The hour-glass whispers to the lion’s roar,
The clock-towers tell the gardens days and night
How many errors Time has patience for,
How wrong they are in being always right.
Yet Time, however loud its chimes or deep,
However fast its falling torrent flows,
Has never put one lion off his leap
Nor shaken the assurance of a rose.
For they, it seems, care only for success:
While we choose words according to their sound
And judge a problem by its awkwardness:
And Time with us was always popular.
When have we not preferred some going round
To going straight to where we are?
Our Bias by W.H. Auden
Difficult to ignore the recent political headlines, they highlight the question of whether politics has just become a study of modern day narcissism, and deception. With their exaggerated sense of entitlement, it seems many politicians somehow think they “deserve” to use the system. After all, from their self-interested perspective, isn’t that what the system is for? In their heavily self-biased opinion, if they want something, by rights it should be theirs.
Narcissism was named after a mythological Greek character called Narcissus who became infatuated and in love with his own reflection in a lake. We now recognise narcissists as having outwardly high self esteem – essential in politics. However, narcissism is not the same thing as self-esteem; people who have high self-esteem are often humble, whereas narcissists rarely are. It was once thought that narcissists have high self-esteem on the surface, but deep down they are insecure. However, the latest evidence indicates that narcissists are generally secure or grandiose at both levels.
Freud was quick to recognise the dark side to narcissism. Narcissists, he pointed out, are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. Perceived threats can trigger rage. Achievements can feed feelings of grandiosity. That is why Freud thought narcissists were the hardest personality type to treat. Whilst Freud’s definitions of personality differed over time; recognising that that there could be an almost infinite variety, he identified three main types: erotic, obsessive, and narcissistic. Most of us, he believed have elements of all three. We are all, for example, somewhat narcissistic. If that were not so, we would not be able to survive or assert our needs. His view, however, was that the dynamic tendencies of one personality ‘type’ usually dominated the others, making each of us react differently to success and failure.
Of course, without an element of narcissism leaders would be pretty useless. Their need to challenge and take risks gives them the audacity to push through the political agendas that society periodically requires. Productive narcissists are not only risk takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric. The danger is that their narcissism can become unproductive when, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anchors, their views become unrealistic. Unable to recognise the needs and feelings of others they become dismissive, and impatient when others share concerns or problems. Oblivious to the hurtfulness of their behaviour or remarks; they show an emotional coldness and a lack of reciprocal interest.
So, do the politician’s capturing the recent headlines have a healthy dose of narcissism or is their desired objective power, dominance and control? Are recent campaigns focusing on the construction of illusions framed by inflammatory clichés, creating divisions and splits, instilling fear? Or do they provide a balanced view on the world today? Could these politicians be viewed as ‘moral relativists’ in that what they adamantly deem immoral for others is somehow acceptable for themselves?
Of course, no matter how powerful the political narcissist might feel, ultimately the controller will become the controlled by those he owes for his lift into power and the pitiful cycle will begin all over again.