Compassion fatigue

Today I want to pose a simple question: can we – should we – feel compassion for those who lack all compassion? Does it even make sense to try and empathize with those who cannot empathize? As an act of imagination, this may be an interesting and even heroic effort. But in real life, things get messier. Psychologists tell us that people with sociopathic, psychopathic and narcissistic personalities are often very charming and charismatic. Many of them have become masters of feigned emotions that they don’t really feel. This strikes me as the perfect foil for a truly loving imagination.

I know I’ve made a number of slighting remarks about the science of psychology in the past, but this is a phenomenon that really interests me. One of my brothers first brought it to my attention several months back, as he struggled to understand the bizarre behavior of a colleague. And as I read descriptions of this disorder, I was reminded of several people I knew or knew of. Here’s some background:

“For many years, psychologists have studied the frightening reality of psychopathic or sociopathic personalities — the serial killers, the child abusers, the pathologically consistent liars and incorrigible thieves. The scientific study of these individuals was systemically organized by Hervey Cleckley and his 1941 classic The Mask of Sanity, and today the specialist Robert Hare is one of the foremost authorities in the field. According to Hare, the key emotional and interpersonal traits defining the psychopathic personality syndrome are: a smooth, glib capability to lie, manipulate and dissemble; a completely callous lack of empathy or concern for others; shallow emotional affect and lack of remorse; and egocentric grandiosity.”

If you happened to be watching television or listening to the radio yesterday evening, you may have heard this fascinating exchange:

“What would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?”

“I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it. (Laughter.) John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just – I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet. . . .

“I hope I – I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t – you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”

This same individual has often been dismissed as a shallow figurehead or a dimwit, but those who have had the occasion to observe him closely claim he’s neither. For example:

“He has no trouble speaking off the cuff when he’s speaking punitively, when he’s talking about violence, when he’s talking about revenge . . . When he struts and thumps his chest, his syntax and grammar are fine. It’s only when he leaps into the wild blue yonder of compassion, or idealism, or altruism, that he makes these hilarious mistakes. . . . [He] could not say, ‘Shame on me’ to save his life. That’s a completely alien idea to him. This is a guy who is absolutely proud of his own inflexibility and rectitude. . . . He’s all about punishment and death. It would be a grave mistake to just play him for laughs.”

A Google search turned up other curiosities. Some people evidently feel that the best way to deal with the compassion-deprived is with flower power:

“The most important consideration to keep in mind when we take on a difficult case, such as a sociopathic disorder with criminal behavior, is that the person who stands before us is in their essence, a soul/spiritual being, no matter how disturbed. We may need to work in a very slow, progressive way to retrieve the core part of the human soul, and we may very likely need the help of other professionals with specialized expertise. Our efforts will need to include not only what we can accomplish in a given professional session, but ongoing prayer and meditation that holds such a person in the light of understanding and summons their submerged aspects of compassionate feeling and morality. For the practitioner some of the flower essences that can facilitate the necessary insight, compassion and commitment to sustain the healing process are Holly, Yellow Star Tulip, Star Tulip, Calendula, Cosmos, Angelica and Impatiens.”

And it’s not as if such individuals have never laughed or cried:

“Soon after arriving, he was asked to write an essay on a soul-stirring experience in his life to date and he chose the death of his sister. His mother had drilled it into him that it was wrong when writing to repeat words already used. Having employed ‘tears’ once in the essay, he sought a substitute from a thesaurus she had given him and wrote ‘the lacerates ran down my cheeks.’ The essay received a fail grade, accompanied by derogatory comments such as ‘disgraceful.'”

The aforementioned book The Mask of Sanity, by Hervey Clecky, cautions that

“However intelligent, he apparently assumes that other persons are moved by and experience only the ghostly facsimiles of emotion or pseudoemotion known to him. However quick and rational a person may be and however subtle and articulate his teacher, he cannot be taught awareness of significance which he fails to feel. He can learn to use the ordinary words and, if he is very clever, even extraordinarily vivid and eloquent words that signify these matters to other people. He will also learn to reproduce appropriately all the pantomime of feeling; but, as Sherrington said of the decerebrated animal, the feeling itself does not come to pass.”

I have many reservations about the practice of inventing neat little categories to try and bring order to the staggering diversity of “personality types.” But that’s what discriminatory reasoning does, and it’s a powerful tool – where would science be without it? Another classification scheme describes the compassion-deprived as “authoritarian”:

“Authoritarian personalities are organised around rabid hostility to ‘legitimate’ targets, often ones nominated by their parents’ prejudices. Intensely moralistic, they direct it towards despised social groups. As people, they avoid introspection or loving displays, preferring toughness and cynicism. They regard others with suspicion, attributing ulterior motives to the most innocent behaviour. They are liable to be superstitious.”

Indeed, we can all probably think of examples like this one:

“This is a guy who was a torturer, a killer, a maimer; there’s mass graves. I mean, he was a horrible individual that really shocked the country in many ways, shocked it into a kind of – a fear of making decisions toward liberty.”

One might assume that the individual under discussion is Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. “Independent human rights groups estimate that there are more than 600 politically motivated arrests a year in Uzbekistan, and 6,500 political prisoners, some tortured to death. According to a forensic report commissioned by the British embassy, in August two prisoners were even boiled to death.”

Or we could be discussing the supremely narcissistic and authoritarian Turkmenbashi, who seems rather in a class by himself:

“Last year Mr Niyazov instituted a holiday in honour of the muskmelon, a relative of the watermelon, complete with lavish festivities, and ordered that everybody take part. ‘This godsend has a glorious history,’ national television announced. ‘Our great leader, who has a great love of his nation, has brought the name of the tasty melons to the level of a national holiday.'”

As regular readers of this weblog know, I tend to agree with the Kabbalistic analysis of personality: the sefirot. There’s a lot of appeal to the idea that the will to power/judgement must be counterbalanced by a well-developed capacity to forgive, and that so-called evil results from an excess of the former. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” still seems like good advice – especially when dealing with those for whom the exercise of punitive judgement is second nature. But – to return to the question I began with – should we try and love such people? A woman named Hope advises against getting too close. As she wrote on a message board last week,

“Healing does come although I still have nightmares about this person once in a while however the dream has changed. I have dreamt lately that he’s come back asking for forgiveness and now many years later, I just smile in my dream when he talks about our great life together and in the dream I say who are you trying to kid. In real life the person of whom I speak did try to contact me 1 year later and feigned apologies, and as convincing as he had once been I knew I was not dealing with a normal person and knew I never would. I have been reading some of the postings and see many from people who say they still love their sociopaths and hope they change. They are not capable and never will. All the best to you.”


My brother Mark sent along the following thoughts via e-mail, with permission to reprint here. He is reacting to the article from the Guardian cited above. The remark about all fundamentalists being authoritarian types struck him as particularly absurd. He went on to say, “As you know, I can’t stand Freud; he’s the Marx of the mind. Blaming everything on Mommy and Daddy is easy and convenient; it’s the oldest trick in the book for people trying to open up some sort of a space for Bush so that we may see him (or any/most leaders and bosses) as anything more or less than the (lying liar) sociopaths that they are.

“They are different from us, which is why they are where they are, and we are where we are. Their goals are the goals of the Prince, possibly the most horrifying truthful book ever written. Their lust for power–Stalinists, Maoists, Fascists, Nazis, neo-cons, the blacksmith and sorcerer–is destructive; the joy is in the destruction. All these ‘true’ feelings of the so-called monsters, Tamerlanes, are locked in their black-box interiors; what we get is shadows and creepy smiles, no admittance of guilt, hollow men. The thing is, they don’t UNDERSTAND guilt, because they have extremely reduced or possibly nonexistent capacities for empathy–they just don’t get what ‘society’ is about.

“It horrified me last night that Bush seemed so curious, so lacking–he just could not for the life of him figure out any flaw he might have. You might say ‘But they’re all that way. They have to be, to rule.’ That’s the point–rule IS what I call evil, and a God who rules is the evil/perfect projection. They ARE different, often geniuses, wonderfully creative; ‘no one understands them’; ‘they just can’t have their way.’ They realize with clarity–because they stand so far outside the networks of social relations that define the rest of us poor soaks–just how many flaws the rest of have. Because being social is not a ‘good’ thing, per se.

“They tap into our dissatisfactions. They help us channel our feelings of inadequacy, frustrations, outward, they teach us to hate others and to worship ourselves. They then sit back and enjoy the destruction–Nero fiddling, Rome burning. Capitalistic competition feeds on these principals; in the ‘community of states’ the US is the number one antisocial country in the world–collectively, the American hive-mind doesn’t understand why They hate Us; we’re cleverer than everyone else, we help them solve their problems, and this is how they reward us.

“All of what I am saying is found in one way or another in the classic clinical study of psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, by Hervey Cleckley. Psychopathy, however, is present in all of us, but passes a threshold in some of us (one out of 25 or 30). It’s not uncommon, and it’s not insanity–it is simply a ‘personality type.’ And, we have very few self-professed psychopaths out there; it’s their ‘loved ones’ who turn for help. They don’t get what the fuss is all about.

“In terms of politicians and other [wielders of] of power, I do know that all this sounds like [the movie] ‘They Live.’ But the idea that they are ‘just like us, but with power’ I believe may be a lie. I haven’t stopped being the way I was just because I’m in charge of a classroom. I haven’t turned into a little dictator. I am not being shaped by my environment to such an extent. . . . Apparently psychopaths–10-20% of the population in jail, at most; probably less–are the ones most easy to ‘rehabilitate.'”

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