaries on their ideas and beliefs, and to offer insights that might benefit them, instead of treating them like enemies to be tossed aside. But, a richer aspect of this is that by stepping out to meet “the other,” we can reality test our own ideas against those with different experiences, perceptions, beliefs, data sets and areas of experts. Doing so could increase our capacity for navigating multiple perspectives, developing a deeper appreciation for the wisdom and humanity of others, and opening our minds to new or previously inaccessible information and understandings that we might not have considered before. Stepping outside of our in groups can help to loosen up our own ideological conditioning, which can open the way for us to experience the complex reality we share with others more directly, more freshly, and more charitably.

    The Freedom to Air is the Freedom to Err

    By developing these three practices, we can create an atmosphere on any scale in which there is freedom to air, the welcoming environment in which we can air our grievances, our concerns, our dissenting opinions, and the ideas we have for solving problems. And in this atmosphere, beyond the freedom to air, we also find the freedom to err.

    The freedom to air is the freedom to openly present to an audience of both supporters and perceived adversaries what we think we know, what we think we understand, and what we think we see. By having the freedom to air, we are also free to make mistakes, to be wrong, to be in error, and even to be ignorant in front of others. Airing and erring in front of those of those who can offer us more accurate information, or a higher moral perspective, is an effective and efficient way to find meaningful correction.

    Part of this process includes the humility to recognize out in the open that we might be wrong about some things, or that the belief system, paradigm, or framework we have been following may be incomplete or contain some moral errors, gaps in logic or misunderstandings that need to be cleared up. Making room for error and readjustment upon its discovery is one of the main reasons why we need to make room for dissent, for ourselves and for others.

    If we are the ones who are the dissenters, then society, on the scale of our influence, will benefit from the free and open exchange of what we have to say. If we are right in our dissent, then obviously society benefits from having allowed the open expression of our dissent (and history has borne this out) . And if we our ideas are discovered to be wrong in such a free and open exchange, we stand the chance to not only be corrected, but to help society on whatever scale of influence we have to avoid the error that has been brought to light though that exchange

    And if we are the ones who are tempted to quash the dissenting voices of others, it would be of great benefit to us and to the causes we care about if we could commit to hearing them out. It is always possible that it is we ourselves who hold the views that might be need to be corrected. And if we are the ones who are hold power in the context in which the discussion is taking place, much pain and suffering can be avoided, if we are fortunate enough to be shown our error.

    We (and You) Are All the Defenders of ‘The Truth’

    It is our hope—the dissenters contributing to this work—that the essays presented here, around a wide variety of issues, will be received in good faith and truly grappled with on the basis of reasoning, evidence, empathy, well-considered morality, and in the light of what is truly at stake for all of us.

    At stake is always the truth. And the truth has many dimensions and as many defenders as it does enemies. To be sure, the truth also includes the impact of policies, rules, cultural practices, and ideologies on the lives of very real people. This means that “The Truth” is never simply an abstract ideal that inspires its champions, but a powerful and determining agent in the quality of life, safety, survival and potential happiness of those whose lives are impacted by the imposition of “The Truth”.

    While the current debate around truth revolves around the split between those who believe in “objective truth” and those who adhere to the postmodernist conception that the only reliable truth is the subjective experience of “my truth,” a helpful way to see this is the invocation of “Miller’s Law.” Philosopher George Miller posited that, in the end, it isn’t really important to discover whether a statement or positon is true, when it comes to a disagreement between people about unscientific maters, but what the statement or position is true of.

    If we could learn to discover what other people’s beliefs about reality are true of, we could find a way in and discover the deepest most cherished values that animate them, even if, in the end, we discover that what animates them is ultimately delusional and even harmful.

    We Are All Mediators

    If we could learn to step outside of our own epistemic enclosures with empathy and wisdom to understand what animates other groups and individuals, we might be able to become what authors Peter M. Limberg and Conor Barnes have called memetic mediators, in their essay, “The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0”. Memetic Mediators are people who are able to get into the bones of the aesthetics and values of the cultural memes (mind viruses) of different tribes. These are the “pan-tribalist participants” who are able to communicate truths from one tribe to another in a way that acknowledges and respects the truths and experiences that different tribes come to know deeply as their very identity, in order to protect the rights of the largest number of people and advance civilization at any scale.

    In the end, it all comes down to the commitment to giving ourselves and others the freedom to air. And, we might be surprised and delighted to discover that there is no error in that.