not in our stars, but in ourselves
Last night, I was doing some light reading – which is to say I started reading the Wikipedia article about serial killers, and then went down a rabbit hole, as often happens. Sometimes, the rabbit hole leads to specific killers: Andrei Chikatilo, Albert Fish, H.H. Holmes, etc. However, rather than focus on specific individuals, I started to become more interested in one of the potential underlying causes: psychopathy itself.
Did you know that, back in the day, psychopathy used to be regarded as “moral insanity”? If someone seemed not to suffer hallucinations, or other usual portents of madness, but did and said horrible things anyway, they were morally insane. Outdated as it is, that seems to me a pretty helpful way to try to understand people who are perhaps beyond the usual realms of understanding. Not just morally compromised, or ambivalent, or confused – just plain morally crazy.
In more concrete terms, of course, there are a few tests to determine psychopathy. There’s the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised, which examines the following:
Facet 1: Interpersonal
Facet 2: Affective
Facet 3: Lifestyle
Facet 4: Antisocial
(For more in-depth analysis of the PCL – R, you can read this paper, if you’re fancy and have a subscription to some sort of academic database.)
Now, don’t go diagnosing yourself just yet, but think about these various factors and facets – not merely in a criminal context, but a more quotidian one. Psychopaths aren’t all murderers, you know. That’s just one of the more notable ways their masks of sanity can slip. But your friendly neighborhood bum (parasitic lifestyle, proneness to boredom, etc.) just might be a psychopath. Think of Hans Beckert in M. They can look downright normal, even boring.
I’m being a bit glib myself here, but I am seriously interested in the prevalence of psychopathy in the general population. How many politicians? CEOs? World leaders of the less democratic sort? Consider this alternate test, the Psychopathy Personality Inventory (PPI):
PPI 1: Fearless dominance. From the subscales Social influence, Fearlessness, and Stress immunity. Associated with less anxiety, depression, and empathy as well as higher well-being, assertiveness, narcissism, and thrill-seeking.
PPI 2: Impulsive antisociality. From the subscales “Machiavellian” egocentricity, Rebellious nonconformity, Blame externalization, and Carefree lack of planning. Associated with impulsivity, aggressiveness, substance use, antisocial behavior, negative affect, and suicidal ideation.
PPI 3: Coldheartedness. From a subscale with the same name.
Honestly – aren’t most of those the traits we’ve been led to believe make great leaders, of whatever sort? Someone whose ability to control crowds, to avoid flinching away from danger, to manage stress in ways that make him seem almost fearless; someone willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, to be a true iconoclast (while insisting that everyone follow and bend to his will), to point the finger at everyone else before ever accepting responsibility, to “make things happen” on the spur of the moment; someone who won’t let something as weakening as emotion interfere with getting shit done. It seems to me that the current political climate – in the U.S., at least – is selectively breeding these traits in our politicians. (As reported on NPR, there’s already a theory that CEOs are especially likely to be psychopaths.) Doesn’t that worry you? It worries me.
Politics has never been a noble business, despite that hokey wish-fulfillment porn on shows like The West Wing (a truly garbage show, by the way, regardless of what anyone says in its defense). It certainly seems to have gone downhill recently, however. I don’t mean to suggest that the reason is a sudden influx of psychopaths in Washington and other big world capitals…but it is perhaps a sign of some of the more powerful psychopaths’ ability to charm and to obfuscate and to manipulate that things have been plummeting as far to the bottom as they have; and a sign of our own weakening that we let them get away with it. I mean, the more we see this sort of thing, the more normal it seems. Normalized moral insanity – oh, goody, that bodes well.
This is just another of my prophet-of-doom moments, I know. I have quite a few of them. But how can you look at the world now without feeling grave concern for where it’s going? The only leadership we seem to have is leading us straight off the edge of a cliff. (And I use “we” to mean “Americans” – but other countries are in on this too: China is an especially ruthless world power, the kind that Hannibal Lecter himself would likely applaud, but it’s all to the peril of its own people and literally the entire world; Australia wants to be best friends with the dying American empire without missing out on China’s bounty, a juggling match that will probably end up with it being hoisted by its own petard; Russia, under Putin, seems determined to prop itself back up into the old Russia of tsars and pogroms – again, to the peril of its own people; and the mess in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, et al. – a mess that the United States absolutely created and now can’t possibly clean up – is a veritable breeding ground for moral insanity, on all sides.)
What’s my point? I don’t know. Just start questioning more. Keep your own morals in mind, and try to check what your so-called elected leaders do and sanction against them. That is, if you have any morals. I wonder about some of you.