Power and hubris


Part I

I FOUND IT astonishing, but every comment I read on Boris Johnson before he entered 10 Downing Street was negative. That prepared me for what was to come, and what we now see. Here are some of the remarks made about him in his run-up to the prime ministership.

This was Max Hastings, his former boss at the Daily Telegraph, writing in the UK Guardian:

“(He) is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.” “(His) premiership will almost certainly reveal a contempt for rules, precedent, order and stability.” “Dignity still matters in public office, and Johnson will never have it. Yet his graver vice is cowardice, reflected in a willingness to tell any audience whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later.” “(He) would not recognise truth…if confronted by it in an identity parade.” “We can scarcely strip the emperor’s clothes from a man who has built a career, or at least a lurid love life, out of strutting without them.” “(The) Tories…have elevated a cavorting charlatan to the steps of Downing Street…(His) elevation will signal Britain’s abandonment of any claim to be a serious country.” (If Scotland and Northern Ireland have their way, Britain might cease altogether to be a country.)

Distaste for Johnson was transatlantic. This was the New York Times:

“(Lying) comes as easily as breathing (to him).” “Mr Johnson, whose laziness is proverbial and opportunism legendary, is a man well-practised in deceit, a pander willing to tickle the prejudices of his audience for every gain. His personal life is incontinent, his public record inconsequential.” “He prizes victory above government…His contempt of scrutiny is plain to see…He seems not to have principles…(His) mendacity (is) spectacular…(His) slipperiness makes it harder to predict (the result of Brexit).”

Since becoming prime minister, Johnson has done much to prove those drear descriptions and expectations correct. And we must therefore be apprehensive about how someone like him (especially with a close ally in Washington of similar, if not identical, tendencies) is likely to exercise the power, however nominal, that he now possesses. An article in the July/August 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine is helpful, and worrying.

Titled “Power causes brain damage,” it says this in part:

“Subjects under the influence of power…acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view…(Power) impairs a specific neural process…that may be a cornerstone of empathy…(and) leads to an ‘empathy deficit’…(Many) leaders…cross the line into counterproductive folly…(They) rely more heavily on stereotype (and) on a personal ‘vision’ for navigation.”

Johnson was perceived to be like that before reaching No10, so what now?

What about TT? Have you ever noticed such characteristics in holders of major posts or jobs? In this context, we tend automatically to think of parliamentarians, especially ministers, and officials. But let’s not confine ourselves to those. What of the private and public sectors, including state enterprises and the Public Service, and the trade unions.

I’ve seen no study on the issue, but do you think that such transformations are more marked, or more frequent, in small societies like ours, where room at the top is severely limited, and “the boss” must be seen to be “in charge,” publicly excoriating, even insulting, this person or that group having the temerity to express a different opinion? Why, for instance, so many decisions and decrees from above, announced without public explanation or consultation? Why the constant use of authoritarian words like “instruct” and “direct” and “mandate” instead of the simple “ask” or “request?”

Directly relevant to this nexus between power and conduct is the work done by Lord David Owen, a neurologist and former UK foreign secretary. In the revised edition of his 2008 book In Sickness and In Power, a study of illness (physical and mental) in heads of government over the last 100 years, he writes about what he calls the “hubris syndrome.”

As Foreign Secretary (at that time, the youngest in modern British diplomatic history), Owen had ample opportunity to interact with British and non-British leaders; his medical background enabled him to analyse what, beneath surface politics, was the foundation of their language and behaviour. (I suggest, however, that the syndrome is by no means restricted to politicians.)

He continued his research after leaving the Foreign Office. In 2009, he and Prof Jonathan Davidson of Duke University in the USA co-authored a paper on the syndrome, which appeared in Brain, a neurology journal. I shall come next to that paper and to Owen’s book.


"Power and hubris"

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