Truth-Telling as Anti-Totalitarianism: Reflections on The Psychology of Totalitarianism


The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet is one of the more encouraging books that I’ve read recently on topics related to the current madness we’re experiencing in the West. A lot of what I read and write–both in my “official” scholarship and in my “non-official” studies like this website–is directed at trying to figure out precisely why we’re seeing and experiencing the kinds of things going on in our institutions, governments, and communities. Why do people believe the things they believe? And, more elusively, why do people I know, who I have always taken to be rational, intelligent, hard-working people, suddenly seem to be hostile towards beliefs they formerly held and, more importantly, hostile towards people who still hold those beliefs? Desmet’s book provides some possible, plausible explanations.

The primary thesis of the book is that the social behaviors that have come to be associated with the “woke” phenomenon, particularly that which has manifested during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, are best described as a kind of mass formation, a sort-of group-level hypnosis whereby people become entranced by a narrative that addresses some underlying social problem. Desmet derived this thesis from the work of several writers, the most important of which is Gustave Le Bon. The most extreme examples of this phenomenon, as one might be able to guess, are found in Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. According to Desmet, mass formations always tend towards totalitarianism and are ultimately characterized by “an exaggerated willingness of individuals to sacrifice their own personal interests out of solidarity with the collective (i.e., the masses), a profound intolerance of dissident voices, and pronounced susceptibility to pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda” (Desmet 2022, 2).

He explains this phenomenon as a response to some underlying threat, anxiety, or crisis, which in aggregate is the lack of meaningful social bonds and the constant introduction of objects of fear (e.g., terrorism, global warming, viral pandemic, etc.). The anxiety and fear thus caused is apparently alleviated through increased control exercised by authority figures and the lack of social bonding is relieved by group identification. In such a situation, dissident voices and others who refuse to go along with the program (e.g., by not getting a vaccine) are labeled as both a threat to group safety (i.e., they spread the virus) and a threat to the group cohesion found in the midst of the mass formation (i.e., their lack of attachment to the masses indicts the narrative of the masses). Ultimately, he traces the problem back to basic worldview presuppositions that have become embedded in modern society, namely Enlightenment-derived views on a lifeless, mechanistic, and meaningless universe. This worldview tends towards totalitarianism as its ultimate end because it both creates the social environment that leads to lower social bonding and because it places emphasis on “the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality” (ibid., 7).

In my own observations over the last few years, a question that I constantly ask is: “How can otherwise rational people engage in such irrational behavior and cling to such irrational beliefs?” How can so many parents become convinced that the personal identity of their elementary-school-aged children is completely defined by sexuality? Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to encourage a twelve-year-old to be a drag performer? Do people really believe that every white person on earth is inherently racist? Was suggesting maybe we should slow down on some of the fast-tracked COVID policies really such a bad idea? Doesn’t anyone see the inherent and obvious dangers in making mail-in voting a permanent thing? At the very least, don’t Jeffrey Epstein’s connections to foreign intelligence make his access to high-profile public figures and lack of any real prosecution make his life and death a little . . . suspicious? And, on that same note, is it really so irrational and conspiratorial to consider, even for a moment, that the global elite class has a pedophile problem? And, going a bit further, is it so far out to consider the minor possibility that somehow, some way, all of these things are linked and directed at subverting traditional values, by–for example–“disrupting the nuclear family?” And of course, how could I forget to mention that–bizarrely enough–all this is explained and subsumed within the impending global crisis that is climate change. Really?

Of course, it isn’t irrational to ask any of those questions, which is why the U.S. government and its partners and (dare I say it?) co-conspirators in the technology and media sectors were are working together to police speech by labelling it as “disinformation.”

I know, you’re probably waiting for me to get to the “encouraging” part.

I am. I promise.

But before I do, I just want to throw out one more quote from Desmet’s book, a quote that at least partially explains why “of course we should let drag queens read pornographic books to children in libraries and dance in elementary schools, because not enough people are getting their booster shots and that, combined with the crazy conspiracy theory that rich politicians like having sex with teenagers and just might worship Lucifer, too, means that indigenous transgender minorities will probably die first when the sea levels rise, because, after all, climate change is white supremacy, and if you don’t believe that, then you might as well have stormed the Capitol on January 6, which means you, too, are a threat to democracy!”

Just in case you don’t believe me, that activists and ideologues couldn’t possibly find an ostensibly coherent narrative structure in which to fit and link all of this obvious nonsense, then take some time to go to your local library and use their access to academic databases to cruise around the humanities and social science journals of the last ten years or so. Here’s a few suggestions to get you started:

Social comparison for concern and action on climate change, racial injustice, and COVID-19

Conceptualizing Learning in the Climate Justice Movement

Queering Environmental Justice Through an Intersectional Lens

Queering Teacher Education: Teacher Educators’ Self-Efficacy in Addressing LGBTQ Issues

Climate Change and Intersectionality

White supremacy, white counter-revolutionary politics, and the rise of Donald Trump

Changing public attitudes toward minor attracted persons: an evaluation of an anti-stigma intervention

Journalism and Pedophilia: Background on the Media Coverage
of a Stigmatized Minority

Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?

The quote that I went to all that length to introduce is this one: “[T]he absurd elements in a story do not matter to the masses: The masses believe in the story not because it’s accurate but because it creates a new social bond” (Desmet 2022, 97). That is to say that the story accepted by the current culture functions exactly like the narratives of religion and mythology. It becomes the cultural worldview, the “hypothesis (or metanarrative) that attempts to explain what matters most.” This worldview, contained within the citations above, has a name: Critical Social Justice. Like all other myths, it “is a narrative that, by connecting past, present and future events, posits itself as prophetic” and it allows “the people involved in major social movements [to] represent their upcoming action as part of a sequence of events that assures the triumph of their cause” (Bottici 2009, 177). Even if you are hesitant to label Critical Social Justice as a religion, or even as a myth, its function is exactly the same. The narrative that links ideas about transgenderism, racism, global warming, democracy, poverty, and–strangely enough–pedophilia is, for all intents and purposes, a religion, albeit one founded on a rationalistic attempt to make fiction sound as plausible as possible.

How, then, could I say that The Psychology of Totalitarianism is an “encouraging” book? It actually has to do with something I wrote about in my last post: truth-telling. Desmet points out that, for those who are not taken in by the popular myth of the day, the most important “guideline [. . .] is that they should let their voices be heard and in as sincere a way as possible so as to not let the resonance of the dominant, hypnotic voice become absolute” (2022, 140-141). When those who can see the narrative mythology of the culture for what it is remain silent, “the totalitarian system becomes a monster that devours its own children. For this reason, it is an illusion to think that silence is the safest option” (ibid., 141).

It’s easy to think two things when faced by the onslaught of an irrational mob caught up in believing the plainly nonsensical–and in some cases outright dangerous–ideas of the dominant narrative. First, it’s easy to think that there’s nothing any one person could do. I am a regular middle class guy, with a not-so-glamorous job, who was lucky enough to have an opportunity to go back to school and earn some advanced degrees. But all in all, I’m a nobody. I’m not important, not on a societal level anyway. However, I am important (I hope!) to a few people. To my family, primarily, but also to the churchgoers whom I serve as an elder and, since last year, the teenagers I commit to teaching part-time in subjects like religion and social science. None of these jobs is financially rewarding. I’m not paid to be a dad, husband, or church elder, and the pay for teaching is much, much less than my full-time salary. The reward in these “jobs” comes in knowing that I’m telling the truth, and what’s more, that I’m expected to tell the truth.

Second, it’s easy to fear the mob. After all, governments, corporations, and universities are all given over to what many social commentators are calling “the official state religion” of Social Critical Justice.

The only way to resist this mob and its #cancelculture weapons is to tell the truth in the face of its lies. For their part, the only way lies can ultimately defeat the truth is to prevent the truth from being told. This is why global elite actors are intent on using labels like disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theory. As Desmet puts it in Psychology of Totalitarianism, “[conspiracy theory] therefore has become a stigma, a discursive means by which the dominant discourse protects itself from critical reflection” (2022, 124). This is why critical thinkers and truth-tellers must work hard to make sure they’re actually telling the truth and not simply adhering to any narrative that opposes the dominant, totalitarian one. This is because, in part, “fanatical conspiracy thinking contributes to [the] problem because it makes more nuanced analyses les visible and more prone to stigmatization. They are tarred by the same brush and guilty by association” (ibid., 137).

This is encouraging because everyone is capable of recognizing and communicating truth (remember Romans 1-3). This means everyone, no matter how insignificant their voice (or blog) may seem in the moment, has a potentially important role to play in resisting fictitious myths and the totalitarian political systems that are built on top of them. And, finally, this is encouraging because, if nothing else, truth-telling helps the truth-teller become “elevated in their humanity” similar to the effect such truth telling had on men like Solzhenitsyn (ibid., 142).

Of course, Desmet’s book is not without its critics. On Goodreads in particular, I came across several highly critical reviews. One in particular called the book’s argument awful and blamed it on Desmet’s apparent proclivity, in the opinion of the reviewer, to be someone who’s an expert in one area and tries to apply that expertise in inappropriate areas. One way of overcoming this criticism, I think, is to see Psychology of Totalitarianism not as a work of social or behavioral science but as a work of political philosophy. He is championing individual intellectual autonomy against the totalizing nature of a dominant worldview narrative that controls all the most powerful institutions of society. In that light, his argument sounds a lot like a group of men whom I, and every Protestant Christian, ought to respect: the Reformers. In fact, concepts we all think we understand, like free inquiry, democracy, and limited government are all derivative of ideas solidified in the European mind by the Protestant Reformation. Crucial in this respect are the liberties identified in the First Amendment of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition. These ideals are part and parcel of the Protestant worldview. Thus, to be a Protestant is the be anti-totalitarian. I hope others might come to see that if they are anti-totalitarian, they can find nor surer philosophical grounding than Protestant Christianity.

I’ll close with the epigraph that opens John Milton’s Areopagitica, his own Protestant defense of free expression:

This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State then this?

From Euripides’ Hiketides

References

Bottici, Chiara. 2009. A Philosophy of Political Myth. New York, NY and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511498626.

Desmet, Mattias. 2022. The Psychology of Totalitarianism. Translated by Els Vanbrabant. White River Junction, VT and London, UK: Chelsea Green Publishing.

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