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No rules, no cautions, only purpose

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Mrs. Field looked him in the face with eyes so intent that they had the sightless determination of the witless. In that flushing moment her intelligence was hidden and hooded by her emotion. She was not insane but she had sprung into the region where there are no rules, no cautions, only purpose.

Hugh Walpole – The Sea Tower (1939)

For those of us not consumed by a particular purpose it is not at all easy to understand those who are. If we encounter the obsessive pursuit of some purpose we usually focus on the apparent goal of the purpose. Sometimes it seems to be a fairly benign goal such as the pursuit of sporting excellence or stamp collecting.

Sometimes, especially in the political arena, the goal of the purpose is often hidden or unclear although guesswork is tempting. In political cases, an obsessive purpose with a somewhat unclear goal tells us to focus on the obsessive nature of the purpose rather than the goal. Pay attention to the obsession – the real goal is likely to be covert and not benign.

We know this but are usually side-tracked by the claimed goal in trying to explain what appears to be witless behaviour by intelligent people. This is a mismatch between purpose and claimed goal – so we should see it as a mismatch. In these cases it is more useful to focus on the inherent dangers of obsessive political purpose rather than trying to pick apart what goal lies behind the purpose.

Obsessive purpose would not be a major social problem were it not for the commonplace fact that the primary purpose of a few may become the secondary purpose of a mass following. We are prone to latch on to a purpose when it is significantly stronger than our own. This of course is leadership, but with any form of leadership, the obsessive nature of the purpose should be a clue, whatever the purported goal.

The coronavirus debacle is an example where there is clearly a demented sense of obsessive purpose behind what is claimed to be an unprecedented public health issue. It isn’t unprecedented. It is obsessive. We are quite clearly being drawn into the region where there are no rules, no cautions, only purpose.


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