At what point do these irrational and dangerous ways of speaking, acting, and thinking reflect not just the rough give-and-take of political theatre, but the unhinged irrationality of a mental illness? That question led me to draft the following observations. I offer them not to oppose or endorse any particular candidate but to provide such insight as I may have about human nature distorted by the dynamics of mental illness. These comments emerge from my background and training in pastoral counseling and Jungian psychoanalysis.
From these vantage points, volumes could be written about the psychological dynamics of the characters who run for political office as well as the dynamics that swirl around them and all of us who share in shaping these dynamics. However, in this brief space, I will limit myself to three observations: (1) the mental illness of character disorders, (2) the case of language as a weapon in political discourse, and (3) the driving force (a.k.a., gods, daemons) that stokes our worst instincts and propels our political madness.
The Mental Illness of Character Disorders
If you look within the index of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, you will find a listing of those conditions that disturb our mental health. There is one section in the manual, however, that seems to get little attention and generally is not understood. This is the section describing the so-called "personality disorders." A personality disorder is defined by the manual as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that differs markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment." (p. 645) There are ten of these disorders listed, and each of them shows problems in the following areas:
1. Cognitions (i.e., ways of perceiving and interpreting self, other
people, and events).
2. Affectivity (i.e., the range, intensity, lability, and appropriateness
of emotional response.)
3. Interpersonal functioning.
4. Impulse control
Taken together, these four aspects of human personality give shape to what we call "character." The "personality disorders" are thus characterological in nature. In other words, the beliefs, values, attitude, patterns of thinking and feeling, ways of acting, and self-identification are all woven into the individual's identity and form a consistent way of being perceived by others, resulting in interactions that may be idiosyncratic, off-putting, confusing, offensive, contradictory, and possibly significantly problematic.
I will give one example from the list of the ten personality disorders. I am choosing the "NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER" because it is one that appears not infrequently in government, politics, the military, ministry, and corporations in which people seek positions of power in order to be admired because they feel they have unusual abilities that entitle them to special privileges and influence over others.
The manual lists nine diagnostic criteria for the "narcissistic personality disorder." Note that this listing does not refer to individuals who may act narcissistically from time to time. Any one of us may do that; some more than others. But that is not the same as a character disorder in which the person is the behavior; the narcissistic pattern possesses the individual rather than the individual having instances of the behavior. With that in mind, I will now list the nine distinguishing characteristics of the "narcissistic personality disorder":
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates
achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior
without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power,
brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be
understood by, or should associate with, other special or
high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of
especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with
his or her expectations).
6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others
to achieve his or her own ends).
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the
feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious
of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
It only takes five of these nine criteria to diagnose an individual as having the "narcissistic personality disorder." Underneath the disorder with its grandiosity, entitlement, and superiority is a vulnerability of inadequacy and inferiority. The individual may not be conscious of this vulnerability unless a crisis erupts in the person's life and exposes the vulnerability. In general, however, the individual suppresses any such hint of weakness and compensates with an exaggerated sense of grandiose importance. To disagree with such a person, expecting a reasonable exchange of viewpoints, is futile. Other people, as well as the world in general, exist in that individual's mind only as supporting cast and backdrop for his or her self-aggrandizement.
So how do these people develop a following in government, corporations, ministry, the military, and politics? It does not help that "leadership" in these groups most often is defined with phrases such as "takes charge" "gets results," "tells it like it is," "will not take 'no' for an answer," "does what needs to be done to get results," "shows decisive behavior," "does not tolerate weakness," etc. Nor does it help that the institutions seeking this kind of so-called "leadership" measure success by the bottom line of their financial reports as well as the approval of boards who hire their executives to make a profit and help the organizations to "take us to the next level."
But on a more personal level, these individuals with a diagnosis of "narcissistic personality disorder" display a cunning charm, a facility with language that enables them to "talk a good game," and an obsessive preoccupation with power -- getting it, lording it over others, and using it to protect themselves against losing it. And so it is that they slip into the highest echelons of our organizations, garnering control as they move up the ladders of influence, slipping past the unsuspecting eye of those who later will find themselves attempting to undo the damage of the insanity that has overtaken them.
Part Two of this blog will continue next month with an analysis of (1) the use of language as a weapon in political discourse, and (2) the driving force (a.k.a., gods, daemons) that stokes our worst instincts and propels our political madness.