Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Are you a psychopath?

Why do so many people in Western society today reject religion, particularly the Christianity that a lot of us grew up with? I suspect that one reason is a perceived incompatibility between the core religious value of humility, and a liberal democratic culture in which self-confidence and ambition are seen as positive and necessary traits that support both personal and societal success. At the same time, we know that the ethic of self-advancement can turn nasty. When combined with rampant materialism and the breakdown of social bonds, it can give rise to impulsively self-serving behaviour that is ultimately destructive both for the individual and society. Feeding on fear of this possibility, the figure of the psychopath has come to stalk our collective imaginary.

On the weekend, I crashed a house-warming in Leura and got into an engaging conversation with a very glamorous (especially for Leura) crime writer. To set the scene a little more, the host had cooked goat and rabbit for the event, and there was a log fire keeping us warm as the rain fell gently but continuously outside. Although I am more or less vegetarian, I also subscribe to the monastic discipline of accepting any food that is offered to me, so in a humble and at the same time self-interested gesture of appreciation of the poetically rustic hospitality on offer, I ate (among other things) a baked onion stuffed with rabbit and various herbs, which was delicious, and made me feel as if I was in a country house in the north of France.

While I was digesting, the beautiful crime novelist informed me that 1% of the population worldwide are psychopaths - no variation for culture or gender, this is a wholly democratic concept. This means that you’ve definitely met a few, in fact, you may well be living with one, or even be one. I think there are only about 50 people reading this blog so far, so we could, in theory, be a psychopath-free online community, though I have to admit, it seems unlikely.

Obviously this claim is based on a very broad definition of the psychopath – you don’t need to have done anything life-threatening with a chainsaw, axe, gun or other weapon to qualify. You just need to show a lack of moral conscience, in particular a lack of remorse, “shallow affect” (ie you don’t care much about other people), and a willingness to lie to get what you want. Unintelligent psychopaths often end up in jail (or the doghouse), while intelligent ones end up in positions of power. Basically, anyone who pursues their own interests by doing something that other people consider immoral, and doesn’t seem sincerely sorry when they get found out, can be labeled a psychopath. On this definition, as has probably occurred to you already, most of your ex-lovers, a good number of your colleagues and possibly a few of your close family members are probably psychopaths. A lot of children are undoubtedly psychopaths.

You can see by now that the concept of the psychopath can operate a bit like an emotional chainsaw. It’s a mental weapon you can turn on anyone who has betrayed your trust. It allows you to protect yourself by cutting them off, placing them beyond the possibility of understanding or communication. At the same time, it betrays a lingering fascination with this person, who is not just disappointing, but (at least in your eyes) pathologically heartless. Something ought to be done to control them, for the protection of other actual or potential victims; you can’t just walk away (or close the book, and go to sleep).

Liberal use of the concept of the psychopath beyond the world of crime fiction where it belongs seems a perfect example of what Nietzsche called ressentiment in action. It involves a mode of evaluation that focuses on the other as Evil, and defines the self, in pale contrast, as good. Nietzsche associated this way of approaching the world with institutionalized Christianity. (Has crime fiction replaced Christianity in the emotional and moral life of our culture? Or is crime fiction actually a late, decadent, secular form of Christianity?) Behind practices of so-called humility, ranging from self-effacement to self-flagellation, Nietzsche detected the vengeful spirit of resentment, a desire to attack the more powerful, or the differently constituted, and establish one’s own goodness not actively, but reactively. I am good and normal and deserving of compassion and acceptance because I am not like them. I am not a psychopath.

Lately I have been editing a few papers for the upcoming Sakyadhita conference of Buddhist women (would a psychopath do that?). In the course of this work, I read a thought-provoking paper by a Korean delegate, Eun-so Cho, who provides another angle on the problem of self-effacing or self-denying practices. Her topic is “Women’s Leadership and the Buddhist Concept of Non-self.” In her paper, she addresses the problem of women interpreting Buddhist values like humility and the doctrine of non-self in ways that undermine their self-confidence and conviction in the value of their own activities and achievements. She sees a painful clash between traditional Buddhist forms of self-effacement and contemporary Western-inspired efforts to improve women’s social participation and promote gender equality in her own country. This clash is played out not only in external resistance to women’s advancement, but even more potently within the minds of successful women themselves, who are prone to question their own motivations and worry that their behavior is selfish and their satisfaction in their own achievements amounts to pride, putting them in conflict with their own spiritual ideals.

From a Nietzschean perspective, this is an example of “bad conscience,” a form of consciousness that turns its aggressive tendencies upon itself. The woman worries that she herself may be a psychopath, or on the way to becoming one. Her identity as a “good” religious person attacks what it sees as the Evil, ambitious self that is seduced by the lure of worldly power and success. The paradox is that the aggression of the “good” self is likely to be motivated by hopes and fears that are even more heavily conditioned by social pressures than her worldly ambitions.

How do we move beyond the pathological anxiety of bad conscience, and develop a healthy, moderate, realistic attitude toward our achievements and failures, as well as toward those of others? How do we resist the temptation to indulge in ressentiment whether directed at others or at ourselves? Eun-so Cho’s answer is to point to the Buddhist doctrine of non-self as it is interpreted and lived by women in the early Buddhist texts. Far from leading to self-flagellation, the idea that there is no fixed self, either good or bad, liberated the women of the Therigatha from self-doubt and gave them the confidence and determination to pursue spiritual freedom. Where there is no fixed self, there is no target for ressentiment, or at least none that stays still for long enough to get hit. No self, no psychopath. Hmm, I think I might be onto an idea for an unconventional crime novel…


Justin Tauber said...

But, if there is no fixed self, what pride can we take in our achievements. In what sense are they "ours" at all. I can see how this might dissolve a source of disempowerment, but not how it can be a source if empowerment. (Empowering what exactly?)

But maybe I'm overstating the idea of no fixed self. Is it compatible with a narrative self which is retrospectively rewritten (by whom exactly)?

Still, the connection between the trope of psychopathy and ressentiment is really interesting. No variation in the frequency of psychopaths for age or sex or anything?! Sounds suspicious to me.

One more thing. I always thought the difference between psychopath and sociopath was that the psychopath can't tell right from wrong, while the sociopath knows but doesnt/can't care.

Juzzeau said...

Hi Justin,

You're right that if there's no fixed self then pride in our achievements doesn't make a lot of sense. We won't disparage ourselves (or others) but nor will we build ourselves up (or others). The Buddhist perspective is that praise and blame are not particularly helpful. When praised or blamed, the Buddha suggests that we should acknowledge the truth or deny the falsity of what is said, but not feel crushed or elated - just stick to the facts.

At the same time, it's still possible to take satisfaction in something we have been involved in or recognise its value, but without this reflecting with particular force on "me." So if a woman is succeeding in her field and this is helping other women, and society generally, she can see and feel that her work is worthwhile (and not just because it brings her personal rewards). On the other hand, if she's succeeding in a way that depends on hurting others, then personal pride in her own success shouldn't prevent her from seeing this and changing.

That's an interesting question about whether the idea of non-self is compatible with a narrative sense of self. I think what flows from the idea of no fixed self is that insofar as it depends on a fixed sense of self, the narrative self is a fiction - maybe a useful, enjoyable or even necessary fiction in certain contexts, but still a fiction. And you could have multiple fictions - multiple different narratives about the same life.

What you say about the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths fits with what the crime writer told me - she defined psychopaths as having no moral sense. I have to admit that the translation of "shallow affect" as "you don't care much about other people" was my own gloss. But I guess this would probably be common to both psychopaths and sociopaths (insofar as they exist).

Peter said...

Interesting thoughts Justine !

I was reading an essay on the New Testament Book of Revelation last night, approaching it from a psychological perspective. There are various ways of reading Revelation, and psychologically speaking you can either see its violence as intended to prevent or to provoke real violence in its readers.

Revelation is an example of the strand in Christian tradition which is fixated on "us" and "them", and which I'm sure gave Nietzsche ample grounds for his theory of ressentiment.

Your suggestion that crime fiction might be "a late, decadent, secular form of Christianity" is very interesting. Crime fiction too is concerned with "us" and "them", and traditionally written from the perspective of the "good and normal" and represents the victory of good over evil.

So both religious narratives and crime fiction affirm "us" in our goodness and enable us to celebrate the fact that we are not "them".

However, reality is more complex than some versions of faith and much crime fiction allow for. I am drawn to both more complex fictional narratives and to more complex faith narratives, which makes me wonder if it would be possible to guess one's approach to religion from their preferences in fiction.

In other words, in the various narratives we use to understand and interpret the world, are we comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty or do we look for clarity and certainty ?

Your reminder of the Buddhist idea of what would seem to me to amount to an evolving self (rather than a static one - though does anyone believe in a static self ?)just makes the choice of more tentative narratives all the more appropriate.

Well I had better post this comment up before my constantly changing self comes to disagree with everything I've written !

nova_ny said...

I make no comment on psychopaths, knowing next to nothing about the topic.

But on "why do so many people in Western society today reject religion":

As Bertrand Russell wrote:
- "Assign to any belief the degree of certainty the evidence warrants"
- Faith: The name given to a belief for which there is no evidence
- The bible tells us, 'faith can move mountains' and no one believes it. Science tells us, atom bombs can move mountains and EVERYONE believes it".

Put differently:

It is time for people to stop brainwashing two-year-olds and let the tired old hoax of religion die out.

Juzzeau said...

Thanks nova ny, the Voltaire-inspired article is hilarious.

Blind faith is wide open to parody, but I don't think religion can be reduced to this (or when it is, it becomes a joke). There is such a thing as religion that doesn't contradict reason, but supplements it by seeking a truth that goes beyond the kind of rationality that can create and explain atom bombs.