Identifying when malevolence is cloaked in philanthropy
When I was a kid, I was enamored with topical folk songwriter and political activist Phil Ochs. The abysmal circumstances I was born into were assuaged by his activism, brilliant lyricism, and melodic voice. He inspired me and gave me hope. Ochs was emblematic of what the ideology of liberalism was meant to stand for; maximizing individual freedom and civil liberties, protected by free trade and free markets.
Yet Ochs also mocked liberalism as a hypocritical badge of superiority worn by aging progressives. He saw through the false narratives. I resonated with his idealism and his cynicism and I aspired to live by these sentiments Ochs expressed:
“Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion. That’s art. That’s life.”
His words epitomized humanity and passion and they stuck with me when I pursued a career in social work. I was deeply crushed by his suicide in 1976.
Yet as much as I continue to revere activism, it’s clear that key concerns, such as pandemic starvation, ecological collapse, the threat of nuclear war, and the ubiquitous exploitation of vulnerable populations have not been sufficiently addressed or altered. Perhaps this is so because in large part lofty notions of activism are often touted, not by those who are sincerely invested in deep-seated ideological beliefs to better society, but by those who are driven to procure clout and recognition. Likewise, it’s important to consider the intractable control the elite have over all major political processes and policies.
However, in an effort to steer clear of righteous posturing my intent is simply to elucidate the psychological machinations of the variety of Social Justice Warriors who are less concerned with the sort of comprehensive transformation brought about by grassroots organizing, and are instead motivated by an insatiable quest for power, superiority, and adulation.
As a trauma and addiction therapist with over thirty years of experience in the public and private sectors of NYC, the treatment of narcissistic abuse syndrome has by necessity become an area of specialization. Indeed, a PsychCentral article contends that narcissistic abuse affects over 158 million people in the U.S.
Hence, given the stats, it stands to reason that many of those who identify on the malignant end of the narcissism personality spectrum are driven to glean supply within activist circles. In fact, The Communal Narcissism Inventory (CNI) (Gebauer, J. E., Sedikides, C., Verplanken, B., & Maio, G. R.) was designed to identify those who are driven to satisfy the same selfish needs as the agentic narcissist who is focused on controlling self-directed personal goals, but in a cooperative public domain. Commentary received from a client who is a renowned scholar, author, and activist about her encounters with narcissistic social justice warriors affirms this assumption.
The individual who lands on the malignant end of the narcissism personality spectrum exhibits an absence of empathy and an intense need for aggrandizing, attention, and admiration. They harbor extreme expectations, reinforced by a deluded sense of entitlement and ‘specialness.’ These traits result in dangerously exploitive, abusive behavior that is carried out with cunning and acumen, aided by devoted followers who are enlisted to successfully dominate and destroy a chosen target.
The communal narcissist seeking to continuously validate their grandiosity and satisfy their sense of entitlement and thirst for power by appearing empathically attuned and committed to collective goals will champion a noble cause that concretizes a virtuous altruistic image.
Discerning if the altruism and virtue portrayed by an activist are sincere is analogous to determining if a romantic suitor is truly enamored or on a ‘love bombing’ crusade. One has to consider if their intention is to mobilize honorable ideals or to glean supply and ultimately wreak havoc. This is not always easy to gauge.
In the guise of an SJW, the seemingly heroic narcissist will deftly manipulate through solicitous goodwill. They know what others need and are intent on ensuring compliance. With patronizing guilelessness, they impart the indisputable importance of their platform, while pontificating a sincere desire to bring you into the ethical light. The cause they stand by may even be well-regarded and have ideological acumen. Co-opted however by the narcissist, the charitable objectives are simply used as a means to acquire power, fame, and money.
The smoke and mirrors of ideological principles obfuscate the narcissistic social justice warrior’s true intent and behavior. Spreading false information, inflammatory attacks, lack of accountability, unfounded accusations, and hateful rhetoric are all chalked up to progressive justice. In true narcissistic fashion, this SJW will virtue signal, gaslight, grandstand, ignite character assassination, smear campaigns, and pontificate black-and-white thinking.
For the narcissistic SJW, worthy causes become caricatures in which radical polarized notions of what is indisputably correct and indisputably not correct, occurs. Hence, the exclusion of nuance or thoughtful dialogue is vehemently prohibited. The narcissistic social justice warrior demands complete control. Any deviation is met with severe repercussions. Free speech and free thought are anathemas to the lauded cause. The supply/followers must prove their loyalty. They must also conform to tyrannical visions of moral purity. The variability and complexity of human nature are trivialized. Blatantly absurd false narratives are tenaciously upheld even in the face of contrary proof. Ambitions, beyond the bounds of possibility, are proposed such as obliterating hate, ironically by hating the hater.
Of course, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us that, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Nevertheless, caught up in the passionate fervor of the narcissistic SJW’s dogma, followers may lose site of moral imperatives and capitulate to destructive agendas. Colluding in blame, hate, and violence as lauded methodologies to achieve a desired end, damages the credibility, resilience, and stability of an ostensible humanitarian crusade. Equivalent to the relational trajectory with a narcissist, a movement led by a narcissistic SJW will beget disillusionment. It is doomed to collapse.
By turning to psychology and history (not social media or advertising campaigns), we can attempt to comprehend and analyze the present. In doing so, we come to realize that all idealists in positions of influence and authority eventually become elitists. Elites are those who possess comparatively greater power and influence within institutions, organizations, and movements. This allows them to engineer decisive political outcomes.
It is a repetitive historical reality that all forms of government irrespective of ideology, are ultimately reducible to the rule of a few global elitists. They determine foreign policy and run the government, industry, and the worlds of finance and media. How they mobilize their influence has tremendous bearing not just on the collective mindset, but also on morality.
An elitist is not the same as a narcissist, although it’s tempting to view them as synonymous. While prestige can certainly inflate one’s sense of self and even incite feelings of superiority, the elitist unto oneself is not necessarily malignant. Possessing high intellect, advanced education, status, special skills, power, and wealth does not constitute narcissism, but it does make one vulnerable to corruption. It also makes one vulnerable to being a magnet for narcissists who seek to benefit from the elitist’s power.
Essentially, determining if an elitist is a narcissist depends on how power is used or abused. It depends on the character structure of the elitist.
Psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski addresses the blight of macro social malevolence and its connection to malignant narcissism through what he refers to as Political Ponerology. Lobaczewski’s study of institutional and government systems comprised of high-ranking officials presenting with psychopathic traits reveals that evil motivations are masked by a humane ideology. When followers succumb to the pathological influence of narcissistic leaders, they lose sight of their critical faculties and they lose the ability to distinguish normal human behavior from pathological. What results is collusion with sinister agendas.
Clearly, those who are malignant narcissists in high-ranking positions are ruthlessly driven to acquire power and control. They command compliance and obedience so as to actualize their agendas. Hence, they are encouraged by the absence of critical thought, and our reliance on primitive psychological defenses intended to deny unacceptable truths. Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment concerning personal conscience and obedience illuminated how susceptible we are to the influence of those in authority.
To avert yielding to the strategic plots and schemes crafted by the narcissistic SJW, the cultivation of healthy narcissism is critical. Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg described healthy narcissism as a cohesive integrated self. Healthy narcissism forms a constant, realistic self-interest, mature goals and principles, and an ability to form deep relationships. It allows for sound reasoning and self-directed moral judgment.
Being grounded in a formidable sense of self allows for the acceptance of human evil. As the writer, W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “There is no explanation for evil. It must be looked upon as a necessary part of the order of the universe. To ignore it is childish, to bewail it senseless.”
In this day and age of rampant elitism and narcissistic ambitions, this call to humility is sorely needed so as to recognize the signs of the narcissistic SJW and thwart being blindly led. Perhaps then we can uphold the words of French philosopher and politician Charles de Montesquieu who said, “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” It is a stance of equanimity and inclusive critical dialogue that fosters the sort of mobilization that is necessary for the greater good. Paradoxically, it is from a place of humble acceptance of human fallibility and moral depravity that we can achieve that end, and grant ethical activism a fighting chance.
Thank you, Sheri, for your critical thinking! We appreciate you!
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a NYC psychotherapist, freelance writer/author, and an interfaith minister in private practice specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome, and addictive disorders. Learn more about Sheri at www.sheritherapist.com.