Monsters Are Real

sociopath

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.

18 Comments on “Monsters Are Real

  1. If hunter-gatherers had been able to successfully eliminate sociopaths, we wouldn’t have them today. Unless they are only present in non-foraging cultures. There are no studies on the matter, but certain practices of foraging cultures are not exactly things a normal person would probably come up with.

  2. Sociopaths may have behaved very differently among hunter-gatherer cultures for the most part as well; remember a lot of our current problem is that class-based hierarchies are set up in such a way that makes sociopaths rise to power. Among hunter-gatherers, they may have served a different role that benefited the group in some way or other. But the account of how Inuit’s dealt with the more destructive types of sociopaths, “pushing them off the edge of the ice” is from an anthropologist who was studying with the inuit and asked them what they would do if someone was behaving in the way sociopaths often behave: lie, cheat, steal, assault, rape, and murder. Of course, you don’t have to be a sociopath to do all of those things.

  3. UrbanScout (and readers),

    I’ve been a fan of anti-civilization writers for years and have perused your blog on occasion. I have never talked to you but I think we know some of the same people from similar circles.

    Anyway, the path that started for me with reading Daniel Quinn’s work and passed through Jensen’s and included that of so many others culminated in a series I wrote several months ago. It’s very long and comprehensive, but it deals with everything you’re realizing in this post. I strongly urge you to read it. I think you’ll find it worth the time.

    I’ve linked above to the blog post that introduces the series. It is long itself but lays out the whole work.

    Within the series are several pages including one on psychopathy here:

    http://www.systemsthinker.com/interests/mind/psychopathy.shtml

    But the most important page I’ve ever written probably is the one on ponerology. Ponerology is the field that really encompasses all of the issues you’re awakening to here. I think it is crucial for activists working on sustainability to study ponerology. It is really where all of my years of consideration of these topics has led. If you read only one page in my series, make it this one:

    http://www.systemsthinker.com/interests/ponerology/

    I have to say I was really glad to see this piece on your blog. I have become less and less active in this movement because once I realized the impact of the issues you touch on in this post, all of my thoughts on strategy changed completely. It opened up a whole new set of challenges.

    Anyway, I hope some people will take a look at my writings on this and that they change the conversation in a useful way. Again, these are very long pieces to read, but my goal was to be comprehensive, not to give just a surface overview, so those really wanting to get the full picture could do so.

    Thanks for bringing some more awareness to these issues.

  4. We could direct sociopaths to the work of pushing other sociopaths off the ice. They would find the work fulfilling! (Seriously, I’m still in a similar position to you before you read the book: I believe there’s a place for everyone, that everyone has something to offer.)

  5. Because we don’t have the governance or personal discretion to address sociopathic individuals in more assertive ways (i.e., pushing them off the ice), the most important thing (and still a very worthwhile result) to pull from this is that they exist, that we allow for their existence, and when we interact with people who consistently display these behaviors despite such normally high-functioning tools such as mediation, NVC, etc., we can draw a “circle of safety” around them, knowing that they play by radically different rules.

    Making this process of identification and management as effective and rapid as possible may be one of next most important community skills. If sociopaths helped get us into this mess, ignoring their existence is going to keep us from ever climbing out.

  6. I always thought the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath was that a sociopath doesn’t know that there’s anything wrong with them while a psychopath knows but just doesn’t care.

    I work in government offices. I meet both sociopaths and psychopaths frequently. Once you learn their characteristics, they stick out like a sore thumb. Only problem is that in our society, their carelessness for others is what helped them rise to the top of influential government positions.

    • There is some debate about exactly the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, as well as those with Antisocial Personality Disorder. I asked several experts and talk about the consensus on the differences that they shared with me in a section on my page about psycopathy (linked in my previous comment above). In short, as to the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, many view psychopathy as more biological, stemming from actual deeper brain differences from normals, whereas they view sociopaths as people who are biologically normal but take on harmful behaviors as a result of the incentive systems in the structures they live and work in. ASPD is an actual clinical diagnosis that is based more on criminal behavior itself, rather than just the nature of the person.

      A new psychiatric diagnostic manual is in the works, however, so some of this may soon change.

  7. I’m not a professional, but I’ve always had a deep interest in the human psyche. I’ve known — or had to interact with — a number of sociopaths in my long life, and noticed many years ago that the description seemed to fit most of upper management in most of the companies I’ve worked for. And don’t get me started on sole proprietorships: I firmly believe that most of the people who go into business for themselves do so in order to have a free rein to bully their employees.

    But the biggest sociopath I ever knew was the CEO of a company I worked for in the 90′s. Due to management cluelessness, we lost our two biggest clients, the ones that were actually keeping us afloat, and they had to start laying people off. In the end, almost half of the workforce lost our jobs. And in the midst of wrecking all these lives, the CEO, whose Golden Parachute enabled him to remain unaffected by the disaster, posted a magazine article on the bulletin board. Its title? “The Great Game of Business.” Since I was going out the door anyway and had nothing to lose, I sent a copy of it back to him with the note “It may be a game to you, but it’s our lives.”

  8. Great article and very timely. I’ve been interested in this subject for a while and just watched a neat documentary about a psychopath…its called I, psychopath and you can watch it on youtube.

    Its very heartwarming to find there are other folks who have explored this topic and found its implications to the situation we find ourselves in as a species relevant. When I discovered this subject, it was very illuminating to me especially in the context of the situation we find ourselves in as a species.

    I’m not sure Ive ever come across a sociopath, but I believe were has been a full blown narcissist or two in my life….after seeing them in action, and how they seem to collect a very dedicated entourage of fans/followers, I began to suspect that this pathology might actually be very adaptive (or maladaptive depending on your perspective). They represent the proverbial wrench in the machine….repeatedly undermining the gains made by following another more egalitarian and peaceful path throughout history.

    These type of people are charismatic powerbrokers surrounded by emphatic synchophants…and when you come across them it seems everyone just falls in line and does their bidding without question…..

    History is littered with them–from Ancient Greece and Alexander the Great to more recently Pol Pot in Cambodia, Hussein in Iraq and I suspect our former VP Cheney….

    However you look at it….its a factor about human nature one definitely cannot ignore, especially when thinking about the impending collapse.

  9. This all makes me think of a dream my friend had, where I was a professor leading a group of people out on a “field trip” to find monsters. She was terrified because she didn’t have a flashlight, so I had to get one for her. Funny as it is, hearing that dream changed my orientation towards the fight against civilization, and sent me on a “crazy” research project.

    Civilization is a spiritual war against life and consciousness, yet it’s religion is materialism. The reason “our side is loosing” is because most of us remain materialists. As much as we all (come on, admit it) daydream about running around blowing the heads off of sociopaths, I mean zombies, with a sawed off shotgun, we all know that somehow they would manage to come right back. Tell me YOU haven’t had that dream yet?

    Sociopaths are not accidents or random mutations. Remember Jack Forbes “Columbus and other Cannibals”? Remember how literal he was in that book, yet most of us still think it’s some kind of metaphor?

    I haven’t figured out how to be a genuinely effective vampire/zombie/wetiko slayer just yet, but I think we’re starting to get there if we can get past the fear-based materialism addiction. And if you’re like me, and still pretty much addicted to science, I’d really recommend this trilogy by Chris Carter, finally all in print, that destroys materialism in the most convincing way I ever encountered:

    -Science and Psychic Phenomena
    -Science and the Near-Death Experience
    -Science and the Afterlife Experience
    http://store.innertraditions.com/Contributor.jmdx?action=displayDetail&id=1697

    This is a good start….

  10. Ask God to guide you in this dilema, for with Him there is never darkness, but always hope for light and redemption…no matter the situation. With God ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.

  11. That’s why anarchism is better than the rest of the “isms” since it has as a goal the deconstruction of the social hierarchy, the breeding ground of sociopaths.

    How was the “stone age” immersion? Any pictures, stories, advice? :)

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  13. Sociopaths are human and capable of great works. They learn differently, are able to view the world differently and thusly are able to arrive at conclusions that would have eluded the rest of humanity. Furthermore sociopathy is a spectrum. Some sociopaths do not feel hate. Others have no fear. A few have no emotions whatsoever and can be dangerous, but this is not the consensus.

    My advice to you is to not try and find a way to stop sociopathy but to find a way to make sociopathy work with you. We need all kinds of people. They have what it takes to fill in the gaps.