Lifton: Yes. And that’s what I call malignant normality. What we put forward as self-evident and normal may be deeply dangerous and destructive. I came to that idea in my work on the psychology of Nazi doctors — and I’m not equating anybody with Nazi doctors, but it’s the principle that prevails — and also with American psychologists who became architects of CIA torture during the Iraq War era. These are forms of malignant normality. For example, Donald Trump lies repeatedly. We may come to see a president as liar as normal. He also makes bombastic statements about nuclear weapons, for instance, which can then be seen as somehow normal. In other words, his behavior as president, with all those who defend his behavior in the administration, becomes a norm. We have to contest it, because it is malignant normality. For the contributors to this book, this means striving to be witnessing professionals, confronting the malignancy and making it known.
Moyers: Witnessing professionals? Where did this notion come from?
Lifton: I first came to it in terms of psychiatrists assigned to Vietnam, way back then. If a soldier became anxious and enraged about the immorality of the Vietnam War, he might be sent to a psychiatrist who would be expected to help him be strong enough to return to committing atrocities. So there was something wrong in what professionals were doing, and some of us had to try to expose this as the wrong and manipulative use of our profession. We had to see ourselves as witnessing professionals. And then of course, with the Nazi doctors I studied for another book — doctors assigned, say, to Auschwitz — they were expected to do selections of Jews for the gas chamber. That was what was expected of them and what for the most part they did — sometimes with some apprehension, but they did it. So that’s another malignant normality. Professionals were reduced to being automatic servants of the existing regime as opposed to people with special knowledge balanced by a moral baseline as well as the scientific information to make judgments.
Moyers: And that should apply to journalists, lawyers, doctors —
Lifton: Absolutely. One bears witness by taking in the situation — in this case, its malignant nature — and then telling one’s story about it, in this case with the help of professional knowledge, so that we add perspective on what’s wrong, rather than being servants of the powers responsible for the malignant normality. We must be people with a conscience in a very fundamental way.