Q&A on Dangerous Personality Disorders Part 2

In the second part of my recent interview on Doug Bennett’s radio show ‘Unspun: An Experiment in Truth Telling’ we discuss the danger of nuclear war, how religion can be exploited by psychopaths, how thugs often take over when crises hit, and what societies can do to protect us from people with dangerous personality disorders. This blog contains extracts from part 2 of the interview, which can be heard in full here.    

Doug Bennett:  We have a caller on the air and I wanted to bring him on and see if he had a question for you. Randy, you’re on the air.

Randy:  Yes, ok. You know, listening to this conversation is really scary. Recently I came across this you tube video time lapse of every nuclear explosion since 1945 by an artist, a Japanese artist. I don’t know if anybody else has seen that. But my question is, we’re assuming that our leaders are responsible people but if we watch this time lapse video, we can see that nuclear energy, nuclear explosions have been out of control. What are the chances that we will have a nuclear war?

Ian Hughes:  I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when there was a very palpable sense of danger of nuclear war. One of the things that got me into science in the first place was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television programs and one of those television programs was about the level of nuclear arsenal that the United States and the Soviet Union had, the tonnage of nuclear explosives for every man, woman and child on the planet. That was a very real fear when I was growing up, and every time a siren went off, this would be in the back of your mind. The threat of nuclear war was very real in the 60’s and 70’s. I think after the end of the Cold War that has receded. But some of the research that I have been doing on personality disorders has got me frightened again. In particular, if you think about Adolf Hitler and you understand Hitler’s personality. Hitler was very successful up until 1939. He got into power and he had a lot of support from the German people because he was introducing a lot of programs on unemployment and in terms of the health system. He was putting lots of people back to work, mostly through the rearmament-of Germany. Up until 1939 when he invaded Poland, he had achieved everything peacefully, more or less peacefully. After 1939 his real intentions became clear and he launched a war of annihilation against Poland and the former states of the Soviet Union, and of course the Holocaust against the Jews.

Reading about Hitler, you see that there was nothing that was going to stop him from doing either of those two things. In fact when the German forces were held in Stalingrad, Hitler made a decision. His first dream was to be the Emperor of Europe and to annihilate the Soviet Union, and his second dream was to annihilate the Jews. When the German forces were starting to be pushed back from the Soviet Union, he made the choice that his priority was to kill the Jews, because he thought he was doing mankind a favour by doing that. Nothing would have stopped him from doing so. So when you see what Hitler did in the Holocaust and you realize that determination – and not determination in the normal psychological sense – there was nothing that was going to stop him from doing this. And when you think that nuclear weapons could be in the hands of this type of personality, you should be scared.

Psychopaths and Religion

Doug Bennett:  We have another caller. Rocky, you’re on the air.

Rocky:  Thank you for your program. I’d like to have your guest comment on mass psychopathic behavior in regards to religion. We got Judaism, Islam and Christianity all looking forward to some kind of apocalyptic happening in the future and they live for this. I mean, we’ve got the Evangelical Christians and the Radical Islam and Judaism, you know, you look at what’s happening in Israel today. How do you address that mass psychopathic behavior?

Ian Hughes:  The first thing that comes to mind is a quote from Sam Harris where he said that both the Bible and the Koran contain much that is life-affirming, much that is very positive, much that we can learn from, but they both also contain mountains of life threatening gibberish. I think that’s one of the issues, one of the difficulties in dealing with religion. First of all, there’s a myriad of religions, and also within a religion, there’s a mixture, and I think it’s a lethal mixture, of love and hate. In almost every religion you get lots of exhortations to love thy neighbour, be kind to other people and so forth, on one hand. Then on the other hand, you have, kill those who do not believe, kill those who do not obey. This combination of the positive and the threatening is a lethal combination.

In fact in the book I write about religion as being one of the most reliable means for psychopaths and people with paranoid personality and narcissists to get into positions of authority. There are a number of features of religion which almost make it a perfect recipe for tyrannical rule. I’ll just run through them. There are four things that are characteristics of almost every religion, that these religions all share in common, that make them the perfect recipe for tyrannical rule. The first of these is the claim that religion has on absolute truth. Whatever it is, Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism, they all claim to know what the truth is.  The fact that these truths are mutually exclusive or contradictory makes no difference. They all claim to have absolute truth. The second point is their insistence that proof isn’t necessary in order for you to have to believe. I think it was A.C. Grayling who said that religious claims are irrefutable because they are untestable. This insistence that we don’t need proof – it’s revelation or it’s the word of God, therefore what we tell you is correct and you must believe it. That is very dangerous and also, it goes without saying, very non-scientific. The third very dangerous aspect that religions have in common is the widespread use of censorship in order to stifle dissent. Salmon Rushdie is a recent example of that. And then finally, religions, many religions, have the threat of ultimate sanction for those who refuse to believe or who disagree.

I think these characteristics, claim on absolute truth, insistence that proof is not necessary, use of censorship and threat of ultimate sanction, mean that a lot of religious dogma – regardless of whether it’s Christian, Judaism or Islam, or as we’re seeing in Burma for example, in normally peaceful Buddhism – these are the perfect recipe for the unwavering certainty of the narcissist – ‘I am absolutely right, it’s the word of God and I know that’; the ruthlessness inhumanity of the psychopath – ‘If you disagree, you’re dead’; and also for those with Paranoid Personality Disorder to be the cheerleaders of hate towards those who disagree, by scape-goating those of a different religion. So I agree with your caller’s question that religion can be a very potent weapon for those with these personality disorders. But I would also say that this isn’t to say that religion is of no value. Most people in the world have religious beliefs. It is clear that people put a lot value on religion and I wouldn’t argue against that. Religion addresses some of humanity’s ultimate concerns in terms of right and wrong, what happens after death, good and evil and so on. So, it’s not religion that is the problem. It’s the potent mix of the positive aspects of religion that appeal to the majority and these other aspects of religion that can be used by people with these disorders to manipulate the majority for their own ends.

How Thugs Seize Control in a Crisis

Doug Bennett:  Well, Ian, we’ve got another caller. Dennis, you’re on the air.

Dennis:  Hi, my name is Dennis, and one of the things that I’ve observed in my life is the tendency, especially in school and in certain situations like in crisis, there’s always a pack leader or a tendency for a thug kind of taking charge of the situation when there is chaos or a crisis. What happened in Louisiana, with Katrina. I think it points to what you’re saying about that minority, the pathological minority that seize that opportunity. And also I see that in the world, at least notionally, that to prevent that from happening, in my case personally, I had to push back. If you don’t push back, you’re toast. In some cases it worked, in some cases not so good but I’d like to have your opinion on that.

Ian Hughes:  Thanks Dennis, I think you’re raising a couple of very interesting and very difficult questions. The first thing is your observation of whenever there’s a crisis, a thug will step forward.  I’m glad you raised that issue because when we talk about this minority and how they interact with the psychology of the rest of us. What happens in crisis situations, and you can see it for example in the Russian Revolution, you can see it in what happened when Hitler came to power, in Cambodia, and so forth…

One of the secrets of how this minority achieve power and maintain power is that they bring about a segregation of society, a stratification of society into the psychological minority holding power over the psychological majority.  It happens in every town and village. It’s not just a matter of them seizing power in the center, they then authorize or send signals to the local thugs who react. Orlando Figes gives a very good example of this during collectivization in Soviet Russia.  Whenever Stalin sent out the gangs he used to enforce collectivization, Figes talks about one particular local thug who had been begging in the streets up until this time. He was a no-one in the village but once he was empowered to act violently, him and a handful of others, the rest of his neighbours had no defence.  So I think that issue that you raised that thugs suddenly come to the fore in situations of crisis, you are observing this stratification of society into an abnormal minority and the normal majority.

The second question, how do we react? We are in a real quandary here. We have a real problem, because in the first instance, our natural instinct is to react violently, to try and seize back power. But, if we take a violent route, for the majority violence isn’t our natural way of acting. It is the natural way of acting for this minority. So, as soon as we go into a violent situation, we are moving off the playing field that we feel comfortable on, and we are moving on to the playing field where they are experts.  I think once the violence starts, the majority are the losers. I’ve seen this in Northern Ireland when I was growing up, in the troubles of Northern Ireland. What happens is, in the Northern Ireland situation, with Catholics and Protestants, those who are seeking the middle ground are sidelined, because as soon as the violence starts everyone gets frightened and everyone lines up behind their own brand of psychopath for protection.

So we are in a real trouble in terms of when crisis happens – these bullies come to the fore, but if we react violently, we are in trouble. So that’s why I think the leadership that for example Gandhi has given, that Aung San Suu Kyi has given in Burma, is that we have to resist them, but we have to resist them very often in non-violent ways. Because we are the majority. The numbers are on our side. Personally I believe that the non-violent way is ultimately the most effective way to deal with them.  I think again I agree with Aung San Suu Kyi who said that violence can create a different society but it’s more likely to create a more violent society.

I think you’ve seen Doug from a lot of people you’ve interviewed on your show before, that American’s reaction after 9-11, in many ways has been to adopt some of the tactics of the enemy. In terms of illegal rendition and the war in Iraq, the violence has really had an effect of polarizing and acting as a recruiting agent against America. I would argue that it hasn’t been effective, the reaction that America had after 9-11. I would say that’s a classical example. In one sense it’s an understandable reaction after what happened. But again, as Mark Danner in his New York Review of Books articles has said there were choices that people in power in America made at that time to start a war on terror that would terrorize states into not daring to stand up against America. But I think a lot of the evidence shows that that hasn’t been effective.

Defending Democracy

Doug Bennett:  We only have about five minutes left in this show, maybe a little less. Let’s just switch over, because we dwelt on the negative part of this and you’ve touched on the things that we can do. You mentioned in your book the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my favourite people, and she was a very big proponent of that. How about expanding on those things, the positive things that we have available to us that we can work as a majority to make us a more powerful factor in what’s going on in our world. The Universal Declaration of Human rights was one of them. I’m sure there’s more but I’m going to let you just finish out this interview with those thoughts.

Ian Hughes:  I guess just to reiterate some of the things that I said about the values and the defenses that we have put in place, that people who have gone before us have struggled to put in place. What is known as the Western model of democracy, which is representative democracy, began in the United States. The separation of church and state too, which I think was an essential, a huge step forward, with Thomas Jefferson taking a lot of the credit for that. You can see in the countries where that doesn’t happen, for example in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the difficulties there are for people living in states where there isn’t a separation between religion and the state. So that’s a hugely positive step forward in allowing multiple viewpoints, multiculturalism and tolerance.

A big step forward happened in Europe after the end of the Second World War with the model of social democracy. It was the French socialist Jean Jaures who said that democracy was the best means ever devised for peaceful social change. I like that definition of democracy better than Churchill’s famous definition of democracy, which is that it the worst system of government, apart from all the rest. I think social democracy recognized that capitalism needed to be kept under control, that inequality couldn’t be allowed to grow to levels that left masses of people destitute, and there needed to be social security systems and so forth that allows a minimum standard of living for every citizen. So that model of social democracy came about after the war.

And as you mentioned, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which in the book I say, is a magnificent step forward in terms of how humanity deals with ethics. Up until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, humanity invariably turned to religion for ethical guidance. I think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a much stronger basis for ethical conduct than anything that’s written in religion. It draws a lot on what’s written in many religions. But I think it’s a real step change in that every individual has these rights and no state or other person has a right to violate them. And actually in terms of psychology, it’s also interesting. That’s the basis to allow every individual to develop to their full potential, and that’s a wonderful thing to think of for the future.

Doug Bennett:  Well Ian, the music you hear in the background is our cue. I want to thank you for being on “Unspun, An Experiment in Truth-Telling” today. Maybe when your book is published, you can come and visit us again because obviously we have a whole lot more to talk about. But we’ll have to end it here for today and Ian, thank you very much for being on Unspun.



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