I’ve been spending some time thinking about what makes someone evil. Not just an ignorant, insensitive person but someone who is capable of causing deliberate pain to another person. I’d also separate between those whose goal is to cause pain and those who are following along with a dominant personality. The followers don’t get a free pass in my book, but if they had found someone else to follow, they could have become devoted stamp collectors or something else harmless. They are attracted to the psychopath’s charisma, confidence and apparent power, not necessarily the violence. Their willingness to venture down the dark path and inability to stand up for their own values makes them dangerous but I don’t know whether they would take the first steps on their own.
But I’m talking about something else. The psychopaths of the world. There’s some evidence that not all psychopaths are violent but all of them see people as objects to use as needed. Often they believe the end justifies the means. They also tend to believe that everyone sees the world the same way, which means they inhabit a terrifying world where no one can be trusted or relied on and you have to be constantly on guard against attack.
I’ve been reading some of Dr. Perry’s work on empathy and it’s been quite interesting. In one chapter of his book Born to Love, he gives us the case study of a wealthy, privileged boy who convinced his friends to gang rape a developmentally delayed girl in their school. When caught, he honestly appeared to believe the whole thing amounted to a prank and told the police that the girl should be grateful since she was never going to have anyone better than him touch her. Needless to say, quite frightening and sickening. And, I have to say, frustrating.
Here is someone with every advantage our world has to offer and he uses his status as a weapon against others, threatening and intimidating with his perceived position. He displays no compassion or respect for authority. Now, Dr. Perry goes into his early infancy and suggests that some of the boy’s lack of empathy came from a revolving door round of short-term nannies. The nannies never had time to learn the boy’s cries and needs before they were replaced, thus teaching him that no one cared about him and his needs would never be met unless he took care of them himself.
It’s an interesting theory but I think there are some people out there who were just born wrong and twisted.
There’s another scientific study which makes more sense to me. The doctor has studied psychopaths and career criminals extensively and he found a certain MRI pattern of low activity in impulse control to be common among them. But he found other people who weren’t criminals (including himself) had similar scans. He also discovered he had a fair number of serial killers and murderers in his family tree.
He describes his theory with this metaphor: genetics load the gun, creating a predisposition; environment removes the safety, explaining the almost universal experience of neglect and abuse for psychopaths; and the individual chooses the target, in effect, pulling the trigger. He doesn’t believe his theory absolves these people of their actions but rather sees it as a way to create programs which would prevent them from becoming psychopaths in the first place.
I don’t buy into “genes made me do it” or “culture made me do it” as a reason to let someone go after they’ve committed a violent crime. If you weren’t in control (blame God, genes, the devil, patriarchy, whoever you want), then clearly you need to be locked up because you can’t guarantee it won’t happen again.