The Problem of Callous Leaders by Prof Paul Gilbert. PhD, FBPsS, OBE

26th June 2018

Compassion can be defined as a sensitivity to suffering and a preparedness to alleviate and prevent it. Callousness is the opposite, an insensitivity to suffering with an indifference to and preparedness to cause it. It is very clear that one of the problems humans have always had with human leadership is the tendency for the emergence of callous leaders. While their power was limited in hunter gatherer societies, the advent of agriculture created surplus and rapidly increasing group sizes. This was fertile ground for the emergence of aggressive male reproductive strategies and leaders. They were often supported by henchmen, who threatened those who would disturb the social order. Very tragically because of the way the human mind is, over the last few thousand years callous, aggressive, (mostly) male leaders have found it easy to take power and then decimate the world. Examples are found everywhere from the Assyrians, the Vikings, the Romans, Genghis Khan, Chinese dynasties, the Indian Moguls and more recently of course, the rise of fascism, Stalin and Hitler, not to mention an increasing number of modern day examples. Individuals pursuing these strategies have excited and driven a lot of the historical tribal violence of wars, ethnic cleansing and amplifying disparities of power.

Democracies do not and cannot contain them unfortunately, because they use well established historical tactics of stimulating primal fears in individuals. These include group difference, contamination and threat, accentuating the importance and benefits of self-interest, rather than the interest of the commons, and all the while offering themselves as strong leaders that will defend and support you as an individual in their group. These are deeply ingrained archetypal human motives that will always power the dark side of us. The word tough leader and callous leader are interchangeable and the more aggressive these leaders are to outsiders, the more they are regarded as good leaders in times of threat. Even our fantasies, be it Star Wars or Game of Thrones, are basically on this central dynamic of human leader followership behaviour.

While we can blame the left for its poverty of concepts and leaders, we should also address this fundamental problem, that is ultimately to do with the way the human brain has evolved and how it now operates in modern multi-group context, to which we have seen no obvious resolution. And if anything, things are getting worse again. Leaders are more and more happy to fracture difference, rather than heal it in order to gain political advantage. Despite many religions claiming compassion, it is remarkable how we are dissociated from our spiritual beliefs and on the contrary, believe that if and when we meet Christ in the afterlife and explain our attitudes to those immigrants and all others less fortunate than themselves, he will give us the nod in and tell us not to worry. This is because heaven is full of white people who enjoy a pint at the pub or a gin and tonic on the lawn and cricket on a Saturday. The concept of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others was a myth.