By : For many years that I have been shocked and confused by the vehemence and persistence that feminists attack males and also male feminists attack men and masculinity. Both blame men for most ills in the world. I have always scratched my head and wondered how they could get so vitriolic and juiced. It has also confused me how the feminist males could be so self-deprecating. Then I ran into the brainwashing material by Robert Lifton and it started to make some sense. The male feminists are exhibiting very similar behaviors to the people that Lifton studied who had been brainwashed. The feminists also seem to share some characteristics with the communist Chinese brainwashers. The following article will give you a beginning knowledge of the work of Lifton and you can be the judge about drawing a connection between the two. I am in no way totally convinced but it sure seems to be a likely connection worth discussion. See what you think.
American psychiatrist Robert Lifton studied both western and Chinese citizens who had been through China’s brainwashing attempts in the early 1950’s. This group had undergone a powerful psychological experience at the hands of their captors who had done their best to brainwash them. Lifton, who uses the term “thought reform” rather than brainwashing conducted interviews with many of those who were imprisoned and later released. Oftentimes the interviews took place very shortly after their release. He averaged 15-20 hours of interview time with each of the 40 subjects. He pulled together his ideas from this effort into a book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, A Study of Chinese Brainwashing which was published in 1961. The book has become a classic and has been instrumental in our understanding of the Chinese attempts at brainwashing.
Lifton’s basic outline of the essence of brainwashing has been used in a variety of areas outside the strict arena of brainwashing. One is religious cults and their attempts at thought reform. Another has been abusive relationships where the abuser seeks to “brainwash” his or her victim. In both these areas it could be argued that what transpired was technically not brainwashing, at least not in the exact same sense that Lifton observed. There were no chains and handcuffs, and no literal imprisonment. However, the Lifton outline is extremely useful in exposing the path and structure of the extreme manipulation in both these areas. The cult seeks to transform the member into a devoted and non-questioning adherent and will use a variety of methods to make this happen. Similarly, the abusive person attempts to manipulate the abused person in numerous ways. Both the cults and the abusers have a common trait, they both start by attacking the identity of the subject. By attacking that person’s sense of self they soften the individual’s ability to maintain their personal view of the world. This is clearly seen in the abusive relationship where the abused will often get to the point where they see the abuse as necessary and their own fault rather than an abusive act.
This idea of attacking the identity is actually Lifton’s first element of the thought reform process. He describes the experience of a priest who was one of those he interviewed. The priest told him in detail how the Chinese captors had hammered away at him that he was not really a father. They told him he was living a lie. He was not really a father and not interested in the well being of people, he was instead an imperialist spy, who was greedy and only thinking of himself. When the priest would answer truthfully he would be rebuked and told he was lying. He would be put in chains and handcuffed and made to stand for long highly painful periods. Sometimes he was kept awake for long periods. He was being taught that if he offers the wrong answer, no matter how truthful, he will face severe punishment.
Lifton sees this first step as being crucial, and even a pre-requisite for all that is to follow. Without the identity being “softened” many people will simply not shift away from their world views. Damaging the identity in some way is imperative. You can think of an abused person who is beaten on a regular basis. This person has been told that the beatings are their fault, that they are the problem and if they weren’t so bad the beatings would never happen. The abused person slowly loses sight of their own identity, and over time loses sight of even their own perspective. They start to identify with the perspective of the abuser, and even side with the abuser. If you communicate with an abused person like this you will hear those messages loud and clear, “This abuse is my fault.” Following Liftons basic path they have swallowed the perspective of the abuser and their own identity has been significantly compromised.
The idea of brainwashing a cult member or an abused person are both taking Lifton’s ideas and applying them on a micro level, the level of an individual. But what about applying these same ideas on a macro level? I think there are some very interesting connections when applying Lifton’s ideas on a more global level.
One area I see where they can be easily applied is in connection with feminism and the obvious attacks on men’s identity. Over the last 50 years men have experienced the most dramatic drop in loss of status of any group ever in our history. I cannot think of any group of a similar size (roughly half the population), going through such a contrast in labels. Men in the 1950’s were seen as good, were seen as helpful, were seen as productive, were seen as those who made the world a safe place. Since that time men’s identity has been attacked until in today’s world men are seen as anything but the above. They are seen as the problem. This is a huge turnaround and one piece of this has been the relentless attacks on men’s identity. Just think of all of the phrases used by feminists and others, “Men Are Pigs” “All Men Are Rapists” “Men are Greedy” and on and on. Men have been linked to causing wars, ruining the economy, being the source of violence, and just about every negative you can imagine. Men’s stock has dropped in a huge way and a part of this drop has been the attacks on men’s identity. These attacks started with feminists but so many others have now joined in including the media, the government, academia and even from the water cooler. At this point, in 2014, men are now seen as the problem.
Like the Chinese captives and like an abused person, if you hammer away long enough at the identity you will start to have an impact. We can see this today when we observe boys simply not wanting to grow up as male, boys who are enamored with the feminine and ashamed of their masculine. Indeed the default view of men and masculinity is very negative. This sort of macro attack on men and masculinity does not have the personal and intimate impact of an individual repeatedly avering your lack of goodness as happened so often with the Chinese captors. Instead, it has the power of being global and accepted by not only individuals but by academia, the courts, the government and the people at large. In some ways it reminds me of Lifton’s stories about the Chinese surrounding the individual being brainwashed with people who shouted at him for hours about how he was a spy, he was wrong, he was a liar, he was an imperialist and more. Those interviewed spoke of the power of this technique of having no ally and being surrounded by people who all believe you were an “imperialist.” Men and boys today are totally surrounded by negative feedback about men. There is no place for them to turn that says a positive word about men. They face a barrage of negative information about their sex from home, school, television, movies, the courts, the government and just about everyplace you can see. All have been convinced that the goodness of men is simply not prevalent and that there is basically something wrong with men. They, men, are wrong, and wrong simply because they are male. This has got to have a powerful long term impact on every boy’s and man’s identity.
Lifton emphasized repeatedly that the attacks on the identity made by the Chinese captors were made from a group that was held to be infallible. If any prisoner were to question any aspect of their captors, even a tiny issue, he would be punished severely and told clearly that the captors were infallible. In fact, the prisoners lived in an environment that demanded a respect for the infallibility of the captors. Just think of the abusive person expecting no questioning of their abuse. They demanded that their perspective, the abuser’s perspective, was the only correct viewpoint and in essence that they were infallible. The same can be seen in today’s feminism. /in some ways the adherents maintain that the doctrine of feminism is infallible. You can see this in action in the total intolerance of feminists to allow even discussion of men’s issues on college campus’s. You can see it in the remarkably violent and caustic response to AVFM’s planned conference on men’s human rights. The response includes death threats to innocent bystanders apparently because the topics don’t please them. (more on how men’s issues is a threat to feminism later) I saw this sort of totalism first hand while I was a part of the American Psychological Association’s Division 51 listserv for the study of men and masculinity. Questioning of feminism was basically not a good strategy. Only two people were banned from that group and both were active in questioning feminism. The reason given for one man being banned was that he mentioned male victims of domestic violence too often. It didn’t mesh with the feminist meme and had to go! Men were only the perps! You can easily see this same sort of thing on feminist online forums. Anyone who disagrees is immediately banned from being a part. You can see this in the feminist attempts to silence people like Warren Farrell from speaking at a Canadian University blocking the entrances and pulling fire alarms. His message that drew such ire? He was planning to talk about the needs of boys. This was somehow translated into being hateful toward women and misogynistic. We could list many more examples. It seems clear that feminism has existed in an environment that disallows questioning and assumes its infallibility. There is obvious intolerance for views that differ from their own.
So the stage is set with an infallible source who is attacking the identity. What happens after that?
You must learn to feel GUILTY, and then BE GUILTY
With infallibility hammering away and identity starting to falter it brings on self doubt in large amounts. This sets the stage for the very important element of inducing guilt and shame. The captors did everything they could to force the person to take on blame for anything that might have happened to them in their lives. This is repeated unmercifully. It is hammered home that the person (and their imperialistic way of life) is the real source of all their troubles. They are to blame. And the blame is related to their stupidity of going along with the imperialistic ways. (Can you hear the same meme that men have been stupid to follow their misogynistic ways of the patriarchy?) Behind this is the implication that if they would only accept the infallible ways of their captors that all would be better. Some of those who were imprisoned spent several years going through this sort of thing. It is not hard to imagine that after years of identity dismantling and guilt inducement that the end result would be a very shaken person who assumed they were the problem and needed to find a way out. Any way out.
The guilt starts to open them up to a negative part of their identity that is more accessible now due to the original identity having suffered fractures. This puts the captive in touch with a part of himself that is indeed less than good. One could even say that it puts him in touch with the evil within himself. This of course, leaves him vulnerable to identifying more closely with this negative part of himself and this identification lowers his sense of integrity and forces him to question his own morality and goodness. This is just what the Chinese want to happen. Yes, they want them to feel guilty but the end product is not meant to produce an individual who feels badly about what he DID. The end product is meant to produce an individual who feels bad about who he IS! They want him to know that he is an imperialist who is therefore responsible for the actions of all other imperialists. You must learn to feel guilty, and then importantly, BE and ACT guilty.
Confessing is Surviving
Lifton says that a theme that was prevalent was that “only those who confess will survive.” Confessing was something that the prisoners learned to do. In fact, confessing was one of the few ways that prisoners were able to ease their burden of punishments even though they totally disbelieved what they said. At first, knowing that they were lying, they would give false confessions to try to please the captors and avoid painful chains and handcuffs. Often times the Chinese would punish them for these early confessions claiming that they were lies with the implication that these confessions were not nearly strong enough and failed to match the crimes the Chinese were maintaining they had committed. Those that Lifton interviewed would speak of the impact of their false confessions. They said that each false confession tended to further break down their identity and their own world view. What began as a ploy to lessen punishments and ingratiate themselves with the Chinese quickly bit them in the butt and left them confused about who they really were. They started to see themselves as what the Chinese had been telling them, they saw themselves as liars. This further confused the captives and left them reeling. Lifton talks of how the men became “lost in the labyrinth of their own false confessions.” It became very confusing.
Slowly their confessions might be accepted just a bit. As they were accepted the captive would strive to offer more confessions that might please the Chinese. They quickly learned that the only way to maintain self esteem was by self-flagellation. The more they blamed themselves and beat themselves up the more they would avoid severe punishments. The drill became deprecate self and idealize the Chinese.
We can see this sort of thing in both the abused person and in male feminists. When the abused person can tell the abuser that they know they are at fault for the beatings, this will obviously bring at least a temporary harmony and relief. For male feminists, after hearing repeatedly that men are the problem, they find that the more they self-deprecate and distance themselves from all things masculine, the more the feminists will accept them. Self esteem is now bolstered not by truth or creativity but by deprecating oneself. You can see this sort of male self-deprecation on youtube repeatedly. These men go on and on about what awful beings they are, they are male. It is not a pretty sight but it makes a bit of sense to me now knowing that this is a part of the brainwashing they have experienced. They seem to expect that their self flagellation will bring them acceptance from their reformers. The courser the hairshirt the better. Their identity is now based on their own guilt. Their esteem is now based on how much they distance themselves from anything masculine and apologize for having been masculine and therefore misogynist. They have begun to not only feel guilty about their actions, but to BE guilty about their actions. They have been misogynists, like all other men, and must atone. But like the prisoners, each time they confess it has an additive impact on their own identity and their sense of who they are.
One of the things the Chinese captors would encourage was for a prisoner to turn against his own people and blame them openly. When doing this the prisoners were more likely to come into the good graces of their captors. Those interviewed also spoke of the psychological impact of blaming their own group; even though the blaming was at first intentionally false, the end product was that they would feel less identified with their origins and more inclined to align with the Chinese. When the person sees themselves as the problem, and publicly claims that their original group is the problem, this admission, even when false, tends to detach the accuser from their own group. These false accusations of their own group are basically betrayals. When a person betrays a group they are far less likely to identify with that group. With each betrayal the thinner the attachment becomes. They had become what the Chinese had accused them of at the beginning. They were liars. Now the original accusations of the Chinese had been transformed into self accusations.
Lifton’s work helps us to see that if the male feminists are anything like those brainwashed by the Chinese that self-flagellation and male bashing are probably important activities for them. Their self esteem and identity are tied to them. The more they do it, the more they are aligned with their “captors.” Each time they openly blame men and masculinity for the ills of the world and blame themselves they likely lose a little bit more of their identity as men and take on a bit more identity as feminists. It reminds me of the “Dear Woman”video on youtube where the men apologized to the women for all of the ills that masculinity had created. That video makes a little more sense to me at this point knowing the dynamic of self deprecation and accusing one’s group.
Just like the Chinese brainwashing victims we can see how the male feminists self-deprecation and volumes of hatefulness towards masculinity increase, it results in more detachment from being identified as male and more self-deprecation and male bashing. This likely starts slowly but it is obvious that it can pick up steam and become a runaway self-deprecating and blaming train since it often gets positively re-enforced. I have seen a few of those trains myself!
Just imagine for a minute that you were a male feminist and had gone through this process for years of blaming both yourself and your own sex for most of the world’s problems. You did this blaming over a long period of time and transformed your identity from its original state into a new state that is built on a shaky feminist foundation. This new identity is somewhat brittle and has little room for areas of grey. One would assume that it would be a fairly precarious perch that required more blaming to maintain. The more we blame the more we feel a bit of self righteous stability. Now imagine that you run into someone you know who is talking about men’s issues. What does that do to you? It likely throws you into chaos due to your precarious perch. In order to maintain this adjusted identity you need to maintain the attitude that men and masculinity are indeed the problem. If someone starts to claim that men have needs and have areas where they face hardship and discrimination that becomes very difficult to hear. How could that be that the group that is responsible for the world’s ills have special needs? Does not compute. When someone threatens that stance what does it do to you? It’s not hard to imagine that it would get you very upset very quickly. Tolerance for the target group having needs is likely very limited. You have much to protect and if men and masculinity have problems of their own that puts a hole in your ability to blame them for the worlds’s ills. Men’s issues becomes a threat.
Here’s a quote from the Lifton book that tries to summarize the experience of those going through the brainwashing:
“Their situation was like that of a man taken suddenly from his ordinary routine and placed in a hospital for the criminally insane, where he is accused of a horrendous but vague crime which he is expected to recognize and confess; where his assertion of innocence is viewed as a symptom of his disease, as a paranoid delusion; and where every other inmate is wholly dedicated to the task of pressuring him into a confession and a “cure.””
This paragraph does a good job of summarizing the experiences that Lifton wrote about. But does it also describe fairly well the experience of an unsuspecting young man entering a woman’s studies class? It sure seems like a good match to me as it describes his impossible situation and dilemma.
So drawing from Lifton’s material we can see that male feminists, in response to feminist pressure are likely to:
- 1. Self-deprecate in order to prove their allegiance to the new captor which also detaches them from their original identity.
- 2. Blame men and masculinity. By betraying their own identity they further detach as they hope to ingratiate themselves.
- 3. The blaming and self-deprecating make it very difficult to openly discuss the hardships and discrimination that men face. Try to imagine a southern white in the 1950’s trying to discuss the hardships and discrimination faced by southern blacks. They would have a similarly difficult time.
But what about the Chinese brainwashers. Are feminists in any way like them. Let’s turn to that next.
Tom Golden is a psychotherapist specializing in men and boys' issues. He is the author of Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing, and its followup, The Way Men Heal, both available on Amazon. He is also a member of Warren Farrell's proposed White House Council on Boys and Men.