Geopolitics and the Psychopath

In the aftermath of the Paris massacre I found myself pondering the surreal state of the world and the myriad humanitarian disasters and violations of international law infiltrating the globe. War crimes in Iraq, Gaza, Syria and Libya accompanied by air strikes, bombing raids and regime changes have become routine. The genocide in Yemen, albeit a humanitarian catastrophe, receives little media attention.  U.S. led propaganda and harsh sanctions have economically destabilized Venezuela, conceivably as a prelude to invasion. Governmental looting of pensions and savings has begun, devastating retirees and their surviving spouses while corporate moguls earn 380x more than the average wage earner. It has always been this way irrespective of ideology, theology, or philosophy. The brutality of war and suffering are historical realities.

In distress I turn to my chosen field of psychology for answers. I am led to realize that in this geopolitical landscape, driven by the quest for political domination and exploitation of world resources, it is increasingly imperative that the layperson acquires a basic psychological comprehension of human evil, in order for any of this to make a modicum of sense.

Physicist and psychoanalyst Ian Hughes wrote:

A small proportion of people who suffer from psychologically abnormal personalities have, throughout history, had an immeasurable detrimental impact on our societies, our politics and our world. Enabled by their ruthlessness to readily acquire positions of power, they have long dominated the psychologically normal majority of the world’s population.

In Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason philosopher Immanuel Kant makes the claim that evil is innate to the human species. According to Kant, self-conceit is the designated egoistic trait responsible for moral corruption. An extreme propensity for evil has been referred to by psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley, in his seminal book The Mask of Sanity, as a neuropsychiatric defect which fuels the need to destroy. Cleckley’s psychological perspective identifies a measure for evil as psychopathology.

Psychopathy iss a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior. They are conscienceless and calculating, and ruthlessly driven to acquire power and control. Psychopaths command compliance and obedience so as to actualize their agendas. Accordingly, they are encouraged by the absence of critical thought, and the reliance on primitive psychological defenses of those they seek to control. Moreover, research using positron emission tomography (PET) indicates that one of the primary causes of psychopathic behavior is believed to be neurological abnormalities in the frontal lobe of the brain.

Cleckley purports that psychopaths present with a visage of normalcy. According to Cleckley the psychopath has the uncanny ability to conceal this ‘neuropsychiatric defect’, stating, “they are disarming not only to those unfamiliar with such patients but often to people who know well from experience their convincing outer aspect of honesty.” We are deceived, even deluded by, the psychopath’s disguise of virtue, his glibness, ostensible calm, status, and charm. The psychopath’s veneer of normality can be so seamless it becomes implausible to consider the malevolence behind the mask, even for trained clinicians.

Political Ponerology, coined by psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski, is the study of  institutional and government systems comprised of high-ranking officials presenting with psychopathic traits. Łobaczewski’s investigations focus on government in which absolute political power is held by a psychopathic elite, and explains how an entire society can be ruled and motivated by purely pathological values. Łobaczewski emphasizes how psychopathic leaders “special psychological knowledge” of normal people enables them to manipulate and assert a hypnotic power over the masses. He explains psychopaths have studied us and their ability to use our emotions against us deteriorates our cognitive abilities.

B.F. Skinner’s work with operant conditioning tells us that what we learn is impacted by reinforcement and punishment/unpleasant consequence. A pattern of intermittent reinforcement establishes unpredictability and confusion. The psychopath capitalizes on this phenomenon. The victim’s mind scrambles in an effort to mitigate the distress and return to internal consistency. Eventually cognitive dissonance sets in and the desperate urgency to discern a rhyme or reason becomes a driving force. At this point the duped masses are caught up in an addictive cycle and come to view the psychopathic tormenter as the redeemer. Lobaczewski contends the psychopath’s evil motivations, masked by a humane ideology, further exacerbate confusion.

The use of propaganda, distraction, and elaborate lies are instrumental in ensuring that beliefs and memories that echo the psychopathic leader’s agenda are retained, while that which doesn’t serve the psychopathic leader, are forgotten. The need to fit in, to secure a national identity further ensures compliance with this indoctrination. According to Lobaczewski the basic ignorance and weakness to this conditioning/brainwashing guarantees that the masses will bend to the deified psychopathic leader’s will. This pathological attachment is a survival strategy, which enables dissociation from jarring reality. By disowning inconceivable truths and taking on the psychopath’s perspective, the victim wards off the threat of helplessness, and terror is mitigated. Over time learned helplessness takes over and passive acceptance of abject criminality occurs.

Destroying the credibility and reputation of a designated target ensures the charismatic psychopath a position of power and control. By manipulating facts, disseminating ambiguous rumors (doublespeak), and calling the targeted victim’s morals into question, a nefarious narrative devoid of proper context, is created.  Triangulation is also a commonly relied upon tactic by psychopaths, designed to pit the masses against the targeted rival, in order to Divide and Conquer. Relying on confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret information so that it supports preconceptions, psychopaths dupe others into colluding in actualizing his agenda. As the designated target begins to cave under the shame of stigma and the oppression of the smear campaign, a militia of enablers will support the psychopath’s heinous agenda.

For the psychopathic leader to enforce amoral, soulless, calculated schemes, victims ripe for brainwashing are necessary. When gullible followers succumb to pathological influence they lose site of their critical faculties and they lose the ability to distinguish normal human behavior from pathological. This supportive and compliant populace assures that the psychopathic leader will uninterruptedly carry out depraved, lawless motives. This is what leads to the propagation of macrosocial evil.

To prevent such deception one must consciously curtail the reflexive deference to authority and question the motives and actions of those in power. A psychologically informed historical perspective offers proficiency with discerning patterns of fanaticism, oppression and widespread corruption. In a climate of elitism, controlled media, class disparities, pragmatism, and civil liberties violations, becoming informed about the predatory nature of the psychopath is critical to perceiving what lurks beneath the ostensibly principled demeanor of the psychopathic ruler.

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, is a NYC psychotherapist and interfaith minister in private practice and a free-lance writer for publications such as Psych Central Pro, The Feminist Wire, Psychology Tomorrow, Examiner, and Contemporary Psychotherapy Journal. Sheri is also a playwright and the and the creator of the Sistah Tribe- Phoenix Project, a therapeutic theater event designed to inspire and encourage healing for at-risk underserved women and girls plagued by histories of childhood trauma. Read other articles by Sheri.