Dedication: to my friend Thaddeus for first suggesting I begin perceiving the presence of psychopathy, and for forgiving me for my blindness to psychopathic behaviors in my own community
This article springs from several urges; to fully own my own responsibility for thinking critically (with a Tracker’s eye) about the issues of my life, and to create a deeply safe community space for my extended family and friends to flourish as human beings and rewilders. Upfront, let me make it totally clear: I have no credentials or academic expertise in this area. I write as just another adult human being.
I believe that over time I’ve unconsciously sought out and built relationships with folks exhibiting psychopathic behaviors (see below). This sounds like I’ve consorted with axe murderers, but as you’ll see, psychopathy doesn’t necessarily involve violence at all – it all depends on the individual.
I’ve wondered, “why have I done this to myself?”, and indeed the books I’ve read on psychopathy have exhorted readers to learn about themselves, learn about their own flaws and foibles, because psychopaths will certainly see them right away and begin pushing your buttons and pulling levers to get you to behave the way they want.
I have no need to hide from you all, my readers, what I believe drove me to seek out these folks; I sought their willingness to “play on the edge”, to break society’s rules, to act impulsively and come up with “out of the box” solutions. I did this on purpose, wanting more inspiration and energy in my own life, thinking I couldn’t provide this for myself.
I’ve grown up and realized that, firstly, that I can indeed do this for myself, and secondly, as you’ll see, those of us with a healthy conscience don’t need more edgy drama in our lives. We have plenty already, thank you.
Though modern people tend to view humans as “specially special”, and at the same time, curiously broken (darn those naturally warlike humans!), humans came into this world (and will go out of it) as just yet another beautiful animal nation. Not needed for the world to continue, and yet a wonderful addition to it (in spite of the recent problems with one segment of this vast human family – the “civilizing” one).
I’d like to begin this rumination on psychopaths by talking about the wonderful diversity of human beings, a diversity taken for granted by traditional indigenous minds, yet feared and resisted by modern peoples.
What kind of diversity? We have genderqueer diversity (how many genders are there – two, three, four, five, can we even number them?), we have diversity of cognition (autism, dyslexia, and more), diversity of perception (the blind, the Deaf, and more), handedness (right-hand dominant, left-hand dominant, cross-dominance, situational-dominance, etc.), and diversity of conscience (empaths, psycho/socio-paths, “sheeple”).
No, I can’t list them all here, but I think that makes for a good beginning. Keep in mind every one of these lines of diversity expresses in degrees and dimensions. For example, we don’t experience blindness and the lack of it just as an either/or state. You can have more or less blindness, and experience blindness in different ways (color-blindness, night-blindness, face-blindness, etc.)
All of these diversities have been with us as long as we’ve been human. I don’t doubt this in the least. I don’t see anything broken or handicapped or accidental about any of these peoples. I mean, humans don’t fall into two categories – “fully human” humans, and “less-than-human/unnatural” humans. Right handed dominant folks don’t necessarily behave more gracefully (latin: more “dexter”-ous) and left-handed preferring folks don’t necessarily behave more evilly (again, latin: more “sinister”).
Even after allowing for the curious variances amongst all the others – the Deaf, the transgender, the autistic, and on and on – even after allowing and respecting the dignity and fresh perspectives of all these peoples, and breathing deep, allowing that they too have helped make human cultures work for countless millenia, not as unnatural humans, but as fully natural ones…
…mustn’t we still sharpen our tongues (and knives!) against the Sociopath?
Well, perhaps. Certainly, we can’t do “nothing” about them. As it turns out, the anonymity and individual-glorifying nature of the modern world has created the richest predatory habitat ever conceived for these human beings without a conscience, without any need for human connection.
Others have written eloquently about this – Peter Bauer from a rewilder’s point of view, Clinton Callahan from an anti-civ point of view, Joe Brewer from a policy and politics point of view, Dr. Martha Stout from a popular science point of view, Dr. Robert Hare from research and clinical point of view.
Most people react to the word “psychopath”, as used in everyday life (as in, “that guy/gal is a psychopath [sic]“), from either a colloquial angle (understanding that the speaker doesn’t intend the clinical definition), or the true crime novel angle (treated as a phenomenon that happens to other folks, but not us). Calling someone, right here, right now, a “psychopath” just perpetuates melodrama, doesn’t it…? The individual in question – “they can’t possibly be all that bad.”
But for psychopaths – who may appear in our culture at a rate somewhere between 1-5% (yes, that means in a room of 20 people, a psychopath could easily stand in plain sight, unrecognized), and for folks with some degree of, but not full-blown, psychopathic behavior this rate increases up to a possible 15%, or 3 out of 20 - as commonly as they might appear in our company, we seem awfully unprepared to deal with them.
Yet almost every indigenous culture in the world has a human role, often called a “witch” by modern observers (meaning a practitioner of black, rather than white magic, assuming you define those squishy concepts as most seem to do), filled by a community member with predatory behavior and a lack of a conscience.
The modern eye has long mocked the ignorance of the village “witch-hunt”; and certainly in the modern age (medieval modernity included!) witch-hunts provide just another horrific opportunity for sociopaths to predate on human communities.
And yet I begin to understand that the feared “witches” of old – again, not conscience-burdened wisdom keepers and medicine people that we call “witches”, but those without any such burden – perhaps once isolated and easily ferreted out in close-knit village communities, have become so well-fed on human misery, and have acquired so much power, that whole societies have bowed to the pressure to glorify what these predators glorify. Which, as I mentioned above, might explain some things about the present state of civilization.
We find ourselves several thousand years into a culture seemingly born to serve these predators.
Before we go farther, let’s describe psychopathy. At this point, most folks researching psychopaths agree that “psychopathy” (or “sociopathy”, which gives it more of a social-context coloring) labels a syndrome of behaviors that appears to different degrees, in different dimensions. According to the book, Almost a Psychopath (published by Harvard Medical School for those dealing with the still terrible, but not “full-blown”, instances of subcriminal psychopathy), you can look for 10 indicators of less-than-the-full-nightmare psychopathy:
1. Charming and glib, with an answer for everything.
2. Lack of empathy, difficulty to understand and/or appreciate the emotions of others.
3. Opportunities for moral choices result in decisions made for their own self-interest.
4. Repeated lying, even when unnecessary or for minor reasons.
5. Conning and manipulative.
6. When criticized, they always place fault and blame on others.
7. Lack of true remorse when they have caused harm to others.
8. Limited ability to express feelings for others, or maintain relationships.
9. They find it easy to ignore responsibilities.
10. People and situations seem to exist solely for satisfying their needs and wants.
This is a pretty awful list, as embodied by a person standing in front of you and exhibiting these behaviors, even keeping in mind that this list represents a non-violent, non-”criminal” expression or degree of psychopathic behaviors.
Dr. Hare’s research on the brains of fully psychopathic individuals shows that they literally do not have the same emotional experiences as us. They feel happiness, frustration, thrills, but don’t seem capable of truly felt rage, joy, sadness, love, or other feelings, though they may commonly use false displays of these (tantrums, crocodile tears, etc.) feelings to influence others.
Because they don’t have the same deep feelings, or don’t have them to the same degree, for psychopaths, describing “love” or “terror” to psychopaths compares to describing colors (“cornflower blue, not teal”) to the blind.
In addition, researches like Hare do not consider psychopaths “insane”, and psychopaths see themselves as perfectly healthy (often more healthy!) and reasonable. We live in a dog eat dog world, after all…?
So says the psychopath, anyway.
Psychopaths, due to how they use their brains, also seem less aware of surrounding context – they have a predatory focus, and when they do get “caught” it happens because they didn’t see the surrounding warning signs, even though we may consider them otherwise brilliant.
This connects with the modern conception that we don’t have a left brain/right brain (i.e., math/art) split, but rather a focused manipulation of the defined/expanded awareness of the undefined split.
This has caused me to wonder about the psychopath’s ability to perceive with “owl-eyes”/wide-angle vision. I wonder if this could offer another way to track the presence of a psychopath. Certainly when I have been with people who, in my estimation, showed some psychopathic behaviors, they seemed in a kind of perpetual tunnel-vision, unaware of their surroundings in odd ways.
The other symptom of psychopathology – for some reason not on the checklist for subcriminal psychopathy, but certainly present on the “full-blown” criminal checklist – a hunger for thrills and excitement, comes from the total lack of drama in the psychopath’s inner life, that the rest of us experience on a daily basis.
Can you imagine all of that emotional pull and push just disappearing? How would it feel?
The psychopath will tell you how it feels – a never-ending battle with intense boredom. Suffocating, agonizing boredom.
What would you do with all that free time, absent of all that drama? Well, again, in the right context, a psychopath will happily tell you – seek thrills, manipulate people, turn the social landscape into a game that you can win or lose.
It occurs to me, that though this in fact describes deep social disconnection, this sounds like mainstream American marketing/media/business culture. It may not surprise you that American/Western culture seems to produce psychopaths at a couple orders of magnitude greater than, say, Asian (Chinese/Japanese) culture. The statistics: 1-5% in Western culture, as opposed to .03% in Asian cultures (according to Dr. Stout’s book). Say what you like about Asian culture (Confucianism terrifies me), we really have brought the horrors of civilization to a pinnacle in the U.S.
I’ll bring this to a close for now; I have lots more to share though!
Have you had experiences with people exhibiting psychopathic behaviors? What did you learn from them? Do you feel uncomfortable even thinking in terms of such a “hot-button”, inflammatory label? I’d love to hear your thoughts – I may address some of your responses in the next post in this series (yes, more to come!)