In 1997, an article appeared in The Lancet, a medical journal, describing what was labelled Syndrome E. The ‘E’ stands for evil and the syndrome is a collection of the behaviour and characteristics of those who commit evil deeds.
Here is the list of what was claimed to constitute Syndrome E:
- Repetition: the aggression is repeated compulsively.
- Obsessive ideation: the perpetrators are obsessed with ideas that justify their aggression and underlie their mission.
- Perseveration: circumstances have no impact on the perpetrator’s behaviour, who perseveres even if the action is self-destructive.
- Diminished affective reactivity: the perpetrator has no emotional affect.
- Hyperarousal: the elation experienced by the perpetrator is a high induced by repetition, and a function of the number of victims.
- Intact language, memory and problem-solving skills: the syndrome has no impact on higher cognitive abilities.
- Rapid habituation: the perpetrator becomes desensitised to the violence.
- Compartmentalisation: the violence can take place in parallel to an ordinary, affectionate family life.
- Environmental dependency: the context, especially identification with a group and obedience to an authority, determines what actions are possible.
- Group contagion: belonging to the group enables the action, each member mapping his behaviour on the other. Fried’s assumption was that all these ways of behaving had underlying neurophysiological causes that were worth investigating.
It’s very easy to see how many of these characteristics can so easily translate to politics – and particularly to single-issue politics.
Politics is a group activity. Groups with the same ideology tend to form where individuals feed off each other and obsessively repeat their own ideas. Those that are outside the group (non-Corbynista Labour MPs for instance) or disagree with the group’s ideology, get demonised as the enemy (enemies of the people) and, in some cases, de-humanised (immigrants, Brussels bureaucrats, whatever).
Every perceived victory is celebrated leading to the ‘hyperarousal’ mentioned in the syndrome.
Politics is necessarily ideological. That is not the problem. It’s when the various behaviour described in Syndrome E come together and become accepted that we start getting polarisation, aggression, intolerance and, eventually, violence. And all of that becomes normalised.
Of course, the problem is much worse when it affects our politics than only when it affects individuals. Politics sets the tone of discourse and behaviour in the country. A politics of conflict and violence – or shall we call it Politics E – will, sooner or later, inevitably alter our whole society.
We must not hold back in calling out certain approaches to political discourse and behaviour as nothing short of evil. And we must do so before they become normal and affect the whole population.
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