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The Attempt to Burn Me at the Stake

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In recent weeks, an offensive has been launched against me in the Flemish media. I’ve been accused of being a liar, a far-right extremista conspiracy theorist, controlled opposition, and of indoctrinating my students. I’ve quietly listened to every voice that felt called to make itself heard. And I have the impression that everyone who had something to say has now done so.

Now I’m going to say a word for myself.

I think I have some right to respond to a story about myself. Members of the media apparently disagree. As eagerly as they speak of me, they have obstinately refused to speak to me. But isn’t it a fundamental precept of humanity—that everyone has the right to tell their side of the story?

Granted, the media has had a certain inhibition about me for some time. For example, there was an uncomfortable silence in the press when my book The Psychology of Totalitarianism was translated into ten languages ​​earlier this year and sold tens of thousands of copies.

Why such silence? Perhaps for this reason: people might start to take seriously the idea that the corona crisis was primarily a psycho-social phenomenon that marked the transition to a technocratic system, a system in which the government would attempt to claim decision-making rights over its citizens and, step by step, take control of all private space.

The press didn’t seem to know what to do other than keep quiet. Maybe some “fact-checking?” The fact-checkers, usually barely out of school, didn’t know how to fact-check my argument. I don’t throw around numbers and “facts” much anyway; actually, I have nothing much to say about viruses and vaccines. I mainly discuss the major psychological processes that take place in society. The fact-checkers got no further than some quibbling over minor examples in the margins of my argument. That didn’t make much of an impression. They had to stand by as more and more people listened to what I had to say.

Then there was an orchestrated campaign against me on social media. And you can take the word orchestrated literally, according to recent reporting from journalist Luc De Wandel, who uncovered a media front group whose aim was to sabotage three key influencers in Belgium: Lieven Annemans, Sam Brokken, and myself. The group operated anonymously with a website where “anonymous citizens” could report their concerns about dissident influencers.

The attempt to silence dissident voices took on a crazy character when Headwind—a coronacritical documentary series in which I participated together with five other scientists—was nominated for the Flemish government’s prestigious Ultima Award in the category of Audience Award (the equivalent of a People’s Choice Award). That caused panic.

The Minister of Culture, Jan Jambon, eliminated Headwind from the list of nominees. After a storm of protest, Minister Jambon had no choice but to restore it, following which, by the way, Headwind won with seven times the number of votes than the runner-up. When I accepted the Ultima Audience Award, I was permitted to say two sentences before being escorted off the stage. The other laureates were given approximately ten minutes to tell their stories.

At the end of August, things began to shift. I was invited to be a guest on Tucker Carlson Today to speak about The Psychology of Totalitarianism for a full hour. That’s not nothing, of course. This talk show is the most watched hour-long program on U.S. cable television. And the interview turned out really well. Carlson spoke of it in unmistakable superlatives. I’m only praising myself here because it’s substantively relevant: Carlson considered it the best interview he’s done in his 30-year career. If the Flemish audience dares to listen to it, you will find it here.

At this point, the Flemish media had a dilemma. Silence became precarious. After all, it’s not every day that a media icon like Tucker Carlson says something like that about a Belgian. They had to find something on it. And it had to be devastating.

Their eureka moment appeared in three newspapers simultaneously: I had also been interviewed by Alex Jones—a condemned conspiracy theorist—and something had happened! Some newspapers described it as a slip of the tongue. Others described it as an outright lie. To Jones’ question, “Have you seen open heart surgery under hypnosis?” After a moment’s hesitation, I answered “Yes, absolutely.”

I learned after the interview that people thought I had physically attended such an operation myself. I listened to my response to Jones’s question again and concluded that what I said was indeed misleading. Before any newspaper had mentioned it, I immediately corrected it on my Facebook page (see post on September 5, 2022): I hadn’t seen open heart surgery under hypnosis live, but I remembered seeing such a thing on video fifteen years earlier while I was teaching a lesson on hypnosis as an anesthetic technique. And I wasn’t even sure about that either, but in the hectic pace of the interview, I wanted to save myself a long explanation and simply answered yes.

Everyone can decide for themselves whether this is a lie or not. And then I propose that, with the same degree of severity with which one judges me, they also subject their own discourse to such interrogation.

The question about hypnosis wasn’t really that important. It was an example in the margin of my discourse. But the effect was remarkable: it spun into a major drama, but it was never really substantive. The press mainly used it to suggest I was selling nonsense.

Nevertheless, let us casually ask the question: is it possible or not to be operated on under hypnosis? The VRT used to think so (see for instance this link). What about open heart surgery specifically? In my search for my original sources, I came across the work of Dave Elman, a hypnotist known for bringing patients so weak that their hearts couldn’t tolerate any biochemical anesthetic into a specific hypnotic state in which surgery was possible. This is called the Esdaile state, in which a catatonic state is induced through a short hypnotic procedure. Elman himself has died but his children possess his archive with, among other things, the files regarding such operations. They confirmed to me that their father had indeed participated in several such operations.

When do we know for sure if something is correct? That is a difficult question. In the end, we remain dependent on faith for most things. And it’s no different for those of us who rely on what’s published in peer-reviewed academic journals. In fact, most results are not reproducible by third parties.

But the press was mainly concerned with this: I had spoken to Alex Jones—a condemned conspiracy theorist. For shame. There are certain people you shouldn’t talk to: anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, climate deniers, virus deniers, extreme right-wingers, racists, sexists, and so on. (This list, incidentally, is getting longer and longer.) The curious thing is that it is precisely the same people who affix those stigmas who also warn the loudest about the danger of polarization in our society. Isn’t that, what . . . ironic? Isn’t it speaking that connects people as human beings? Isn’t speech the main antidote to polarization? This is my principle: the more extreme the position someone takes, the more we should talk to them.

For some people, I have also become such a person you are no longer allowed to speak with. And when I see how this happened in my own case, it’s even more justification to let such figures tell their story directly before they are subjected to judgment.

I recommend that everyone read the excellent book by David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. The authors describe how, in Indigenous tribes of northeastern North America, no one had power over another. How were the problems of coexistence solved? By only one means: talking to each other (see p. 56). An enormous amount of time was spent in public debates. And it never occurred to anyone to exclude even one person from those conversations. This was also radically extended to cases of crime. Even then, only conversation, not power, was applied. When a punishment was finally determined, it was never the responsibility of a singular person who had committed the crime, but a wider network around him who had played a role in some way or another.

Missionaries and other Westerners who engaged in dialogue with the Native Americans were also impressed by their eloquence and skill in reasoning. They noted that these “savages” attained a degree of competence throughout the tribe against which Europe’s highly educated elite paled in comparison (see p. 57). Indigenous orators such as Huron-Wendat Chief Kondiaronk were invited to Europe for a seat at the table so that nobility and clergy might enjoy their extraordinary rhetoric and reasoning. (Many such Indigenous leaders also mastered European languages.)

Western culture—which has meanwhile found global acceptance—is going in the opposite direction: the register of linguistic exchange is increasingly being replaced by the register of power. Those who do not subscribe to the prevailing ideology are branded and regarded as someone with whom a decent person is not allowed to speak. I often emphasize that in the current era we need to rediscover and rearticulate the timeless ethical principles of humanity. This is the first one: see in every other human being an individual who has the right to speak and be heard.

That was a principle of mine long before the corona crisis, a principle that I maintained in my practice, among other places. I worked in my practice as a psychologist with cases where many people would rather not burn their fingers. In 2018, I made the front pages of the newspapers and appeared in De Afspraak after I was called as a witness in the assize trial of a nurse who, in the past, had killed terminally ill patients with insulin and air embolisms. At that trial, I refused to hand over my patient file to the judge for seven hours. My motivation was clear: if I tell someone that I will keep their words in confidence, I will do so. And from a legal-deontological point of view, I think that’s completely justified: past offenses or crimes are never a valid reason to breach professional confidences. My point is this: we must put the act of speaking at the center of society. We must create spaces in which there is complete freedom of speech—with psychologists, doctors, lawyers, priests, coaches, and so on—and we must avoid stigmatization as much as possible and certainly not allow it to make linguistic connection impossible.

But I had stopped by Alex Jones’s. And he’s not just a conspiracy theorist—he’s a condemned conspiracy theorist. That said enough. No one cared what the point of the conversation was. So let me bring that up a bit. The day before, President Biden had delivered an extremely polarizing speech. In that speech, the president stigmatized the entire MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement. It was hard to avoid the impression that he was trying to provoke them to violence, knowing that this is one of his few opportunities to not look bad in the upcoming midterm elections. Alex Jones asked me to call on his viewers not to respond to the provocation and to refrain from all violence. And that was what I explicitly did, several times. Makes sense, right? I think so. Here’s the question I’m raising: if milder voices—few would disagree that my voice belongs to that group—no longer have a voice on channels that take a more pronounced position, can we be surprised that society is becoming so polarized?

The Flemish newspapers ignored such questions. I had to be demonized. And they pulled out all the stops. Het Laatste Nieuws published testimony from two anonymous students who described my lectures at the university as pure propaganda and who stated that anyone who had a different opinion than mine was guaranteed to fail the exam. Several students who came to my defense (and were willing to use their names), were rebuffed at Het Laatste Nieuws. Their opinion was not suitable for publication.

Which students spoke the truth? It’s pretty simple to find out: all my lectures have been videotaped and can be watched from the first to the last minute. If you do so, you will hear, among other things, how I emphasized in every lecture that I only consider my lessons successful if students dare to express their own opinion, even and especially if it differs radically from mine. And you will also hear that the students who effectively formulated an opinion that differed from mine will be welcomed and encouraged in the most friendly way. Can Het Laatste Nieuws, therefore, be legally prosecuted for defamation? I think so.

It was suggested left and right that I was not only going to talk to conspiracy theorists but that I was also one myself. The reader should know: I have nothing against conspiracy theorists. I say it sometimes: if they didn’t exist, we should have invented them. But the amusing part of the matter is that I am equally vehemently accused of denying conspiracies. “The Ultimate Anti-Conspiracy Theory” was the title of a review of my book.

And in America, Catherine Austin Fitts—former official under the Bush administration and notorious anti-corona activist—and psychiatrist Peter Breggin launched a widespread (alternative) media campaign accusing me of being a so-called Trojan horse. Read: someone paid by the CIA or other government agencies to try and convince the public that there is no conspiracy going on at all. I would say to everyone: read Chapter 8 of Psychology of Totalitarianism carefully. I give my nuanced opinion there about the role that conspiracies play in major social processes.

A number of my academic colleagues jumped into the pen. And the media gave them the opportunity. Maarten Boudry was one of the first to attend and accused me of “gross overestimation.” In private, I know Maarten Boudry as a friendly person with whom I like to talk and disagree, and I regret that he acquires a certain toxicity in the public space. He wrote an opinion piece that was remarkably emotionally degrading from a stylistic point of view and had a series of errors in content. To give a few examples:

·      No, I’m not saying that everyone is in a state of hypnosis; I say expressly that only a limited part of the population (perhaps somewhere between 20 and 30 percent) falls prey to the hypnotic effects of crowding.

·      And no, I’m not saying that just about everyone is psychotic. In fact, on several occasions, I have explicitly distanced myself from using that term in this context and have not used it once.

·      And no, I have never touted hydroxychloroquine as a panacea for COVID-19.

·      And to say that there have been 23 million deaths from COVID-19 while the World Health Organization counts 6.5 million (with unusually “enthusiastic” counting methods), you should try to reconcile that with the author’s repeated thunder that everything and everyone should follow the scientific consensus.

·      And no Maarten, my prediction that the introduction of the vaccines wouldn’t end the corona measures wasn’t completely off. To the contrary, it was spot on. With autumn arriving, it becomes clearer and clearer every day that countries worldwide will reintroduce the measures.

A full overview of the glaring inaccuracies in Maarten’s text can be found via this link.

For me, everyone has the right to write stylistically vulgar and substantively deformed texts in the press, but it does raise the following question with regard to Ghent University: if they set up a scientific integrity committee to investigate my statement about hypnosis, what are they going to do with Maarten Boudry’s opinion piece? One can hardly ignore it: With my work, one had to search deeply to catch a mistake; with Maarten’s text one has to search deeply to find something that is correct. Ghent University, therefore, owes us an answer. Rector Rik Van de Walle has shown great humanity in this matter in various respects, and I am very grateful to him for that, but applying the standard for scientific integrity completely differently is a serious mistake.

Ignaas Devisch also contributed. Milder than Boudry, but not without its venom. It could happen: he doesn’t share my point of view. At least not anymore. He clearly had some doubts during the crisis—whether to take a critical position or not. But now he has apparently tilted toward the dominant story. That is more or less remarkable in light of the positioning he took before the crisis. He didn’t shy away from the harsh terms to describe the grip of medical science on the life of contemporary humans. In the corona crisis, in which the entire public space was sanctioned by the medical discourse, he apparently no longer notices this. Remarkable indeed. It reminds me of Thomas Decreus, who published articles before the corona crisis in which he referred to “technototalitarianism” but tackled me during the corona crisis because I had stated that there were clearly visible totalitarian tendencies.

Paul Verhaeghe also fits in this row but is a special case. He was my PhD advisor, and I have maintained a cordial human and professional relationship with him for seventeen years. We shared in many ways the same socially critical attitude, including the same critical position regarding the use of numbers in our culture. Our good relationship continued during the corona crisis. Witness to this is the mention in Verhaeghe’s coronacritical essay “Keep Your Distance, Touch Me.”

May I ask you person to person, Paul, why you are now taking part in this attempted intellectual lynching? And that again—as you yourself curiously say without shame—without having read my book? May I ask where this sudden and drastic change in attitude comes from? I will hereby formulate a tentative answer on your behalf: Because of the storm of criticism I received, you have become afraid of being associated with me. And in your fear, you have shown the least beautiful side of yourself—for fear of social disapproval you sacrifice the bond with people who are fond of you and whom you are actually fond of as well.

In a sense, Ignace Devish, Thomas Decreus, and Paul Verhaeghe are examples of what Joost Meerloo calls mental surrender in his book on totalitarianism, (The Rape of the Mind). Mental surrender refers to the phenomenon that people who were ideologically opposed to one or another ideology suddenly start to adhere to that ideology when it becomes the object of mass formation. The ascension of the masses, including all media outlets and political organs, makes such an enormous impression on individuals that they unknowingly change position and begin to adhere to the mass ideology.

A special case was the articles by Eva Van Hoorne published in De Wereld Morgen. The author swings heavily but also wildly at me, to such an extent that her statements can hardly be taken seriously anymore. It is difficult to recognize in it anything other than attempts to hurt. Eva Van Hoorne is one of the few people who got blocked from my Facebook page. (I think a total of seven people on a page with 17,000 followers and 5,000 friends). They are all people who bombarded me day after day and year after year with dubious accusations and reproaches. I was faced with the difficult choice of either leaving the many attacks unanswered—after all, I only have a limited amount of time—or blocking. I ended up choosing the latter but don’t know if that was the right decision. The words that could no longer be spoken there sought their way out through other channels, and the brewing urges intensified along the way.

I must say that, even in the case of Eva, it really saddens me that the gap cannot be bridged by real dialogue. Curiously, I can easily imagine a world in which I would get on well with Eva—she is also passionate about psychoanalysis, has reservations about materialist ideology, and so on. But I can hardly feel anything other than that something is tormenting her and that she is telling it to me. If that’s true, I wonder, dear Eva, whence your torment? What makes you rush so much energy on me? You know you’re always welcome for a chat about it. Sincerely. I mean it.

I won’t close my mild version of “J’accuse” without throwing a stone at myself as well. I usually do my best to speak in a mild and connecting way, but I still have progress to make. And my statement about hypnosis was certainly misleading. Striving for a speech that is humanized and as sober and sincere as possible is also a constant challenge for me. I will continue to fully cultivate and optimize the Art of Good Speech. For me, that is more or less the essence of my existence.

After all, there were also a few colleagues who wrote pieces in my defense. Like the students who tried to defend me, their opinion pieces were rejected by all the mainstream newspapers. Their reactions therefore only found a forum on social media. That gives them a different status for most people in society—less worthy—but that doesn’t make them any less good. I therefore thank them with all my heart: Jessica Vereecken, Reitske Meganck, Michaël Verstraeten, Steven d’Arrazola de Onate, Annelies Vanbelle, Steve Van Herreweghe—thank you. Your words are a counterforce to the closing membrane of pretense and stigmatization that is the very disease of our society. And there were also media such as blckbx, ‘t Pallieterke‘t Scheldt, and Doorbraak that have struck a different chord. My full gratitude to them as well.

At present, stigmatization mainly leads to character assassination. But very quickly the process of dehumanization could also go to the next level. A story was constructed around the death of Yannick Verdyck that groans under the stigmas. The question is to what extent stigmas were also the cause of his death. I’m going to treat that question with great caution and gentleness in a future writing. The media narrative around Verdyck is also interesting from an intellectual point of view. It shows how public narratives are created.

Diary journalism from the big media conglomerates; some behind-the-scenes gossip in closed Facebook groups; and then a bunch of people, very human, giving free rein to their petty tendencies. The end result is that a story is written about someone without that person being able to help write it. The courage to speak to those who feel really different. That is a sign of a human society. It is that kind of speech that has a binding effect and ensures that society is truly a society. The courage to truly connect through speech. That is what we must take back for ourselves.

Author

  • Mattias Desmet

    Mattias Desmet is a professor of psychology at Ghent University and author of The Psychology of Totalitarianism. He articulated the theory of mass formation during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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