Monday, October 20, 2014

PSYCHOPATHY AND POPULAR CULTURE


Back in the late 70’s I attended an in-service training program for law enforcement officers and heard a presentation by a Federal agent who was supposed to be an expert on officer survival. He told the story of a group of Basque separatists in Spain who hijacked a train and threatened to kill one passenger every hour on the hour until their demands were met. When the first deadline came and went, one of the terrorists went to a passenger and told him that he was going to be the first to die. The terrorist gave the condemned man some time to prepare to meet his Maker. As the terrorist waited, the victim turned to the passenger in the seat beside him and began giving the other passenger messages to be delivered to his loved ones. The terrorist stood over the victim listening to the man say his goodbyes and send his love to the various members of his family until he could stand it no more. He walked down the aisle, grabbed up another passenger, immediately shot the other passenger in the head, and threw him out of the train.

The presenter explained that the first passenger narrowly escaped death because, as the terrorist listened to him say his goodbyes, the terrorist began to realize that the passenger was a human being. He killed the second passenger quickly so that he would run no risk of realizing the humanity of the second passenger.

The lesson I learned from this story was that we, as human beings, have difficulty harming our fellow beings unless we can think of them as objects rather than humans. Much of the evil that has been done in the world has been done by those who think of those outside their group as objects rather than people. We have a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them.” This tendency to divide our fellow beings into “we who are worthy” and “those who are not,” runs deep in our history and is even seen in our primate cousins. At least since the beginning of recorded history, and almost certainly before, human beings have shown compassion to those in their in-group and savagery to those outside. Men who were otherwise kind and compassionate could, with great ease, enslave and try to exterminate those of other races. It was relatively easy because they could think of the others as somehow less than human. Even today we can see this attitude exhibited in the world all around us. I don’t need to cite examples, just look at the headlines from today’s paper.

We in America have risen above all this, however. We believe in the siblinghood of humanity. If you really believe that, I want to talk to you about some oceanfront property in Arizona. We aren’t as homicidal as some groups in some other parts of the world, but we can be incredibly callous and abusive toward our fellow beings in other ways. The financier who bilks thousands of victims out of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme, the CEO who ignores glaring safety issues to sell dangerous products to the consuming public, the politician who thinks the best way to stay in office is to confiscate the property of the few voters who have and give it to the many voters who don’t—all these people and many more like them can nonchalantly harm others because they do not fully appreciate the humanity of their victims.

Psychopaths differ from normal people in many ways, but I think their most salient difference comes in how psychopaths relate to others—to a psychopath another person is just a thing to be used. To most of us, other people are humans to be loved, respected, and dealt with fairly. But far too many among the normal extend full humanity only to those within their circle. Those outside the circle are either objects to be used or second-class citizens to be despised. We aren’t psychopaths, but we often display psychopathic traits. Many of our most popular contemporary television shows (“Survivor,” for example) applaud and reward psychopathic behaviors such as lying, betrayal of trust, and exploitation of others.

This modern tendency to celebrate psychopathic behaviors might well be the death-knell of our society. There would be a lot less injustice in this world if we could all connect with all our fellow beings at least as well as the terrorist connected with the first passenger whom he spared—we might not all love each other, but we would at least stop harming each other.

I think that the first place to start in weaning ourselves off of psychopathic behavior is in national politics and popular culture. If the two major parties can step back from demonizing each other; if the major news networks can refrain from portraying every politically incorrect group as odious villains; if we can all display some compassion for those with whom we disagree—in short, if we can all recognize the humanity of our fellows, maybe we can keep this great country running for at least another two hundred years.