Editor's Note: This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Lifton's Eight Criteria of Thought Reform

The Demand for Purity is one of the more abusive of Robert Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform. It exists not only in high-control groups, but also in our wider culture. You will often see it in “mainstream” religions, in families and corporations, in advertising, and in manipulative relationships. The demand for purity takes advantage of our natural human foibles and preys on our insecurities. The overwhelming message is: “you are not good enough.”

When the demand for purity is used, no one is considered naturally good, which can be described in terms of sin, disease, insanity or ignorance. Manipulative people and groups will insist that without their intervention, all humankind is doomed—to eternal hellfire at worst, or, at the very least, to an incomplete life.

Of course, none of us are perfect, and a predator will use our imperfections against us: A scam artist will sell useless potions to “restore your natural balance.” A cult recruiter will magnify minor faults into gross sins. An abusive spouse will declare: “no one else could ever love you!”

Advertisers can use the demand for purity to manipulate our emotions, making us feel guilty, from body odor to our children’s nutrition. The focus is always on just how wrong, how faulty, how undesirable we are – without the help of the sponsor’s product, of course.

Demand for purity functions in all stages of coercive control, from recruitment and seduction, where it is used to draw a victim into a trap. It can be used to maintain the abusive relationship with guilt and fear, even protecting the abuser after the abuse has finished. It can leave victims feeling unworthy, often blaming themselves for having been so “stupid.” Those who have experienced human trafficking, pedophile grooming, and other forms of sexual abuse often talk of feeling like “damaged goods.” It is vitally important that survivors of all abuse realize that they are not to blame for what they have been through.

Good critical thinkers, employing healthy skepticism, will keep the demand for purity – and all eight of Lifton’s criteria – in the forefront of their minds. Whether the message comes from an advertiser or a new romantic partner, from a politician or the pulpit: if the words amount to “you’re no good unless…”, then it’s time to take another look at who is judging us – and why.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about the demand for purity that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

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