As those familiar with my work already know, I believe character dysfunction, fed by a culture of permissiveness and narcissism, is the phenomenon of our age. And for those who accept this premise, it should come as no surprise when yet another high-profile figure make headlines because of their entitled, self-indulgent, or otherwise outrageous behavior. Recently, however, the antics of the actor Alec Baldwin and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford have illustrated the cardinal features of character dysfunction with such clarity that I think it fair to dub them the new poster children for character disturbance.
When it comes to the very public travails of the popular actor Alec Baldwin, there have always appeared only two reasonable possibilities: either he’s one of the most unlucky individuals in the world who, through no fault of his own, and like a magnet, simply attracts all sorts of trouble or he’s got some big time “issues” with which, at least to date, he hasn’t appeared to have adequately dealt. Over the past several weeks, as some of his antics have made news yet again, the evidence has mounted even further for the latter possibility. Baldwin’s difficulties go back a long way. Perhaps the most well-known example of his volatility surfaced several years ago in the aftermath of a contentious divorce from his first wife, actress Kim Basinger and an ensuing custody battle. Basinger claimed Baldwin as a person was nothing like the image he actively promoted. She cast him as not only explosive and abusive during their marriage but also as a someone who refused to accept or work on his character flaws. And she cited those reasons for seeking to protect both herself and their young daughter by limiting contact with him. Baldwin in turn complained that he was the classic “victim” of “parental alienation syndrome” and that Basinger herself was the evil creature, not only vindictively denying a loving, caring father an opportunity to participate in the raising of his child, but also senselessly trying to “destroy” him. Interestingly, during the ordeal, Baldwin enjoyed much support among his peers in the entertainment industry whereas Basinger was seen by many as the unreasonable, over-dramatizing, and perhaps unstable ex-partner. That changed, but only to a small degree, when a phone message Baldwin left for his then 11-year old daughter somehow fell into the hands of the website TMZ and the world got it’s first glimpse into the kind of vitriol Baldwin is capable of spewing. In a profanity-laced tirade, Baldwin called his daughter, among other things, a rude and thoughtless “pig,” and verbally trashed her mother’s character. He unashamedly acknowledged his awareness of her young and vulnerable age, but also unhesitatingly insisted he “didn’t care” about that because he was in fact the greater victim, having been “insulted” by her (for failing to have her phone turned on at the time of his call to her and being routed instead to voicemail) once again and for what he also emphatically declared would be “the last time.” He also told his daughter she not only deserved the tongue-lashing he gave her but also the “*ss-straightening” he planned to give her during his next in-person visit. When an attorney for Basinger was asked whether the message reflected the kind of emotional volatility and abuse about which Basinger had always complained, the response was: “The tape speaks for itself” (as well it does and you can hear for yourself : http://www.aolcdn.com/tmz_audio/0419_baldwin_bleeped.mp3).
Baldwin’s temper has since become legend. A couple of years ago, he became belligerent with a flight attendant after being instructed to turn off and put away a cell phone on which he was playing a game. Things got so contentious he had to be escorted off the plane. He later publicly apologized to the passengers who had their travel delayed but refused to apologize to the airlines or crew, insisting it was they who mishandled the situation and blew things entirely out of proportion.
Then there’s the embattled mayor of Toronto, Ontario in Canada. For months he demanded that police produce a tape they claimed showed him smoking crack cocaine or stop defaming him. Then, when confronted with the evidence, he admitted he’d been parsing his words ever so carefully to conceal his guilt. But problems only escalated when the Toronto city council took steps to sanction the mayor by first asking him to consider stepping down and then acting to severely abridge his powers. That’s when all the pushing, shoving, profanity-laced tirades, etc. became an everyday affair. After each explosion, Ford would proclaim he was provoked to the point that anyone would lose control. Yet, he would also apologize, swear it wouldn’t happen again, and while pointing an accusing finger at those who expressed doubts about his willingness to “own” his issues, dared to assert: ”I’ve already apologized, there’s really nothing else I can do!” Of course, he knows there’s something else he could (even though he doesn’t want to) do: he could change. Ford’s also made it clear that no matter what his city council members do, he will neither step down or have dictated to him the terms of any “rehabilitation” effort. He’s been elected. That makes him in charge. And, according to him, he’s staying in charge. In fact, he’s informed the city council members that their attempts to censure him justify “all out war.”
I suppose cases could be made that both Ford and Baldwin suffer from conditions like substance abuse, or simply need anger management classes. But the heart of their dysfunction lies in their character. The signs are everywhere: attitudes of entitlement, superficial charm, distorted thinking, frequent use of tactics to avoid responsibility, the readiness to blame others, constant efforts to manage the impressions of others, etc. It’s not so much that these guys are otherwise healthy personalities with some “issues” to work on but rather that who they are in character that causes them function in such a socially irresponsible way. Even more troubling than that is the fact that they’re completely comfortable with the kind of persons they are (in my books and other writings this is called the “ego-syntonic” nature of the disturbed characters symptoms) despite all the problems their character deficiencies have caused.
As I’ve written about before, dysfunctional personalities get to be the way they are in part because their innate predispositions (which they never strove to discipline in the interest of the greater good) and in part because in the absence of sufficient social sanction, they are “enabled” to keep doing things the way they always have. Despite his long history of problems, Baldwin has consistently enjoyed an uncommon degree of support, especially in the entertainment community, that is, until just recently after another explosive rant. It happened during the trial of a woman Baldwin had accused of “stalking” him. The woman claimed he had an affair with her, lied about it, and cold-heartedly cut her out of his life when he decided to pursue another woman, causing her to become emotionally and behaviorally unstable (which, to her detriment, she clearly displayed in several antics of her own during the trial). Baldwin claimed he’d never been intimate with the woman, who he insisted was actually someone else’s lover, and who had driven him to the edge of sanity (Baldwin appeared to break down in tears on the witness stand) with her persistent attempts to intrude upon his privacy. The woman was convicted, and after the trial, when a member of the paparazzi approached him, Baldwin hurled an anti-gay epithet while berating the man. Characteristically, Baldwin later denied having the anti-gay feelings his epithet suggested he might harbor in his heart and promised the reprehensible word he uttered would be “permanently retired” from his vocabulary. But he also justified his actions, insisting he believed the person he berated was intruding too far into his and his family’s private space. As a result of his actions, and with pressure coming from various activist groups, especially the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the TV cable channel MSNBC temporarily suspended his talk show. And while Baldwin has tried to claim he doesn’t really harbor anti-gay sentiments and only lost control under pressure, this latest episode comes on the heels of a similar rant he went on not too long ago in which he called another reporter/photographer a “toxic little queen.” Baldwin also claims to be a champion of women and their rights, and against abuse of all sorts, but he is on record as telling one female reporter that he wanted to choke her to death. He also claims to be a champion of minorities and to harbor no racist sentiments, yet is also on record of using racially-charged epithets with journalists of color. So it’s refreshing that at least one human rights group (a GLAAD spokesperson) pointed out that it’s not good enough to repeatedly claim one feels or believes a certain way when one repeatedly acts in a manner that suggests otherwise. Still, Baldwin has considerable support. Even his now grown daughter, Ireland, (a fashion model pursuing a career in the public eye herself), has come to his defense, asserting she knows her father to be a person who doesn’t really feel the way he acts or speaks when he’s in a rage. And while Baldwin deserves to be cut no slack for his lack of acceptance of and insufficient work on his problems, I do find it unfortunate that so many in the media, entertainment industry, and even his friends and family members continue to enable him, inadvertently helping to forestall that potentially corrective day of reckoning that could possibly prompt him to change his ways. Perhaps, however, the actions of MSNBC and GLAAD will help reverse that trend.
There was a time when the constant, outrageous behaviors of Ford and Baldwin were viewed within the professional community as an unconsciously-directed “cry for help” from a person who unconsciously knows they’re out of control and wants to be stopped before they do something catastrophic. But from another point of view, you could say that the behavior persists because the impaired character lacks the soundness and maturity of conscience necessary to self-regulate their behavior in a pro-social manner, is reinforced or enabled in their behavior by a permissive, indulgent culture that promotes feelings of entitlement, and therefore there’s no motivation to change.
As I assert in my book Character Disturbance, character dysfunction exists along a continuum, and the personalities of both Ford and Baldwin lie on this continuum. And as I assert in In Sheep’s Clothing, some people are not what they appear. While gifted with superficial charm and skilled at impression-management, they have neither the heart nor the solidity of character to actually be as good as they try to convince others they are. And they will go to special lengths to conceal the fiercely aggressive nature of their true character. Baldwin has been telling folks for some time now that their opinions about who he really is are wrong. Perhaps it’s time we believe him. I’ve also asserted that some aggressive personalities make no attempt to hide their nature, they only try to justify it. They not only go through life like bulls in a china shop, but they’re also proud of that fact. They relish in their tenacity and nurture it constantly, resisting submission at every turn – even submission to the standards of decent social conduct, the rule of law, or, as in Ford’s case, the will of the people. And it’s that absolute refusal to submit that keeps such folks from forming a normal, healthy conscience, which is why we can expect them to do the same crazy things over and over again, despite adverse consequence. The last two posts (see: Conscience Development in the Aggressive Character and Egotists: Above the Need for a Governing Higher Power) describe what things can look like when individuals with egotistic or aggressive character traits are growing up. Today’s post is about what they look like when they have grown up but haven’t responsibly dealt with those traits. And all three of my books contain vignettes and other information that explain not only why these folks are the way they are but also what would really have to happen for them to change. We can only hope that public dissatisfaction with the antics of Baldwin and Ford (and, hopefully, also, the level of sanction) reaches the point where each will feel some degree of pressure to take a solid look at themselves and for the first time at least “entertain” the possibility of modifying their ways. Understand,… I’m not placing any bets!