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Bryan Cranston plays a meth-cooking chemist in Breaking Bad.

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?

Inhuman humans

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.

Here is Dr. Fallon, a professor of psychiatry at UC Irvine, describing what he assumes familial love means: "People close to you naturally desire to be treated in a very special way emotionally, and not being able to deliver that connectivity from the heart can be a big problem for such relationships." His feelings for his family, he concedes, are no different than his feelings for strangers.

"I don't get my jollies from doing harm to other people," he insists.

"I simply don't feel that bad if I happen to hurt someone in pursuit of my own goals or even amusement."

Of course, there was that time he deliberately positioned his brother between himself and some hyenas in Africa …

Ms. Thomas, who says she teaches law as well as Sunday school, is equally sure that what she writes is reasonable, unaware of its moral insanity: "Most people who interact with sociopaths are better off than they otherwise might be. Sociopaths are part of the grease making the world go around. We fulfill fantasies, or at least the appearance of fantasies. In fact, we are sometimes the only ones attentive to providing for your deepest wants and needs."

As for the bestselling author Dr. Dutton, his idea of wisdom in psychopaths is that they show "fearlessness, focus and a 'talent' for identifying the emotions of others."

Ah, where to begin? "Dutton's argument seems to be that sometimes we could all use a little of what he terms 'the seven deadly wins' – ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness and action," writes Boston-based clinical psychologist Martha Stout while reviewing his book for The New Republic. "I daresay we could – but those behavioural features do not represent a 'dose of psychopathy,' to use Dutton's expression. In reality, a touch of psychopathy would mean a malignant streak of brutality, oiliness, predatory single-mindedness, callousness, carelessness, exclusive self-involvement and clinical impulsivity."

Real-life psychopaths do not resemble charming, focused and ruthless business leaders and politicians, or breathtakingly intelligent investigators like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, they are impulsive and greedy. Their conduct destroys companies and devastates communities. In his book The Psychopath Test, British journalist Jon Ronson points to Haitian death squad leader Emmanuel Toto Constant, a charming brute whom he interviewed in New York, and Al Dunlap, a prime corporate predator who eviscerated the labour force at Sunbeam. These men, Mr. Ronson argued, would be much closer approximations of a clinically assessed psychopath than the fair-minded Dexter.

"What worries me," says culture critic Mr. Kotsko, "is the way that this kind of literature can legitimize the selfish and heartless behaviour that we often see among our business and political elites. If we view such people as especially wise or deserving, it undercuts our ability to demand better from them – and it makes the average person, who is not going to be able to stomach the kinds of actions a psychopath would be willing to take, feel like they're lacking something, when really it's the psychopath who's lacking."

The power of empathy

Any bid to normalize or even celebrate psychopaths' absence of emotional intelligence is disturbing to those who see compassion and empathy as critical to social growth. "Empathy is actually the essence of a life that contributes to civil society," says Mary Gordon, the Canadian founder of a celebrated school program called Roots of Empathy, which is now working, for example, with Protestant and Catholic children in Northern Ireland to overcome decades of violent hostility. "If we cannot connect, we cannot collaborate."

This is true not only in civic and interpersonal life, but in business. A pushback against ruthlessness has been going on for some time, led by people who know how to speak the right language. We need to transform the perception of empathy as a "soft fluffy skill best left to the dolly birds in HR," says Belinda Palmer, chief executive officer of British social-media company Lady Geek, who recently launched what she calls "The Empathy Era" campaign.

Ms. Palmer, understanding her business audience, points out that "empathy leads to more profit. Most large corporate cultures are political, hierarchical and based on fear, and thus are missing out on revenue. Among the L'Oréal sales force, the best empathizers sold nearly $100,000 more a year than their colleagues did. Waiters who are better at showing empathy earn nearly 20 per cent more in tips. Even debt collectors with empathy skills recover twice as much. We expect companies to be ethical and make money," she says.

"The two concepts are no longer mutually exclusive."

Were they ever?

The discernible heart of the world is still beating, in caring civic leaders, ethical business people, empathetic children, good teachers, wise parents. What we need are pop and business cultures that celebrate them.

Patricia Pearson is the author of When She Was Bad: Why Woman Kill and, most recently, of Opening Heaven's Door: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They're Going.

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