There’s a baseline of depravity and callousness in popular culture today that is beginning to seem unhinged. You can’t dial into a TV show right now without encountering a hero who would eat you for lunch. Don Draper on Mad Men, the winking and well-mannered Kevin Spacey on House of Cards about half the cast of Game of Thrones.
A stroll through Chapters leads you to titles such as The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by British social psychologist Kevin Dutton, praised by The Wall Street Journal and blurbed by Michael C. Hall, who plays the serial killer in Dexter. Dr. Dutton has said in interviews that Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, Franklin Roosevelt, James Bond, John F. Kennedy and the Apostle Paul all had psychopathic tendencies.
There is the bestselling memoir Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas, the pseudonym of an American lawyer who says she is tired of being misunderstood. Neuroscientist James Fallon recently gave a TED Talk about his self-revelatory book The Psychopath Inside. He calls himself a “pro-social psychopath” who chooses not to murder people even though, admittedly, he cares not one whit if he harms them in other ways.
The celebration of remorselessness is everywhere. Friends on Facebook have lately been reporting their scores on widely circulating psychopathy quizzes that ask users to agree or disagree with statements such as, “I never feel remorse, shame or guilt about something I’ve said or done.”
“I’m 19-per-cent psychopath!” they announce. Or: “I scored five out of 10!” As if the chilling absence of human empathy I witnessed as a crime reporter in covering trials like that of serial killer Paul Bernardo had become a fun little personality quirk.
What fire, exactly, are we playing with? Have we taken a tolerance of difference, of identity, of moral relativism, too far?
“Destigmatizing psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia or major depression is one thing,” says University of Toronto psychologist Michael Bagby, an international expert in personality disorder, “but extending this to psychopaths is quite another.”
The diagnosis may be clinical, but the issue, fundamentally, is moral. What kind of a society do we wish to inhabit, with what kinds of leaders and heroes?
Just to be clear, the words psychopath and sociopath are interchangeable; neither is an officially sanctioned clinical term. In the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the disease that describes someone who is ruinous, remorseless, self-interested and reckless is “anti-social personality disorder.”
Psychopath-sociopaths are neither wise nor conscientious, because they lack a capacity for empathy and possess no emotional depth. They may be cognitively lucid, say experts who study this pathology, but they are morally insane.
Psychopaths aren’t necessarily murderous, but anyone who has encountered the personality – the cold, evaluative stare, the radical objectification of others, the utter indifference to suffering – will experience it as shatteringly inhuman.
Why, then, have inhuman humans become sources of inspiration?
The trend toward normalizing psychopathic behaviour may have started, innocently enough, in the realm of TV comedy writing. “Networks used to have rules about how characters had to be ‘likeable,’ not too offensive or immoral,” says Toronto-based script-development executive Anne Fenn. Then came Seinfeld, followed by Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development, which all allowed the writers and the audience to peek inside characters’ uglier, narcissistic motivations.
“It’s difficult to say which came first – the need for more interesting characters as a result of this new style of comedy, or audiences’ boredom with traditional sitcom,” Ms. Fenn says.
“But because these psychopathic characters were originally safely ensconced in the realm of comedy, nobody worried much about it. It was new and shocking to see characters like this and they made us laugh, which was kind of the point.”
Somewhere along the line, the comic psychopaths softened our acceptance of dramatic psychopaths. Whereas, earlier in dramatic writing, the ruthless were pursued by the good, à la James Bond and his villains, now the ruthless were the good, or at least the sympathetic.
Consider Dexter, the thoughtful serial killer who works for Miami Metro Police, or Hannibal Lecter, a courteous psychiatrist who engages in cannibalism (foreshadowing The Silence of the Lambs), or everyone’s beloved Walt, the meth-cooking chemist in Breaking Bad.
“People enjoy watching sociopaths on television as a kind of compensation for their own feelings of powerlessness and helplessness,” says Chicago cultural critic Adam Kotsko, author of Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television.
As we are fired, dumped, ignored and bossed around by automated voices, we perceive the world as increasingly psychopathic. Transgressive characters stand in for our inchoate rage. Imagine if we could just screw everyone over the way they’re screwing us over. Mean begets mean.
As television increasingly panders to this appetite, feeding it with handsome and often glamorous versions of the sociopath, almost inevitably, into plain sight, come the real sociopaths, as if exiting an imprisoning closet.