17 min read

Our World is in a Cassandra Trap

Our World is in a Cassandra Trap
Dr Hayley Lewis / Twitter

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most.

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A Weekend Long Read: 16 Minutes.

The Paradox of Human Possibility in the 21st Century. We discuss why our organizations and institutions want the Dark Triad—but what they need is its counterpart, the Light Triad. Who else is going to fix the future?

 1. How wildfires are threatening the Mediterranean way of life. (WaPo)
 2. Is a global food crisis the new normal? (AlJ)
 3. Why parts of the Amazon have become a carbon source. (Nature)
 4. Catastrophic thinking—uncertainty and climate change. (LRB)
 5. What's next for China's economy? (GS)

Today's Issue. The Dark Triad. The Light Triad. Power, Civilization, and Transformation.

You've heard of the Dark Triad. In psychology. It's the combination of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. I'll come back to it in a moment—and how it's shaping our world today, a megatrend worthy of discussion and observation in itself.

There's also the opposite, though. Sometimes, it's called the Light Triad—one way that research has defined it is as Kantianism, humanism, and faith in humanity. A "loving and beneficent orientation towards others" is how the researchers who came up with summarize it. I don't disagree with that, but I'd offer a slightly different definition, a more practical one. Something like this: creativity, deep empathy, and allocentrism, which just means "other-centrism," or the opposite of narcissism.

I'm about to point out a problem. One that can be expressed in many ways. A problem of human capital, leadership, Existential Threats, transformation, change, Big Ideas, Grand Aspirations, "talent," human possibility. Put more simply...who's going fix the future? Obviously, it's hardly likely to be Dark Triad types. But on the other hand, the Light Triad...

Are you this kind of person? It's not easy, is it? It's not about "better," just different. I am. And that's been...a problem for me.  My whole life. Being an empath is hard. You absorb the feelings of the world, just like that. Being creative is tough—you can't seem to "settle down," as people say. And being allocentric is difficult: you put others first, in a world which rewards self-aggrandizement. But combine these three traits? And you've got a portrait of a tribe of people whom the world oft considers misfits, freaks, oddballs, losers. Who don't fit into it's rigid roles and structures well, or at all. That struggle against the strictures and institutions of the status quo. So it's always been tough, if you're a Member of the Tribe of the Light. Socrates and Galileo and Sartre could tell you a little bit about that.

"The Dark Triad of Personality"

Narcissism (entitled self-importance)
Machiavellianism (exploitation and deceit)
Subclinical psychopathy (callousness and cynicism)

A socially malevolent character with behavior tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness.

Paulhus and Williams, 2002

This isn't about moral superiority. It's about the real world and the problems we all face today. If you want to think of this "tribe" in more orthodox terms, often, we become writers, artists, journalists, thinkers, therapists, professors, scientists, visionaries. Of a certain kind, too: who change things, spark breakthroughs, alter paradigms, transform lives. None of those paths or goals are easy or straightforward. We're natural leaders, because we need to leave the world a better place than we found it.

But now? Now things are different. Increasingly, the world hates this kind of person—yet it's never needed them more. If you think I exaggerate, consider how much...real, actual, bona fide hate...scientists get these days. For just...talking about...science. Not to mention journalists, writers, thinkers, artists. So much so, they're fleeing whole platforms. I'm not kidding around—this is for real. It's part and parcel of the coarsening of our societies in an age of democratic decline. They call us alarmists, scaremongers, and much, much worse. And so our world is falling into what I'm going to call a Cassandra Trap.

The Cassandra Trap. A society's most empathic, creative, and allocentric people are those who will warn it first about its biggest problems, think about them deepest, and want to solve them in enduring and meaningful ways. But societies—and their organizations—also resist such figures, because of inertia, denial, and status quo power and politics. That's where our civilization appears to be right now.

I know those are strong words. Don't worry, I'm going to make my case, but first I'm going to deal with an objection. If you're a Member of the Tribe of the Triad of Light, odds are, you already know exactly what I'm talking about. You feel it. But if you're...in the middle...of these two tribes, those of the Dark Triad, and those of the Light...just another normal person...and there's nothing wrong with that...then you might say: ha, ha, look! How melodramatic! He thinks the world hates him! Look at the ego! The paranoia! But it's not this perspective we're concerned with, though the indifference portrayed in this objection is surely a part of the problem I want to discuss. It's our perspective. The Members of the Tribe.

"The Light Triad of Personality"

Humanism: a belief in the inherent dignity and worth of other humans
Kantianism: treating people as ends unto themselves, rather than unwitting pawns.
Faith in humanity: an overall tendency to see the best in people and believe that most people are basically good

Which make up a loving and beneficent orientation toward others.

Kauffman, 2019

So if you're a Member of the Tribe of the Triad of Light...own up. Go ahead. Don't you feel...kind of..hated these days? Or something very much like it? Baffled. Stuck. Scared. Worried. Like your place in the world, society, is more precarious by the day? Like you're not wanted? Like there are a whole lot of people who don't want you to exist? That just opening your mouth for these fundamental values that make you a Member of the Tribe...well...who knows where it could end...what lunatic or fanatic might set themselves upon you, teeth bared in rage? Like said scientists on Twitter, for example? It's our perspective I'm discussing here, because that's the one that—as I'm going to shortly explain—matters, in a way that's profound, because right now? It's history-altering. Because, yes, it's a fact: the 21st century really is going backwards.

Why? Why have we never needed the Members of the Tribe of the Triad of Light more than now? Give me a moment to set the scene, with an observation.

If you're a member of the Tribe of the Light Triad—finding your place in this world has never been easy. If you're creative, empathic, and allocentric? Good luck to you. I know your life, because I've lived it. You struggle to ever get something as simple as a...job interview. Most of my friends who are bona fide Members of the Tribe have never really had many, if at all. Why is that? It's because recruiters are bloodhounds, trained to sniff out the finest traces of...the Dark Triad. Show them the opposite? An ounce of true allocentrism, or creativity, or empathy...and they'll immediately think that something's wrong with you. You're a freak, misfit, weirdo, weakling, idealist, loser. You're not a team player—hey, you care about the world, the future, democracy? LOL, get real, idiot. You're not a "good fit". Head's in the clouds. Hey—this person can't do any real work. Somehow, they can smell it on us. From a million miles away. It's this weird animal thing. The second you walk into that room, or open up that video connection—they already know.

That you're a Member of the Tribe of the Triad of the Light. And they? They're looking for...the polar, diametrical, precise opposite. People who can be narcissistic enough to...want to...dominate others. Who've got enough indifference in them to blind themselves to certain levels of exploitation. "Subclinical psychopathy"—who've got a certain level of callousness and cynicism. Who fit neatly into hierarchies of power—and aren't interested in questioning them. Who accept whatever dilapidated purpose they're given—and aren't out there...trying to change the world. This is how our organizations work.

If you think I'm kidding—please, let's get real: doesn't "a socially malevolent character with behavior tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness"...describe the...kind of person...right down to a T...that organizations...are looking for? Value...more than any of the rest of us? Even if they say they don't? The kinds of people that "human resources" officers will choke on their coffee, scream in delight, and sprint straight at, shuddering with eager anticipation, arms wide open in True Love? Please, come work us for right now! Again, if I'm kidding, why is it that the opposite—a lack of self-promotion, emotional coldness, aggressiveness, and duplicity would instantly get you eyerolls and yawns not only from most recruiters, and they're just the grunts at the bottom, but from those who count even more...many of those above them, too?

This is why our organizations are broken. It begins from this most elemental, fundamental place of all: recruitment, what kinds of people we let into organizations. Most of the time? Members of the Tribe of the Triad of Light find the door firmly slammed in their aces, while the other tribe, the Tribe of the Dark Triad, isn't just shown a warm welcome, they're showered with fortune, too. Wow! Look at how cold this guy is! He's James Bond! He's a real killer! The world could burn, and this guy would be...goddamn! He'd be getting the job done. The rest of us, meanwhile, are baffled and bewildered by all this, because our organizations pay lip service to...the good stuff. More and more these days, they say: let's make a better future, a better world, let's make a difference, etc. That's not all BS—for example, less than 20% of organizations reported on impacts a decade ago, now almost 80% do, or are beginning to. They're trying. But they're trying in all the wrong ways, or at least beginning in the completely wrong places.

Robot recruiters: can bias be banished from AI hiring?

In 2017 Amazon quietly scrapped an experimental candidate-ranking tool that had been trained on CVs from the mostly male tech industry, effectively teaching itself that male candidates were preferable. The tool systematically downgraded women’s CVs, penalising those that included phrases such as “women’s chess club captain”, and elevating those that used verbs more commonly found on male engineers’ CVs, such as “executed” and “captured.

—The Guardian

And the resulting problem is that they can't accomplish the mission they set out to do. Yet the reason they can't accomplish the mission? Well, there are a lot of reasons—but one of the Big Ones is about people. The kinds of people who can do the work of the future? They find the doors slammed on them from the instant they're anywhere near it. Even if you're remotely in the neighborhood, the robo-killer sniffer hounds—the recruiters—will howl, form a pack, and chase you of town. Like I said, they can smell it on us, and to them, we're freaks, misfits, losers, idealists, idiots, weirdos. They don't like us. Never have. Organizational life, after all, as Max Weber, it's great grandfather of scholars, pointed out, is for conformity, unity, formalization, and efficiency. Those aren't necessarily bad things—but they have the effect of locking us out. And so the economist in me would say organizations have a yawning next-generation human capital deficit these days.

That's why our organizations are stuck. Fact. Have you heard organizations moan that they have a "talent problem"? They do. But a) it's their own fault, for not embracing the Tribe of Light, b) it's not the one they think, that they can't "find good people"—they don't even know how to look, having blinded themselves from the get go, and c) they can't solve it the old way.

That's why there's endless whining from organizations about their "talent problem."  It's true: they don't have the right people, because those kinds of people can't even get...forget a foot in the door...a toe on the doorstep...anymore. As part of the larger social trend of that kind of person being hated, becoming undesirable, being not just undervalued, but devalued. And that leaves our societies, economies, everything...increasingly, more and more, prey to the Tribe of the Dark Triad. Which is why that Tribe's been able to climb straight to the top of more or less everything. Take a look around—they've always been good at getting ahead, but suddenly, they've amassed shocking amounts of wealth and power, and control...more and more institutions every day, in ways that make history shudder.

So: exactly why do organizations need us? More than they know? Why does the world need us—and never has more?

Think about the stakes today. We need to build organizations capable of surviving, fighting, doing something about...Existential Threats...Civilizational-Scale risks. You know what I mean: threats, from climate change to extinction to ecological collapse to rising extremism to stagnant economies. Or else those organizations go down with the ship, too, which is why plenty of CEOs and leaders are trying. There are plenty of leaders who support that agenda. It's not a cynical thing I'm talking about. But they find themselves unable to complete that mission, or even, really, to begin it well. Why? Why aren't they getting much of anywhere? Because of the People Problem.

To address threats and challenges at this mega-scale? You need the Members of the Triad of Light. Need. They are the only people who can get this job done, because it's not the same job as before.

Think about it with me. You need creativity, in a profound and true way—to reinvent systems, institutions, supplies, cultures, governance, brands, economics, everything. But that kind of creativity can only come from empathy—we're not just talking about the level of "creativity" that yesterday's ad industry, for example, was built on: taking prettier photographs. AI can do that now, after all. Empathy at the level of "life on the planet's dying." And to have that level of creativity, to do it well, to do it powerfully, allocentrism must be at the heart of it—not just as some vague, after the fact, lip-service level concern. Allocentrism has to be wired into these new systems and institutions, in their very DNA, whether they're ones for finance, food, water, democracy, governance, healthcare, money, etcetera.

Creativity. Empathy. Allocentrism. Only this combination of traits and attributes can get the Big Jobs of today done. Not yesterday's..."ideal candidate," who, even if nobody much wants to admit it, is basically the Dark Triad cloned a billion times over again. We members of the Triad of Light are the ones who spark movements, lead transformations, and change systems, institutions, paradigms, in positive, enduring ways. It takes all three of these traits to do that.

Does AI Debias Recruitment?

One prominent example of AI hiring’s reproduction of the normative “ideal candidate” is its consideration of whether a candidate will be a good “culture fit.” Retorio, for example, claims that its tools “can determine person-culture fit and estimate whether a person is more or less likely to thrive within an organizational culture” (Retorio, n.d., “The Science Behind”). However, the concept of “culture fit” has long been used as a euphemism to justify the gendered and racialized exclusivity of organizations.

—Drage, 2022

I often say that we need a series of revolutions this century. We need a material revolution—we're consuming too much, and it's destabilizing the planet. We need a revolution in consciousness—who are we? What are we here for? Just to symbolically slay each other by rising up the status ladder of consumption? We need revolutions in democracy—for example, that let it include nature and life on earth, in real ways, with rights, as "people." And we need economic and social revolutions—to decouple ourselves from fossil fuels, of course, and that's not just about clean energy, but about far more, the material basis of our civilization, from steel to cement to plastics and more...all of which can set the stage, through higher levels of economic surplus, for social contracts that work again.

Who's going to spark those revolutions? Lead them? See them through? It all comes back to this: creativity, empathy, and allocentrism. Only the Members of the Triad of Light. Think about where you'd get if you asked the other tribe to work on these challenges, after all. Hey, you, the latest in a long string of Machiavellian narcissistic subclinical psychos we've got high hopes for—we've got to spark a revolution here, spark transformation, right now, in this organization, or we don't have a future...can you help us? LOL. Good luck with that. What's in it for me, how fast can I sabotage it, and who can I demean, dehumanize, and destroy, before I turn everything into a flaming pile of garbage just to watch it burn, because that's what...turns me on?

The world has never needed us more. Never. These stakes are real. More real than most of us know or want to admit. We discussed new research recently that shows climate change could destroy up to half our economies...and cost a billion lives. That's cutting-edge research, from sober and serious institutions, like...the Institute of Actuaries. Actuaries can tell us we need a revolution—with their finely honed analytical skills—but they're not the kinds of people to lead one. Only the Members of the Tribe of the Triad of Light have the...

What? Let's distill it. The capabilities: creativity. The motivation: allocentrism. The  burning perseverance, dedication, fierce, not-gonna-give-up levels of determination: deep empathy. Let me translate that deeper. For us empaths? We feel the pain of a million million creatures dying. Feel it. Deep in our bones. It keens at us. We can hear it. For us allocentrists? The idea of a life lived only for ourselves is as empty and hollow as a zombie brain. And for those of us who are creative? We need to give, build, put together, forge, with our own very hands, not just peruse spreadsheets and negotiate and horse-trade and make deals. Only that combination of attributes and traits can create the future now. What else has the power to really begin to address our skyrocketing  levels of Civilizational Risk and Existential Threats? This isn't about being special or right—it's about thinking analytically.

But the world seems to hate us...more and more. Today? Most of my friends who are Members of the Triad of Light? They tell me how they feel these days, and it's not pretty. They feel attacked, erased, hounded, marginalized, set upon. As social norms corrode, and it becomes OK, acceptable, normal...to harass, hector, torment, abuse people...not just who are different from you...but who want a positive future for everyone. Not just for some. Who believe in reason, logic, facts, science, not to mention humanity, decency, truth, and goodness?  Versus those who...don't? Who don't just believe that human beings are divided up into the superior and the inferior, the superior's rightful job is to rise supreme, by exploiting the weak, and thus, the Measure of Man is His Will to Power For Domination?

This kind of toxic, repellent thinking is so increasingly pervasive these days, that it's become History's Easiest Lever to Fame and Fortune. You can build your own Personal Brand as a Famous Guy or Celebrity Manfluencer on it...because there are tons of scared people who, frightened out of their wits at economic stagnation, social destabilization, and the lack of a visible future, are all too willing to believe that the only rightful moral task of a human being is to find someone even more frightened and powerless to dominate, extract resources from, exploit, and dehumanize.

When that becomes OK, normal, fine—well, false balance makes those of us who are Members of the Triad of Light seem "controversial" or even dangerous or even more freakish or even bigger misfits. It becomes even more OK to bully and insult and dehumanize us. We become even more unwanted than we were before. Think about how long it took for science or literature or truth or progress like emancipating others to become something that wasn't a crime to be punished for. And now think about how fast the world's going in the other direction.

And so we Members of the Tribe of the Triad of Light...these days...we're even more structurally locked out than we once were. But it shouldn't be this way. What's "abnormal"? Really, genuinely, so? The abhorrent beliefs above, about supremacy and division and exploitaiton and domination being the only purposes of human existence. Those should never be normalized, at least if history has anything to say about the matter—so why are they? In a sense, because our organizations are trained to want the opposite of us. But how's that working out for...everyone? Us, them, the world, the planet, the future?

We Members of the Triad of Light? We're different. We tend to value a few things in common. A few themes unite us, even if we don't really know how to articulate them well. The point of life is to reduce suffering, and expand potential—for all life. Every voice matters, often the smallest, which is in the most pain—not just the loudest and angriest. That there is a destiny and path to the human design, which is higher and higher levels of compassion, truth, justice, power with and to love and become and grow and realize one's self—not just eternal conflict, chaos, violence, and meaningless rage, in the quest for "power over." That yes, we really can bring that to life, if only the great rivers of mercy and wisdom and grace run through us. In all this, we're guided by history's greatest minds, from Camus to Einstein to Aristotle.

To us? There's nothing more senseless than hate. Violence. Brutality. Domination. Exploitation. After all, each life suffers—just for this terrible gift of existence. Why add to this burden? Our moral duty is to elevate and expand life, as a oneness, as a unity, as a universal, for it's own sake, because we too are that universe. And so when we Members of the Tribe of the Triad of Light look around the world today, nothing strikes us so much as senselessness.

“Recover the greatest strength, not to dominate but to give.”

— Albert Camus, Notebook VIII

Yet there they are, calling us the fools, the misfits, the freaks, the ones who don't understand. Business as usual. How to get the job done. How to get the deal signed on the dotted line. These are all necessary skills, there's no doubt. And it's true those aren't our fortes. But there are higher and greater ones today. A future. Transformation. Change. Renewal. Life. A planet. Leadership, in the true sense, of sparking a revolution. Among others.

So who are the ones who...really doesn't understand? It's not us. Sadly, it's still...well, I don't want to say "them." Let me just say "the ones who aren't Members of Our Tribe." That's OK—we're all different. But the time has come for us to understand one another in deeper ways, my friends. We need one another. We of the Tribe of the Triad of Light, and the...status quo guys. Who we both don't need is the Tribe of the Dark Triad—and yet they're currently ripping our world apart, having risen to power in shocking, incredible ways, precisely because the status quo guys don't get that, and organizationally, they're welcomed in, and skyrocketed upwards. Who do organizations really need more these days, a Machiavellian-narcissist beancounter—or someone capable of transforming a system, an institution, or a planet for a hundred years? So tell me why it's always the former and never the latter who get the job, promotion, raise, title, bonus, and credit. This inertia and resistance is destroying leadership and change in the 21st century.

Which of our Megatrends should we file this under? The Age of Scarcity. Collapse. Civilizational Risk. Maybe a new one: The Dark-Triadification of Everything. We can't fix our problems the old way, with greed, abuse, and exploitation, because of course those are what caused them.

From the bottom, in the most elementary ways—recruitment, rarely if ever letting the Tribe of Light in—to the top, which is CEOs and Presidents and leaders with good intentions sitting there, wondering, Christ, why can't we get the job done, why is the world and future falling apart, why is it no matter how we exhort or push or try, the Big Ideas don't happen, ignite, catch fire...while not noticing that every deck below them is crewed with Machiavellian-narcissists who are busy grinning while they set fire to the oars, engines, and galleys...while they jeer at...us. For just being...who we are. Like they have since we were all four years old. The status quo guys don't get any of that right now. But they'll have to—because time's running out for all of us right now.

The world is turning away from the Triad of Light—but it's never needed it more. That, my friends, is the Paradox of Human Possibility in the 21st century.

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