Up until a few days ago I believed that all humans had a conscience. That even the most disturbed, murderous psychopaths had figured out how to shut down their ability to feel remorse and guilt perhaps because of some awful childhood trauma, and given the right circumstance, they might still receive some kind of healing. I thought that even the most twisted politician or CEO or police officer could be sat down and have the falacies of our culture explained to them enough that they would be able to understand our predicament on an emotional level and then change their ways. I thought all humans were redeemable. I was wrong.
Deep into the book “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout, Ph.D., my world began to unravel. The book is about psychopathy, more modernly called sociopathy (since psychopath is too close to psychotic which is very different), and clinically referred to as anti-social personality disorder. The word psycho is so casually thrown around, that it has become an unclinical way of describing abnormal behavior, most often aggressive or violent. Most lay people like myself do not have a grasp on how disturbing real psychopathy is, or I’m sure we wouldn’t be so cavalier with this word.
The reality is that psychopathy, or sociopathy, is a real and very disturbing thing. Sociopaths are people who do not have a conscience: they do not feel guilt, remorse or an emotional, moral obligation towards anything or anyone. They can do whatever they want and never feel “bad” about any of it. While most people have constant conversations with themselves in their minds and hearts about the moral dilemas we are faced with on a daily basis, sociopaths have no such voice or feeling. Emotional bonds are built and maintained through our obligations to each other as members of a community. The most common form of this is called love. Sociopaths do not, can not, form this kind of a bond.
There have probably been more studies conducted since her book was written in 2005, but at the time of the writing, little evidence existed on what exactly causes sociopathy. Theories put stock in 50% genetics and 50% cultural and childhood development. There could be genetic precursors that are influenced and encouraged by culture, and there could be simply cultural factors through childhood development (lack of attachment parenting, childhood abuse etc.) that are the sole cause. The most disturbing aspect of sociopathy is that there is currently no “cure”. Sociopaths will continue to be sociopaths.
And why shouldn’t they? Our culture encourages, creates, protects and celebrates their behavior. For people without a conscience, without love, life is reduced to a board game of sorts: a collection of separate inanimate parts all competing to win. In a hierarchal structure, we all know that “winning” translates to being at the top of the pyramid and that the way to the top of the pyramid is to step on someone else. Without love as a guiding, emotive force, other sensations take over. For sociopaths this is the adrenaline rush they receive from exerting their power over others. This is how most sociopaths end up not in prison, but in positions of power: politics, business, military, and the police force. Of course, not all people in those positions of power are sociopaths, but sociopaths have an easier time climbing into those positions.
Another frightening characteristic of the sociopath is their ability to disguise themselves as normal, loving humans. For people who have a conscience, it is difficult to imagine how people without one could make it through life without being noticed and called out. If their callous nature wasn’t enough already, their ability to adapt and hide their inner nature is what gives them real power, is what makes them invisible monsters. They don’t live alone in the woods, hear voices or have nervous ticks. They marry, raise children, smile at all the right times, can fabricate tears, make friends and tell jokes. They blend in. In the United States, 1 in 25 people is a sociopath.
As I have a background in the critique of civilization, this book had a deeper impact on me than it might for most. While some people might be left fearful of which of their neighbors is a psychopath, I was left with a deep sense of hopelessness and dispair in knowing that the majority of those in power, those who run our culture, are actually irredeemable psychopaths, bent on destroying the world just to demonstrate their power. Just because its the only thing that turns them on.
It would be easy if we could just eliminate the threat in the style of the inuit hunter-gatherers, who would simply take a sociopath out into the world to “hunt” and, when no one was looking, “push them off the edge of the ice.” Things are much more complicated in our case. Unlike the lone psychopath living in a band of hunter-gatherers, where psychopaths are a threat to the survival of the group, our psychopaths are rich, wealthy, and heavily protected individuals. They are esteemed leaders that are protected not just physically through armed guards, but mythologically in the form of respect for “self-made individualists” and psychologically, as we are taught to respect authority. Beyond the individual sociopaths is our entire culture, which, if viewed as a person, behaves like a sociopath: destroying the planet without conscience. You can’t just push an entire culture off the ice.
And they break the rules. Unlike people who are constantly feeling the emotional weight of moral dilemas, they don’t have to follow the same rules as we do. A moral person, having pushed a sociopath off the edge of the ice so-to-speak, would probably feel guilt for the rest of their life for taking the life of another- even though it was for the benefit of the group. We do things slower than the sociopath because we have deep emotional implications for our actions. Pushing another human off the edge of the ice has life-changing emotional implications, potentially life long damage to the psyche. This makes people with a conscience less prone to take actions with such permanence as death. Our conscience also has ways of resisting large moral obligations through things like denial– further making it difficult to see the need to take extreme actions against sociopaths who are wreaking havoc to the planet. The sociopath doesn’t just not have a conscience blocking their ability to easily kill someone, something or the entire planet– they actually get off on it.
This is why all the advice on sociopaths is to not go up against them. Every bit of advice says to get them out of your life. If you have to abandon other friends who are friends with them, do it. If you have to transfer to a different job, do it. “Never go up against a sociopath because you will lose.” This is very, very bad news. I first picked up “The Sociopath Next Door” because I believed there was a sociopath in my community and I wanted to learn how to engage with them without continuing to feel used and abused and stepped on by them. What if you can’t get away from them? What if your whole culture is run by them, protects them and encourages them? How do you win against a sociopath? Now I’m feeling even more lost and hopeless than I have in my entire life. I’m looking for a light at the end of the tunnel and all I see is darkness. Like any other blow to a world view it’s going to take me some time to adjust to the realization that some people are irredeemable: they just want to watch the world burn. This breaks my heart.