Wednesday, April 1, 2015

It could happen to you

I spoke with a friend who was recently ousted from a job based on fabricated charges. She told me that she finally understood -- for the first time -- a little bit about what it was like to be me. She told me that before this happened to her, she had always just assumed that if anyone left her previous places of employment or were fired, it must have been because there was something bad about the firee that she simply didn't know about that justified the firing. 

It's a commonly held belief (and absolutely self-serving), that if something bad happens to someone, that person must be guilty. It's so common that when an even worse thing happened to a mutual friend of ours, during what became a minor media scandal the precipitated the ouster, her co-workers were quoted as saying things like, "you think you know a person, but I guess everyone is capable of darkness." When this mutual friend was eventually exonerated by her place of employment, the employer gave her a sort of a shrug of his shoulders -- yes she was innocent, but there was no way that they could re-hire her given the salacious nature of the scandal and the delicate nature of the job. Now she has no career.

Even before my own very personal experiences with the media, one of my extended family members was an integral part of a national scandal. Although she was largely kept out of the limelight for being a minor, I was able to see how dodgy even very respectable journalistic outposts were about accurately reporting the facts. There's actually a surprising amount of inferences dot connecting reported as absolute that goes on (probably true of any area of life), and there's an odd sort of hubris and self-assurance that some journalists have that their inferences have to be right, just because that is how the journalist happens to see it. 

So Jon Ronson has his book about public shaming out. I haven't read but excerpts (see here for adapted excerpt re Justine Sacco), but obviously I am a fan of the topic, given its coverage on this blog. I've never been a fan of the empath's capacity and eagerness to form lynch mobs. And I can imagine that Ronson's book may be the least loved and most controversial of his books because there is a significant portion of the population that loves lynch mobs so much that they will defend almost every aspect of them, including the capacity and authority to judge others to the point of deciding who gets to live a normal life or not. 

For instance, in his piece that reads (at least to me) largely as a defense of his own part in the Jonah Lehrer shaming, Slates's Daniel Engber quotes the observation of a theatre professor regarding the reaction that some had in learning that Lehrer was to speak at a Midwestern university: “As soon as it became clear to certain people on the East Coast that Jonah was here, I started to get phone calls from people who had no other wish than to ruin his life.” Can you imagine hating a stranger so much that years later you are still harassing him in anyway you can?

Engber gives some obeisance to the idea that he was less knight in shining armor and more misguided Crusader: 

It seemed to me that Payne might have had a point. Am I part of this East Coast mob of angry journalists, out for nothing less than Lehrer’s blood? Ronson’s book suggests as much. In the coda to his chapters on the scandal, he cites a post of mine in Slate, in which I found signs of plagiarism (among other problems) in Lehrer’s newest book proposal. Could I be, as Ronson hints, a self-appointed fury, cruelly bent on someone else’s destruction? 

He concludes, no. Why? Because even though he has done only a bit of anecdotal fact-finding (sound familiar?), he believes that Lehrer has still not owned up to what Engber imagines is scores of misdeeds. What does he base this belief on? Not much more than the fact that Lehrer's publishers never released their reports on his other books, which naturally indicates that they have something to hide: "Houghton Mifflin never published the results of its investigation, so there’s been no full accounting of the problems in Lehrer’s work. But it’s safe to say the Dylan quotes were just the tipoff for something much worse." Is that really safe to say? In what sense of the word "safe"? Safe to say in the sense that it is convenient to assume without verifying and makes Engber's piece seemingly stronger and more compelling (again, what he accuses Lehrer of having done in making "'mistakes'" that "tend to make his stories more exciting".)

Other misdeeds are that the following sentence appears in Lehrer's work and also appears in another book: "The coaches were confident that the young quarterback wouldn’t make a mistake," along with similar descriptions of what happened during a Super Bowl (probably all descriptions of the Super Bowl would be similar because they're all based on the same underlying facts of what actually happened?).  

So basically we have a menace to society on our hands in the form of Jonah Lehrer. And Engber concludes, unsurprisingly from a pitchfork wielding member of the original mob, that Jonah Lehrer should never get back into society's good graces perhaps until he acknowledges all of the mistakes that Engber thinks are mistakes, or perhaps never because how could we ever trust him again. As Engber notes himself, "there are rules to telling stories," and when we tell ourselves stories of self-justification to excuse the blood that we may have spilt in enacting justice, best to stick to the original script of -- if something bad happened to a person, they must have had it coming somehow. 

Otherwise we'd have to admit, as my friends have unfortunately had to recently, that this sort of life ruining and shaming can truly happen to anyone.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ocean to my shark

From a reader:

I read the entire thing yesterday. It was fascinating. I'm not a sociopath or psychopath - I took the test and ridiculously low. I actually wouldn't mind being just a little bit sociopathic; I care way too much about the stuff that doesn't bother sociopaths at all, which is a big part of why I'm interested. 

Anyway, I'm really interested in atypical neurology; as I've tried to understand other people and myself, I've learned that part of the reason people are different is that their brains genuinely process things differently. So my reading brought me to Kevin Dutton's books, and then to yours. By the way, if you haven't read his more recent book, The Good Psychopath's Guide to Success, I highly recommend it. One thing I like about his books is that he acknowledges that neural atypicalness doesn't automatically doom people to evil or uncontrolled violence, that there's a lot of other factors.

This is actually important to me partly on account of fictional characters; I get probably too involved in some of my favorite fictional worlds. After Thor 2 came out last fall I got dragged into a six-month flame war on tumblr because I and a few others pointed out that the supposed villain's actual behavior isn't any worse than that of the supposed hero - actually, it's much better; he kills fewer people and with better reasons. And the way the supposed good guys in that movie treat their enemies is horrifying; a limit on how cruel you are to your enemies is supposed to be one of the distinctions between the good guys and bad guys, but a lot of the people who flamed us for this seemed to figure the whole point is that once you label someone as a bad guy, anything you want to do to them is okay. It's just like people saying that we ought to put sociopaths on islands or something. And while I'm not a sociopath, I am a misfit, and gay, and converted to Judaism a few years ago, so I am all too aware of the danger in such thinking.

We got some sympathy from some Harry Potter fans, because the fans of that series have been arguing fiercely for years about Slytherin. Are Slytherins just evil by nature, or is it just that people distrust their habits of manipulation and opportunism? And what kind of society labels a fourth of its population as evil at the age of 11 and then treats them all like dirt for the rest of their lives? And while I don't think all the Slytherin characters are sociopaths, I also think most sociopaths would be sorted into Slytherin.

As I've read these books on socipathy, I've realized that some people I've known were probably sociopaths. Most of them weren't violent, but they were skilled at manipulating and were emotionally detached from a very young age. I am terrible at manipulating people, so people who are good at it intrigue me. Some of the sociopaths I've known have harmed me, but empaths have caused me a lot more pain and damage because they couldn't or wouldn't control their emotional impulses. I'm inclined to think the world could use a few benign sociopaths, like you and some of those Kevin Dutton writes about.

I think it was really brave of you to tell your story, and I'm sorry you had to stop teaching because of it. I don't think that was right at all when you didn't do anything. I think we can hope people are starting to understand neural atypicality more and that law-abiding sociopaths won't continue to be condemned for what they are instead of what they do. Maybe.

You might like to read the novel The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten. It's a spoof of Twilight, in which Bella (Bonnie is her name in this version) is the sociopath and she seduces Edward because she likes the idea of being immortal. She's not a benign sociopath - she's killed people, for one thing - but from what I've read, the book seems to have accurately captured the sociopath way of looking at things. There's one line where she scoffs at the label "antisocial": "I love society. It's like the ocean to my shark."

Friday, March 27, 2015

Teenage sociopaths

From a reader:

About a year and a half ago, I stumbled across your blog - how, I don't recall. At 15, I had never heard the term sociopath before. The term psychopath had been thrown around, but I only knew the cliché version - sadistic, cruel, and with no emotional capacity. The type of person you wouldn't want to be alone with.

Reading about sociopathy was oddly fascinating to me. I found myself able to understand and relate more than I would have thought. The question has been tugging at me ever since: Am I a sociopath?

I recently purchased and read your book. I enjoyed it immensely, and while I could not identify with it 100%, which might be due to age and experience gaps, much of it struck a chord.

The weak sense of self was particularly relatable. I've always felt that "chameleon-ness", the ability to put on different personas without a second thought, and not feeling attached to any. Alone, I realize, I almost feel like a shell of a person. Without others to react to, there's not much of a "me". So for that reason, I like being around people. They give me substance.

The destruction of others has been a fun game for me. I know not to do it with my friends or family too much, since I'm likely to lose them if I do, or not get what I want out of our relationships. After all, I like my friends. They're funny, intelligent, and interesting for the most part. They're like puzzles that I'm trying to solve. But the thrill of destroying others is too much to resist. I have toyed with students I'm not fond of, turned people against certain individuals, tried to see if I could break a good relationship between a student and teacher once or twice. I don't think I've ever caused permanent damage. I just like the feeling of destroying something in the instant.

The last part I truly identified with was the attachment to family. Well, in a way. My mother and brother are too emotional and empathetic for me to relate to. They're mine, and I'd defend them if they were threatened, but saying I love them might go to far. My father displays sociopathic tendencies, though I don't know if he's one or not. What I mean to say is - I romanticize the concept of family. The concept of family lines is a beautiful thing. Which is why getting married and having children is something I am very interested in. I want to have something that is mine, to have an extension of myself.

The defining factor of a sociopath though, the empathy, is something I hesitate on. I'm only 17. While I can't think of a time I've felt truly empathetic towards another, that doesn't necessarily mean I can't. My emotions are egocentric, yes. I'm motivated by myself. I can logically understand emotions, but I don't connect with them. The worst thing people can do to me is cry. I don't know what to do, and I always feel like I'm just making it worse. Which means they cry longer, and I still have to feel uncomfortable/irritated.

My other hesitation with self-diagnosing myself is my emotions. I feel them, perhaps not as strongly as I should, especially the negative ones. But I feel happiness when doing something I like, frustration or sadness when something doesn't go my way. As for love... I don't think I've ever felt it, but it is something I want. I wonder if all sociopaths want love, though. It's a rather selfish thing, or so it seems. I want someone to possess, and I want the adoration that comes with being loved.
Part of me wonders if I'm too young to be a sociopath, truly, since I could still "change".

This has ended up being a larger email than I intended, and I apologize. I'm almost done.

What is your opinion on sociopaths and imagination? I don't just mean violent day dreams (who hasn't fantasized about slitting the throat of a rival?). I mean stories, like coming up with your own world, own plots, own characters. Not actually believing in them, but treating them like a book in your head. A distraction from boredom. I haven't seen anything on your blog about it, but could have just missed it.

My other question: do you think sociopaths are naturally curious? Or just people in general? In your book, you struck me as a curious person, but I may be wrong. I myself am absurdly curious, since knowledge can always indirectly affect or protect me. Truth be told, I am dying to know your name. But I can understand why you wouldn't want to tell me, and I'll live if I never learn it. Either way, I would like to thank you for your book. It was enlightening and fascinating.

My response:

I'm not sure if we have different imaginations or that we imagine vastly different things. Maybe we imagine things more explicitly and are more self-aware about it? Like I imagine in the ruining games that I've really seduced someone so much that they will never get over me, but who knows if that is really true. I also imagine what it might be like to be other people in the cognitive empathy sense. I also imagine ahead of time several strategic steps if I'm playing some sort of game or even in life, which makes me a good plotter, I guess.

I consider myself a truthseeker, although I'm not sure if there's complete overlap with curiosity. I have always thought that maybe it was because I grew up living in the warped reality of a narcissist and in a lot of ways also lived in my world of my own imagination in which I was this powerful figure, that I always wanted to be sure to distinguish between real life and make believe, unlike my father?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unbroken

I thought that this recent comment from an old post showed a good deal of wisdom and was overall good advice.

I am the partial empath who adapted to the reality check. I gave the mental pink slip to the person I encountered even though I am not in his range of vision anymore. I certainly can't change anyone, and it is self-destructive and foolish to harbor hatred when there are so many other great stuff of life to enjoy. The unapologetic sociopath is forgivable (release that person and move on with your life) because lack of remorse has qualified him/herself to be dispensable. To all you empaths out there, there is no ethical need to pause for the sociopath who never intended to pause life for you. You can't help someone who doesn't want to change. 

It reminds me of the book Unbroken, which I am just finishing. It's kind of a funny read for me because the childhood chapters read a lot like the childhood chapters of my book -- listing a bunch of shenanigans that make it clear that the child is taking childhood pranks one step further than most. (It actually makes me wonder a bit at the people who insist we can diagnose children based primarily at their antisocial behavior.) I won't spoil the book for anyone who hasn't read or seen the movie (or knows of the underlying facts), I'll just quote:

The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. 

I actually think Unbroken is a great book for people who would like to adopt this ability to let go of the (often one-sided) emotional connection that they still have with their abusers, long after the actual abuse is over. Of course, I can't advocate dismissing a whole category of human beings as "negligible" in the grand scheme of things, e.g. as being a lower form of humanity than you are so you wash your hands of their suffering/fate. But I definitely think you can dismiss particular traits of a particular person as being, how the commenter put it, "dispensable", or "able to be done without". That, in fact, it's almost impossible (paradoxically) for many people to see their abuser as a human being without first condemning and then dismissing a few of their worst traits as being morally repugnant to them. Once those traits of the abuser are condemned/rejected/dismissed with finally in one's mind, all that one is left with is a flawed human being that may be more flawed than most, but actually shares in common with every other human being the fact that it is flawed at all. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Calling all military sociopaths

From a reporter:

Hello all. I'm a journalist with New York magazine and I'm working on a piece that will be a realistic and balanced portrayal of sociopaths in the army. I've been looking into a lot of the same issues that were brought up here. I'm seeking vets or active military who would be willing to discuss this with me, anonymously if need be. Anyone fitting that description and interested in an interview, please email me at sulomeanderson@gmail.com. Thanks! 

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