Demons and angels: strongman leaders and social violence

Politicians who live in an angry narcissistic fog pose a threat to democracy and peace.

Ian Hughes
15 March 2017

Credit: Pixabay/John Hain. CC0 Public Domain.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that we may be living through the most peaceable era in human existence. As evidence for this remarkable assertion, Pinker cites the fact that the death rate from violence in the twentieth century—at around three percent of the global population—was only a fraction of the 15 percent estimated for pre-modern societies. Even with the catastrophic wars and genocides of the twentieth century there has been a five-fold reduction in violence when measured in the aggregate, though this conclusion ignores the fact that certain groups and communities, and certain forms of violence, may have risen—against women, Muslims, and black males in the USA for example.

Perhaps less controversial is Pinker’s claim that changing circumstances—rather than changes in human nature—are responsible for these trends. Human nature, he explains, is always a mix of inner demons and better angels. Motives that impel us towards violence like predation, dominance and vengeance co-exist with motives that impel us toward peace like compassion, fairness, self-control and reason. Changes in the prevalence of violence in society result from shifts in the social, cultural and material conditions that influence the balance between these different motives. If conditions favour our better angels violence remains low. If they reward our demons violence will increase.

However, in any population a subset of individuals exists with dangerous personality disorders who are predisposed to pathological behaviours. When those individuals gain access to positions of leadership and power, the likelihood of violence increases substantially as more and more people are pulled into a self-reinforcing cycle of ‘nature and nurture.’ The election of Donald Trump and the rise of other strongman leaders around the world is a warning that the conditions which favour our inner demons are once again becoming dominant.

One person who documented the dramatic shift in human behaviour from peace and tolerance to war and genocide was Andrew Lobaczewski. Lobaczewski was a Polish psychiatrist who observed the brutalisation of Polish society at first hand as first Hitler’s Nazis, and then Stalin’s Bolsheviks, forced their violent ideologies upon his homeland. Lobaczewski’s search for a rational explanation of the incomprehensible evil he observed led him to a radically new theory of human nature, and the clearest description we yet have of the origin and spread of evil.

According to Lobaczewski, “each society on earth contains a certain percentage of individuals, a relatively small but active minority, who cannot be considered normal.... individuals that are statistically small in number, but whose quality of difference is such that it can affect hundreds, thousands, even millions of other human beings in negative ways.”

Lobaczewski was writing before the advances of modern psychiatric science, but the ‘minority’ he was referring to are those who suffer from what we now know as paranoid personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychopathy. People with these disorders, Lobaczewski realised, play a catalytic role in a society’s descent into barbarism. The twentieth century’s most destructive tyrants, including Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot, all displayed these characteristics. By pursuing their grandiose dreams regardless of the consequences for others, these dangerous individuals, along with their followers and enablers, played a central role in the worst atrocities in human history.

People with psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder suffer from distortions in the basic cognitive and emotional structures of their minds. These disorders manifest as rigid patterns of behaviour that are difficult, threatening and harmful to others, including an increased propensity for violence and greed.

Psychopaths suffer from a dysfunction of the brain’s emotional system which renders them incapable of feeling empathy, love, guilt or shame. People with narcissistic personality disorder exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance, an exhibitionistic need for constant admiration, and exploitative relationships with others.

Paranoid personality disorder is characterised by suspicion and an obsession with defending against enemies, both real and imaginary. At its most pathological it impels those who suffer from it to seek the annihilation of those they deem to be enemies.

Current estimates are that around six per cent of the population in any society suffer from one or more of these disorders. No effective treatment or cure is currently available. All that can be said with certainty with regard to their causes is that both nature and nurture are likely to contribute.

While everyone can manifest callous, narcissistic and paranoid traits depending on the circumstances, it is the rigidity of thoughts and feelings that marks out people with dangerous personality disorders. The majority of human beings can act from either or both of their angels and demons, but psychopaths are only capable of acting on the basis of violence, domination and greed. People with these disorders do not ‘pivot.’ Their cognitive and emotional deficiencies mean that they are psychologically incapable of showing genuine empathy, solidarity and concern.

Lobaczewski’s contribution was not simply to recognise that a pathological minority can pose an existential threat. He also described how this minority can come to dominate a whole society. Dangerous leaders, Lobaczewski realised, are simply the most visible manifestations of a much wider malaise. Political scientist Betty Glad later coined the phrase ‘the toxic triangle’ to capture the process through which such minorities come to power, namely the alignment of a dangerous leader, susceptible followers, and an environment conducive to their rise.

As Glad explains, any individual who rises to power must do so with the help of both a core group of supporters and a wider support base within the general population. The key to understanding the rise of Hitler, Stalin or any other pathological leader is to realise that individuals who also suffer from dangerous personality disorders form a key power base within the leader’s core group of followers. Malignant narcissists already in positions of power in politics, media, academia and local political organisations respond to the opportunities that the pathological leader’s ascent to power presents for them to pursue their own ambitions.

This relatively small but influential group help to establish the violent, paranoid and post-truth characteristics of the leader as the new norm. Faced with this group’s increasing influence and dissonant propaganda, the general population experiences a growing collective confusion and loss of common sense, and an increasing inability to hold onto previously accepted standards of reason and morality.

This does not, however, allow us to escape the essential role that psychologically normal people play in aiding toxic leaders in their rise to power. In fact, as history and contemporary events both show, when the circumstances are right, toxic individuals almost inevitably find a mass following. To understand why this is so, we must consider the third side of the toxic triangle—the conducive environment in which dangerous leaders gain widespread popularity.

Today’s political circumstances constitute an almost perfect storm of inequality, insecurity, economic hardship, terrorist threats and democratic decline. Unfortunately, under such conditions many people become more willing to accept assertive leaders and more ready to dehumanise their perceived enemies. Many who act from their better angels when circumstances are supportive can unleash their inner demons when they feel angry or fearful. It is precisely this malleability of human nature that is currently allowing strongman leaders to gain support across the globe, stoking widespread public fear while posing as protectors against dangerous alien forces.

Those who struggle for freedom across the world know that free elections, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of the press, and equality regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation are the pillars of democratic systems that protect us from a minority who would subjugate us and turn us against one another for their personal gain. Democracy matters because it is all that stands between us and the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos and Pol Pots that live among us still.

Stemming the rise of authoritarian leaders and halting the spread of prejudice and hate that enables them demands that the rules and principles of democracy must be protected, extended and restored. The failure to deepen and reinstate these rules and principles will see humanity sliding backwards to a position where violence and privilege, rather than justice and dignity, will direct human affairs.

In that process, a minority of people with dangerous personality disorders can fundamentally alter the swing of the pendulum from compromise to conflict, from inclusion to vilification, and from humanity to savagery. Containing this dangerous minority by reinvigorating democracy is an urgent necessity if human progress is to continue.

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