James Fallon, author of The Psychopath Inside, has the brain abnormalities of a psychopath, but does not behave like one and here is why.
“…brain patterns and genetic makeup are not enough to make anyone a psychopath. You need a third ingredient: abuse or violence in one’s childhood. It’s an unlucky day when all of these three things come together in a bad way, and I think one has to empathize with what happened to them.”
But do we? We either elect them to office, work as cogs in their corporate machines, try to be like them, or we are damaged by them, revile them openly and hate hard forever.
Empathy is a delicate thing that I think is born out of compassion. Or vice versa. Or maybe they’re the same thing. The Dalai Lama spoke of one of his teachers who, when asked about his toughest battle, said that he worried that he wouldn’t feel compassion for the Chinese soldiers in Tibet. I don’t know how much you know about that, but we’re talking major crimes of humanity. Ghastly, terrifying, inhuman and inhumane ones. Neither empathy nor compassion mean you have to roll over and take whatever is thrown at you. They mean that you, that we need to attempt some understanding to start with. We are human and so are they; if for no other reason than to prevent future evil, we definitely do need to understand them as much as the non-them crowd that we claim as our own. Understanding, that’s all. You don’t have to do anything more than that.
Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, ie, the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.
Let me give you a small example from my own life, when the universe whacked me upside the head with one of its ineffable lessons. And I’m gonna précis, because I’m not fond of talking about it. My stepfather – my abuser – is someone I do not claim to forgive, neither do I feel the slightest need to. He came from a background of poverty, abuse and various horrors; that gave me some understanding, but since abuse is a choice, I felt nothing more than that intellectual thing. Then my stepbrother, who was always just my brother, was killed, and his father aged about 20 years overnight. I couldn’t have felt any schadenfreude, I loved my brother and whatever his sins and crimes and fuckups, so did his father. So there I was, unwillingly sharing a major emotion with the man I hated. I still don’t feel the need to forgive, I have never wanted any further dealings with him and for almost three decades, I’ve managed it about 99% of the time. But somehow and subconsciously, that experience erased my hatred.
Psychopaths, sociopaths (antisocial personality disorder according to the DSM 5) have the potential to be abusers (or CEOs), bipolar people have the potential to be violent (or artists). Neurotypical people have the potential to wage war (or declare peace). We are all capable of those things. We are all human beings, trying desperately to light candles against the terrors of darkness. And there is no binary us and them, because you can slice the pie into a fairly infinite range of halves. And people can be described and divided infinitely too. There’s always one group to shit on another group, as much as there’s that supposed us/them good/evil split.
I’m not advocating non violence. Threaten someone I love seriously enough and I will do my utmost to maim or kill you. I don’t know any answers and I don’t think anyone else does either. How can I ask someone who has been abused by *insert abuser’s most prominent descriptor here* to empathise, to be compassionate? What’s the point of religions and morals and so on if we don’t? How should society be dealing with abusers? How do we raise safer, healthier people? I have a nasty suspicion that it’s easier to unlearn love than hate. Forget postmodern self help wankery (please), that stuff has all been said before and new versions of it are simply ways of lining newer pockets. We need serious philosophers to be heard. Logicians. We need different solutions to what ails us (the collective us, society). We will continue to fail and to shine, be flawed and amazing – utopian thinkers will despise me for saying this – but it’s human nature. It’s who and what we are. Humans strive, struggle, risk … it’s what we do and what we will keep doing.
Here’s something radical and problematic that makes for an interesting thought experiment …
Nietzsche has postulated that, much as an elephant might ignore a mosquito buzzing around its ankle, a civilization might advance to such a degree of power that it would no longer feel compelled to punish its criminals. “It is not unthinkable,” writes Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, “that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it—letting those who harm it go unpunished. ‘What are my parasites to me?’ it might say. ‘May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!’” A Hive of Mysterious Danger
Well well … who knew Nietzsche was a trekkie.