A look at examples of hubris in politics and beyond, along with an analysis of the factors enabling it.
In February 2009, former British Foreign Secretary David Owen, who is also a neuroscientist and Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Duke University, published a paper in the British medical journal Brain titled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?”
We know hubris from Greek mythology as defiance of the gods leading to downfall, or by the ordinary dictionary meaning of the term which describes hubris as “excessive pride or self-confidence.” Owen and Davidson who studied hubris in the context of political leadership however, attempted to formulate it in a manner that could enable thinking about hubris in medical terms.
They proposed 14 clinical features that could help identify someone suffering from the ‘Hubris syndrome’, as they called it. These comprise behaviour patterns in a person who: (i) sees the world as a place for self-glorification through the use of power; (ii) has a tendency to take action primarily to enhance personal image; (iii) shows disproportionate concern for image and presentation; (iv) exhibits messianic zeal and exaltation in speech; (v) conflates self with nation or organization; (vi) uses the royal ‘we’ in conversation; (vii) shows excessive self-confidence; (viii) manifestly has contempt for others; (ix) shows accountability only to a higher court (history or God); (x) displays unshakeable belief that
they will be vindicated in that court; (xi) loses contact with reality; (xii) resorts to restlessness, recklessness and impulsive actions; (xiii) allows moral rectitude to obviate consideration of practicality, cost or outcome; and (xiv) displays incompetence with disregard for nuts and bolts of policy making.
This brings to mind several contemporary leaders to whom one could apply some or even all of these features. The American President Donald Trump, India’s Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Russian President Vladimir Putin, to name a few. Even Emmanuel Macron who won the French presidential elections just last year recently faced mass demonstrations by people who felt he was unresponsive to their needs.
Are we in the middle of a hubris epidemic? One hears the adjective more and more frequently and not just to describe political leaders but financial managers giving themselves huge bonuses in the middle of a recession caused by their profligate lending to tech visionaries like Elon Musk, and cultural czars like Harvey Weinstein. It is not apparently a single power-mad Stalin or Hitler that we are dealing with, but hubris as widespread behavioural excess.
How do we understand this? A phenomenon of this complexity probably requires the attention of specialists in diverse disciplines but the daily news provides fertile ground for musing on the subject.
A crucial shift of note is in the realm of consequences. A significant component of the idea of hubris is that of punishment. There is a belief that excessive arrogance leads to personal devastation or, as the proverb goes, of pride being followed by a fall. But if one looks at the trajectory of some of the powerful figures of our times, one finds that in many cases, hubris has been rewarded rather than punished.
Donald Trump was America’s best-known businessman whose arrogance actually defined the show in which he starred (‘You’re fired!’ was his famous catchphrase). Narendra Modi surged to national renown when he refused to show empathy or remorse for the death of over a thousand Muslims in communal violence in Gujarat where he was chief minister.
The qualities both men displayed would match many of the features identified by Owen and Davidson but electorates in America and India rewarded these figures for precisely those qualities. One could argue that Harvey Weinstein facing a class action lawsuit by women accusing him of rape has indeed met his just desserts but it could equally be argued that for too many powerful men, exploitative behaviour is seen as a perk of their positions.
Which brings us to the question of why publics reward this kind of behaviour. Owen suggests that one reason that voters and shareholders are slow to acknowledge signs of irrational behaviour in their chosen leaders could be that such acknowledgment reflects poorly on the decision to put them there.
In other words, less successful people also demonstrate a certain element of hubris that sees owning up to mistakes as a sign of weakness, thereby not allowing for course correction.
But there is perhaps another reason as well and that has to do with the culture of aspiration we live in. Advertisers, who wield ever increasing influence in our lives, have been telling us for years not only to aspire to a higher material lifestyle but to actually look down on the less fortunate from a higher floor, a pricier location or a flashier car. Now, in the age of social media, we are not only consumers of products sold by advertisers, but products ourselves.
We are encouraged to present the best and most glamorous version of ourselves and our lives at all times, encouraging a narcissistic preoccupation with oneself. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian – who became famous, not for what they did but for the fact that everything they did was on television or on the internet – have a vast, sprawling
club of followers.
More recently, the wedding of Mukesh and Nita Ambani’s daughter, Isha, has been the talk of the town. Partly, of course, this is because of the clips and carefully staged photographs released by the family. The lavish scale of the wedding and the prominent use of film stars as dancers and servers have been widely criticised. But is this a symptom of Ambani’s hubris or is it a shrewd understanding of the public demand for its celebritiesÑand we are talking about one of the richest men in the world-to display a lifestyle that is on par with royalty and to provide a vicarious thrill in their mundane lives?
And what happens next? Is the present-day celebration of hubris going to require a revision of the Greek myth to say: Pride comes before a rise? Or is the abyss right there, just around the corner?