The prevalence of #psychopaths and their power over society
There are many people whose behaviour and perceptions of others places them squarely in the category of antisocial personality disorder but they go their entire life without being assessed in psychiatric units or put in prison. We may live close to them, work with them or see them in the media. Many of us will have a strong sense that their character is flawed, their actions are damaging or their attitude to other people makes them dangerous. However, for a variety of reasons, we may suppress our intuitions. One reason for doing so is, if we were to dwell on these perceptions, it could shatter our sense of security and comfort.
When we live in societies where ruthlessness in business and politics is rewarded and prized, the problem of identifying and curtailing genuine psychopaths becomes more challenging. As our search for the psychopath strays from prisons and psychiatric units to banks, trading floors, media companies and political parties, we become aware that society’s ability to challenge and control them has been limited.
In fact, we may tolerate psychopathic qualities in politicians, television and film stars, sportsmen and captains of industry more readily than we do in our neighbours. Glib charm and callousness can, unfortunately, appear attractive qualities in celebrities, politicians and tycoons. It may be amusing to watch them on the television, but it should be remembered that those people are real when they are off the screen and have real impacts on real people.
It is not surprising that other institutions and society itself struggles to identify them and respond to them adequately. After something terrible comes to light, members of communities often find it hard to accept that someone they liked could have committed such an atrocity. Others will say they had suspicions all along.
The above was illustrated by the case of the disc jockey and serial child abuser Jimmy Savile, who used his larger-than-life character to gain entry into the BBC. Savile was already a paedophile before joining the BBC but, once secure within the institution, he was able to amass so much influence over people that he abused children with little challenge. There is even the compelling and sickening suggestion that he managed to avoid incarceration because he procured children for members of the British Establishment.
After hundreds of accusations of sexual abuse of children and hospital patients came to light in 2012, a year after his death, some people attempted to defend Savile’s reputation. Even at the start of 2013 there were still people on social media defending his ‘honour’ and saying that because he could not contest the accusations in court the matter should be dropped. Fortunately, however, we live in an era of transparency, where society and the media are happy to slay degraded ‘heroes’ – and where victims of abuse can find a stronger voice than they had previously.
The Savile case and the resultant splitting of views across society is a vivid illustration of how devious psychopaths operate and how they manage to shield themselves by creating tension between other people. It also serves as a useful illustration of how the personality of the psychopath may be revealed more by their impact on others than what they say.
A forensic examination of the life of a psychopath can be like examining the damage caused by a cluster bomb. In the case of child abusers, the primary harm is secretly done to vulnerable individuals – some of whom may have little ability at the time to articulate what happened. Other abusers are drawn in and become part of the paedophile’s web, while some victims may subsequently and tragically become abusers themselves.
The Savile case also helps us examine one of the key concerns of this book, whether the world we live in has become more psychopathic – more ruthless, cold, exploitative and antisocially individualistic. If so, we have to consider what processes and institutions are allowing and encouraging this to happen – and how we may all be allowing it to happen. The case illustrates how various organisational cultures and society itself can be infected and corrupted by the psychopathy of an individual, or small number of individuals.
It seems quite possible that Savile used charity work as a way of insulating or immunising himself against accusations of paedophilia. Perhaps a shared understanding that accusations against him could harm the income and credibility of charitable organisations gave him power over some of those who felt dependent on his ‘support’. If this is the case, Savile made probably well-meaning people complicit in his activities.
By definition ‘successful psychopaths’ are people who avoid being identified as such. A murderer or a rapist does not only become a murderer or rapist when they are convicted – and a psychopath does not only become a psychopath when formerly diagnosed. Pathology precedes diagnosis.
When we come into contact with people with psychopathic qualities we are often overcome by a sense of confusion, deep mistrust and also worry about being led astray by fantasies infecting our minds. We may suspect we are being drawn into danger but we may not be sure. Questions like “Did they really do that?”, “Am I being conned?”, “Am I just imagining this?” and “Can they really be that bad?” and “Maybe I am just being paranoid?” tend to flood our minds.
These questions are difficult and divisive enough for experienced psychiatric teams to contend with, let alone family members who need to believe that a person cares about them, colleagues or children in need of approval and safety. It is testament to the persuasiveness of psychopaths and the smokescreens they create that the vast majority of the British public were taken in by a patently creepy man who surrounded himself with vulnerable children.
Whether or not Savile consciously did charity work as a way to shield himself from accusations, the status and work certainly gave him unrestricted access to children. It is well known that paedophiles seek out positions where they have access to vulnerable children, and it becoming clearer that nonpaedophile psychopaths similarly seek power. Unfortunately, while psychopaths are imagined as the knifewielding killers of Hollywood, not enough attention is given to the possibility that many more psychopaths quietly secure positions within society where they can exert maximum control.
Studies of prisoners have helped us understand the minds of psychopaths but they do not reveal the predominance of psychopathic traits within the wider population. Psychiatrists cannot simply turn up to banks, parliaments and media companies and demand that people undergo mental health assessments and brain scans. Nevertheless, in recent years good evidence has been emerging that psychopathic qualities are far from the exclusive domain of prisoners and patients in secure psychiatric units. Those qualities are also found among well paid people in positions of power and within key occupations that society depends upon.
Only by understanding how psychopaths operate within various areas of society can we understand how they help to create and maintain what I term psychopathic cultures.
Excerpt from the Introduction in “Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires” by Will Black
photo courtesy of NakedPastor