The evil of mind-control

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – was written by Evelyn Hall, an English writer who was trying to illustrate what French writer Voltaire believed.

But the Communist Chinese had a different view which we can summarize as: “I disapprove of what you say, and I’ll change your brain until you say the right things.”

In his memoir Witness to an Extreme Century, Robert Lifton describes some of his interviews (in the 1950’s) with victims of Chinese mind-control. Some of these were Westerners, and some were Chinese. To produce confessions, imprisoned Westerners were frequently tortured. Chinese victims that Lifton spoke with were usually not tortured, though one Chinese woman was still recoiling from the group hatred she encountered at university. But both groups were put through coercive forms of confession extraction, criticism, self-criticism, and “struggle” (focused and unrelenting verbal assault mostly by fellow thought reform participants). Some were also deprived of sleep.

Those who managed to get out of the Communist clutches and into the safety of the West sometimes gave up the mind-control installed beliefs eventually, but not all of them did.

A middle aged French physician asked Lifton “Are you standing on the people’s side or on the imperialist’s side?” This physician had been subjected to over three years of physically abusive thought reform. The physician then added that “from the people’s side it [reeducation] is to die and be born again”. After he poured out his story to Lifton, he became much more critical of his jailors, but he remained somewhat confused.

Lifton would visualize his interviewees as being a helpless prisoner surrounded by hostile Chinese cellmates in a small room, or in a slightly larger room and subjected while manacled, to the endless accusations of an interrogator who could completely control the administration of physical and psychological pain. Or, if his interviewee was Chinese, he imagined him in a classroom undergoing fierce criticism and unrelenting verbal assault.

Father Luca, an Italian missionary, who had been much abused physically, told Lifton that he started out determined not to admit to anything that was not true. But after a month of relentless interrogation and sleep deprivation, including beatings and torture, he produced a confession that included participation in an espionage organization. He almost believed it himself. But his chief interrogator noticed that the confession was self-contradictory and told Father Luca to try again. After some respite from the brutality, Luca produced a new accurate document in which there was no spy activity. But then his cellmates, charged with helping him to record the confession, refused to let him submit this accurate version. They said that if he had done nothing wrong, he would not have been arrested. Luca became desperate. So he found a solution where a conversation with a fellow priest about the advancing Communist armies became “passing military information to imperialists.” Luca says this story was “almost real” and it must have satisfied his interrogators, because he was released, and expelled.

Lifton says that the manipulators got trapped by the very falsehoods they forced people to produce, and good news is that the victim doesn’t hold to his belief forever. But there are exceptions, such as a Jesuit priest who praised the Communist reformers and who said the imprisonment “was one of the best periods of my life.”

The Chinese even tried to replace the loyalty of child to parent with a loyalty to the state. So all thought reform programs in universities culminated in each participant’s fierce denunciation of his father as a representative of the evils of the “old regime”.

One characteristic of Lifton is that he dislikes “totalism” or as one of the people he interviewed described it: the action of giving a “blank check” to a belief system. Lifton later joined the sixties anti-war movement, and the anti-nuclear movement. He thought the Vietnam war was an “existential evil”. He was criticized for this by (old-left ‘social democrat’) Irving Howe, who told Lifton that Communism was the great issue of our time, and that the students of the sixties had to be confronted on their failure to take a stand on it. And Communism abroad should be resisted. Lifton said in response that the great issue of our time was nuclear annihilation. I personally more lean to Irving Howe’s opinion.

The main point I want to make in this post though, is that there are people in China who believe they have the truth, and they felt entitled to change the brain of those who disagree with them (by rather primitive methods, but the methods did work permanently on some people). Lifton’s interviews with victims of this process were in the 1950’s, but the arrogance of the Chinese ideologues has not changed much based on how they treat their current political prisoners – see

Based on my own unusual experiences I do suspect that drugs have or will be invented to enhance suggestibility in order to manipulate victims to act according to the goals of an attacker. Also based on these experiences I strongly suspect that here in the USA we have plenty of arrogant ideologues who would use such methods, if they could. In fact we know “coercive persuasion” is used by American cults. Interestingly coercive persuasion can work without drugs and torture. For more on that, see: remarks by Dr. Margaret Singer. Dr. Singer, who studies coercive persuasion says that the reprehensibility and danger of this type of persuasion is that “it attacks our self-determinism and free will, our most fundamental constitutional freedoms.”

Witness to an Extreme Century by Robert Lifton (published 2011)


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