Long ago, my parents told me one day I could grow up to be the President of the United States of America. Looks to me as if only the most heinous of persons would want the job now. Amirite?
by Caitlin Johnstone edited by O Society October 24, 2019
Due to a very painful and disturbing revelation in my personal life I have the unfortunate occasion to spend the last several days thinking a lot about psychopaths and what makes them tick. I don’t want to get into the hairy details at this time, but I would like to share some general thoughts on the matter.
Psychopathy reached a dark tentacle into my life. Given the three years I’m at this gig writing about the way our world is run by calculating manipulators devoid of empathy. We find ourselves ruled by psychopaths because we have a system wherein those who are willing to do anything to anyone are rewarded with immense wealth, and immense wealth translates directly to immense political power.
I’m not really interested in getting into the specific clinical diagnoses of psychopathy and sociopathy for the purposes of this discussion. What I’m talking about here is a specific slice of humanity that is neurologically wired in such a way that they experience the world more as a series of puzzles which can be manipulated around to get them them whatever they want regardless of who it hurts, rather than experiencing a world full of fellow sentient beings with whom you can have deep, meaningful connections and interactions. Not all people who are diagnosed as psychopaths are high-functioning enough to manipulate people at high levels, and not everyone who manipulates people in this way would necessarily be diagnosed as a psychopath or even a sociopath. Feel free to mentally substitute whatever term you prefer.
Whatever you want to call it, people who have this condition (and are able to avoid prison) tend to do quite well for themselves by our society’s standards. Because they don’t see other people as anything other than tools and resources, they don’t let empathy and compassion stand in their way when viciousness and exploitation will help them achieve their goals. Because they don’t value connections with other people, they don’t see narratives and descriptions as paths toward deeper understanding, but as tools which can be twisted and distorted in order to secure themselves more wealth, status, sex, or whatever else they want. They quickly rise to the top in corporate and financial settings, in media institutions, in government agencies, and in politics. In modern society, this ability to “not give a shit about anything except myself and my own status” is a natural advantage the rest of us simply cannot compete with.
(A) those who lack empathy are able to do whatever it takes to make the most money, (B) studies show immense wealth kills empathy, and
(C) money translates directly to political power
…it is only natural that we now find ourselves ruled by sociopaths.
But it’s not just our current iteration of society which elevates psychopaths to the top.
A casual glance through recorded history all around the world reveals an essentially unbroken track record of genocide, slavery, torture, exploitation, and degradation as far as the eye can see, with the driving characters time and again being depraved dominators, conquerors and mass murderers. Research some of the horrors inflicted upon the Aboriginal people of Australia and the indigenous populations of the Americas and you’ll see the whole thing is driven by a total lack of empathy for these indigenous human beings. Throughout our collective history as humans, our main problems seem to be caused by systems which elevate psychopaths to positions of leadership, who then go on to make psychopathic decisions for all of us.
People indifferent to truth and human suffering are adept at ascending to power positions. It’s hard to even imagine a society where we don’t find ourselves ruled by psychopaths. George RR Martin set out to tell a story about a cast of characters all vying for power in an epic game of thrones, and his-story winds up populated almost entirely by psychopaths and sociopaths. It makes for a compelling tale precisely because it’s believable, because it’s based on what we all know deep down about our own human behavior patterns. It’s also a relentless assault on the audience’s empathy center.
So what can be done, then? How can we ordinary, feeling, caring human beings protect ourselves from this segment of the population who currently drives us towards disaster after disaster and have since the dawn of civilization? Can we do it before they get us all killed?
Psychopathic leaders don’t have trouble figuring out how to get rid of ‘problematic’ segments of the population: they round these folks up and exterminate. Obviously this method should be out of the question for many reasons, not the least of which is in order to implement an extermination plan, we’d need to become psychopaths ourselves, wouldn’t we? We “cure” the sickness by becoming the sickness.
Passing a bunch of laws against manipulation and deception wouldn’t work either. Manipulators actually love rules because they can figure out exactly how to manipulate and use these very laws to their advantage.
To wit: Julian Assange awaits extradition hearings in Belmarsh Prison because a bunch of psychopathic manipulators decide to pretend it was very, very important to respect a series of laws and rules ranging from bail protocol to whistleblower source protection to government bureaucracy to embassy cat hygiene, and they were able to engineer a result that just so happens to look exactly the same as imprisoning a journalist for exposing US war crimes. All the worst atrocities in human history are perfectly legal at the time, aren’t they?
I’ve seen some people advocating mandatory brain scans for anyone seeking a leadership position. It seems a psychopath’s brain shows up differently on a PET scan, and it is possible to envision a future where the collective is so aware of the pernicious dance between psychopathy and power, such a policy might be set and enforced.
The problem, of course, is haters gonna hate, manipulators gonna manipulate, and there are many ways to manipulate a system; they insert themselves into “unofficial” leadership positions for example, for which there’s never need for examination. Plutocrat, advisor, and propagandist are unofficial leadership positions, aren’t they?
Maybe you’ve got your own ideas about this, but I personally can’t think of a single solution to the fundamental problem of psychopaths inserting themselves into positions of power which doesn’t involve drastic, unprecedented changes in our civilization and our culture. Even if you completely tore down capitalism, ended plutocracy and replaced the entire system with a government-planned economy, you would still have positions of power and the absolute certainty of psychopaths manipulating their way into those positions sooner or later.
I’m talking about changes as drastic as the end of anyone having any power over anybody at all. A society where the idea of having power over anybody became so culturally taboo that even an unequal power dynamic between spouses would be seen as outrageous and ugly, to say nothing of governments or police forces. Such a society is very far from what we’ve got now, but it would surely be a very inhospitable environment for psychopathy. There would be no positions of leverage for one to manipulate their way into in order to force others to give them what they want, and if you started trying to create one everybody would immediately point at you and yell “Hey! What are you doing? Stop it, it’s weird! If you want something from us you need to form consensual collaborative relationships with us, just like we’re all doing.”
It’s also possible to imagine a culture in which manipulation is seen as an unacceptable taboo which immediately draws public backlash in the same way. In such a culture children would learn from the youngest age what honest and sincere interaction looks like, with examples of deceit and manipulation clearly illustrated for them in all forms as something gravely disordered. Advertising would cease to exist in such a society, as would propaganda in all its forms. And psychopaths would be fish out of water, because manipulation only works when it isn’t recognized as such.
One also can imagine a culture which values empathy, compassion, and helping others instead of valuing wealth, accomplishment, and conquest. In such a culture we might see the ability to connect with people and work for the good of the whole elevated in status, rather than the ability to do whatever it takes to claw your way to the top of the heap of human rubble. In such a society, psychopathy would be an immense disadvantage, rather than an immense advantage.
This could be a marker of a healthy society, one in which psychopathy and sociopathy become grave mental handicaps for which the afflicted need to actively seek help. A society so empathic and collaborative, having a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder isn’t such a big deal because your neighbors work with you and help you with what you need rather than pushing you to conform and achieve, while having psychopathy or sociopathy is a debilitating disorder which will turn you into a pariah sleeping on park benches if you don’t get help.
Right now we have the opposite: people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and other serious mental illnesses are treated like worthless hindrances to a society which values achievement over empathy. On the other hand, psychopaths/ sociopaths/ narcissists almost never seek help, it must be court-ordered.
A healthy society would flip this script. It would reward the things psychopaths are unable to do, and it would reject the things at which psychopaths excel. We can actually look at what psychopaths are and are not good at, and from there kind of reverse-engineer an idea of what a wholesome society would look like.
Is such a society possible? I don’t know. Evidence suggests our species may be on the verge of a dramatic shift in consciousness, which could act as facilitating agent, making such massive cultural changes feasible. We seem to be headed for either huge change or extinction relatively soon, so if there’s a future humanity on the other side of what’s coming, it likely exists because it made extraordinary changes in both its behavior and in its relationship with the phenomenon of psychopathy. I suppose we’ll either make the jump or we won’t. It’s one of those dichotomy things…