Tuesday, October 10, 2006


There seems to be some doubt out there that the North Koreans actually tested a nuclear device (see here and here, for example).

I, of course, have no way of personally knowing the truth of this, but I can think of a lot of reasons why the U.S. might go along with any North Korean deception in this area.

What interests me is the psychology behind a North Korean deception--if it is a deception; which in many ways would be not dissimilar from the same kind of deception about WMDs that Saddam Hussein foisted on the world (and may be the same kind of game being played by the Iranians).

What is the point of such provocation and brinkmanship on the part of Kim? What was ever the point of Saddam's trickery and subterfuge with the international community?

For at least part of that answer, we must go back to the essentials of a "shame" culture--the type of culture that not only dominates the world of the Middle East, but also is rampant in many Asian countries. I discuss "shame" versus "guilt" cultures here.

What ties the three megalomaniacs of North Korea, Iraq and Iran together is their obsessive shame-avoidant behavior, a cultural attribute which is the flip side of their individual malignant grandiosity.

Let me first address the narcissistic grandiosity that is characteristic of all dictators and tyrants, particularly the three mentioned above. Typical symptoms of grandiosity that can be observed in your typical autocratic ruler/megalomaniac like Kim, Hussein, or Ahmadinejad are:
• Continual claims for attention and admiration
• Cold and uncaring behavior toward others
• Other people are seen only as an extension of the self to be manipulated and/or eliminated as needed; an inability to relate to people as people or separate from oneself
• Inflated/exaggerated sense of self-importance
• Hypochondria, or an obsession with individual body parts and illness

ShrinkWrapped has this to say about these individuals:
In more severe cases, the existence of the other person’s mind and life is simply of no consequence. For the Malignant Narcissist, other people are mere props in the pageantry of their lives. A tyrant can throw someone into a shredding machine without a second thought because the victim only matters in relation to how he can support the grandiosity of the tyrant; beyond that, he is faceless, nameless, worthless. It was no accident that Saddam Hussein was surrounded by sycophants who all grew mustaches to look just like him.

These kind of personality characteristics certainly can occur in any type of society; but appear to be more easily cultivated in shame cultures, which by their very nature are usually collectivist-oriented. Thus, it is not unusual to find the toxic combination of individual narcissistic personality traits with those behavioral attributes encouraged within a shame culture; specifically, preserving honor and avoiding shame at all costs.

For both the grandiose and shame-avoidant person, reality itself must be distorted in order to protect the self from feeling low self-esteem or shame. Blaming other individuals or groups for one's own behavior becomes second nature, and this transfer of blame to someone else is an indicator to the observer that such individuals are experiencing internal shame.

Most psychological theorists see shame as a more “primitive” emotion (since it impacts one’s basic sense of self) compared to guilt, which is developed later in the maturation of the self. Without the development of guilt there is no development of a real social conscience. Most of western culture is predominantly a "guilt"-type culture

In a typical shame culture, what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on one's behavior than even what the individual himself believes. These powerful, preening dictators, who hold complete power over people and who present themselves as little gods, are totally wrapped up in what other people think of them. Humiliation and shame are to be avoided at all costs; and this cultural imperative is only emphasized by the individual grandiosity of the near-omnipotent "great" or "dear" leaders.

From a psychological perspective, it is ridiculous to maintain that it is America's --or any other country's-- "fault" when such leaders behave badly. This distorted view arises from a perverted notion of what self-esteem is really all about.

The excessive self-esteem you see in a bully comes from a distortion of reality that person has with regard to their self. It was widely believed that low self-esteem could be a cause of violence, but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves. Do you really suppose that people like Kim Jung Il or Saddam Hussein or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffer from poor self-esteem? On the contrary. Exaggerated self-esteem is one of the hallmarks of a pathological narcissist or psychopath. Such individuals turn violent toward others who fail to give them the inflated respect they think they deserve.

Nor does high self-esteem deter people from becoming bullies, according to most of the studies that have been done; it is simply untrue that beneath the surface of every obnoxious bully is an unhappy, self-hating child in need of sympathy and praise. Rather, it is more consistent with exactly the opposite--a narcissistically inflated sense of self that much be preserved at all costs.

Let's remember that these tyrants are not psychiatric patients. They do not seek help; nor do they believe that anything is wrong with them. They believe they are entitled to unlimited praise and deference. They believe that their will and their desire is all that is important. Many people who enthusiastically surround such dictators and admire them are sycophantic and self-abasing appeasers (these people genuinely admire the power and ruthlessness of the omnipotent dictator and want some of that aura to rub off on them--see an example here).

One of the most important expressions of the shame culture, as well as shame-avoidant and grandiose persons in general, is the rampant psychological projection and refusal to accept responsibility for any inappropriate behavior--up to and including the most disgusting of atrocities. It is always someone else's fault. In this way the shame-avoidant person can successfully avoid the shame that is inevitable when a mature individual takes responsibility for their own malignant behavior.

Iran's latest press release, blaming the US for North Korea's nuclear test (even if the test turns out to be non-nuclear) is just a part of the classic shame-avoidant dance that leads into the blurry realms of delusion.

Iran's leader clearly understands this dynamic, because he suffers from it himself. It is always someone else's fault that forces you to behave insanely when you are humiliated. There is no responsibility for one's own actions; or even for one's own thoughts or feelings.

Psychological health (which dictators, tyrants and thugs clearly lack, since their operating principle is to obtain power over others, rather than exert power over their own aggressive impulses) and healthy self-esteem depend on overcoming shame by progressing to a level of maturity that recognizes objective reality and truth; a level where taking responsibility for one's actions and accepting that the truth about one's self is not determined by other people's opinions. When that level of maturity is reached individually and culturally, both shame and guilt become important reality checks to an individual--or to a culture.

When a culture determines that the avoidance of shame is necessary no matter what the cost, the result is a culture of fanaticism, bizarre behavior in the name of "honor"; and simultaneously the cultural oppression, subjugation, and humiliation of women and others perceived as "weak" (and therefore "shameful"). It also inevitably results in the projection of one's own unacceptable behavior and shameful feelings onto another individual or an outside group. When a narcissistic and grandiose individual is steeped in such a culture, they easily become monsters and think of themselves as "gods" (or the special envoy of a god in the case of Ahmadinejad).

The issue for western nations is how one addresses such cultures and their grandiose and often irrational, but cunning, leaders.

SC&A in his usual direct manner have this to say:
Diplomats do not solve problems, they effect useful compromise. That is nice when we are dealing with Canada, France or Luxembourg. Diplomats are ineffective when comes to dealing with evil, because evil must be defeated, not compromised with. Evil must be addressed, head on and relentlessly. If you are unsure about what is and isn’t real evil, you are indeed an idiot.
In fact, as those who insist we establish a ‘dialogue’ with North Korea, that very regime has been at the fore of arms proliferation, selling nuclear and missile expertise to the highest bidder. No amount of ‘dialogue’ will cause the North Koreans to ’see the light.’ They know very well the difference between right and wrong. They have deliberately chosen to starve their nation so that they might field the world’s 4th largest military and they have deliberately rebuffed the civilized world with threats of catastrophe.

It should come as no surprise that North Korea has for decades, counted among it’s allies terrorists and rogue nations and regimes that openly call for the destruction of other nations and entire peoples.

Compromise and negotiation are not a valued part of any shame culture. There can be no compromise with their concept of "honor", for any compromise brings "shame". Thus, in order to maintain honor, lying and any other kind of deceit is completely acceptable--even encouraged. Multiply this times ten when dealing with the malignant narcissistic leader of the culture or nation.

This reality is hard to grasp for the western mind which places a higher value on truth and honesty. Thus, western diplomats seem incredibly naiive and laughable to both Asian and Arab minds because they believe in the sanctity of agreement, treaties, and the like. The idea that deliberate deceit or lying as a political strategy is considered acceptable--even honorable --in some places of the world doesn't seem to occur to them.

Kim Jong Il cannot back down now. He has brought things to the brink, where he (and most narcissists and psychopaths) like to operate. In fact, he is counting on the West and in particular, the U.S. to take the step back. He has every historical reason to be encouraged that this will happen. Jimmy Carter did it; Madeleine Albright did it; Bill Clinton did it. The Democratic leadership currently in Congress is dying to do it.

However there are several key psychological points one needs to keep in mind when dealing with both the narcissistic grandiosity of the dictator/tyrant and the shame-avoidant culture that nourishes him.

First, in dealing with the narcissistic grandiosity it must be remembered that what you are confronting is basically a bully (a bully with nuclear weapons for sure, but still a bully). And a bully will only stop bullying when it is absolutely clear to him that he cannot win. In other words, a show of overwhelming force that is direct, clear and unambiguous is what is needed. The bully must understand that he will not get away with his bullying; that it will not be tolerated-- or there will be catastrophic consequences for him personally.

Bullies like Kim Jong Il will watch carefully to see if the West really means what it says in this area, and if he senses any ambiguity or lack of resolve on the part of the international community or within the US, he will hold his ground because he thinks he is stronger and can exploit our indecision.

That is what Saddam believed would happen in Iraq. That is what Ahmadinejad and the malignant mullahs believe will happen in their own confrontation with the West. They have seen the indecision and the lack of will and are certain they will prevail against such weakness.

So it is incredibly important that militarily the US or the international community step up to the plate. (I suspect we can likely forget the latter).

The second part of the strategy must address the shame-avoidant culture that Kim controls. Some sort of "carrot" must be offered to the regime that can help them save face. It does not necessarily have to be anything that is high on the North Korean priority list; but it must be something of significance internationally that will increase their status in some way that does not reinforce their already over-emphasized military grandiosity.

This sort of dual behavioral management strategy takes into account both the individual and the cultural psychological dysfunction that underlies the pathological brinksmanship often seen such regimes. Showing any sign of military weakness, willingness to appease or tolerate bad behavior, or a lack of resolve will only empower malignant narcissists like Kim; and failing to offer a way to save face (or reinforcing the worst aspects of the regime in the face-saving) will leave Koreans with an intolerable degree of shame that may be manipulated and cause future problems.

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