Friday, April 12, 2013
Why we need psychopaths (part 3)
There are a variety of careers that require such emotional detachment and mimicry, in addition to the corporate world. Funeral directors are not deeply saddened by every single funeral, but they pretend to be as part of the ritual of mourning and to show respect to the families they serve. People expect this treatment and would be very offended if they were not treated in such a manner. Prior to this sacred event the deceased person’s naked body is placed on a table, formaldehyde is pumped into their arteries, their blood is removed, more embalming chemicals are added to their internal body cavity and, finally, cosmetics are applied. An alternative to preservation is cremation. This occurs by burning a human body at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and then grinding up the remaining skeleton. When funeral home employees shake your hand and offer their seemingly sincere condolences it is after one of these processes has taken place. And this is repeated hundreds of times per year, often to babies and children. It has been said that the funeral services are to benefit those left behind as an avenue to mourn, to see their loved ones one last time and to say their final farewells to provide needed closure. Essentially, a human being is put through these horrifying postmortem processes because the remaining family and friends want them to.
In a separate but similar profession as embalmers, doctors and surgeons must see their patients as scientific puzzles to solve and, at the same time, express tender concern and support to their patients and their families. This sympathetic, emotional interaction even has a name: bedside manner. An oncologist who sees hundreds of cancer-ridden patients in their lifetime may show compassion for the patient while simultaneously prescribing treatments that are nothing short of agonizing. A medical examiner, or coroner, performs autopsies on deceased persons to provide closure to the families, to solve mysteries and to provide justice for those who lost their life at the hands of another. To do this means to cut open a corpse, expose organs, remove tissues, cut through bones and sometimes extract the brain from the skull. Autopsies are routinely performed on infants suspected of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Most people could not cut open an infant body without experiencing severe and long-term emotional distress.
Another disturbing experience often resulting in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and even suicide is the wartime horrors our military is currently experiencing. Soldiers leave their families behind, not knowing if they will survive the battlefields they are sent into. Witnessing mass pain and inflicting death onto other human beings is often a soldier’s very first experience with such intense violence. Veterans often report nightmares, flash backs and haunting memories of the people they killed, all in the name of defending our freedom. There is seldom a desensitization process to lessen the psychological impact of being thrust into bloody violence. And upon discharge soldiers are expected to return home and resume a normal life with only a plane ride to separate the experiences. Although the military has taken steps to rehabilitate the mental health of veterans the sad truth is, sometimes that is not enough. After spending, at a minimum, eighteen years building empathy it is expected that it be shut off and back on again like flipping a switch. Rather than learning to reduce and increase empathic feeling on demand, a more attractive option would be eliminating the need for a transition from the beginning.
The motivation for nearly all of these professions is to provide a service to people in a respectful, dignified manner but impression management hides the underlying psychological processes. Many professionals intentionally become hardened over time so as to not cause themselves distress. They do this by gradually removing their capacity for empathy. It is replaced by shallow, but visibly identical, sympathy. Their patients cannot be seen as fathers, daughters, sisters or even human beings. This is achieved through depersonalization and dehumanization. They learn to compartmentalize their work, which allows them to perform their job duties to the best of their abilities and then go home and have dinner with their families. While this is admired by the people who benefit from these highly esteemed professionals, these are the same processes found in sadistic serial killers.
In laymen’s terms this is called “cold hearted.” It would be nearly impossible to discern whether the doctor making strides in cancer research is altruistic and haunted by the patients he could not save, or whether he wants to achieve such accolades selfishly and by whatever means necessary. The family-owned funeral home may be upholding a sacred tradition honoring the deceased, or they may be solely seeking to profit off a never ending cycle. The highly educated coroner voted into position may be grateful to serve their community in a time of loss, or they may take great pleasure in desecrating dead bodies. Perhaps the disturbed loner who can’t quite get a grip on his desire to kill should be the forefront of a special operation cloaked in the name of liberty. If the end result is the same, does it make a difference to us what emotions are experienced in the process? More often than not the graphic processes themselves are explicitly ignored while we focus more on the results. It may be unfathomable to consider these respected, charismatic and driven individuals as ‘cold-hearted’ until you consider what their job descriptions truly consists of. In addition, it may be sickening to consider they repeat these processes daily for decades because they enjoy it; why else would they endure such intensive, difficult and expensive schooling if they don’t gain something positive as a result? They may come across as charming and genuinely altruistic but so did some of the most destructive serial killers in our nation’s history. What these people share is the chilling ability to inflict gruesome human torture for hours and then sit down at the dinner table before sleeping peacefully in bed.
This emotional detachment and presentation of a normal personality, just as previously described, is now not referred to as desensitization or “impression management.” Dr. Hervey Cleckley referred to this as the “mask of sanity.” Cleckley describes the psychopathic person as “outwardly a perfect mimic of a normally functioning person, able to mask or disguise the fundamental lack of internal personality structure, an internal chaos that results in repeatedly purposeful destructive behavior.” If the mask of sanity slips then how does one save face? Does the description “purposeful destructive behavior” describe incinerating human remains? Where is the line between an autopsy and mutilating a corpse? The distinction between murder and combat is in the fine print. Would the facilitators of those processes be exercising emotional detachment against their true nature or harnessing their true cold-hearted nature?