THE POWER OF THE CHARISMATIC PERSONALITY; CAN IT BE A NEGATIVE ATTRIBUTE?
Kathryn Pritchett, Design for Moving Image, November 2008
Charisma can be defined as;
The aggregate of those special gifts of mind and character which are the source of the personal power of exceptional individuals and upon which they depend for their capacity to secure the allegiance of, and exercise decisive authority over, large masses of people. (Funk and Wagnalls, 1963 p.223)
In light of the recent Presidential elections in the United States of America, one may question whether it is beneficial to have a charismatic personality. Whilst Barack Obama is yet to prove how successful he will be in state, it is clear that his charismatic personality, in combination with his policies, has inspired his country to vote for him. As Obama proclaimed, “Yes we can!” in one of his many captivating campaign speeches, his avid followers chanted his name in response and acceptance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fe751kMBwms, 2008). However, in modern history a strong charisma has not always been a good quality, especially when one has great power and responsibility within society.
It is often a person’s use of language and tone of voice that demonstrates their charisma to the masses and Adolf Hitler’s articulate speeches were no exception. ‘Fascist movements appeal to persons of all social classes by using populist rhetoric to secure support’ (JOYCE, 2003 p57). In his speeches, Hitler used the knowledge that there was,
A widespread feeling that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair, the prior existence of nationalist and anti Semitic beliefs and the economic problems faced by the country after 1919 (JOYCE, 2003 p57),
Also, by using extreme language such as ‘raped’ and ‘beaten’ Hitler criticised the German Parliamentary system and made his supporters feel as if they were victims of an awful regime. ‘For fourteen long years these parties have raped German freedom, beaten German men with clubs’ (http://www.ushmm.org, 2008). (Illus. 1, Hitler Addresses Rally At Dortmund 1933, www.earthstation1.com, 2008)
Once Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor in 1933, his regime of terror began. For example, although there are no records to state the exact number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, it is estimated that 205, 500 Jewish people were killed in Germany alone during World War Two (http://www.worldwar-2.net, 2008).
Unfortunately, it is not only when one has great power that a charismatic personality can be damaging to society, the ability to merely manipulate others through charismatic speech can have dramatic effects. For example, Jim Jones and Charles Manson were two men who used their charismatic charm to corrupt and ultimately murder innocent people by creating cult followings.
In the 1950’s, James Warren ‘Jim’ Jones set up The People’s Temple Agricultural Project, which later became Jonestown. Jim Jones was described as a charismatic leader (Jonestown – The Life and Death of People’s Temple, 2007, film documentary) who preached quasi-socialist philosophies to those who were upset by America’s involvements in war, nuclear weapons and general capitalist culture.
However, Jim Jones’ ‘apostolic socialism’ and ‘socialist paradise’ were to come under scrutiny as the group relocated to Guyana in 1974 and became increasingly isolated from the outside world. (http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1859872_1799879,00.html, 2008).
Once under investigation, the increasingly paranoid Jim Jones encouraged his followers to join in a mass ‘revolutionary’ suicide. (Illus 2. Mass Suicide at Jonestown, http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1859872_1799894,00.html, 2008)
On a tape recording of the speech Jones made before the suicides began, the cult leader declared, "Death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you ... you'd be glad to be stepping over tonight." (http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1859872_1799894,00.html, 2008)
Like Jim Jones, Charles Manson was also described as being a very charismatic character (Biography – Charles Manson, 1998, film documentary). After manipulating several people into joining the ‘Manson Family’, he instructed that his followers take place in brutally grotesque homicides, one of the most distressing of these acts was the murder of eight months pregnant Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski. She was stabbed 16 times (Biography – Charles Manson, 1998, film documentary).
In other respects, a charismatic personality can be a very positive trait especially when catalysing changes in society. Two prime examples of this type of charismatic charm are Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Whilst Martin Luther King used his compelling ‘I have a dream’ speech (Illus 3. I Have A Dream at The Lincoln Memorial 1963, http://www.msc.navy.mil/sealift/2007/February/graphics/KingPhoto.jpg, 2008) to catalyse the end of racial segregation in the United States of America, Nelson Mandela continues to use his charismatic charm in modern society to make changes in his home country of Africa as well as on a worldwide scale. For example, in 2008, Nelson Mandela’s aids awareness charity 46664 held a 90th Birthday Celebration Concert to raise funds and awareness of their campaign. (http://www.46664.com/index.php, 2008).
Initially however, Nelson Mandela was considered a menace to society as he spoke out against the Apartheid in Africa. Nevertheless due to his charisma, despite being imprisoned for 27 years, he was elected as President of South Africa in 1994 (http://www.anc.org.za/people/mandela.html, 2008)
In conclusion, it is when an individual’s personality has a combination of charisma and a sense of divine omnipotence that their charismatic charm can becomes a negative personality trait. ‘I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator’ (http://www.hitler.org/writings/Mein_Kampf/, 2008). In contrast to this, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama all seem to have a sense of modesty; an urge to act for their fellow man and not to merely better themselves and so their charisma is seen as a positive quality. One theory is that ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ (FOREMAN [quote from ACTON], 1961, p13). If a person develops a ‘God complex’ to compliment their charisma then the effects of their demonstration of power can be devastating.
FOREMAN, J. B. Quotations, The Wit and Wisdom of 700 Authors, Collin’s GEM Dictionary, 1961
FUNK AND WAGNALLS. Standard Dictionary International Edition, A through LOBAR, Collier’s, 1963
JOYCE, Peter. Teach Yourself Politics, Hodder Education, 2003
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fe751kMBwms, 6th November 2008
http://www.charliemanson.com, 22nd November 2008
http://www.hitler.org/writings/Mein_Kampf/, 25th November 2008
http://www.ushmm.org, 15th November 2008
http://www.worldwar-2.net 15th November 2008
http://www.46664.com/index.php 22nd November 2008
http://www.nelsonmandela.org/index.php 22nd November 2008
http://employees.oneonta.edu/downinll/mass_suicide.htm 22nd November 2008
http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1859872_1799879,00.html 22nd November 2008
http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1859872_1799894,00.html 22nd November 2008
http://www.anc.org.za/people/mandela.html 22nd November 2008
Biography – Charles Manson, dir. Agnes Nixon (A&E entertainment), film documentary, USA, 1998
Jonestown – The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, dir. Stanley Nelson, film documentary, USA, 2007