Looking Inward to Change the World
David Marks' interview of Mattias Desmet
The following interview with Mattias Desmet by David Marks delves deeply into Mattias’s understanding of our crisis and the challenges we face. It is from a new website just launched by Children’s Health Defense, called the Community Forum. In addition to this piece, the Forum will have a number of informative articles and information about advocating and organizing for change.
Reprinted by permission of CHD and the Author.
Forum Conversation: Mattias Desmet on Looking Inward to Change the World
In an exclusive interview with the Community Forum, Mattias Desmet, an author and professor of psychology who articulated the theory of mass formation during the COVID-19 pandemic, discusses the motivation for his work and his vision for how humans can find their way in our dramatically changing world.
Mattias Desmet joins the foundational thinkers on mass formation — the process of how huge populations become entranced by narratives. He now stands shoulder to shoulder with Arendt, Jung and Freud, psychotherapists who began to understand the precursors of crowd behavior.
Desmet’s analysis of how recent events and responses to the pandemic initiated a destabilized and divisive society presents a fascinating window into the minds of the most complex beings on the planet. Desmet’s seminal work, “The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” underlines the increasingly dangerous conduct of humanity — and emphasizes that it must be understood and reversed if we are to survive as a species.
Forum: Mattias Desmet, welcome to the Forum Conversation. Diverging opinions have caused lost connections with friends, family members and loved ones. It’s never easy to process and understand irrational and hostile behavior. Your perspective and writing has helped us to see behind a dark curtain.
Perhaps tell us something about your studies and work before the pandemic. Your paper on the Illusion of Objectivity in Psychology discusses a crisis in the field. What do you see as the pattern in your work? Is your inclination to look outside of the box?
Desmet: Yes, it is. From the beginning of my career, I sensed that there was something wrong with mainstream academic research, in particular in psychology. I immediately had a feeling that there was a kind of group-think mentality at my university. Everyone participated in the same research procedures without questioning methodology. It was clear to anyone who wanted to see it; the methods in most cases produced invalid research with extreme, strange absurdities. The psychology department expected me to do classical research using questionnaires and tests to measure all kinds of psychological characteristics in people. I was expected to study them in a statistical way.
I had a feeling that the instruments didn’t measure what they pretended to — and with an extreme amount of error. So I couldn’t continue doing such research. My Ph.D. promoter agreed that instead of taking a standard approach, I could investigate the research methods themselves.
Forum: In addition to having studied psychology, you used other knowledge and data for this analysis?
Desmet: I have a master’s degree in statistics and was able to apply this also, and showed in an extremely tangible way that if you measure the same psychological characteristic three times, the outcomes of the measurements are usually completely different. Initially, I hoped that other researchers would open their eyes. Instead, people at my university were angry with me because my work showed in a very clear way that most research methods just didn’t add up.
When I completed my Ph.D. in 2005, the so-called replication crisis began in the sciences and eventually demonstrated that methodological problems existed across most academic domains. Eighty-five percent of research papers and [studies in] medical journals cannot be replicated or reproduced. That was the moment when I started to see what society really relies on, and how it situates all authority in science and in the academic world. Yet this authority cannot be taken for granted — not at all. That experience influenced the beginning of my career.
The degradation of scientific thinking
Forum: Did you wonder if this revelation about the structure and results from scientific research had something to do with the nature of the human mind?
Desmet: Yes, and I started to think about that back then and included a few paragraphs on the topic in “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” I began to wonder why science — which in the late seventeenth century was a relief from previous thinking and a kind of truth speech —why had this new open-minded approach, after a few centuries, deteriorated? How do we account for the degradation of truthfulness?
Every kind of new thinking starts with a minority going against dominant conventional thinking. When this alternative discourse is recognized as viable, it eventually becomes mainstream; however, it begins to lose its qualities of truth speech. It is perverted and used for all kinds of things that were not intended in its inception. It’s logical that new knowledge is used to earn money and support successful careers.
But when a majority of the people are in the grip of a fixed paradigm, it is abused to manipulate the masses. People know that if they want to remain stable in the world surrounding them, they must not deviate from the same framework that everybody is currently believing. If it is assumed that common fixed beliefs represent truth, the truth gets perverted time and time again.
Forum: This view certainly is in parallel with Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” where he describes how science only moves forward by breaking through its previous dogmatic beliefs. There has been ongoing analysis of problematic group dynamics; your perspective on group behavior has been shaped over years. You had started “The Psychology of Totalitarianism” well before the COVID pandemic began.
Desmet: Yes, in 2017, I knew that I would be giving a series of classes on society and culture in general at the University of Ghent in Belgium. I started to think about the problem of totalitarianism in Western society and wrote down all of my ideas on the topic, such as, why it emerged for the first time in the twentieth century, why it didn’t exist before and what the difference is between a classical dictatorship and totalitarian state.
I had the intuition that totalitarianism is the most crucial and central symptom of our Western culture — and that it emerged from the traditions of the Age of Enlightenment and the belief that science held all the answers for improving human life. I didn’t really understand what the connection was between the tradition of the Enlightenment and a totalitarian state. I also had the intuition back in 2017 that society was ready for a new type of totalitarianism.
This is the technocratic totalitarianism that Arendt warns us about; not fascist or communist, but a technocratic, transhumanist totalitarianism. I was fascinated by the question at a psychological level. What explains this new kind of society and state emerging in the twentieth century?
When the corona[virus] crisis started I immediately had a feeling that we were seeing the emergence of a psychological foundation for totalitarianism, a fully fleshed mass formation. In his writing, Jacques Ellul describes what he called massification which began in the nineteenth century. In the last three decades, we could clearly see this massification increase as a general tendency — to intensely react to all kinds of new objects of anxiety — and the new narratives in society that many people buy into.
This is not the fully-fledged mass formation that emerged for the first time during the corona crisis. There were two new diverging groups and the dividing line between them runs through every preexisting group — including families and friends. This sharp division is a central characteristic of a real transformation.
Separate realities of truth
Forum: Can you elaborate on this division — it is as if two separate realities of perceived truth were forming.
Desmet: We seem to have forgotten altogether what truth really means — and the psychological characteristics of what I call truth speech. We live in a society that is flooded by indoctrination and propaganda 24 hours a day. “The Psychology of Totalitarianism” looks at the reasons why people longed for control outside of themselves and were looking for a new master. Almost as if people were sick of their freedom and wanted someone to tell them what to do.
For over 200 years, modern humans have found themselves increasingly free from the dogma of religion, which initiated a new sense of liberation. Human beings long for and love freedom; however, primarily it becomes a burden because it brings responsibility. You need to invest a lot of energy in the freedom to think about and accept the consequences of your choices and to take risks at the psychological and material levels.
If people have been forced to be free and to make their own choices, after a while, they will start to long for a master. It seems strange, yet most people prefer not to be free.
Forum: Recently, much of the world, willingly or unwillingly, experienced a dramatic loss of freedom. How did you feel when it was deemed we should go into a lockdown to defy the pandemic? How did you process that personally?
Desmet: For me, the first lockdown was a relief. I had to stay at home and I was not allowed to go to the university and my academic work was limited. I could work more in my beautiful garden with a lot of open space and think about new things. Of course, I was concerned about what was happening in society, though honestly, the spring of 2020 was wonderful. In a strange way, for many of the people in my neighborhood, the first lockdown felt as if the rat race had stopped for a moment. Everybody was enjoying working in their garden.
I think that’s one of the aspects of the crisis that has often been ignored; that so many people felt really unhappy about their lives, and about their jobs in particular. Not being allowed to go to work for a few months was a relief for many. If we don’t acknowledge that, we will never be able to see the real roots and causes of the psychological processes that happened.
Forum: In addition to pre-conditions for mass formation, what else did you see unfolding?
Desmet: In many respects, the pandemic presented a type of indoctrination propaganda from global institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum. Nobody can ignore that, it’s definitely clear. Although propaganda has existed for three or four centuries, not all propaganda has had success as the corona narrative. If you want to understand why all of society fell under the grip of this kind of indoctrination, then you must take into account this very special psychological condition of the population, before the crisis started.
Two or three months before the pandemic began, I knew nothing about the influence of things like the World Economic Forum or Event 201. Yet I was aware that something was about to happen in society — I was sure of it. I went to the bank to pay off the mortgage on my home in December 2019, because I felt that all the negative parameters — anxiety, stress, and burnout — all were increasing exponentially. These were indications that society, a complex dynamic system, was heading for a tipping point toward restructuring. And that’s exactly the moment where all kinds of indoctrination propaganda starts to become extremely viable.
There have been successful indoctrination propaganda on a massive scale for over a hundred years. Recently it was so efficacious because the psychological state of the population had reached a point where the narratives about the pandemic had a huge psychological impact and were capable of creating a mass formation.
Forum: The psychological condition of society is an important element of your work. One of the important pre-conditions for mass formation you’ve discussed is meaningless work. I’d like to ask about the reverse of that concept; how do we know what we are doing is meaningful?
Desmet: The book by David Graeber, “Bullshit Jobs,” begins exactly there. He asks how can we differentiate meaningless and meaningful work. His conclusion is that it’s extremely difficult. He did say that what you can know for sure is whether or not a person thinks, feels and experiences their job as meaningful. His study found that at least 40% of people considered their jobs to be completely meaningless. After his book was published in 2018, there was a Gallup poll that reported even more dramatic figures. I believe it concluded that at least 60% of people considered their work to be meaningless and only 15% reported that they considered their job meaningful.
Forum: How do people gauge the value of their work or profession?
Desmet: I think the experience of meaning, the experience of purpose in life, arises every time we have the feeling or belief that what we do matters to others. If we see that our work has an effect on people. Literally, if we see it on their faces, if we notice that what we do is necessary for someone, that we can give him or her something that they appreciate, then at that moment in a very spontaneous way, meaning emerges in life.
Forum: The importance of a meaningful life is rarely discussed in our contemporary world. How does it manifest, is it based on a conscious effort?
Desmet: The emergence of meaning in life is an extremely spontaneous process. I believe it can manifest in everyone, whether someone lives up to the principles of humanity or not. It happens every time we see that we have an effect on another human being. In particular on the body of the other; when we see that expressions on the face change a little bit, or if we see that the body posture changes slightly. That usually will immediately have an effect, whether we know it or not. It often happens in an unconscious way, as with a baby. As soon as a child is born, it tries to provoke imitations in the mother. It will be happy every time it sees that the mother imitates its face, because at that moment, it feels the resonance of its own subjective, psychological processes with another.
So there’s a symbiotic resonance that is established between two people — the child and the mother. That is extremely satisfying for a human being and leads to the experience that our existence is meaningful. We literally mean something to the other, and this happens in a very natural way at several levels. I don’t believe we have to stick to any imposed standards for that experience to emerge.
Forum: This is directly relevant to where, in “The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” you contrast human relationships with digital interaction in the chapter called, “The Artificial Society.” You ask, “Why is mankind, so hopelessly, seduced by mechanistic ideology?”
Do we know why?
Desmet: Time and time again the mechanistic ideology promises us that it will make our living easier. Every new kind of technology or a new mechanical device seems to improve life. At the same time, we are not aware that it also comes with a hidden price. We never notice that the mechanization, the industrialization of the world and the use of technology in one way or another, destroy our resonance with our natural and social environment. This huge loss happens in a very subtle way and escapes our attention.
For example, it can be seen in the difference between digital conversations opposed to personal conversations where two people are physically present. I’ve been studying in-person conversations between therapists and patients for 15 years with my research group at University. I was very impressed and fascinated by the subtlety of real conversations. If the person who is speaking stops, then the other one usually will start speaking in less than 0.2 seconds. That’s five times faster than the overall reaction and response time of a driver in traffic. That happens even when the person who is speaking stops in the middle of a sentence.
This extremely fast reaction time has nothing to do with a rational calculation of when someone will stop talking or on the basis of syntax or structure of a sentence. No, it’s just because when two human beings are speaking with each other in the same space, there is a continual physical resonance between them. Our neurological system is mirroring and connecting to another human. We constantly reflect the other in a subliminal way; imitating the muscle tensions in the face of the other person who is speaking.
There is a symbiotic resonance between the two people in conversation. It’s this symbiosis that is one of the major aspects and satisfactions of human speech. This is exactly what is disturbed when conversations are digitized. There is always a certain delay in the transmission of a digital signal. You can see only a part of the body of the other; you cannot change the perspective. The resonance that typically accompanies human speech is very, very weak compared to a real, in-person conversation. Yet we are under the illusion that we are connected.
Forum: The degradation of speaking relationships, and the inability to have in-person conversations, are problems we all have suffered from.
Desmet: Human speech normally satisfies the core desire to merge with one another, and at a psychological level, to deeply experience the symbiosis of two bodies. The essence of human interaction is destroyed in a digital conversation. This is strange, as you can clearly see that technology appears to connect us to each other. It seems to make our lives easier. To a certain extent it does, because digital conversations are perfect for the transmission of information.
Yet without us being aware, it destroys something else, an essential element disappears. The ongoing resonance between people is damaged by the use of technology; it affects the core of human existence. This also applies to mechanization and industrialization. Every time we mechanically manipulate the world there is deterioration. With our increasingly incremental rationalization of the world, we are destroying the resonance between ourselves and the social and natural environment.
In my book, I present some more details of the ensuing psychological effects of the age of Enlightenment. One of the most damaging is the attempt to analyze the world as a mechanistic entity, entirely in a rationalist way.
Throughout the previous two to three centuries, with overwhelming industrialization and mechanization, we observe an increase in loneliness, the direct outcome of the loss of resonance between people. So there is a clear, logical causal chain between a mechanistic, rational view of the world and the use of technology — leaving a lack of resonance with the environment and other people. Loneliness is one primary cause of mass formation and, consequently, totalitarianism.
Forum: In the chapter called, “The Immeasurable Universe” you discuss how measuring everything is symptomatic of a rational, materialistic syndrome.
Desmet: Yes, we started to believe that the universe is a material, mechanistic phenomenon, much like a huge machine, set in motion by the big bang; we also began believing that all things in the universe could be measured. It seemed logical that everything essential could be understood — however, that’s not true. There is only a very limited set of characteristics of objects that can be measured, and they are strictly unidimensional.
The book also presents some of the ideas of Benoit Mandelbrot, one of the founding fathers of chaos theory. He wrote this wonderful paper in which he showed that the length of the border of the coast of Great Britain can never be measured. It’s impossible because the coastline of the country is an inexact line, which can’t be reduced by instruments to a unidimensional phenomenon. He showed how everything depends on the device and unit you use. If you use a large measurement unit, then the coastline will be much shorter than if you use increasingly smaller units, ultimately adding up to an infinite length. That’s a very tangible example of why most aspects of reality can never be measured, even if at face value it appears they can be.
However in a strange way, when people see numbers, they believe that they see reality. Numbers provoke a very powerful illusion in human beings. As soon as you present someone with a graph or a set of numbers, they believe they are seeing some objective reality. That’s a major problem because a stable human society can’t be based on numbers and figures that are actually unstable. By extension, rational understanding can never be the cornerstone of how humans live together.
The greatest scientific minds of our era also conclude that it’s impossible to grasp the essence of reality in a rational way. The core of reality, and of every phenomenon in nature, escapes rational analysis. Complex dynamic systems reveal that every system in nature behaves like an irrational number in mathematics; without periodicity and strictly unpredictable. Niels Bohr, the seminal physicist put it in a wonderful way. He said, “when it comes to atoms, language can only be used as poetry.” He knew that atoms behave in a completely absurd, irrational way, and that our view of reality was very subjective. There is also a wonderful quote of Rene Thom, “That portion of reality, which can be well described by laws which permit calculations, is extremely limited.”
As soon as you start to understand that rational knowledge is only the first stage of understanding, you recognize it is a concept that must be left behind to arrive at real knowledge. The knowledge that can really bring you in touch with the core of reality is difficult to define, resonating with a clearer truth, and with the eternal ethical principles of humanity. I explain in my book that these principles must be the cornerstone of a stable human society and how humans can live together harmoniously.
Surrender to the pandemic
Forum: The pandemic was a catalyst, dividing people into vaccinated and unvaccinated camps. It’s clearly not that simple. What are the differences that define these groups?
Desmet: I believe some people chose to take the vaccine for noble reasons; they might be naive, trusting their doctor without question or thinking that the vaccine would prevent them from contaminating older people. Conversely, it’s possible some people refused the vaccine for reasons that were not conscientious. Although the division is about a greater issue.
Refusing to conform to a mass formation emerging in society is a primary ethical principle. As human beings, we should never conform or stop speaking in our own way. You should never let your voice be silenced by the voice of the group. We all have a first and foremost ethical duty to consider and articulate the honest and sincere words that emerge from within ourselves. Even if it means that we have to go against what everybody else thinks or says.
If people choose to continue to speak out in a sincere and honest way, to the best of their own understanding, this will determine whether or not we go through this process of growth. In my experience, speaking out in a humane, respectful way is exactly what drives you forward, putting into motion your evolution as a human being.
Forum: One of the great disappointments for many of us is that good-hearted, thinking people didn’t recognize what was happening to society during the recent pandemic. Family and friends who we assumed had the capability of seeing the hypocrisy in trusting pharmaceutical giants and government mandates were quick to echo the calls for conformity. It is difficult to understand the response of those people, who we would have never guessed, would be blinded by group-think — and unwilling to consider differing opinions.
Desmet: This reminds me of an important book, “The Rape of the Mind,” by Joost Meerloo. It goes into detail about propaganda in totalitarian systems and how brainwashing is applied. Meerloo also describes the very interesting phenomenon of mental surrender. He was living in Holland just before World War II, and he knew many intellectuals who wrote books about the dangers of Nazis and racism. Suddenly, Holland was occupied by the Germans and strikingly, people fell under the influence of Nazi ideology. This classic mass formation didn’t just seize control of Germany — it also was pervasive over much of Europe. Meerloo observed that many of the previously free-thinking, seemingly ethical intellectuals, quickly started to believe that the Nazi ideology had many advantages.
He coined a term, “mental surrender,” describing this phenomenon of reversing course and actually believing an ideology that was previously rejected. I also know intellectuals who wrote books about bio-fascism before the coronavirus crisis and warned about the dangers of totalitarianism. As soon as the mass formation happened during the pandemic, suddenly they made a U-turn, attacking anyone who didn’t go along with the narrative.
This reversal, contradicting their own beliefs, included blaming those who defied the state; some even accused non-conformists of committing crimes and being murderers. Their behavior was similar to what they previously described as horrific, yet they exhibited the same characteristics of techno-authoritarianism and bio-fascism. This sudden mental surrender reveals the incredible power of mass formation and its ability to redistribute all human psychological energy. It is capable of removing all the reasonable representations that were in the minds of people before a crisis and reorganizing values and priorities.
Forum: Do those who have succumbed to mental surrender ever realize that they’ve been entranced — or perceive that their participation was ultimately self-destructive?
Desmet: Most often people just can’t answer the question; why did you believe in that narrative? Many Germans, after World War II, when asked why they participated in all of this madness, just claimed they didn’t know it was happening — which is verifiably untrue. During the revolution in Iran, people started to believe in absurd narratives, including that there was a picture of the Ayatollah, their supreme leader, appearing on the moon. After the revolution, people were asked how they could have possibly believed that. They just had no answer — this is something very typical of mass formation.
It is because individuality disappears in a mass. The personal psychological system is completely sucked away and replaced by a single collective identity. It is literally as if individual self-awareness is obscured. That certainly doesn’t remove responsibility for what people do. When Sigmund Freud was asked whether someone who commits a murder driven by unconscious impulses was actually guilty of murder, he unhesitatingly replied, that we are responsible for our unconscious.
It is difficult to not conform to society’s unconscious influences. Only people who are firmly rooted in sound ethical principles can defy the powerful momentum of the masses.
Good and evil as states of being
Forum: Speaking out and awakening ethical principles are noble pursuits. Yet often both sides in a dispute claim to be righteous. Accusations about opponents are often put in terms of good and evil.
Desmet: That’s a very important consideration. In “The Gulag Archipelago” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
There are many people who do good things and have good intentions and still choose to conform. So we have to be careful with divisiveness and conspiracy theories. Not that conspiracies don’t exist, they always have. And it’s certainly not appropriate that as soon as you go against the mainstream narrative, you are stigmatized as a conspiracy theorist. I believe we need conspiracy thinkers as they often bring a fascinating register of facts to our attention. Although we have to be very cautious, because there is a tendency to use this information to identify only a small group of people as pure evil, blaming them for everything that goes wrong.
We should not deny the fact that we all, to some extent, are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in now. It’s easy to believe that big bankers are behind all events or that a small powerful group of people manipulates the entire global society for their own benefit. But there are two forces at work, there is someone who manipulates and there is someone who is vulnerable to manipulation. We have to open our eyes and become aware of the agenda of the elite, as of course, it exists. But as soon as we start to believe that they represent pure evil, that’s one step too far. Evil is much more complicated than something that is situated in a few human beings — while everyone else represents pure goodness.
Forum: Perhaps you can elaborate on the concept of evil — it’s used to describe many things, and yet it is rarely defined or understood. What is your sense of what it is?
Desmet: Evil is that which destroys humanity. It is becoming more apparent that the root cause of evil is the obsessional, and often fanatic, blind belief in the potential of the rational human mind. When a human being starts to believe that it can grasp the essence of life within the categories of its own logical understanding; at that moment, when this rational view is imposed on the world, it destroys all humanity and all life. I believe the root cause of evil, the original sin, is that hubris. It’s the belief that through human dominance, we can grasp control and manipulate life within and without us.
Every time you interact with another person who believes that they know exactly who you are, that they entirely understand us, and believe that they can decide what is ultimately good for us — they destroy the space in which you can exist as a free human being. If this is accepted, we become incapable of making our own choices.
A human being needs that personal autonomy and space where they can make genuine decisions. Those that limit or destroy that space — are dehumanizing us. This is exactly what totalitarianism is, and what it means within a totalitarian state, when a leader believes that he should impose his knowledge, his theories, and his ideology on his country or the world in a limitless way. This is the ultimate reason why totalitarianism always destroys the essence of humanity — and that’s where evil begins.
Forum: In addition to its pre-conditions, does mass formation result from evil intentions taking advantage of human weaknesses?
Desmet: Mass formation can emerge as a consequence of intentional overt planning. A conspiracy is always intentional, but it also has to be secret and malevolent. Mass formation can be provoked in an artificial way — that is what happened in the Soviet Union, although in Nazi Germany, it emerged in a more spontaneous way. Most often, mass formation emerges from a combination of both intentional and unplanned influences.
Over the last few decades, we have had narratives about the dangers of viruses, with several campaigns attempting to convince the world that everybody had to be vaccinated. It was an intentional propaganda campaign, however, it didn’t initiate a mass formation. The corona crisis propaganda then succeeded as an intentional effort to reshape society and move it in the direction of a more technocratic system.
It has become apparent that most global institutions believe now that there is no democratic solution for the problems that arise; whether pandemics, climate change or terrorists. For whatever reasons, they truly believe that a technocracy is the only solution. It is also apparent they’d like to reshape society according to their own ideological preferences that are presented as irrefutable. At the root of authoritarianism is always staunch, ideological motivation.
Forum: This ideological motivation is apparently intertwined with materialistic manipulations of humanity.
Desmet: There are people who are obsessed by the idea that they need to create a transhumanist, technocratic society. Often they see themselves as belonging to an elite group, who will have all kinds of material advantages. Many people think that it’s all about the money or power, yet primarily it’s ideologically driven.
We can see that political leaders are not really leaders anymore; because they are actually forced to follow the masses. The large global institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum, are forming opinions for leadership. Of course, they use propaganda and have their ideologies about how society should be reorganized and restructured.
If you try to explain everything in only these terms, then you end up with the idea and conviction that everything is driven by powerful groups engaged in a conspiracy. You can believe it is so pervasive, that even your general practitioner or your colleagues at university must be part of, or directly manipulated by this conspiracy, which is just not true. Most of these people are simply in the grip of a powerful narrative.
Forum: Some of those who believe that an evil agenda is responsible for all of our problems accuse you of being an agent of these same dark forces.
Desmet: Yes, some people think I am part of some controlled opposition or a Trojan horse. The interesting thing is that I’m the only one who knows the answer for sure; so my response doesn’t matter.
Forum: That’s true, although if you have some hidden dark plan, you’ve failed so far, because your ideas and thoughts, particularly your book, makes clear who you are, even your motivation. But what do you see as the cause of their anger?
Desmet: To a great degree, there is manipulation by powerful people with a destructive agenda. But there are some critics who don’t appear capable of tolerating any nuanced thinking. Without understanding what I write, some people believe I ignore or deny that there is an elite at the heart of all problems. Some have said I try to convince people that this elite doesn’t exist, which clearly is not true. I think they try to justify their own anger and anxiety. It’s much simpler if you can situate evil in one small place outside of yourself; then it is easier to control mentally. It’s easy to say — that’s the cause over there — that way you don’t have to look for any responsibility within yourself.
I understand why people think that way, and have reached out to them, inviting critics to speak with me. I really would like to engage with them and exchange ideas. Maybe we can learn something from each other. We can disagree as human beings; that’s why they should be willing to talk.
Forum: It is easier to imagine a resistance against destructive, autocratic forces. How do we resist ideology?
Desmet: The problem with recognizing how to confront authoritarian ideology has to do with one’s awareness of the psychological mechanisms of the process of mass formation. If you don’t see this process, the only option is a paranoid interpretation, where you believe that everyone is in a coordinated, intentional way working together to support the agenda of an elite group.
The real enemy is not another human being; it is a way of thinking. When other human beings are identified as the enemy, we inevitably end up in a violent revolution, attempting to destroy the people who refuse to conform to our ideas. On the contrary, if you situate the enemy at the level of ideology, at the level of a way of thinking, you will be more tolerant of people who you consider your opponents. When you recognize their humanity, you will automatically choose a nonviolent resolution. Since the rise of imperialism, nonviolent resistance has been recognized as the only effective means of change.
As soon as you start to consider violence and revolution you dig your own grave. Because all violence can be effectively controlled by the system. Violence is a gift to them because if the opposition becomes hostile, they gather support in the population to destroy the opposition. From an ethical, intellectual and tactical point of view — it’s madness to use violence.
Forum: Violence is often justified as a defense against the hostility of tyrants or dominant forces.
Desmet: The elite manipulate information — creating famines and provoking wars. That doesn’t prove the average human being is much better than them. Humans can reveal their worst attributes, particularly during war, when they kill, rape and commit cruelty. They are less successful than the elite, but it doesn’t mean that they are ethically better. I believe it’s a mistake to situate all evil in one group and justify violence against them. It ensures your own destruction.
Forum: The issue is who gets to shape reality, and what paradigm takes over humanity. Your chapter on “Rhetoric and Truth” speaks to that in detail. Why do we tolerate rhetoric that has no foundation? Why have we deviated so far from truth?
Desmet: Truth is always painful and something that disturbs a certain equilibrium. People try to make their lives easy, avoiding risks, however, truth always disturbs the consensus — it’s the most central phenomenon in human existence. We need truth because in a society without truth, speech is doomed to collapse.
When you read the books of Mahatma Gandhi and Václav Havel, they focus on the phenomenon of truth — considering what it is and its importance. They both agree that knowing truth is a necessity in responding to the lies, indoctrination and propaganda of totalitarianism.
Gandhi was not an intellectual. He was not known as a good speaker or a great writer, yet he excelled. For his entire life, he tried to understand and always speak the truth, and live his life according to truth. Reading his autobiography, you realize that knowing truth is not about being strong or smart or a talented writer or a wonderful speaker. You just have to be as pure as possible at an ethical level — and stay as close as possible to the truth.
Truth speech is what will limit the autocratic system that is emerging now as there is no truth in totalitarianism. Truth will ensure that a small path remains open for the group of people who refuse to conform, where they can enter and find solutions for the problems we face.
Forum: Gandhi summed up his thoughts on this, saying:
“When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it always.”
This resonates with your views on totalitarian regimes always failing.
Desmet: Yes, Gandhi’s observation that tyrants always collapse is foundational. I explain in my book, in a rational way, why authoritarianism is doomed to fail. One of the problems with totalitarian systems is that they are intrinsically destructive at the level of relationships and human social bonds. These systems always lack coherence. For example, Stalin’s dominance was completely paranoid in nature. He eliminated 60% of his own communist party members.
A totalitarian system always tends to become radically paranoid, which is understood when examining the process of mass formation. It sucks all the psychological energy away from the connections between individuals and invests it in the bonds between the individual and the collective; and subsequently, individuals relate to each other in a typically paranoid way.
Because it breaks primary human bonds, a totalitarian system is unsustainable and ultimately destroys itself. If the opposition, the dissidents, make the wrong choices, then they will be eliminated before the totalitarian system self-destructs. It is critical to understand that the only effective response when confronted by totalitarianism, in order to make sure that the system will destroy itself before it destroys you, is very simple — never stop speaking out and standing up for ethical human values.
A pandemic of not listening
Forum: Renewing ethical principles is a key part of facing our challenges. Some who consider the problems of humanity suggest compassionate listening and empathy are also important aspects of behavior to make a better world. Do they fit into your views on how we resolve our differences?
Desmet: Yes, I do believe that a certain kind of empathy and compassion are important characteristics of human behavior. At the same time, you have to be somewhat cautious. It’s often best to invite another person to articulate their opinion, to speak with us and share experiences through words, rather than to depend solely on compassion. We can start with the assumption that another person can tell you something that you don’t know. Every human being has the right to tell their own story in their own way, and we must do our best to listen to the story they create — and to understand other humans are immersed in their story.
When I’m listening to someone, I try to recognize that every human being has their own identity and that we have to respect that identity. We get to know another person while listening to their speech and what they have to tell us; remaining aware that all human beings struggle with life and attempt to mean something to someone else. Most people also believe that they do something good in their lives, and have the right to their own opinion about what this goodness might be. Primarily, we should give each other a space in which we can exist as speaking, linguistic beings.
Forum: This is exactly what those whose anxiety was provoked by the pandemic did not do. Good, sensitive, intelligent educated people who one day were your friends suddenly could not listen to what we had to say. Those who we would never have expected to follow edicts so easily.
Desmet: Yes, and being intelligent, rational and highly trained — these attributes don’t protect you from mass formation. Not at all, in fact, the higher the level of education a person has, the more vulnerable they are to this influence.
There is a fascinating account of when European priests attempted to convert Native Americans without any formal education to Catholicism, and they realized that they were much more intelligent than Europeans. It’s very well described in Cushner’s “Why Have You Come Here?” The book sourced the original accounts of the Jesuit priests who went to America and their attempts to convert the natives. It was apparent these people were eloquent, with tangible clear lines of argumentation. The highly educated priests were unable to convince them that their European learning and perspective were viable.
This is an example contradicting the unfounded belief that educated people are somehow superior to the uneducated. It’s a major problem. Our educational system continues to teach us all to think in the same way. It alienates us from our original divine knowledge that naturally emerges in every human being. It keeps us from an important part of ourselves and attempts to force us to think collectively. This predisposition explains why many intelligent people that we know, including scientists, were very susceptible to mass formation, and suddenly incapable of seeing the blatantly absurd mainstream narrative of the corona crisis. Their lives were immersed in a narrow material version of reality from a source they refused to question.
Forum: The height of materialism is the belief we are simply material beings. Do you feel this is part of the problem and that we are losing our sense of place in the world?
Desmet: Definitely, in many respects, it’s the most problematic aspect of our current view of humanity’s place in the world. The belief is that matter prevails over mind and that consciousness is merely a side effect of the mechanical and chemical interactions between particles in our brain. This is like saying that everything at the psychological level, everything at the spiritual level, everything at a religious level, everything at the ethical level — all don’t matter. This materialistic view of our place in the world is based on a science that has been disproven.
The greatest scientists of our era, who understand quantum physics, actually gave up this mechanistic, material view of mankind. They have confirmed that there is a circular causality between matter and mind. If you observe elementary particles, for instance, they will behave differently and locate in a different place depending on the mind of the observer. So matter and mind are part of a complex ecosystem undefinable by science; there is no sharp dividing line between the two. They are part of the same indivisible substance, which Spinoza says, is nothing less than God, the eternal, perennial entity.
Meaning, principles and God
Forum: In “The Psychology of Totalitarianism” you describe how the prominent physicists of the twentieth century also came to an understanding of God within their research. You quote Werner Heisenberg who said, “If you take one sip from the glass of science, you become an atheist. If you drink the whole glass, you will find God at the bottom.” Perhaps you can describe your sense of God.
Desmet: God is an interesting term. If someone asks me, do you think there is such a thing as God, I respond that it depends on what you mean when you use the word. I don’t know if I believe in what you think God might be.
The tradition of the Enlightenment declared the throne of God empty — it didn’t remain empty for very long. Very soon after, God seemed fallible, humans attempted to raise their own status to a deity. We should be humble enough as human beings and recognize that real knowledge is always outside of ourselves. We can never grasp true knowledge using the categories of thinking within our own rational mind. We can resonate with the eternal perennial knowledge surrounding us; we can participate in it, yet we can never contain it. We are not meant to become God.
We must ask ourselves if we are aware of the limits of our own rational minds. In answering this key question, I agree with many others, who maintain that maturity as a human being means that you are fundamentally aware — and accept and tolerate — that there is no certainty in life.
Forum: This recalls the simple thought: the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.
Desmet: Yes, this has been my experience. It began when I became sensitive to knowledge that transcends rational understanding. In French, there are two words that mean “to know.”
“Savoir,” means to see it with your eyes — the kind of knowledge that you can obtain by observing the world and understanding it logically. “Connaître,” also means “to know,” and literally means, “to be born together.”
This completely different term refers to the kind of knowledge which gives you the feeling that you are reborn when you become aware of something, when you can resonate with someone, when you can open your mind to the beauty of nature around you, and you can be absorbed by its eternal mystery. This is knowing, but not in a rational way. And that’s the kind of knowledge that makes you feel completely renewed.
Forum: This knowledge and the concept of a human society based on ethical principles seem somewhat idealistic. How do we recognize principles, as opposed to ideals?
Desmet: We have to feel universal ethical principles ourselves and to articulate them in our own singular way. We also have to differentiate between ideal images and ideals, which are something completely different. Ideal images are visual images that appear perfect to us; images we want to resemble. Ideals are indeed verbal concepts, such as you shall not kill, so ideals are more singular, personal and rational. Ethical principles are about how we respect and relate to other humans on the deepest level, and can never be reduced through rational understanding.
Once they are felt, ethical principles also gain strength. If you only think in a purely rational way, it is easy to deviate from your beliefs. In some circumstances, beliefs are easily discarded, particularly when facing great stress or challenges.
If you consider the experiences of people like Viktor Frankel, who wrote in his autobiography, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, or Solzhenitsyn, who describes Siberian exile, they both emphasize that most incarcerated people immediately start to behave in a beast-like manner when suffering from extreme dehumanization.
At the same time under these horrific conditions, a small number of people revived their humanity, choosing to live ethically — much more than they ever did before. It is wonderful to read about those who under the most pressing circumstances, only increased their loyalty to ethical principles. Solzhenitsyn eloquently describes how the few people who remained steadfast to their sense of humanity, no matter how difficult and no matter the consequences, often survived for ten or fifteen years, while others died within a few months. Those who retained these principles became stronger — even on the physical level. Their experience shows in such a clear way, the importance of quintessential ethical principles for a human being.
Forum: Has our current situation initiated a renewal of these principles?
Desmet: I believe that a reappreciation of their importance will be one of the most important outcomes of the crisis we are going through now. Particularly because we are headed towards an ultimate worldwide, technocratic, totalitarian system. I am very confident that a small group of people will resist and defy the masses, refusing to conform. These people will go through a very fast process of mental evolution.
When you look up, when you observe what happens from a little distance, you will see that it is resembling the birth of a new society. The dominant larger group is applying a lot of pressure on a smaller group of people, forcing this minority onto a path where it wouldn’t have gone without the pressure of the larger group. They will be pushed through a narrow dark hole forcing a transformation and a quick evolution. In the end, the majority will lose all of their energy, becoming weak and chaotic.
The smaller group of people, if they make the right ethical choices, will go in exactly the opposite direction. Although initially they will feel at a loss, they will slowly become stronger and stronger. Those who are currently seen as outsiders will begin to encourage solutions and become wise advisors. After a radical collapse of the larger group, the smaller group will be ready to support the ethical principles necessary for a new kind of human society. That’s what I believe is the natural process we see unfolding.
Forum: How might we participate in these critical behaviors with the right mindset that drives the best in human society? It’s one thing to have noble intentions — what about the actual doing?
Desmet: Yes, it’s a quest for each human being; to reinvent the eternal principles of humanity within and to try to stick to them, even if that means that we lose something. I think every time we sacrifice something out of loyalty to an ethical principle, we gain strength at a human level. For example, each time someone tries to undermine my reputation or criticizes me in an unfair way, I attempt to remain calm — considering the humanity of that person. My response is always to engage and understand.
While I’ve been speaking out and listening to responses throughout the last two years, I have the impression that a quiet power is increasing within me. I’ve realized that no matter how much ego, or material possessions that I lose; I’m gaining the things in life that really matter. It is this awareness that keeps me grounded. I won’t pretend it’s not hard for me. In fact, at times, it’s extremely difficult. I’m not saying that I’m special or a very good person.
I was having dinner with a colleague and we were discussing the challenges of the pandemic when he said, “I’m not sure if I’m a good person, but I am sure that this crisis brings out the best in me.”
I recognize and recall this feeling regularly. I see myself as someone with a lot of shortcomings, however, I attempt to remain aware that strengthening the ethical level is absolutely essential, and is the backbone of being human.
David Marks is a fellow for Children’s Health Defense - Community Forum. He is an investigative reporter and documentary producer. His recent book, "The Way," is an interpretation of the Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, available at LaoTzu-TheWay.org
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