Regina Saphier: The Tale of the Dictator Who Became a Flower Salesman
How unlikely! Right? No dictator ever gave up his or her corrupt power voluntarily. Have you ever wondered why? I did. First, I actually just contemplated good, responsive, inclusive leadership that my country never really experienced. And from there I got to the question: Just what is it about a society as an organism that does not permit healthy leadership? And I ended up with the image of a bodily tissue that can not properly repair itself and if you imagine a country as an organism, the dictator is produced by dysfunctional social tissue. This is why a dictator is a cancer cell, his or her immediate and selfish community is the cancer, and the country is the organism that is dying of cancer. There are dangerous and deadly cancers, and there are milder, more treatable cancers. Orbán and his entourage is colon cancer with no metastases (yet), actually rather preventable if an organism is well informed and takes care of itself, and also curable if someone finds the right surgeon. The North Korean dictator (whoever happens to be in that role at any given time) and his closest people are more of a metastatic, aggressive breast cancer. Much harder to treat and cure. So, dictators are identifiable on a scale. Yet almost all dictators (as all cancers) can be dangerous when untreated or when more social tissue degeneration is possible.
Add the Dunning and Kruger effect (of followers and the dictator for this essay’s sake).
“For a given skill, incompetent people will:
– fail to recognize their own lack of skill
– fail to recognize genuine skill in others
– fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
– recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill, after they are exposed to training for that skill.”
Nouriel Roubini posted a blog regarding the possible fragmented, nationalist dystopian future of the EU if Orbán-omics (illiberal and nationalist state capitalism) spreads across Europe. Orbán is the populist, nationalist authoritarian mini dictator of Hungary (unfortunately there are similar jerks running countries in the EU). He has (or pretends to have) seriously archaic views of gender roles, social values, and economics. Yet, when he “worries” about the safety of Europe, he will say that he wants to “protect values like gender equality”. He will say whatever he thinks he needs to say, depending on his latest vision and depending on the environment. In my opinion Orbán is a classical, ambitious, manipulative sociopath with no remorse.
How are sociopaths* made?
Sociopaths are more common than you would expect (especially among politicians, business people, lawyers and the like). Becoming a sociopath is a typical (mal)adaptive developmental reaction to e.g.: a physically abusive father, and to a massive change in environment and social class that forced him (or her) to experience a lot of humiliation. Orbán is highly ambitious, a calculating risk-taker, superficially charming (according to his equally superficial followers), plus he is manipulative, aggressive, paranoid, delusional, experiences no remorse, does not have much cultural capital, yet he thinks he is always right, believes he is smarter than (almost) anyone else, has a grandiose sense of self, has no insight into the fact that he is a sociopath, uses others as tools, is constantly in a hero pose, does not experience true empathy for others, and is full of narcissism… and now add the constant secret inferiority complex that causes a lot of frustration (he uses metaphors in his political speeches that refer to physically abusive acts and he also spoke as a young man about his father beating him brutally)… he always knows when he is hurt or bothered, but is oblivious to other people’s feelings… (a sociopath is different from a psychopath in that the sociopath is a creation of his or her experiences and environment, while a psychopath is born without empathy and conscience… now that psychopathy can be diagnosed with MRI and genetic testing, I wonder how sociopaths could be spotted with these tests…). Of course I am only theorizing here, I am not a psychiatric professional, and obviously I can’t put dictators in an MRI machine. It is however hard not to see the traits that are used for diagnosis in psychology. Should we not have our politicians tested with objective tools before letting them take control of our national institutions, networks and budgets? Should we not stop psychopaths and sociopaths from ruining our national economy and international country image? (*After I wrote this blog I did more research regarding this personality disorder and I came across the term “acquired psychopathy” instead of “sociopathy”. The major difference between psychopaths and acquired psychopaths is that the latter experience fear and anxiety because their amygdala is functional. I also encountered the term “pro-social psychopath” as opposed to “anti-social psychopath”… plus there are “transient psychopaths”… eg.: some people – when their loved ones are threatened – automatically turn off their empathy towards attackers. Unfortunately, “fearless dominance” that is so typical of born and dangerous psychopaths without anxiety is also very attractive to followers as a perceived leadership trait… During hard times many people unconsciously or consciously gravitate to leaders who are able to pretend to be fearless or are in fact dangerously fearless…)
Notice that young Orbán used to be relatively honest and uninhibited (he says he did not study much, but he is clearly intelligent). In this interview he talks about domestic abuse he experienced and how he would rather be a political science professor, after realizing that he is not a very good football player. He emphasizes that he does not want to be a politician sitting in meetings for 8 hours a day. And yet soon after this he found himself to be an elected official, a member of the Hungarian parliament and today he is a prime minister. So, was he telling the truth about his dream career as a professor, or was he extremely confused about his own aspirations during his mid twenties? (Note: This video keeps disappearing from YouTube… until now I had to add three different links to keep this video available in my blog post! Orbán is clearly trying again and again to erase his liberal self from the web, because it shows that neither his liberal, nor his autocratic self is the truth… he is just an empty role player. He has no core values to build his own moral character. He is very similar to Trump! Did you know that Trump used to be liberal? These types of people will “become” anything to be in a power position.)
Within two decades Orbán went from liberal political youngster studying law, to conservative political football player acting like a politician for economic gain. He does not have any deep and real core values, he is not a person of deep thought and definitely whimsical as a decision maker (note: as a young man he appeared to have European and democratic values… that is no longer the case). I am sure had George Soros known what is going to happen, his scholarship fund would not have supported Orbán’s Oxford studies. Orbán should have been an average football player or university professor we never heard of. Orbán today as a #1 politician is a dangerous product of his environment. Remember, he was the symbol of democratic hope 25 years ago! Apparently, he is not a man of core vales, he is rather a role player. He kind of thinks the country is his estate now. He is now simply playing in another film that suits him according to his own self image. He is a confused cell placed into the wrong bodily tissue and does not know its true and constructive role. This is why Orbán is a cancer cell, his entourage is cancer, and his (untreated) politics is becoming a malignant ideological tumor actively spreading in the EU. In the right tissue he would be a relatively normal and harmless cell. (I will explain this idea in a bit more detail later.) It is important to state: Most people aren’t born to be evil. Only a small percent are born with criminal tendencies. Most people who become criminals or dictators, are growing up with the wrong values and experience distorting events. As with the Dunning and Kruger effect, notice how most maladaptive behaviors have to do with the wrong kind of learning, with trauma, distorted perceptions, fluid and circumstantial morals, lack of objective feedback or the lack of knowledge and insight. This is the road that takes someone from active, inclusive, constructive idealism (humanism) to reactive, exclusive, destructive skepticism (dictatorship) along the full spectrum of human attitudes and perceptions of social realities.
Idealism, realism and skepticism
I have been thinking in writing for a couple of days about idealism, realism and skepticism. Before I share my spontaneous reflections, let me say that I am what I call “an active, inclusive, constructive humanistic idealist”, and at the same time I like to take ideas apart, and put them back together with other, seemingly irrelevant ideas (so in my case “constructive” has a double meaning). It is like playing with idea Lego. Also, it is important to mention that I have never been the member of any political party ever and I am completely without illusions when it comes to party politics.
I share the humanistic values of people like Daphne Koller, Buckminster Fuller and Nikola Tesla. Constructive, visionary leaders with positive attitudes are the true architects of humanity’s future, but it is the collective sum of our best actions, hopes, ideals and ideas that lead to the future we will experience. Nobody in their right mind wants to live in a dark and hopeless, dystopian future. 100% basic realism is for selfish opportunists, for lazy conformists, or for misled people without any imagination. People who hate idealism have the darkest souls and wish for an equally dark future. Their souls are simply broken. (I am not one of them.) Basic, destructive and skeptical realism is for servants of the status quo. This is Orbán’s realm today.
Constructive idealism is for true change makers working with ideas that might look utopian and impossible to the conformist, less imaginative, less creative and less enlightened members of societies. Being an idealist means that you have ideas, ideals, values, aspirations, feelings, intuitions, mental images of a positive and inclusive future that you wish were your reality. When putting your constructive ideas and ideals out there in writing, saying no to personal circumstances that are destroying your positive experiences in life, and opting for actions that open the door to new, more ideal circumstances for you and others: you become an active, constructive idealist in this process. Our minds together create our reality in the future. Be mindful of what you wish for in a dynamic human network of ideas!
The success of your active and constructive idealism does not only depend on you. We live in human networks and ideas are spreading at the speed of light via the internet. The collective level of latent/passive, and active/constructive idealism determines the success of your own idealism.
My new hypothesis
Humanistic, inclusive and constructive idealism in action is the highest and most noble form of futuristic realism in any society.
In my humble opinion, realism is a spectrum, that runs from passive, selfish, misinformed skepticism, to active, informed, complex, constructive and humanistic idealism. Active, constructive and humanistic idealism reminds me of genetics. A constructive idea(l) adds value like a Telomerase … a kind of idea related telomere terminal transferase…. a protein… a reverse transcriptase enzyme. Enlightened idealists produce abstract ideas: catalysts constantly replenishing and extending the information related fibers of the social “fabric”, keeping the social “tissues” healthy and pushing the boundaries of humanity.
When the enlightened and knowledgeable idealists (the most terrifying enemies of rigid, authoritarian and aggressive dictators) are locked up, killed, discouraged, mistreated, unappreciated, economically and politically marginalized, or even forced to leave a country: societies stop improving and begin to age and die, just like humans when Telomeres are no longer replenished by Telomerase enzymes at the end of linear chromosomes. It is a weakened social structure that permits the rise of the dictator in the first place. It is not the rise of the dictator that starts the deterioration. The dictator is the one who will escalate the process.
Dictators are confused cells
Dictators and their immediate human networks are sort of confused cells and cancerous tissues (they want to be bigger, have more and more power, resources and money… often plutocrats in business behave the same way… again, dangerous psychopaths and sociopaths in action… and how many naive people just love them!?). Dictators begin to drain and abuse replenishing-resources of an immune deficient society (or multiple societies) to maintain their own opportunistic and corrupt social “tissues”. When human bodily tissues are not well repaired, or when there is a lack of iron, oxygen or vitamin D, the immune system becomes less efficient, some cells become confused and selfish, tumors grow, angiogenesis and cancer happens. Cells forget their original roles.
Cancer cells can become normal cells again! It’s true!
So, again, cancer happens when a cell forgets its original role, and this “cell dementia” happens because the surrounding tissue is deteriorating. The tissue matrix stops telling the cell what to do. Just like dictators are oblivious to the usually rather obviously bad ends of their dictator peers (the bad judgement is clearly visible right there) and to the bad shape of societies these people torture, cancer cells also don’t care that their selfish behavior is killing the entire organism. Place confused cells into healthy and relevant tissue, and the cells will suddenly remember their original, constructive and healthy roles! Cancer cells become healthy again! I am not making this up, it is true (watch Mina Bissell’s TED talk below). Basically, in rotten social networks the same happens, because the cells (people) don’t get the right information and forget their constructive roles. This is how people become destructive and self serving. This always inevitably leads to some level of collapse of values one way or the other, because the social “tissue” becomes thick, overgrown, rigid and homogeneous in an unhealthy way. The societies that contain them must first die in a way to be able to somehow experience the birth of healthy cells, people, ideals and values. (The operation called “system change” did not help in Hungary. We buried that illusion of change with former President Árpád Göncz recently.)
Here is a scenario that never happens (for a reason):
Unfortunately, in their isolated little bubbles, with their pathological personalities, dictators don’t normally wake up one morning with a new sense of self knowledge and say (I imagine this little sketch written by me, performed by Eddie Izzard on stage): “Oh, I am so sorry, I am a confused “cell”, a dictator person, oh no, and my people, who are dead inside, are not telling me the truth, wow, because I am a narcissistic sociopath with no empathy, oh no… I must do something about this… I will quit being an autocratic jerk and will become a lovely flower and stadium turf seed salesman instead.”
This somehow does not happen. It is how confused and broken these people are. Realistically, questioning their own behavior, or displaying true humility are not part of their repertoire. The stunning part? Everyone would be better off if this could happen, but it can’t. It is based on “social physics”. Yet what often does happen is that such a confused “cell” ends up in a prison cell, when a society’s immune system becomes stronger. It could be ironic that a lawyer becomes a dictator, but actually it isn’t ironic. In fact the legal profession is very popular among sociopaths (and among psychopaths).
The sicker the social tissue, the worse your dictator
Notice: As confused cells are the products of a broken repair system on the “tissue matrix” level, so are dictators products of a broken repair system on the social “tissue matrix” level. Unless you can somehow change the social matrix, you will not see any change in the short term. Orbán is allergic to Syrian refugees and migrants in large numbers because their strong will and determination could actually change the social matrix in Hungary… and he is terrified of that. It is his personal interest to keep things as they are. I personally would welcome Syrians in Hungary (healthy diversity, tolerance and the flow of information leads to prosperity), but I also understand that they would not want to live here. Hungary is mostly an intolerant and backward place (because the social tissue matrix is dysfunctional).
Since Hungary joined the EU, the European Union managed to finance (feed and support) the rise of a social class that is opportunistic, corrupt to the bone, destructive and intolerant (and not just the right, but also most of the left… Gyurcsány avoided becoming the same kind of dictator by falling flat on his political face… he had to learn something from that… of course leaving his office when he failed is also a detail that would never happen to Orbán, because the most important thing for him is power). The problem is, that the social tumors were never completely cut out of this society after the so called system “change”. At the same time the active and constructive humanistic idealists were economically and politically, gradually forced to leave the country after 2004. (Note: I was the only citizen in Hungary at that time who decided to found a pilot project for returning, highly educated Hungarians like me to support social change in this new EU member state. Within a few years the passive-aggressive and corrupt “elite” drained my soul and the entire establishment made me sick, in every sense of the word. One constructive idealist against a monolithic group of destructive, self-serving skeptics. One healthy cell in a sick tissue. There was no healthy way to function in this context. This is why I live and work in internet exile, away from the sick social tissue. I integrated into a global, online context that is much healthier for me. Here I am able to function as a free thinker and blogger. Nobody even attempts to tell me what I can or can not say and I am able to speak my mind freely.) Hungary as a society is dying of a relapse of social cancer, that was (only) believed to be removed over two decades ago. The leadership in power consist of people who are opportunistic, self serving conformists, destructive “realists” without: imagination, inclusive insight, conscience and appropriate knowledge. These people say that women belong into the kitchen, and that women should not participate in politics, because “dirty politics” (made dirty by these sick men in party politics) is “not for the ladies”! The kitchen is for the ladies! And their ladies think it is true! The only policy I appreciate was the banning of smoking in many public spaces. I love that! That is about it… and one bad decision comes after the other.
What is politics anyway?
True politics is about finding a common ground and setting goals in an intelligent, informed way for all members of a society and making responsible decisions about our community budget. Politics today also has to be based on intuitive and well informed futurology. What is happening in most countries today has nothing to do with politics that is in touch with people’s realities and needs. And to return to my original points: healthy and true politics is humanistic, inclusive and constructive idealism in action on a community level… the highest and most noble form of futuristic realism. Without a free and creative group of people at least aiming for a utopian future, modern societies are simply (pardon my French): fucked. I don’t know too many true politicians. The real politicians are well informed, decent, active, constructive, knowledgeable and idealistic civilians (yet pros in their respective fields) who are in touch with their communities and people’s needs and know about sustainable opportunities that their communities need to learn about to live better lives (eg.: Bernadett Szél, Bálint Misetics and Gergely Karácsony are promising examples in Hungary). Remember, healthy tissues tell healthy cells what to do. Even a couple of good people are able to form healthy tissues and networks around a capable human being. (When I set out to start my civic initiative, as a returnee to my native country, it is exactly the healthy social tissue and local network that I did not have.) Healthy social networks provide a healthy environment for people. But it is also important to remember, that at some point, when cells in tissue and people in social networks make a functional comeback, their contributions will make the entire system even healthier and more balanced. This is exactly why citizens are looking for such optimally functioning examples, because around such constructive people often happens to be a healthier social tissue and the possibility for change.
On the party political news you mostly see pseudo politicians (role playing party figures). The real politicians (civilian leaders) are rarely on the news. When they are, it often has to do with the enormous gravity of their idea(l)s in action. This power comes from the synergy of the individual’s vision and the readiness (level) of the networks around him or her, be it a local or a global network. Many amazing idea(l)s fail because the networks are not yet ready enough, not yet soaked by information, knowledge and insight to a certain extent (apathy of the masses in my opinion happens when latent idealism is temporarily frozen due to horrible social circumstances in dying social “tissues”… it means that the juices stopped flowing… interactions are minimal… ideas are not produced). It is often not even the constructive and visible visionary individual who fails. It is often the invisible and intangible network that fails the visionary individual, because members of that society for one reason or other don’t fulfill their right and duty to internalize new and important information and knowledge. Of course dictators love that, it is why the Hungarian state television is unbearable if you are an intelligent global thinker with local insight. It is a bit like being one healthy cell among all the ill ones in unhealthy tissue. Who is going to support you? Nobody! You can only make the change with external support in this case (and post operative rehabilitation will be essential until new values are internalized and institutions change). Unfortunately, it is always the individual who is blamed for the failure, because that is easy. Seeing the big picture requires intelligence, intuition, effort, knowledge, insight, analysis, etc. (Similar cases? For example imagine the talented kid failing because of a bad school. A healthy cell in unhealthy tissue. It is the child who is usually blamed, humiliated or forced to repeat a school year. The child can go to another, much better school where he or she will thrive. Ever been punished for your environment’s failures? It is so common, people don’t even notice.)
In countries like Hungary it was the biggest possible mistake to let the state administer the EU funds. The administration should have been less complicated and funds should have been much more directly available to civil players. Goals should not have been centrally determined, rather local (and real) civil players should have been setting the goals. Because the funds were administered via the government, it is the middle man who benefited (those who were willing to participate in the corrupt games). So, in a way, the EU officials and institutions are guilty of making a huge strategic mistake in this country. And the strategy did not change, so today the EU essentially is financing a new dictator in Hungary, while the social tissues beyond his entourage are drained of nutrients. Giving this corrupt government the same EU financial support in the future is like feeding a cancer patient sugar. An Unconditional Basic Income for all Hungarian citizens would be a healthy, nutrient and fiber rich diet for a survivor.
Sir Ken Robinson says: find your tribe. In addition I say, keep learning to build truly visionary tribes for a better future. Instead of putting all the responsibility on constructive visionary leaders, be mindful of your responsibility as a follower, as part of a network, a tribe, a community and a society, because you are all parts of the tissue matrix of that society. Don’t grow up to be a simple adult. Grow up to be a mindful member of a society. We have different personalities and different opportunities. Think about who you are, what you can do, what you could become, learn as much as you possibly can, and be your best possible self. Don’t be a passive complainer who does not do a thing. Even daydreaming about a better life and getting angry with your boss can lead to a better future for many people, if you speak up.
Remember, dictatorships never last forever because societies are dynamic human systems.
Update: It is February 2017. Apparently some of the social tissue started to show signs of regeneration and some social groups are getting tired, angry and frustrated enough of the situation in Hungary. Perhaps The Momentum Movement could be the group that starts the change we need. The “tissue matrix” (the society) that surrounds “the confused cell” (the autocratic “leader”) is trying to tell the confused individual what to do (and what not to do). Healthy ideals are resurfacing again! Solutions are being offered!
Here is the only acceptable mission for humanity:
Regina Saphier: Corrupt Dictatorships Kidnap Societies
Political Systems Are Able to Powerfully Distort Behavior Using the Channels of Peer Pressure and Social Networks: A quick look at corrupt dictatorial socialism, democratic socialism, liberal capitalism… “good” societies… “bad” societies… and my memories of Hungary before 1989…
Stigmatizing Swedes in the US?
The more twenty something Swedish liberals are exposed to a social democracy during childhood the worse their journalistic superficiality when reporting a highly sensitive social topic in a major international magazine while studying in the US?
A fresh study from “The DHYB Institute” * revealed that young liberal democratic Swedish men, especially Columbia graduates interning at The Economist while studying at Harvard are highly likely to write one dimensional and superficial articles. *Note: “The Don’t Hold Your Breath Institute” does not exist, I just made it up to be able to hold up a mirror in front of Simon Hedlin Larsson, Marjorie Deane Intern at The Economist who wrote this unbelievably short, superficial and damaging article about Dan Ariely’s research involving Germans, a dice game and very little amounts of money (note that the word “dice” is still misspelled in the original article, because the editors could not care less… rest assured that valid and constructive criticism is also very unlikely to impact them…):
Economics and ethics
Simon Hedlin Larsson: Lying commies
“The more people are exposed to socialism, the worse they behave”
“The authors found that, on average, those who had East German roots cheated twice as much as those who had grown up in West Germany under capitalism.”
When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Are you sure? How did I perceive my own childhood before 1989 in Hungary? How do I perceive the Hungarian society today?
It is not easy for me to write about my experiences under communism, but not for the reasons you would assume. My story is highly atypical, but I feel I need to tell you where I am coming from in every sense of the word. I grew up in Hungary, in Budapest, but I also spent a lot of time in western countries since my childhood (mostly on my own, not with my family and mostly after 1989). A major social conflict I had to endure in Hungary (after I returned in 2002) was that people not only could not put up with my straightforward style, but simply called me an idiot for not participating in the local social cheating games. It is like not eating monkeys in a rainforest when visiting a tribe (that knows everything about monkey eating there is to know). You appear a loser to them, because it is survival that matters to these people and your best qualities mostly don’t mean a thing in their milieu. So, I have my insider experience with “the social jungle” in “Eastern” Europe, and it is not a fun one (not only because I am an eternal outsider in my own motherland, but also because I have never been a big fan of peer pressure and empty goals… plus, I keep having my own opinion and I even dare to voice it).
Surely you would like me to give you an example…
Note: If you don’t want to spend time reading about my childhood memories, skip the next part and scroll down ten paragraphs all the way under this title: “Now back to the article in The Economist”
When I renovated my apartment in Budapest several years ago, it was torture. The main contractor (who came highly recommended by some locals) was surprised when I asked him to sign a contract. I know! How shocking that I would ask for a contract! Right? He brought smoking, drinking, uneducated workers lacking the basic ability to read an architectural drawing (I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I am able to read architectural blueprints… so, I am the misfit here… obviously). There were idiots wanting to (secretly) run the electrical wires so that they would cross one another in the wall in a totally irregular and unpredictable way (less wire, more money stays with the contractor)… and they were surprised to learn that this would be life threatening and that doing this was also dishonest. And this is not unusual here (… but wait, is it not possible that this could happen anywhere in the world…? well, in fact it could…).
Also, to the half dozen other contractors’ dismay I asked for invoices when handing over money. People here mostly don’t ask for invoices when renovating their homes. But the most shocking development to them was that a woman would fire them without payment if the work was unacceptable… or when I noticed their dishonesty. That was unusual to them. These people still think that something was wrong with me. Here are my mistakes again: I did not want the workers to smoke and drink in my apartment, I wanted electrical wires to run safely in the wall, I wanted the workers to be able to read blueprints, I wanted contracts, I wanted quality, and I wanted invoices. How horrible of me. I am sure you get the picture. This is the local culture and this happened in the capital, in one of the best districts. These same people would probably be more educated, more intelligent, more diligent, more precise, more respectful, better regulated and managed in Sweden. While personally this was a very painful experience, I am able to see that these people were not born to be evil or stupid, and I know for a fact that it wasn’t socialism that distorted them… the problem is so much more complicated. Socialism was legally over in 1989… yet the social structure and the culture did not become healthier.
When I think of my childhood I don’t remember socialism and I also don’t remember communism…
My mother was in an unlikely position in those days, because she was a homemaker. My father opted for collecting antiques and independence (collecting art is not exactly a group activity you know), instead of an office job (or instead of anything involving superiors). Therefore I didn’t know a thing about people in offices and in factories. The only place that I knew before 1989 was the school system (beyond our home). My parents found ways for themselves to remain outside the system (as much as possible), while letting me endure the school system alone, because there were no other options (at least not to their knowledge). My mother loved school and summer camps as a child, but as an adult she did not mingle much. I was a girl and so I was expected to be girly, to be social and to love school.
I hated my schools in Hungary (in fact as soon as I could I registered as a private student at my high school in 1989 and moved to Austria for a school year on my own to learn German, to go to school in Graz and to work as a nanny… I was only 17), and I never went to summer camps. I’m more like my father, disliking formal schooling… he by the way never set foot in any of my schools in Hungary (he hated schools very much… I did not know that until much later) and he never really noticed how much I suffered from the formal school system (while girls are expected to put up with unbearable things, boys usually stop adjusting and quit… one of the double standards of societies)… We all loved to learn about things that were interesting to us.
At the same time I’m lucky that my parents let me move to Graz alone at a very young age to assume my own responsibilities and explore the world. This was very unusual 25 years ago in Hungary, to complete four years of high school in three years (I had to pass a series of private exams at the end of the third high school year to be able to join my former class for the final year), while also working during the third year, plus going to a vocational school and learning a new language in Graz, Austria. I had the chance to shape my own learning. I wish I had mentors, but no guidance system was in place for my kind of people. All this in fact could have happened to me in the US. I am sure you see that most of my story fits both socialism, democracy and capitalism. Non-conformists struggle with the system everywhere.
What I remember from my childhood in Hungary is that nobody was supposed to speak freely on the phone and people were standing in line for bananas and oranges. We could not travel freely. News and knowledge from the West did not really make it to Hungary. I don’t recall it as a system that shared its goods with me (no redistribution). I remember that during a class reunion (when I was already in my thirties) some of my high school teachers told us stories how they smuggled things across the border (from Austria). I also remember how in high school the old school, conservative teachers and the young, progressive, reformist teachers were yelling at each other. I always knew that I was an outcast in those schools, I just did not know: why? I didn’t yet know just how different my family was… while others grew up with cheap retro furniture and uniformity (everyone had the same kind of cupboards, chairs and tables), I remember antiques, colors, textures and diversity. While many families had no books or a few books, we had lots of books. This is how I remember the times before 1989… I remember the feeling of not really belonging to any social group. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by a society that either really enjoyed camaraderie (those were often either naive, or privileged ones, or people coming from a poor background) or at least diligently pretended to enjoy the system. I understand that most people did not have choices. People were locked into a bizarre, paranoid and isolated society.
As a child I was not aware of much. We lived in a small family bubble. What made me aware was the social and political transition and my own, independent travels beyond Hungary. It was during my teenage years that I found myself suddenly being one of the delegates of a school protest in Hungary when the director fabricated a reason to eliminate the best professor, a liberal history teacher (this was after I returned from Austria). Until that day (right before our high school leaving exams) nobody mentioned that I might be a courageous leader (and little did I care about the risks: high school exams in year four were important parts of the university application process and university entry was artificially limited to a small number of people). I felt that I should be able to stand up for what I believe in without being afraid. This in fact is a very democratic value and I didn’t pick it up in school, that is for sure.
I think one reason for not knowing a thing about my leadership qualities was that I was wholehearted, independent, introverted (with some extroverted qualities that I picked up from my parents) and never subscribed to peer pressure… So, nobody in those days risked to tell me how to become a leader. I lived with the assumption that everyone should be able to think for themselves (it turns out, most people don’t really like to think or lead, most people like to mindlessly follow… but for some reason I think this is changing as more and more people have the opportunity and the ability to learn online). I never came across any acceptable role models either. I did not perceive my teachers as role models to be followed at all. I felt most of them were rather troubled people. Ever since I recognized my own intellectual and leadership qualities I also started to consciously observe and analyze people and their “group think” tendencies. The more I experienced in life, the more I observed the human rituals of leading, following, marriage, religion and politics, the more bizarre human behavior appeared to me. People, I realized, build surreally firm social structures even out of thin air to eliminate their suspicion that life is short and that they are not really important in the universe. People construct importance, positions, ranks, hierarchies and dictatorships, even now that they are able to learn almost anything online for free, can use tools that are a bit more complicated than a stone, should be able to think for themselves and are no longer monkeys on trees. But I know that positive change is also constructed out of “nothing”… because we imagine things and try to realize those ideals. We are an interesting species in the universe. I wish we used our mental powers to create healthy societies that respect people in groups and individually.
Hidden layers that I did not know about at the time, only came to see them later
At my schools, kids with influential parents, who liked to party and went to “elite” summer camps (so much about being equal under communism) were very likely to end up in leadership positions later. The ones willing to serve their groups mindlessly got nurtured, included, rewarded and promoted, especially the extroverted ones. Only decades later did I realize that classes that kids were grouped into by school officials (when kids first entered school) were very often selective based on their parental backgrounds. I can tell you, I have never been in class A in school, because my parents were not in the communist party, were outside of the top ranking leader range and held no offices (nobody in my immediate family held any public or “business related” offices). Those who enjoyed the last decades of the softened socialist dictatorship in Hungary were the ones closest to the fire, receiving the most benefits. If you adjusted, you were fine. If you did not adjust, you had to face a lot of problems and you often encountered invisible roadblocks. The most privileged of the system change era are now the “leaders” of Hungary, no matter what party they are part of. Needless to say: I am still not a party member and will never be one. I hope I managed to show you that I’m not a beneficiary of the past system and I have my critical opinion of this particular society. I also feel that my non-conformist tendencies and my unusual family bubble prevented me from being mentally “kidnapped” by the corrupt socialist dictatorship that surrounded us.
Now back to the article in The Economist
In my informed opinion, the way Simon Hedlin Larsson reported the Ariely research in The Economist is dangerously simplistic and even the original researchers came up with the wrong conclusion in their infinite “wisdom”, because it is not socialism on its own that causes people to cheat, rather it is corrupt socialist dictatorships pretending to be communist that distort people for generations (unless something provides protection, like an unusual family and personality in my case). Also, just one question: Have you done some thinking how likely the capitalists were to do amoral things in former “communist” states? (Perhaps at least twice as likely?) No matter what hypocritical “western” business schools like to teach about avoiding corruption in corrupt markets (I suspect that is impossible to avoid in international business).
While I embraced the system change (I went as far as graduating from Columbia University in New York in 2002), it is hard to ignore the fact that there were no homeless people in the district where I grew up in Budapest before 1989, and now homeless people are part of the landscape. This tragic phenomenon, as well as drug abuse (beyond rampant alcoholism), joblessness, anorexia, morbid obesity, body image issues on a large scale, overt racism, violent crimes, and so on arrived with “morally superior” capitalism. The negative results of “super” morals and attitudes of capitalism: objectified life goals, masses of homeless and jobless outcasts, stress, anxiety and existential fear among the masses. Starved and/or threatened people with limited means were centrally “slenderized” under the dictators of “communism”, and full employment was just a way of storing people in buildings (to stop loitering) while increasing the national debt (to keep up appearances of a “functional communist society”), so people mostly only traded the causes of stress when going from “communism” to “capitalism”… a healthy social structure never followed.
When you combine socialism and democracy, you get Sweden, and I don’t think that people in Sweden are more likely to cheat (I know that Sweden is also a capitalist market economy, but redistribution in Sweden and in the US cannot be compared). Only when you combine socialism and corrupt dictatorships will you get the cheating behavior of East Germans as reported by Ariely and his team. Socialism without corrupt dictatorship does not necessarily distort behavior. Both the researchers and the interning journalist failed to make, explore and emphasize this important distinction. The hidden agenda of the young and politically active journalist is that he hates socialism in Sweden, but he is afraid to say so publicly. He thinks socialism in Sweden makes “undeserving” people dishonest, so he opted for psychological, historical and geographical transference. I am only theorizing here, but might just be right.
Meanwhile in Hungary… today…
Right now the biggest problem of Hungarian society: the phenomenally rotten “elite”. Not only did they keep their past “morality” of “take everything that belongs to the community” (the best example from the early years of the transition is the privatisation process during the nineties… the biggest takers now have their own schools, radio stations, companies and offshore assets… left and right), but they also adopted the locally “new ethics” of capitalism: “the richer you get the better for you”. So now, here is how they think: “Let’s take everything that belongs to the community because the goal is to be rich” (and now the goods and funds include the EU resources too). These people live with the most shocking sense of entitlement, with amazing amounts of ignorance, and don’t know (or don’t want to know) that this is simply wrong. My problem: Just how do you distinguish this from the amazingly amoral and über risky behavior of the western bankers who caused this major economic crisis that the entire world suffered from (and in many places the suffering is not over yet)? We urgently need a new elite, but the members of the old “elite” are suffocating the country.
Sudden and prolonged trauma both go very deep into the psyche
Back to my issues with the above mentioned research and article. If by the end of the 1940s in New York you would have tested German jews who escaped Hitler, and at the same time American jews enjoying the safety of the US from birth, and if you did the same test with the offsprings of these people one generation later, you would have discovered that exposure to a nazi dictatorship resulted in understandable mistrust towards institutions and other people, and this probably resulted in questionable behaviors (that would not be present without the trauma). You could have discovered powerful behavioral differences. The same is true for people exposed to corrupt “communist” dictatorships. Trauma, existential fear, pathological social systems (like dictatorships and autocracies) and wars cause epigenetic changes and so: lasting personality, behavioral, cultural and social changes. The original research had more to say about the reasons and the causes (compared to the short article in The Economist). Unfortunately, the Economist article basically says something like this (I am making this up for demonstration): “Germans in 1944 were twice as likely to appear to be nazis based on a simple test compared to French people” (why not compare the two… they are neighbors in Europe… if we follow the bizarre logic of Ariely). This is how it sounds to me.
The Economist article ends like this: “The study reveals nothing about the nature of the link between socialism and dishonesty. It might be a function of the relative poverty of East Germans, for example. All the same, when it comes to ethics, a capitalist upbringing appears to trump a socialist one.” Says the privileged young journalist from social democratic Sweden who apparently did not really read the research and knows next to nothing about socialism, communism, democracy, corruption, capitalism and the possible combinations of these… he is the naive child who thinks that it is only personal effort in capitalism that makes a difference and “only the lazy never make it”… but this is a delusion. The young journalist failed to display true journalistic talent and missed an opportunity to publish a marvelously intelligent, compassionate, well researched and deeply analytical article in this area. Let us hope that he will learn and change and not let his social bubble isolate him from reality for ever.
It is easier to be honest and correct in a healthier and richer society and the devil is in the details
I wrote in one of my essays (mostly about China, but also about Hungary) in July 2013: “Dictatorships not only brainwash and isolate people, they also distort people on the cellular level for generations. That is a crime against humanity. Outsiders and even privileged insiders usually “somehow” fail to see that. Change makers in these countries are mostly regarded as strange and are powerfully hindered by the conformist masses and by the rotten status quo even after the dictators are long gone.” Regina Saphier: The United States of China (Part 2)
Simon Hedlin Larsson published his article in a major magazine. Imagine an HR pro reading that article and coming up with the sad conclusion that he or she will never hire an “East” German IT professional again because those people are “rumored to be cheaters” (rumored because not many read the original research article and the original article in fact says much more, yet still too little). The way Simon Hedlin Larsson framed this story (“Lying commies” / “The more people are exposed to socialism, the worse they behave”) fuels discrimination and stigmatization, and he failed to express basic empathy with a traumatized “group” that is as diverse as Europe and Asia combined.
The worst Neo-Nazis in Sweden might have better politically correct table manners… I’m assuming (at least these people think that they love Sweden, while the young, liberal, expat intern apparently hates socialist Sweden and is inclined to stigmatize others)… Some of the Swedish extremists are being pushed out of Sweden to fuel extremist right groups in Hungary… in a country with a very fragile social and political immune system… Plus, Hungary wasn’t so lucky financially and economically as the East Germans were… “Communist” Hungary did not have a “Capitalist” Hungary to pour money into the recovering and devastated economy after 1989… Just how “dishonest” would the average Hungarian be during Ariely’s dice game? (I know Hungary was called The Happiest Barrack… but still…) I even give you this assumption: Mr. Larsson quit Sweden because he so powerfully hates the socialist tendencies of his motherland. Mr. Larsson is a big fan of liberal capitalism, and he is probably a democrat. Telling you the truth, I dislike all of the political and social systems discussed in my blog. When I think about options like the “Unconditional Basic Income”, I am thinking about options to restore Basic Human Dignity and let people explore new avenues in their lives. (Regina Saphier: Unconditional Basic Income) I strongly believe that technological abundance, an optimal unconditional basic income, and free online learning will lead to some very important and positive social changes.
Wait! Why are West Germans still cheating in such a simple game?
In the end I ask you, and here I refer back to my example of not devouring primates in the rainforest with the tribe you are visiting: Why are “West” Germans still fond of social “monkey eating” (cheating and lying for no good reason during a meaningless game)? Mostly well adjusted human beings use white lies to keep a healthy social balance, but: Why do people with a high standard of living, high income and no recent trauma caused by a dictator still cheat on a silly game? To me, this is the real question! And this is the kind of irrational behavior that Dan Ariely truly likes to explore. Therefore the right questions are these: How come “average” people are only twice as likely to cheat after so much past suffering and readjustment stress? Is it not possible that the truly irrational behavior happens when people without recent or inherited trauma, and with optimal income still cheat during a meaningless game?
It is simply not true that the original research article does not say a thing about the reasons. On page two and in the “Discussion and Conclusion” section there is an explanation saying that there was extensive scarcity, citizens were constantly observed, followed, interrogated, and freedom of speech was not a viable survival strategy. However, for no good reason the researchers keep saying that it was socialism that resulted in distorted human behavior. Again, in my opinion this is wrong. Socialism without a corrupt dictatorship does not result in lying and cheating. If you grew up in Sweden (like Simon Hedlin Larsson did) where democratic socialism is dominant, you should know this. It is dictatorial socialism or dictatorial anything (mostly) that distorts people… but even more precisely it is corrupt dictatorships that are inherently dishonest. But have you seen how people are distorted by unregulated market economies and capitalism? I have seen the change. Both systems are powerfully distorting, dishonest, and misguided.
Let’s see: Surveyance is present in the US, scarcity is present in African countries, preference for the common good is present in Japan, utopian socialists built the Kibbutz system in Israel. Cubans and North Koreans live in two different kinds of dictatorships (Cuba is now a bit like Hungary was a few decades ago, while North Korea is a bit like former East Germany+The GULag, so N. Korea is much worse).
Look at North Korea and South Korea
There you have it: try to compare the honesty and dishonesty levels in N. and S. Korea. What does an active dictatorship do to people’s morals compared to the hyper competitive capitalist side of the same nation? You will see that those living (or having lived) in the North Korean dictatorship (and perhaps escaped… note: cheating and lying… note: to survive…!) will show a heightened level of motivation for cheating and lying (even the next generation). (Note: Forces that make South Koreans be so extremely suicidal might have some surprising impact on morals… Nothing is black and white…) The difference won’t be related to communism, nor to socialism, and not even to capitalism itself. The difference will show strong correlation with oppression, scarcity, anxiety, shame, alienation, stories of mysteriously vanished relatives and friends, forced labor camps and public executions… in other words powerful and regular stressors… and so with epigenetic changes… even changes in the microbiome… and with differential neurological development… and survival strategies observed within families and in a society. I would never judge a North Korean refugee for his or her understandable paranoia and hardly unlearnable visceral reactions. Would you? I would want to talk about this, I would want North Korean refugees to get help. Of course I would also want to know that people make conscious efforts to overcome the powerful inclination to distort the truth and/or cheat. At the same time those without the traumas need to learn what happened to traumatized people and be as compassionate as possible.
To quote my 2013 article again (Regina Saphier: The United States of China (Part 2)): “… look at citizens in Germany, so close to each other (not apart like the US and China). People in the eastern part are very different from the people in western Germany. Decades of epigenetic changes due to a long era of suffering, fear, stress, anxiety and lack of resources and lack of freedom don’t disappear from one day to the other. At least two generations have to go before people in Germany start to look similar and indistinguishable again.” I called this process in my article “PSCS”: “post-system change syndrome”. If it is easier for you, look at East Germans and North Koreans as victims of a mass kidnapping that lasted for decades. Look at them as former and present day hostages of a politically sociopathological system. Don’t be sorry for them, don’t discriminate, don’t judge, rather learn to ask: “What happened to you?” Learn to be compassionate and listen. (You might also like to read Part 1: Regina Saphier: The United States of China)
It was not primarily the economic context that impacted East Germans’ honesty. It was rather the corrupt political layer that impacted the culture (note: I am sure not everyone internalized this culture). If you have a political leadership that is not corrupt, you have a completely different game (Singapore is supposed to be one of the least corrupt countries with a strong economy and it does utilize elements of a dictatorial system). Composing the wrong hypothesis in this case is similar to comparing a rich kid who lives in a well to do neighborhood and a poor kid who lives in a poor neighborhood and ignoring the fact that the poor kid experienced domestic violence, as did his or her parents, while the rich kid and his or her family did not. First, I only assumed that The Economist simply permitted a young journalist to be the five year old running around with scissors in a supermarket, but while this is true, at the same time the researchers simply came up with the wrong hypothesis or the wrong conclusion, and were negligent in their analysis. Look what happens when research based on a misguided and superficially defined hypothesis ends up in the hands of a badly mentored Economist intern. (Who financed the study by the way? What was the purpose?)
There is a reason why I stopped reading The Economist many years ago. I also find it dishonest that the articles appear without the names of the authors. I only know the name of this author because he used to be my first degree connection on LinkedIn (until he noticed my open criticism… after that he simply deleted me… how “convenient”… but not my loss actually). I publish with my full name everywhere. Who is dishonest now? The woman with a face and a name who grew up in a former “communist” state (while it fell apart), or the international magazine publishers with capitalist backgrounds and their faceless and nameless writers?
Sweden’s democratic socialism does not make one dishonest (if you have the right culture). East Germany’s corrupt dictatorial socialism did distort people (without the right culture), while it pretended to be communist. But hey, what do I know, I’m just an independent thinker and blogger taking the time to actually think and write about the world we live in.
Tomorrow is the 58th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising that happened in 1956. Warning: Hungary today shows signs of a corrupt dictatorship in the making. The fact that the leaders of the past did not go away and the leaders of the present got their power during the global economic crisis makes this a very dangerous situation on the eastern edge of the European Union in a poor country with a very thin layer of European culture, a high number of people living in the underclass, while members of the middle class, the upper class and intellectuals (left and right) are migrating to richer and much more developed countries. The European Union must stop giving free money to the corrupt Hungarian leadership in the form of EU grants. It is imperative for the EU to introduce the Unconditional Basic Income on a European level in member states like Hungary to give the freedom of choice and power to the citizens to be able to free themselves from the corrupt leaders and to live an honest and productive life. The money is there, only the channels of distribution must be changed. We don’t want to go back in time. We want to go forward, face the future with optimism and build a healthier culture.
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