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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joseph DillardDr. Joseph Dillard is a psychotherapist with over forty year's clinical experience treating individual, couple, and family issues. Dr. Dillard also has extensive experience with pain management and meditation training. The creator of Integral Deep Listening (IDL), Dr. Dillard is the author of over ten books on IDL, dreaming, nightmares, and meditation. He lives in Berlin, Germany. See: integraldeeplistening.com and his YouTube channel.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire - Destruction, 1836

Civilizational Psychopathy

How is it that the Best and Brightest Can Support the Worst Aspects of Humanity?

Joseph Dillard

The civilizational psychopathy of the West is perhaps best characterized by doubling down on what no longer works.

As a clinical psychotherapist for some fifty years, who has had occasion to work with not a few psychopathic individuals, I know the difference between a clinical diagnosis of personality disorder and schizophrenia, or any number of other psychological dysfunctions. I also know it borders on malpractice for clinicians to declare this or that political figure to be psychopathic, or to render any other psychological diagnosis, without a proper professional assessment. For example, I view those mental health professionals who declare Trump, Putin, Biden or any other public figure to be psychopathic to be hiding a third grader ad hominem attack on an opponent behind the Potemkin sheen of expert opinion. It's a low, pre-rational blow, and those who do such things destroy their credibility.

Nevertheless, it is not only true that we can point to characteristics that look or seem to be psychopathic in people like Trump, Putin, or Biden; it is important to do so. The error lies in presuming that because this or that characteristic of a psychopathic diagnosis exists in an individual, such as a profound lack of empathy, a lack of moral inhibition in harming others, a narrow but extraordinarily rigid sense of self-importance, power, fearlessness, invulnerability, and justification, by which any and all lie, theft, or murder is justified, that a diagnosis of psychopathy, sociopathy, or “antisocial personality disorder” is also justified. It isn't.

Psychopathy is not currently recognized as a diagnostic category by the bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders or “DSM.” Instead, the people we judge to be psychopaths are primarily a combination of two other categories of psychopathology, antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a disregard for rules and social norms and a lack of remorse for other people. Narcissistic personality disorder is associated with self-centeredness, exaggerated self-image, and lack of empathy for others and is often driven by an underlying fragility in the sense of self.[1][2]

The underlying error made by those who attempt psychological diagnoses on public figures is that psychopathic characteristics exist in all of us, not just those we want to deride. Those extremely toxic potentials can be cultivated, rewarded, and brought to the forefront as adaptive strategies by families, religions, ideologies, corporations, cultures, societies, and nations. They do so because people with psychopathic characteristics are often effective and indomitable, and therefore very useful to society as a whole. Unless we recognize that psychopathic characteristics exist in all of us as part of the extraordinary range of human adaptive capacities, and that our employers and society as a whole can greatly benefit from cultivating them in us, we will minimize, discount, disown, and project those potentials onto others, creating a Manichaeistic dualism that is extremely regressive and primitive, resembling the “splitting” pathologies that can arise in infancy.

Capabilities for psychopathy exist in all of us because they are adaptive, which means that in certain circumstances they are useful and effective. This is because some of the characteristics of character disorders are built on a supreme self-confidence that abides no subjectivity, introspection, questioning of, or even awareness of ulterior motives within ourselves. The consequence is that we can easily develop an authentic invulnerability to a perception of weakness, fault, or failure, which means we can't be wrong and we can't fail, regardless of what evidence others or the world throws at us.

While it is easy enough for most of us to recognize our personal failures and therefore dismiss psychopathic capabilities as something pertaining to others but not to us, most of us are members of collectives that do not admit to weakness, fault, or failure. They profess to some divine or supremist ideology that is used to vicariously anoint us with the heightened confidence and invulnerability that group memberships afford. By sheltering under the aegis of this or that religion, ideology, or collective identity, we can easily identify with the invulnerability, confidence, and indifference of psychopathy without being psychopaths ourselves. We merely take on the mindset and behaviors of psychopathy because those are characteristics rewarded by the collectives to which we belong. Of course all collectives do not reward psychopathy, but corporate and positions of collective power have a tendency to do so, and we are wise to look for and suspect same.

Because such a lack of self-awareness is incomprehensible to most people, psychopathy is not only not recognized in our friends, family members, lovers, and employers; much more importantly, it is rarely recognized in ourselves. A hard-wired cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect explains this critical blind spot. We not only tend to over-estimate the knowledge and experience of others by assuming that they share a similar worldview and identity to our own, but we tend to under-estimate how ignorant, mistaken, incompetent and stupid we ourselves are.

While it is easy to recognize these as truths about others, it is much more difficult to see these misperceptions in ourselves. However, if we look back at our earlier years and consider our various miscalculations, foolish choices, decisions, commitments, and failures, we can begin to catch a glimpse of how real and powerful this phenomenon is. We rarely recognize it in who we are in our present circumstances because to do so generates cognitive dissonance and even an existential threat to our self-image as moral and empathetic people. In the case of integralists, the possibility that we harbor psychopathic characteristics threatens a self-image of a multi-perspectival self that includes all other perspectives and then transcends them in a transpersonal, spiritual context. It raises the possibility that all that grand architecture may simply serve as justification for and rationalization of a prepersonal identity supported by an emotionally-based ideology and pre-rational belief system. No one wants to contemplate that possibility for themselves, while at the same time being quite capable of attributing that blindness to others.

Implications for culture, society, and civilizations

The reality of psychopathy extends quite far beyond personal development and our ability to take responsibility for the real destructive, abusive, amoral, immoral, and even criminal potentials that exist within all of us. If it were only that, we would be contemplating our own ability to destroy our lives and those whom we hold most dear, which is bad enough, although rarely done. However, as individuals, our circles of influence are relatively limited. Our individual ability to wreak havoc is circumscribed because we are only individual sheep in a massive herd. The much larger, important, and critical question is, “What happens when the herd, for good adaptive reasons, takes on the characteristics of psychopathy? What happens when a society, civilization, or worldview turns into a sheep in wolves' clothing?

Psychopathy is an unsettling but important lens through which to view the momentous ongoing collapse of Western civilization. A historical anomaly, the rise of the West some five hundred years ago, on the back of “guns, germs, and steel,” as Jared Diamond puts it, is now running on exhaust fumes, with just enough power left to send it, like Wiley E. Coyote or a slice of lemmings, over the cliffs into the dustbin of history. This is sad, even tragic, because of the immense good and potential for even greater good that has been done and is now being forsaken. As exhibit A, consider the hollowing out of the industrial base of the US and EU, replaced by the service sector, essentially rentier grift made up of bankers, investors, lawyers, accountants, politicians and other gamblers who make money by trading money rather than creating public goods. As exhibit B, consider the widespread homelessness and spreading cultural and societal chaos within the US and EU. There exists neither the civic will nor the capacity to implement solutions, regardless of how obvious or simple they might be. As exhibit C, consider the widespread self-destructiveness throughout the west, whether it is in the epidemic in Fentanyl and military suicides, or the obsessive-compulsive demand to impose yet more sanctions on others, sanctions that are quickly and thoroughly destroying western economies

This social and cultural psychopathy shows up most fundamentally in the West as an adherence to a seductive and effective ideology, which is perhaps best summed up by the assumption that the Western, Eurocentric worldview of progress, democracy, freedom, and human rights is the best and “right” worldview that must be exported to the rest of the world because it is, on its face, liberating, and therefore justified. What Westerners fail to see, or less kindly, refuse to see, is that this is a self-serving form of ideological colonialism, resented and rejected by the global majority, which recognizes it as a thinly-disguised form of exploitation and bullying.

Such conclusions need not imply that one is a “self-hating Westerner” or an ally of forces attempting to undermine the West. Observation of the reality of the presence of psychopathic characteristics in all of us is not a zero sum conclusion, in which some worldviews are worthy of condemnation while others or not. But it is also not the case that all worldviews are equally susceptible to being seduced into rewarding psychopathy. What is important is that we look at our own worldview and take responsibility for the psychopathic tendencies fostered by it, rather than to divert responsibility by finger pointing or claiming some psychopathic egalitarianism.

When our noble intentions blind us to the toxic consequences of our behavior there is going to be trouble - lots of it, and trouble of an insolvable variety. That is because we have made ourselves incapable of the multi-perspectivalism that is required to free us from the self-created sources of our own demise. What are we in the West doing by supporting self-described Nazis in Ukraine? Have we gone mad? What are we doing by rallying behind a tribal, dogmatic, colonialist apartheid state that is committing genocide? What are we doing by attempting to take on Russia, China, and Iran at the same time? Do we have a death wish? Are we such spoiled brats that, if we can't have it our way, we'll just light up a can of gasoline in the garage and burn down the house? Do we really want to bet that bullying and playing a game of “chicken,” like adolescents in hot rods, is not catastrophically stupid and selfish?

When the best and brightest among us, those who not only think multi-perspectivally but are sincerely and brilliantly “spiritual,” such as Ken Wilber, in his “Earpy” Icarian fall from reality,[3] so identify with their noble intentions that they are blind to the toxic consequences of their behavior, what does that say about the susceptibility of the rest of us? It says we are most likely victims of pervasive, toxic groupthink, sleepwalking over a cliff, oblivious and in denial of our psychopathic characteristics. In the Integral community this self-destructive blindness shows up as voting for people like Joe Biden, or in Europe, voting for Tweedle Dum over Tweedle Dee. It is like imagining we have freedom of choice or a fair democratic election when our options are to choose between Pepsi and Coke. This blindness to our self-destructive psychopathic characteristics can show up by taking refuge in “consciousness studies,” “spirituality,” meditation, and other forms of virtue signaling that the people with cans of gasoline and lighters in the collective garage are most happy to ignore, because such interests and pursuits have zero effect on their power, status, exploitativeness, or criminality. Collectively, we are joining in a rave peace rally beside Gaza to virtue signal just how empathetic and concerned we are.

Sadly, once we have learned that psychopathy brings status, power, and socio-cultural/career success, it is very difficult to unlearn. As Upton Sinclair famously noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But it is worse than that. It is almost impossible to get you and me to understand something when our identity depends on us not understanding it. What we don't understand, just like Wilber didn't understand about his Earpy episode, is that psychopathy is a characteristic of our indifference toward the suffering of others, whether in our neighborhood or the Middle East. It shows up in our selective compassion, as when we empathize with Israelis or Ukrainians but are indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians or ethnic Russians. We exhibit character traits of psychopathy not because we are psychopaths, but because we live societies and cultures that reward us for mimicking the simulacra of empathy as virtue signaling rather than demonstrating actual empathy, for exploiting others in our work in exchange for economic security. for reinforcing indifference to the deaths of children in the Donbass and Palestine as a result of our bombs or for staying addicted to endless academic debates about irrelevances while the world burns.

What can we do?

Sadly, there is no easy and simple “call to action” to get us out of our self-destructive psychopathy. Just as personality disorders are notoriously difficult to remediate, so we should be under no illusions about our own ability to wake up out of our addiction to strategies that have brought us comfort and world status as members of the “golden billion.” However, if we look at the South African way forward, its “Truth and Reconciliation” process, the first priority is to be honest and make ourselves accountable. That means we need to turn and face our own responsibility and culpability in exploitation and crimes against humanity. We have to look at all the ways we insulate ourselves not only from that awareness but the countless ways we justify not doing anything about it.

A good first step after we move out of denial is to get angry. That's because an angry depression has a much better prognosis than a helpless, hopeless depression, because anger has energy to motivate us to do something rather than simply continuing to whine in our pit of despair. But there's foolish and destructive anger and then there is healthy and effective anger. The latter focuses primarily on anger at ourselves for our tolerance of our own sleepwalking, rather than on being angry at the wardens of our prison. This anger at ourselves has to be differentiated from useless and toxic guilt and self-blame. We can then use that healthy anger to access wells of possibility for what effective behavior, that is, behavior that challenges our learned psychopathy, might be.

When we take responsibility as part of a Truth and Reconciliation process we are stating, “Instead of being part of the solution I have been part of the problem.” “I screwed up. These are the steps I am taking to make amends and to treat all others with the respect I demand for myself.” Wilber never did this, which is part of the tragedy of his character. Neither did Rajneesh or Adi Da, or Jesus, who died asking God to forgive his tormentors, rather than to forgive himself.

The civilizational psychopathy of the West is perhaps best characterized by doubling down on what no longer works. Instead of adapting to the rise of the global majority, the West threatens, sanctions, and chest thumps like King Kong, as if huffing and puffing is going to succeed in blowing down Percival Pig's House of BRICKs. It would be much wiser if the West would simply recognize supporting Nazis in Ukraine, the genocide of Palestinians, and attempting to block the rise of Russia, China, Iran, and the rest only hastens its own demise. It would be much wiser if we gave up our virtue signaling and chronic indifference and instead demanded of ourselves action along the lines of Truth and Reconciliation.

NOTES

[1] The DSM diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder are:

A. Disregard for and violation of others rights since age 15, as indicated by one of the seven sub features:

  1. Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
  2. Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement,
  3. Impulsive behavior
  4. Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequently assaults others, or engages in fighting
  5. Blatantly disregards safety of self and others,
  6. A pattern of irresponsibility and
  7. Lack of remorse for actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

The other diagnostic Criterion are:

B. The person is at least age 18,

C. Conduct disorder was present by history before age 15

D. and the antisocial behavior does not occur in the context of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

[2] The DSM diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder are:

A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

1. Impairments in self-functioning (a or b):

a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high to see oneself as exceptional or too low based on a sense of entitlement, often unaware of their own motivations.

2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.

b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others" experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain

B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:

1. Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others, condescending toward others.

b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual's personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.

D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual's personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual's developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.

E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual's personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).

[3] Visser, F., "Games Pandits Play. A Reply to Ken Wilber's Raging Rant." www.integralworld.net





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