The First Criterion of Ponerogenesis
Cluster B Blindness Always Leads to Disaster
I figured for the inaugural installment of this new Substack I might as well choose a subject that is juicy and probably controversial. But we’ll get to that. First, a short introduction. Political ponerology is the scientific study of political evil. It is inspired by the trail blazed by Dr. Andrew Lobaczewski in his underground classic, Political Ponerology, written in 1984 but more relevant than ever. I recently edited a new edition of the book to bring it into the present time. If I do my job right here, you’ll still get something by reading just these posts, but I recommend reading the book for the essential background it provides. So with that said, let’s get right into it.
Ponerogenesis is simply the origins of evil: the essential ingredients and steps that go into baking a cake of human suffering. The main ingredients: specific personality disorders, especially those labeled “Cluster B” (antisocial, narcissistic, borderline, histrionic), and the “Dark Triad” or “Dark Tetrad” personality traits (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism). These “ponerogenic factors” combine and interact with the processes of everyday human life to give rise to evil. Philip Zimbardo’s definition will suit my purposes:
Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage and permit others to do so on your behalf. (The Lucifer Effect, p. 5)
So defined, evil is a permanent part of life, and sometimes it can be inescapable. At its most basic level it can take the form of random acts of violence: getting mugged on the street, scammed by a con artist, raped by a stranger, or targeted by a serial killer simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that’s not the only place it can show up. Such evil can occur on all social levels: in romantic relationships and families, at work, in all forms of social groupings (associations, churches, corporations, military units), and at macrosocial levels (government bureaucracies, leadership positions, and social structures).
The worst atrocities of history have been examples of macrosocial evil. To pick just a handful from the last century or so: the Nazis’ genocidal policies, the Soviet Gulag system and forced collectivization, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s “Year Zero,” and “rightwing” and “leftist” dictatorships of all sorts, with their death squads, torture chambers, and systems of mass repression.
The question is: how exactly does this happen? What are the conditions that allow for it? If societies are more or less vigilant about punishing common crime, how is it that crime on a mass scale can be so “successful”? For Lobaczewski, ponerogenesis always starts with a failure on the part of ordinary people. When it comes to mid- or macro-level evil—the ponerization of groups and institutions—the first step is the inability (or more properly, the atrophy of the ability) to recognize the pathologies that lead to evil. This “Cluster B blindness,” to coin a phrase, opens the door for such individuals to do what comes naturally: to cause the people around them immense suffering.
Here are some examples to show how it can happen.
Ignoring Red Flags
We probably all know someone, or multiple someones, who seem to habitually choose bad partners: “crazy” girlfriends (the best presentation of which is and always will be the Crazy Hot Matrix—case in point: Amber Heard?) or violent boyfriends (remember Ira Einhorn?). If their partners get a chance to learn their lesson, they might look back and admit that there were red flags that they shoved under the rug. If they’d taken those red flags seriously and ended the relationship before it began or spiraled out of control, they could have spared themselves. The inability to recognize the dangers early on provides the opening for potentially years of debilitating, narcissistic abuse. The longer the relationship lasts, the harder it is to get out, and the more times it happens, the ability to see what’s going on diminishes.
As psychotherapist Sandra Brown writes, “You can’t avoid what you don’t see.” Her observations of women in such relationships can apply to all the examples here:
By the time the women were referred to me they had suffered years of damage from various dangerous men, to the point where they perceived dangerous men as being just “everyday guys.” They no longer recognized their men’s patterns as dangerous. They were numb from years of making bad choices. …
Even when there were red flags, women preferred to focus on the man’s good points and to diminish, ignore, deny, or reframe his negative, dangerous, or dissatisfying character traits or behaviors. It was more important to find something positive in him to relate to than it was to be aware of his dangerous behaviors. (How to Spot a Dangerous Man, pp. xiii, 48)
(See also her subsequent book, Women Who Love Psychopaths.)
The same goes for close family relationships. When a family member is discovered to have committed some heinous crime, it’s not uncommon for spouses, parents, or children to refuse to believe it (“Little Johnny would never do such a thing!”). Everyone needs an advocate, but the level of denial can approach the limits of delusion, no matter what levels of evidence are brought to bear against the family’s refusal to admit the obvious. Needless to say, the truth is often plainly obvious to outside observers. Long exposure, minimization, and glamorization have atrophied the critical faculties of loved ones with respect to psychopathological traits and behaviors.
He’s One of Us
We don’t just tend to rally around our immediate family members. We do the same within larger groups, especially ones as close knit in spiritual bonds as religious groups. A church that has lost its ability to discern pathology in its midst does the same. I sum up this attitude as “The worst of us is better than the best of them.” If we are holy, a member of our flock in good standing must be holy too (especially if he happens to be a pastor). In her book Schizophrenic Christianity, Jeri Massi writes:
Babiak and Hare write that religious congregations and other “affinity groups” (groups that share a common set of values) are favored targets of sociopaths because the bonds within the group are strong and deeply laid in issues of strong moral belief, genuine religious faith, and shared cultural identity. Whoever can tap those strong bonds can get a single religious entity … to serve up money, power, and prestige, and sometimes even sex, to the leader. (p. 80)
She quotes one ministry rulebook from the 1980s that includes the following:
4. DON’T CORRECT THE LEADER ANYTIME! The people are better off hearing a wrong answer than to see the leader put down by a follower. …
6. Always make the leader look good to others. …
8. ALWAYS DO ANYTHING THE LEADER ASKS WHETHER IT IS RIGHT OR NOT. Why? a. I trust him to not ask me to do something immoral or sinful! b. If I do something I think will hurt someone, it is him who is responsible to God for it. (p. 115)
If a church is predisposed to value loyalty and self-image over truth and goodness, its ability to recognize pathology will be close to nonexistent, allowing wolves to predate the flock with relative ease.
The Wholly Evil Enemy
We are currently witnessing one of the biggest mass demonization campaigns in recent memory as a result of Russia intervening militarily in the Ukrainian civil war, which has been fought for the last eight years with no signs of a political solution. The entire Western world has seen the above dynamics play out on a mass scale. To judge from media portrayals and politicians’ statements, one would think that Ukraine were the purest of liberal democracies, its president, Zelensky, a hero leading his patriotic troops in a valiant defense of their nation against the pure evil that is Putin and his Russian invaders.
Everything Russian is by definition evil. The list of cancellations approaches levels of absurdity: Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Russian cats. Russian performers are being asked to denounce their country’s ruler in order to keep their jobs; Russian athletes have been banned from events the world over. All Russians, by extension (especially all Russian soldiers), are bloodthirsty monsters, or supporters of bloodthirsty monsters and therefore no better. Again, the worst of us is better than the best of them.
Forgotten or ignored in all of this war hysteria are the following facts (just some from among many): that for the last 8 years Ukraine has allowed or encouraged the formation of death squads who have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered Russian-speaking Ukrainians suspected of sympathizing with the separatists. Far-right battalions, many inspired by Nazi collaborator and mass murderer Stepan Bandera (a hero of Ukrainian nationalists), have been incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces. They view Russian-speaking Ukrainians as less than human, and some have made public statements advocating for their genocide. In the last months, members of these fascist battalions have filmed themselves torturing and murdering Russian POWs and civilians suspected of Russian sympathies or collaborating with the enemy. Zelensky has outlawed opposition parties, had his rivals arrested and dissidents disappeared. Violent criminals have been freed from prisons and vigilante or mob justice has become widespread in several Ukrainian cities. (Even mentioning some of the above facts will lead to accusations of thinking Russians are the “good guys” or being “on Putin’s side.”)
I will have more to say about Russia and Ukraine in a ponerological context in the future. But for now I will just say that this is an extreme corollary of the first criterion: all evil is projected onto the enemy, while we remain pure and holy. We can do no wrong. War is perhaps one of the most effective means of blocking the perception of pathology among one’s in-group (especially when fueled by pathological ideologies like those held by Ukrainian nationalists). But when that happens, it allows the sadists almost total freedom do what they love. They can even broadcast it without facing consequences.
For the Greater Good
Lobaczewski brings up the first criterion in the context of revolutionary groups. He writes:
One phenomenon all ponerogenic groups and associations have in common is the fact that their members lack the capacity to perceive pathological individuals as such (or lose it under the influence of such a group), interpreting their behavior in a spellbound or melodramatic way—without even a minimal level of criticism—and attributing to them heroic or mentally superior qualities. The opinions, ideas, and judgments of people carrying various psychological deficits are endowed with an importance at least equal to that of outstanding individuals among normal people. (Political Ponerology, p. 151)
Witness the idolizing of a base criminal like Stepan Bandera mentioned above (or that of criminals, rapists, and murderers by a group like Antifa). The Ukrainian Right Sector, Azov battalion, and numerous other such groups are the prototypical “ponerogenic associations” described by Lobaczewski. While they would no doubt be insulted to hear it, in this sense they are psychologically the same as the very “Bolsheviks” they so despise—also a ponerogenic revolutionary group.
All of the above dynamics apply to ponerogenic political groups—ignoring red flags about individual members or leaders, uncritical solidarity with a group containing such members, cartoonish and unrealistic vilification of the enemy—all for “the cause,” the “greater good.” Such groups don’t realize that by projecting all evil outside, they open themselves to become what they ostensibly hate, perhaps even worse.
If my statements on Ukraine weren’t controversial enough, what follows surely will be. I recently found myself in the company of a group of self-identified queer/transgender anarchists on Twitter. The brief experience—and a perusal of several of this friend group’s profiles—solidified my impression that trans and “queer” ideology creates a haven for dangerous personality disorders. One of this group identifies as an “unhinged,” introverted bisexual anarchist with antisocial personality disorder whose professed personal ideology is “sadism” (i.e. Marquis de Sade).
The majority include pronouns in their bios, and several claim to be autistic. This in itself isn’t surprising:
Compared to cisgender individuals, transgender and gender-diverse individuals have, on average, higher rates of autism, other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diagnoses. For both autistic and non-autistic individuals, transgender and gender-diverse individuals score, on average, higher on self-report measures of autistic traits, systemizing, and sensory sensitivity, and, on average, lower on self-report measures of empathy.
The “gender-diverse” group’s prevalence of autism was almost 5x that of the cisgender group (24% compared to 5%). Note that this study didn’t test for personality disorders. For that we have to look to other studies, like this one:
Nearly 50% of participants showed at least one PD diagnosis, with no gender differences in prevalence. Borderline PD was the most frequent diagnosis in the overall sample.
And this one:
International epidemiological data from several countries indicate that the best available estimates of the prevalence of any PD diagnosis in transgender youth are around 20% for adolescents and tend to increase to nearly 50% in trans-adults.
Estimates for prevalence of PD in the general population is usually in the range of 8 to 12%. The fact is that personality disorders are greatly overrepresented in the transgender community, yet to point this out or to highlight the dangers it may pose is to leave oneself open to accusations of “transphobia” or “social oppression of neurodivergents.”
The dynamic here is the same as that in the above examples. Like a close-knit religious group, membership brings with it the protection of the collective group identity. And by the logic of queer theory, the doors are wide open:
Queer Theory exists, in a nutshell, to antagonize norms, normativity, and the normal—that is, anything that can be considered normal by society (even in accurate, neutral description) and thus that carries or can be construed to imply a morally normative expectation about it, which it deems intrinsically oppressive. This attitude is probably most clearly understood in the binary dichotomy “normal” versus “abnormal,” noting that there is a relatively positive connotation to “normal” as compared to a relatively negative connotation to “abnormal.” Considering ways that society tends to expect one’s behavior to be within certain bounds of “normalcy,” and everything falling outside of that is “abnormal,” “perverted,” or “crazy,” may clarify this understanding. Queer Theory wouldn’t merely seek to expand the boundaries of “normal” to include circumstances like homosexuality or, stretching the idea further, intersex conditions but to abolish the idea that “normal” is anything but constraining and oppressive entirely …
To identify oneself with a group whose self-image is based on that of an oppressed minority that rejects the categories of normalcy provides cover for dangerous individuals, maybe the best cover. The trans and queer community isn’t just uncritical and blind to psychopathology (AKA abnormal psychology); it positively promotes it through its explicit embrace/rejection of such categories. Cluster B and Dark Tetrad personalities need only identify as trans-something to gain the privileges that come along with it (and despite the mental and emotional suffering of many gender dysphorics, there are privileges, especially for those who lack the capacity for much actual emotional suffering). You can thank the Daily Mail for these headlines:
'We found love in a hopeless place.' Meet the trans prisoner, 27, convicted of killing her foster father and the female double murderer she impregnated, who began their forbidden relationship at NJ women's prison
Registered sex-offender identifying as a woman accused of exposing half-erect penis at an LA spa is a 'troubled and lawless transient with a long criminal record, who avoids parents' conservative neighborhood'
But don’t you dare call any of these people what they are: disturbed, violent men.
Transgenderism (the ideology, not simply the psychological disorder) is one of the defining features of our current psychological malaise. I’ll be returning to it too, because so many of its features have a ponerological dimension: transpersonification, Trojan horse ideology, social contagion, conversive thinking, and more. But all that coming soon.
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