“Theories of totalism and the protean self”

Robert Jay Lifton
“Totalism, a word first used in Thought Reform, is Lifton’s term for the characteristics of ideological movements and organizations that desire total control over human behavior and thought. (Lifton’s usage differs from theories of totalitarianism in that it can be applied to the ideology of groups that do not wield governmental power.) In Lifton’s opinion, though such attempts always fail, they follow a common pattern and cause predictable types of psychological damage in individuals and societies. He finds two common motives in totalistic movements: the fear and denial of death, channeled into violence against scapegoat groups that are made to represent a metaphorical threat to survival, and a reactionary fear of social change.

In his later work, Lifton has focused on defining the type of change to which totalism is opposed, for which he coined the term the protean self. In the book of the same title, he states that the development of a “fluid and many-sided personality” is a positive trend in modern societies, and that mental health now requires “continuous exploration and personal experiment,” which requires the growth of a purely relativist society that’s willing to discard and diminish previously established cultures and traditions.”


“The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation”

Robert Jay Lifton
review:Rev. Walter Debold
“The Greek god Proteus was a shape shifter able to adapt himself to every changing situation. His name makes an apt title for this book by Robert Jay Lifton about the human person in a changing world. One will find here a psychological description of this changing world followed by a description of the type of person whom Lifton labels protean. Then, there is a comparison with the chief alternative to proteanism: that is, fundamentalism.”

According to Lifton modern man shifts between protean and fundamentalist poles.

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