On Corruption and Cover-Ups, Guy Mankowski interviews Will Black
Will Black is a writer and journalist with a background in anthropology and mental health care. His latest book, Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires, examines the corrupting influence powerful psychopaths have on societies.
Guy Mankowski is a writer and academic. His current novel, Marine, explores whistle-blowing, cover-ups and corruption. He was recently awarded an Arts Council Grant For The Arts to research this subject, and has interviewed experts on corruption in sports and banking.
Guy and Will caught up for a chat about corruption and cover-ups, subjects which are hitting the headlines increasingly often.
Guy Mankowski: I found your book a brilliant read. You say in it that “the more complex organisations are the more opportunities there are for psychopaths to seize control”. Do you think the façades of professionalism, and its attendant bureaucratic tools, are consciously employed by psychopaths to cloak their behaviour?
Will Black: It’s hard to know, and I’m sure there is variation. But certainly some people who look at the world in a selfish and exploitative way would look at aspects of ‘their’ organisation and professional structures to maximise their influence and gains. And also protect themselves from losing those things.
This has weakened, fortunately, but historically there has been a rigid caste system in Britain, encouraging relatively narrow groups of people to enter and thrive within certain professions. The ‘high walls’ and ‘razor wire’ repelling those from the wrong ‘class’ from key professions historically may have done those professions harm, as they also kept out scrutiny. And enabled the undeserving privileged to dominate for too long – which is a waste of more widely-dispersed ability.
While these little empires remained like fortresses, the cultures within them would have appeared normal to many of those within them. This gives toxic characters free rein to maintain and develop the toxicity of those organisations.
GM: Your book describes toxic cultures in which systematic child abuse has tragically occurred. Given your background as a clinician, I wondered if you think that paedophilia might, in people with a vulnerability to psychopathy, be a reaction to a specific early psychological trauma? I am wondering if such trauma, combined with the psychopathic need for power, could be an explanation for mass child abuse in toxic cultures?
WB: It’s very hard to say. It seems to be the case, in Britain and elsewhere, that celebrity figures and abuse ring procurers have been investigated and prosecuted much more readily than the most powerful have. The few reasonably influential child abusers and rapists who have been convicted appear remorseless so far and, given any opportunity, use their prominence to smear victims.
I know there is great work going on in some prisons, in the UK and abroad, which encourages sex attackers to face up to what they have done and their impact on victims. So there is potential for us as societies to gain more insight into the above. However, I think it’s more complicated when it comes to abuse rings than solitary sex attackers – and especially so in the networks of powerful abusers that authorities are finally looking into. Coming clean enough to offer insight into the above question seems less likely in this ‘elite’ group, as they have a strong sense of entitlement, are supported by and protected by institutions and wealth, and any admission would breach the fortress of the group and cast darker shadows across ‘elite’ society.
The alleged Westminster abuse networks – and other ‘elite’ networks – appear to have a stronger code of silence than the Mafia at this stage. As a consequence, we can only speculate on the dynamics within these groups and what factors led members of the rings to do what they have done. When we hear accounts of those brave victims of abuse rings who have come forward, it certainly seems to me that ‘paedophile’ is the wrong word. Brutal violent rape of children is not about an ‘attraction’ towards children. It may be about power, transgression of societal norms (as Ian Brady sought). Or some kind of twisted personal or group rite, to amplify their sense of importance and power.
It may be that some of these powerful perpetrators were abused, but we must not assume a simple correlation. Some people who have had charmed lives still manage to become sadists. Their doing so might, in some cases, be influenced by a disposition towards psychopathy, but it could also be something enabled and encouraged by malignant aspects of ‘elite’ culture that have been hidden from public scrutiny. It seems very unlikely that it just so happened that a bunch of ‘VIPs’ suddenly started abusing children in networks in the 1970s and 80s. It seems more likely to me that culture has shifted enough in the last decade or so that more survivors have come forward. Furthermore technology (such as blogs and social media) has allowed muted voices to become amplified. It may very well be that these sorts of rings have operated for considerable time, but a culture of shame, fear, denial and oppression prevented victims from coming forwards in the way many have done in recent years. Whether or not the predators abusing those children can be described as psychopaths, the rings themselves would have appeared monstrous and all-powerful to the children preyed upon.
GM: Later in the book you talk of the challenges facing those who would like to test for psychopathy, in order to undermine the power of psychopathic systems. Do you think it would it be useful for society to consider developing psychometrics to assess psychopathy in mass figures? Perhaps using their public behaviour and discourses as material instead of private material gathered in one-to-one sessions? Because – as you say – psychopaths in public positions would resist assessment.
WB: It’s a very tricky notion as, beyond the scientific integrity of doing so, in creating a shift in culture aimed at curtailing the influence of psychopaths, we could create a hostile and paranoid environment. It might turn out that this is what happens, but I don’t relish the prospect of societies feeling compelled to do something like this. Transparency is one thing, but a surveillance culture armed with psychological models could be as toxic as what we have now.
Fear of child-abusing strangers has already taken from many children the freedom my generation had to play out with friends and experiment with life – things vital to develop resilience and social intelligence. So, as well as harming their victims, abusers have cast a shadow over societies and infected culture with cynicism and fear. To create a business environment of such scrutiny that people can’t function naturally could cast a similar shadow. I think a better solution is to reward empathetic leadership practices, long-term thinking and a systemic approach to problem solving – rather than (as has often happened) reward a more psychopathic approach to business and work.
GM: I am surprised, when shocking stories about systemic abuse surface, that there isn’t a greater outcry. With regards to the Dolphin Square scandal there seems a) the widespread belief that it in due course it will be covered up and b) the sense that the government have no real appetite to address it. For instance, we saw Nick Clegg recently resist claims to investigate Cyril Smith, citing semantics about the fact that he is not in the same party as Smith was. Do you think this lack of willingness to investigate might at all be related to networks which assure mutual survival or destruction? (Without casting aspersions on any individuals).
WB: Yes, I’m sure that is true and I’m sure there are people involved who are not psychopaths and who are frankly scared and disgusted with what they have been party to. I think we sometimes credit individual ministers with too much power though. A former MI5 officer made the point at a talk a few years ago that governments come and go but the security services carry on as they see fit. And within specific intelligence services there are different factions with different agendas, but an ultimate function is to maintain social order and stability.
With that in mind – and before the internet made it possible for former care home children to have a voice, it might have seemed perfectly rational and right to help cover-up things that would unsettle society and cause unrest.
From a utilitarian perspective, non-abuser spooks covering up abuse in the past could have convinced themselves that they were doing something pro-social rather than psychopathic. However, now that more and more people can see the rot seeping out from the Establishment, it seems like a reprehensible thing to have done. It added to the abuse and betrayal of victims.
Those covering up these crimes in the 70’s and 80’s probably couldn’t have imagined that soon almost everyone would have devices that can broadcast information around the world in seconds. I’d suspect the abusers and those covering up thought victims of abuse were more likely to die young or become disregarded substance abusers than become articulate, supported people with a strong voice, compelling stories and the ability to broadcast what has happened. The problem now for the authorities is that the rot is so apparent to so many and – until people are satisfied it’s been completely exposed and cleaned up – all of politics and the security services will look suspect. As does the CPS and the police, when cases don’t make it to court.
GM: I worked in health care for quite a few years. There is lots of talk about psychopaths in business and politics, but I wonder if professions like psychology can be fertile grounds for a particularly elusive kind of psychopath, e.g. one who can call and respond with ideas of empathy and self-awareness to hide their aggression?
WB: The concept of psychopathy – or at least the term – is relatively new. I think we have a lot further to go in understanding different types of psychopaths, and others deemed to have antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders. Research into mirror neurons and the ’empathy switch’ has been illuminating, as it showed how empathy can be switched on or dialled up in certain circumstances. I suspect we will find more about how for healthy people in extreme conditions – such as war – it can be also dialled down. So in the fairly precarious, chaotic and confusing environment of a psychiatric ward or A & E service, there are certainly clinicians who previously shared no characteristics with psychopaths who learn to suppress normal human responses – like fear and horror – to make rapid decisions and manage to sleep at night. Equally, there could be some perfectly good clinicians who are drawn to the excitement and power of making life-changing decisions, but who – under different conditions – could be rather unpleasant psychopaths.
GM: In my novel I explore the fact that organisations do not protect whistle-blowers, and so social networking is increasingly exposing and confronting corruption instead. Are you concerned that powerful organisations will find ways to close this loophole? You mention in the book that the Wikipedia pages of the powerful seem to be changed very quickly if any evidence of their wrongdoing is placed there.
WB: We can’t assume that the freedom we currently have on social media will always be available to us – and many people have nothing like the power we have in the UK to communicate without being dragged off somewhere. However, the internet has become such a vital tool in business that, if it ceased to function, corporations and economies would also struggle to function. All sorts of markets are now so dependent on the internet that nations would be destabilised if the web went down. This reality means, ironically, that as long as capitalism as we know it operates, the masses will have communication tools at our disposal to challenge aspects of the system. As is often the case, the seeds of revolution are present in the machinery of oppression.
Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires is available via Amazon and bookshops.
Guy Mankowski is the author of the novels ‘Letters from Yelena’ and more recently ‘How I Left The National Grid’.