Tuesday 24 January
The Trump phenomenon invites serious psychiatric investigation. There are several questions that need to be asked. To begin with, could his election be regarded as an example of collective madness? This condition describes the mental state of a group of people who come to share a view of the world that does not reflect reality.
Beliefs become more powerful than facts and contrary evidence is dismissed. The 'post-truth' society provides a fertile ground for its spread. It is a type of contagion. In extreme forms. it can lead to civil wars, genocide and terrorism. It thrives on a sense of grievance (which may be partly justified), the attribution of blame to demonised 'others' and the hate-filled utterances of a 'charismatic' leader.
Then there is the psychological profile of the Trump entourage, that unimpressive collection of bankers, businessmen, media ranters and family members. How would they perform on the psychopath test? This is an instrument devised by Robert Hare, based on his clinical work with criminals, which sought to identify people with psychopathic tendencies.
Among the characteristics which he identified as important are: superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth; the need for constant stimulation; a manipulative personality; and lack of remorse or guilt. Who knows where a group of powerful people exhibiting these characteristics might take a nation, especially if they reinforce each other’s prejudices?
Finally, there is the man himself. The president has been variously described as bullying, narcissistic, delusional, impulsive and dishonest. But beneath all the boasting and bluster, one senses a deeply inadequate and needy human being. Why else would he feel compelled to plaster his name over everything (towers, hotels, golf courses, planes), or claim that his inauguration audience was bigger than Obama’s (when clearly it wasn't). In future, 'Trumpism' could become a recognised psychiatric classification.
The urbane editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, has referred to Trump's 'messy birdcage of a mind' and described him as 'an unbridled man-boy'. He warns that 'we are wading into a quagmire of conflicts of interest, and corruption, both financial and moral'. His article is aptly titled, ‘Donald Trump: a pillar of ignorance and certitude’.
Wednesday 25 January
I hear a news item about diplomatic discussions between two African countries. It is reported that negotiations have broken down, with one country describing the other’s stance as ‘insolent’. I have the immediate thought that it is a long time since I have heard the word insolent in use. It used to be a favourite of teachers reprimanding pupils who were inclined to answer back when chastised. But it seems to have gone out of fashion and alternatives are preferred. ‘Naughty’, a much milder term, and sometimes used affectionately, is quite common. A sharper option is ‘no back-chat’.
If my perception of a decline in the use of insolent (and insolence) is correct, how is it to be explained? I think the answer has to do with social class. In the past, people accused of being insolent were usually regarded as socially inferior to the person making the judgment. They were ‘getting above themselves’ and did not ‘know their place’. And although assumptions of superiority have certainly not disappeared, it is now much less acceptable to express them openly. I predict an increase in the use of another form of words to reflect changing social attitudes. ‘Don’t be a smart-arse’ has the right combination of reprimand and coarseness to appeal to the deceptively egalitarian mores of our times.
Friday 27 January
I travel to Edinburgh for a meeting with officials at the Scottish Parliament. I am part of a small delegation from Accountability Scotland (AS), an organisation concerned with the adequacy of provisions for administrative justice. Many members of AS have had unsatisfactory experiences when they have lodged complaints against local authorities, health boards and other public bodies. They have encountered delay, obstruction, inconsistency and poor procedure. Some have been psychologically damaged by these encounters.
Their dissatisfaction has often been compounded when they have taken their complaints to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), who has the authority to look again at matters that have not been resolved satisfactorily. Here too complainants have been disappointed, not only at the outcome but also at the way they have been treated. SPSO as an organisation is perceived to be complacent about its performance.
AS has sought to raise these issues for several years, through public petitions to the Scottish Parliament and representations to various Holyrood committees. No real progress has been made. MSPs are sometimes badly briefed and often lack the time to discuss the issues adequately. Compared to his critics, the Ombudsman has privileged access to the legislators.
The officials at today’s meeting listen courteously but they have no power to change policies or introduce legislation. They seem a little uncomfortable when it is suggested that Scotland lacks proper democratic accountability and that complainants are routinely met with bureaucratic defensiveness rather than the ‘transparency’ to which most organisations now claim to subscribe.
We leave with two crumbs of comfort. A new ombudsman will be appointed shortly and it is hoped that he or she will listen to representations from AS and other interested parties. And the presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Macintosh, has set up a commission to review parliamentary procedures, including the work of committees. Accountability Scotland will continue to campaign to improve the quality of administrative justice in Scotland.
Sunday 29 January
A lady of my acquaintance tells me she was recently called a ‘silly old tart’. This seemed rather harsh as she is neither silly nor tartish, though she could not deny the maturity of her years. Who had uttered the offending phrase? A stroppy teenager? An angry driver? A tradesman attempting an ill-judged bit of banter? No, it was another lady of advanced age, this one with a posh accent and a peremptory manner.
The circumstances? My acquaintance lives in a block of flats with a security entrance. She had noticed that the front door was wedged open. There seemed to be nobody about to suggest a reason for this, such as a person making deliveries or another resident working in the garden, so she thought it might be safer to remove the wedge. Suddenly a figure appeared and shouted, ‘Don’t shut that door, you silly old tart’. This was a visitor to the block who had gone out for a stroll and a smoke.
The victim reported the incident to her husband who went out to remonstrate with the visitor. A frank and mutually uncomplimentary exchange of views then took place. I wanted to know whether the perpetrator routinely spoke to everyone like that. Perhaps she suffered from a mild form of Tourette’s syndrome. Or could it be that she came from a theatrical background where everyone was either ‘darling’ or a ‘silly old tart’? It will just have to be added to my long list of unexplained behaviours.
Still reflecting on unexpected phrases, I later recalled a chance meeting with a former student, whom I shall call David. He had performed well on his course but had fallen out with a colleague of mine, a man of modest stature: a degree of enmity had developed between the two. After David and I had caught up with each other’s news, he asked: ‘How is that poisonous little rat Dr X getting on?’ I affected a disapproving manner and said: ‘Now David, that’s a shade severe. After all, you know that Dr X is very sensitive about his height.’