The practice of politics is a source of constant fascination – and of utter frustration.
The state of politics both here in Australia and around the world is in flux and it often encourages (or perhaps forces) politicians to display elements of human nature that we all possess but that most of us try to keep hidden within ourselves. Those elements that society tries to teach us to control through social conditioning such as religious practice, social acceptance, legislation, and many other means.
I don’t follow any institutionalised religious practice, but I do agree with some of the common themes they ask us to aspire to, namely compassion and forgiveness. I hope that many of the people around the world currently holding the rest of us to ransom through the political systems they’ve gained entry to, would find it in themselves to turn down the cognitive biases they have, particularly the self-serving ones, and find a small nugget of compassion which may help them to forgive. And to forgive not only their opponents but also themselves.
As a writer and a performer, I try to understand human nature and what makes people tick. It helps to create more authentic characters, but it also involves going into the murky places of the human psyche. It’s wise to find a way to separate from these places once visited in the imagination and to return to those clear and bright places that make life worth living. But if I’m honest that’s not easy. The magnetic pull of interpersonal conflict and human emotions is strong.
We’re hard-wired in our brains to pay attention to them; our endocrine system produces adrenaline, which creates a buzz, a rush, increases our heart rate, brings on a light-headedness, dizziness, heightens our senses – in short, makes us feel alive!! The release of glucose that adrenaline produces fuels the primitive response of fight or flight. The body expects to expend energy though using muscles, one way or the other.
In politics today, literally running away from one’s political opponents is not an option, and the swinging of fists is out too. Well, mostly – punch ups in the parliaments of Ukraine, Taiwan, Georgia, Turkey, Italy and Japan over the past few years prove otherwise. Blame it on the adrenaline! So, what happens when all this glucose is released and not used? It circulates in the blood and creates irritability and restlessness, bad moods and perhaps a sense of ‘unfinished business’.
This ‘unfinished business’ is what continues to simmer in people’s minds, and sparks the same conflicts again and again, unless, somehow, there is a release of all that pent-up energy (although, let’s be clear, I’m not advocating punch-ups or mass fleeing). This pent-up energy is what also keeps the rest of us watching in the auditorium, or reading the novel, or at home on our laptops. We anticipate the flare-up, vicariously take part in the ‘shouting match’, and our own adrenaline levels rise. We become addicted to the ‘buzz’.
I’ve seen this addiction in the eyes of politicians and those they surround themselves with. Perhaps it should be a requirement of all politicians to take a break every hour or so and run around a circuit to use up all that glucose! But hey! The tax-payers would never stand for that – we like our political theatre, our spectator sport, our verbal WWE superstars! Calm, rational debate with respectful listening and consensus decision-making? Whatever next!?!
But going back to the fight or flight response. From my experience of human nature, the world is mostly divided into those that run away and those that stay and fight. There are very few people who can stay within the moment and act reasonably, without inflaming the situation or taking sides. These gems, these peace-makers, are very rare.
Unfortunately, in politics, too many people believe they are that one special peace-maker. They all believe they know what to do to relieve the tension, to bring the feuding parties together, to come out as the hero/heroine, and be applauded for their conciliatory efforts. The paradox is that when there are several peace-makers driven by the dream of basking in glory, of being at the centre of things without being sullied by the baseness of human conflicts, they are also prone to conflict when deluded by their own self-aggrandisement. This room full of so-called peace-makers are not immune to the flow of adrenaline and its demand for action.
The rare, true peace-maker has no vested interest in the outcome, only in the successful resolution of the conflict. This important subtlety can often be missed by the ‘fake’ peace-maker.
In my creative work, self-delusion is often what defines a character. We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves. We construct a narrative that defines our life as a grand gesture, a positive contribution to social good, performed in a state of generosity and calm. We cling to the cognitive biases that reinforce our own delusions and stop us looking closely at who we really are, or who we can ever really hope to become.
It is this vast disappointment in the futility of ourselves and our lives that is the hardest ‘cross to bear’ but the one that for millennia institutionalised religion has helped people to carry. It’s comforting to be held accountable in an unknown future beyond worldly existence; one we all believe we deserve our place in because we have achieved something worthwhile during our time on this earth. It helps us to continue our futile lives with hope for better things to come. But beware the politician with a strong religious fervour. The combination of self-delusion and self-importance is dangerous, particularly when the consequences are not to be felt here on earth.
Unfortunately, this ‘messianic’ complex is common amongst the so-called fake peace-maker. They are often blessed with a seductive personality and they attract vulnerable people to them. Their narcissistic tendencies create a charisma around them that they use to charm others, to come across as magnanimous, dispensing favours, and mentoring younger, more impressionable aspirants. But this generosity has a price tag on it. To stay in their favour, these acolytes are required to perform tasks for the narcissist, acting as their proxies to ensure their glory is achieved. The radicalisation of young people by extreme entities (not only terrorist groups but also political parties) around the world is often driven by one individual’s personal charisma.
Politics is riddled with narcissists. Even in political parties that attempt to take the person out of the centre of the system, and see elected representatives as being held accountable to their electorate (or membership) are prone to the artful and skilled enactment of the narcissist’s charms. When called upon, these players can expertly perform the role of the aggrieved party, the victim, with great relish, while at the same time working away behind the scenes in pursuit of their victory. They are masters of deception – the self-affirmed deal-maker, the person who can sell anything to anyone – so long as it keeps them in the spotlight and ensures their place at the table.
From my admittedly limited experience of the workings of politics, I’ve come across the various personality types of those who practice these arts. Sadly, I’ve concluded that the genuinely good people, the real peace-makers, those who are driven by honesty, compassion and forgiveness, and who try to bring about constructive outcomes without putting themselves in the centre, are often those that won’t survive. They are deceived, bullied, manipulated, and ultimately disposed of, in the service of these narcissistic fakes.
We see this today in politics in many countries, including our own. I don’t have any answer to this sad state of affairs, I can only hope that we take time to self-reflect, to acknowledge our own cognitive biases, and educate ourselves on what drives humans to behave the way they do.
Five years ago, I wrote a play called The Cat in the Box that examined how art, science, religion and commerce intersected in the arena of politics. It was an absurd comedy, because that was the solution I chose to theatrically deal with the murkiness of humanity within this story. It also contained a warning for the audience – PAY ATTENTION! If we don’t stay vigilant and protect our flawed democracy, it will fall prey to a virulent breed of politics, and will be consumed.
We must kick the habit of adrenaline, find the good, quiet people and support them, resist the charms of the narcissist – fake peace-maker, messiah, whatever label we give them – but remember to try to always act with compassion and be prepared to forgive.