Political Ponerology 101: The Dangers of Pit Bulls and Climate Control
by Harrison Koehli
So, I think you all are getting the point of this series so far: psychopaths are a big problem in our world! But it’s not that simple. Take an analogy. Timmy is sick. He caught a bug at school the other week and is down for the count. Thankfully for his parents, they’re somewhat eccentrically obsessed with health and cleanliness and had immediately placed Timmy in a microbiologically sterile bubble in their guest bedroom, before proceeding to decontaminate the entire house and its occupants. The pathogen that threatens the health of those he might come in contact with is successfully locked in. (Unfortunately for Timmy, so is he!) However, Timmy’s parents didn’t factor Sunshine, the family’s pet pit-bull, into their anti-infection equation.
So, one afternoon, while Timmy is reminiscing about his former life outside the bubble, along comes Sunshine who pokes a hole in the bubble’s protective layer with his favorite stick. The highly contagious, airborne infection is now free to surf the air waves of 21st century climate control, and through a series of highly improbable events, Timmy’s sister, parents, dog and goldfish all come down with the nasty bug. The infection then spreads throughout the neighborhood, city, and eventually, the world, as local businessmen who don’t mind an aggressive pat down from the TSA and exposing their genitals to puerile airport security personnel via Peeping-Tom-Technology travel to very serious and important business meetings. So, what’s the point of this? Simply put, psychopaths need a number of things to have their effect in lieu of the direct interaction of personal relationships. Among a psychopath’s best tools to spread his malevolence are fanatic bulldogs and the cold theories of human nature that determine the intellectual climate of a society. It’s through these intermediaries that our bodies and minds are systematically infected – ponerized.
In this article I’ll focus on the latter of these tools. For now, all that needs to be said of the fanatics is that the tenacity of true believers (whether paranoid or just lacking important functionality of the prefrontal lobes) is what keeps pathological social systems in action. Just think of Internet trolls with religion and guns, seeing a Communist or terrorist behind every even slightly ‘liberal’ blogger, and you’ll get the picture. As for the second type of psycho-puppet, they’re a bit trickier to spot. Often intelligent, and highly influential in society, the pervasiveness of their theories in modern Western culture offers them some degree of camouflage. But when those theories are put to the test, they don’t fare too well. Unfortunately for us, very few actually question them, and they’re the cause of many of the world’s biggest problems.
In his book, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (New York: Norton, 2009), professor of psychology at the University of California, Dacher Keltner lists some depressing figures. In the last fifteen years, levels of trust among Americans have dropped 15%; feelings of social anomie, loneliness, and unhappy marriages are on the rise; people have fewer close friends, babies have less physical contact with their parents, and American children’s well-being ranks twentieth in a list of 21 nations. Keltner traces this overall decline in social well-being to what he calls the Homo economicus ideology of human nature. He writes:
This ideology has influential advocates from Sigmund Freud to evolutionary theorists. The strongest proponents of this view are found in the halls of economics departments. Their characterization of human nature [is] known widely as rational choice theory … First and foremost, Homo economicus is selfish. Every action of Homo economicus is designed to maximize self-interest, in the form of experienced pleasure, advances in material wealth, or, in evolutionist thought, the propagation of genes. … Competition is a natural and normative state of affairs. … Cooperation and kindness are, by implication, cultural conventions or deceptive acts masking deeper self-interest. … The conclusion: These generous acts are evolutionary “misfires” or “strategic errors” … (pp. 8 – 9)
Keltner mentions just a few such theorizers: the already-mentioned Freud, Ayn Rand, Machiavelli (“in general [mankind] are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain”), and George C. Williams (Natural selection “can honestly be described as a process for maximizing short-sighted selfishness”). To this list we may add Karl Marx (for whom material conditions shape consciousness) and Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), who thought that so long as there were no strong authority to keep them in line, humans were naturally “in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (quoted in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 2002), p. 7). In other words, human nature is so wretched (i.e. self-serving, distrustful, malicious) that a strong authority (i.e. church or state) is needed to keep society from descending into social chaos. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. As Keltner describes it, such a view of human nature offers only part of the picture. Without the very real qualities of equality, compassion, cooperation, gratitude, love, laughter and nurture, our families and societies would fall apart. These emotions and values are what bring, and keep, people together, and coincidentally (or not), they are the very qualities lacking in psychopaths.
In fact, some big clues to this can be found in Adam Curtis’ 2007 documentary The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom . In it, Curtis shows the influence of “simplistic model[s] of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures” on modern economics and politics (are we seeing a pattern here?). One such model is the “Game Theory” of mathematician and Nobel Prize winner in Economics John Nash, whose life was whitewashed in the Hollywood film A Beautiful Mind. Importantly, Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, although in my opinion “schizoidal psychopathy” is a better fit. His arrogant, cold-hearted, and disturbed mind is dealt with at length in Sylvia Nasar’s biography of the same name. Nash’s view of human nature influenced the development of his “game” scenarios, which in turn greatly influenced official Cold War policies.
According to Nash, human beings are selfish and distrustful by nature, and the only way to create social stability is through the cultivation of suspicion and self-interest. In one of his games, players must choose to trust or betray their gaming partner in order to either lose or gain benefits. Trust only works if both sides choose to do so. If your opponent “screws you”, however, you lose more than you would if you screwed him as well. The choice with the greatest payoff is thus to betray your partner, who in turn betrays you. According to Nash, as well as other economic theorists like Friedrich von Hayek and James M. Buchanan, this is how humans actually operate: motivated entirely by self-interest and constantly calculating and anticipating the malicious intentions of all others. Homo economicus. Life is one big game of screwing others over, and coming out on top.
That’s great in theory, I suppose. However, in practice, the only individuals who consistently played the games in such a manner were psychopaths and economists (!). When the games were played by the experimenters’ secretaries, they always chose the mutually beneficial trust scenario, that is, the normal, human response. And while these theories of economic and political “freedom” were embraced by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and continue to determine economic and government policies in Western societies, as Curtis concludes, when they are put into practice they actually lead to “corruption, rigidity, inequality.” See how far Timmy’s bug can spread?
As can be seen by the names mentioned above (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, etc.), the view of humanity as nothing but selfish imps has long held sway. Religious traditions have taught their believers to view themselves as “special” and set apart from the rest of humanity, which is seen as wretched, brutish, amoral, and Godless. (In other words, Homo economicus-lite; only the others are evil.) It is so universal that it seems to be a rule among religious sects, whether in the Talmudic view of goyim, the Christian view of the “un-saved”, or the Muslim view of the kafir. So, too, in political theories. As the game theory tests showed in The Trap, normal people tend trust one another. It is “intra-species predators” such as psychopaths who are themselves distrustful by nature, and who then inspire distrust in others; who are selfish, and inspire selfishness in others; and who wish to be the ones controlling the rabble of humanity.
And when we take a hard look at the laws and cultural norms that these pseudo-people promote (and which we take for granted), we see that they’re most often based on this imaginary, invented, simplified view of human nature. it’s everywhere we look. In his book Lie Detectors: A Social History, Kerry Segrave documents some of the absurd methods of lie detection used in our history. For example, from ancient India and Iran to Europe of the Middle Ages, methods such as the “red-hot iron ordeal”, where the accused is found guilty if he suffers burns from a red-hot piece of metal, have been used as methods for lie detection. Obviously both the guilty and innocent will be burned, but authorities defended their techniques with any number of cockamamie explanations. In the present day, torture techniques whose true nature is softened by euphemisms such as “advanced interrogation techniques” are used to break down the accused to the point where they will confess to anything, as was the case with alleged 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times in a single month. Mohammed confessed to a litany of crimes, which included targeting a bank founded four years after his arrest. The applications aren’t always so extreme, however. In court, jurors easily doubt the testimony of a seemingly ‘mentally-imbalanced’ (i.e. emotional) person, especially when it is his or her word against a cool-headed, well-respected psychopath who lies with ease and absolute certitude. The injustice of the situation, and the unbelievable chutzpah displayed by the psychopath, is enough to drive an innocent party into an emotional fit, ruining their so-called credibility.
We’ve largely inherited our legal system from the Romans. While the Greeks were more concerned with literature, mythology, and strictly philosophical philosophizing (among other more questionable activities), the Romans took a more utilitarian approach. With large populations to control and a deficit in understanding of human nature (what is it with half-wits ruling vast portions of the globe, anyways?!), the administrative and political practicalities of empire outweighed the Greek ideals of sober reflection and discovery. Their legal system became a ‘one-size-fits-all’ enterprise conceived for the “statistically average” (and equally non-existent) human. Not even the Jesus peoples’ notion of the “kingdom of God” – which caused quite a stir among the plebes in the first century after Jesus, basing itself on natural human relationships of respect, love, and understanding – managed to temper the Roman mentality when Christianity was assimilated into the empire’s political machine in the fourth century. In short, we inherited this Roman tendency to submit human nature to The Law and not vice versa.
For millennia these culturally ingrained blind spots have hindered our ability to comprehend human and social reality in all its complexity, making us individually and collectively vulnerable to psychopathic influences. The reason for this is that the roots of human evil are found within the very human variety and complexity that is denied by commonly promoted beliefs about humanity. By our ignorance of their existence, they remain hidden in plain sight. In fact, humans are not all the same. Psychopaths have very little in common with the rest of humanity, and it is them who exploit the gap between our unrealistic beliefs and the actual truth of the matter, as in the legal cases mentioned above.
The funny thing about these theories is that they end up revealing more about the nature of those making the theories than about humanity in general. ?obaczewski provides the key to this puzzle. According to him, schizoid individuals (think Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or Rorschach in Watchmen) as a rule have such a misanthropic view of human nature. Because of their own shallow emotions and unstable personalities, they have trouble ascribing to others qualities that they themselves lack, like true empathy, altruism, and cooperation. Instead, they tend to create baroque and icy theories with no basis in reality. They project their own limitations into self-evident, ‘universal’ values, and when their books are mass-produced, and their ideas spread throughout the public, academia, economics, and politics, that means trouble.
For example, in addition to the unfortunate influence of Freud on psychiatry, the behaviorists have largely dominated the field of psychology. Taking empiricism to its limits, they concluded that because mental processes could not be directly studied in the laboratory, the mind could not be said to exist at all – all there is is behavior! As anyone with a mind knows, this is patently absurd. Visualization, imagination, and higher emotions are just a few of the essential human qualities denied by behaviorism. Rather, the behaviorists attempted to extrapolate human qualities from the observation of animals – their reflexes, formed habits, and learning processes. While much was learned in the process, it led to a vicious circle within psychology. By denying truly human qualities and abilities, their ended up with grossly lobotomized theories of human nature. As John B. Watson infamously said:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (quoted in Pinker, p. 19)
As was the case with Nash and Hobbes, these theories tell us more about the minds of the theorists themselves than about humanity as a whole. Taken as a group, behaviorists can actually tell us something about the true variety within human nature. Because psychology is the only discipline where both the subject and object of study are the same, it’s easy for subjective errors and faulty core assumptions to slip their way into the reasoning process. Studying the core assumptions about human nature present within the writings of influential scientific, economic, and religious thinkers is a powerful aid in beefing up our sense of smell. We might just catch a whiff of a truly pathological mindset. But such a keen sense can be a dangerous thing. Psychology, after all, is the first science to be outlawed and Stalinized in pathocracy, because of its potential to identify the true nature, causes, processes, and weaknesses of the system.
Psychopaths rely on the tacit acceptance of such theories by the masses of humanity. Think about it. In our daily lives, such ideas are mere “Sunday beliefs” – we may accept them in economics class, or the psychology lab, but when we get home to our families, social instinct is what drives us. We still hug and kiss our children before bed, worry about their futures, make sacrifices for their well-being. We want them to be happy, and we do what we can to make it a reality.
What does it matter that some strange, little economists hold such absurd beliefs? Oh, yeah… Inequality, social anomie, depression, poverty, economic shock treatment, computerized warfare, poisonous pharmaceuticals, non-food, pollution, corporate enslavement, and on and on and on. The fact is, even if we may tend to live our lives with some modicum of humanity, societal beliefs affect us all. Schizoidal misanthropy affects us all. But besides these very tangible effects, besides the fact that their ideals are spread and implemented by our leaders, belief systems limit the range of concepts with which our minds can ‘play’. They’re like blinders on a carriage-horse. When we leave out what is human, and forbid anything ponerological, we’ll be lucky if the carriage doesn’t smash to pieces when it is run off the cliff of time and history.
So, no, I’m not recommending we all start living in bubbles (analogies, mine at least, can only go so far). But just as our health depends on the functioning of our immune system, our psychological and societal well-being depends on the degree of our knowledge about ponerology. If the “trap” set by the theories mentioned above is the fact that they are speculative and divorced of any relation to human and social reality, the obvious solution is to come to a solid understanding of human nature – the human individual in all its scope and variety. So take off your blinders, give someone you love a hug, and let’s get down to exposing the individuals who have flushed our world down the drainpipe.