April 24, 2012

Why We Love Sociopaths


according to this, it's sociopaths that we love


"My greatest regret is I'm not a sociopath," starts an article written by....... well, I reserve judgment.  "Are you suggesting...?"  No, not at all.  That's where the truth lies. "Wait-- 'lies' as in----"

This article is important for a specific reason.  If you follow the thesis that The Atlantic and The New Yorker set the default ways which we understand social issues, e.g. sex, money and politics-- and they do this even if you don't read those magazines-- then Kotsko and others like him set the default understanding for academic types.  This doesn't mean everyone agrees with him, no no no-- it means that he sets the frame.  The trick is you will argue his conclusions but it will be impossible for it to occur to you to argue the form of the question. So "why do we love sociopaths?" is literally understood: "since it is a fact that we love sociopaths, why?"


Kotsko's thesis is that we love sociopaths because sociopathy is opposed to social awkwardness.  Say you're in line at the store and some jerk cuts in front of you, on purpose, and for the sake of clarification let me observe he has a Celtic cross tattooed to his shoulder and he just had sex with your girlfriend.  He's a different kind of person than you.  He can do things you can't, do women you can't, he sees the world's rules differently, which specifically means he understands that there are no "world's rules," that rules are decided by those with power for their own benefit.  After he cuts in line, he pockets a Milky Way bar because, well, because he got away with it.  My grammar is correct: he can do it since he got away with it.

Ultimately, the only thing you have over him, as you seethe expressionlessly with your 15  items or less, is sleeves and the feeling that you're not a jerk.

The media offers us our wish fulfillment by creating characters who are  "good" sociopaths that we can safely envy, and "good" is defined by The Atlantic as "has an internal code of ethics" and by anyone else as "makes it up as he goes along."  TV sociopaths-- Don Draper, Tony Soprano-- seem to be like that guy. They do what they want and aren't bothered that you, a loser, think they're a jerk. The difference between you and them, according to Kotsko, is that they manipulate the social connections whereas you are mired in them. They can detach, you can't.  Your only compensation is that you have moral superiority.

But at some point in the breakdown of capitalist society-- it says it right on the cover of his book-- that moral superiority isn't enough.  Are you not a person who works hard and plays by the rules?  You still want to have nice things, you still want to get nice women, you still want to feel some power, which in a normally functioning society you would be able to get in your own natural way.  But when there's unemployment and debt and your wife leaves you, and it looks like these are happening because the social contract has failed, because jerks are taking from you, those real losses aren't sufficiently compensated by "at least I'm not a jerk."   Extend that to Wall Street stealing your savings and feeling no shame, having no punishment, and all we can do is pretend that our moral superiority is enough compensation, and of course it isn't. 

Hence the aspirational images of TV sociopaths.  How great would it be to just...

If only I didn't give a fuck about anyone or anything, we think--then I would be powerful and free. Then I would be the one with millions of dollars, with the powerful and prestigious job, with more sexual opportunities than I know what to do with.


Kotsko has it backwards.

"If only....."  Look deep.   There is no if only. They already don't "give a fuck."  No one who wishes they could be like Tony Soprano or Don Draper actually cares about anyone. "I care about my mom."  No you don't.  You'd be sad if she died, of course, but you do not care about her, and I don't need to provide any examples for you to know this is true.  

The "social contract has failed" argument is a rationalization.  What's troubling them is that they already don't care at all, but they still aren't able to manipulate people the way Tony does. This is reinforced by the sentences that immediately precede "If only...":

If we feel very acutely the force of social pressure, they feel nothing. If we are bound by guilt and obligation, they are completely amoral.

Point to the guy who is both "bound by guilt"-- not shame, but guilt-- and also wants to be Tony Soprano and I'll show you a person who doesn't exist.

To be correct, Kotsko's sentences should be revised: "what the hell is wrong with me that I am exactly like Tony Soprano in every single way, except on execution?" Amoral and impotent is different than amoral and potent, but you're a jerk both ways.

This is how I know that anyone who says, "If only I could live in Mad Men time where you could pinch a girl's ass and not get in trouble for it" is going to be way disappointed if a TARDIS shows up, because they wouldn't pinch them back then, either, not because they are afraid of trouble but because they are afraid of girls.  Exhibit A: you know what a TARDIS is.

In a sentence, the problem with his Kotsko's analysis is that it isn't a description of the pathology, it itself is the defense against a hidden pathology.  Not: because Wall Street steals and we have no justice, we begin to admire sociopaths. But: because we admire sociopaths, therefore Wall Street is able to steal. Not: because the social contract has unraveled, therefore we wish to be sociopaths. But: because we are sociopaths, therefore the social contract has unraveled.  I know this is a very unpopular thing to say, but if you find yourself wanting to be bad because everyone else gets away with it, then the problem isn't everyone else, the problem is you. 

No, yelling at me won't make this less true.



I should point out that Kotsko uses the word "sociopath" incorrectly.

The contemporary fantasy of sociopathy picks and chooses from those characteristics, emphasizing the lack of moral intuition, human empathy, and emotional connection. Far from being the obstacles they would be in real life, these characteristics are what enable the fantasy sociopath to be so amazingly successful.

Everywhere Kotsko uses the word "sociopath" he is more accurately describing "narcissist." He calls them sociopaths because of the way they relate to society, but that would mean that the ebola virus is also a sociopath.  Society is the collateral damage of me me me.

Kotsko focuses on this a la carte sociopathy because he admits no one envies actual real life sociopaths. We only envy TV sociopaths-- so he infers that it must be a special selection of sociopathic characteristics we actually admire.

But this the wrong inference to make. The reason TV sociopaths are admired is that they are on TV.  They have a story.

Do you really admire Tony Soprano?  Which part? His loveless marriage to a crazy person? A mistress who is even crazier? His gigantic belly and panic attacks? The fact that no one actually likes him? That his daughter was dating a black guy? ("I wouldn't have a problem with that." Yes you would if you were Tony.) What part do you admire? 

The answer you tell yourself is you admire his power, that he can do whatever he wants.  No he can't. The whole show was nothing but repeated examples of how limited his options were. The things you think you admire-- having hot sex with the other crazy woman at his psychiatrist's office, eating microwaved Sysco at Italian restaurants, avoiding his wife-- can be done by anyone, you don't need to be Tony to do it.  But when you do it.... it just doesn't feel the same.  I know.

What people admire about Tony isn't his freedom; that thing you think is freedom is actually  the lack of freedom. His story. His identity-- that he has one, an obvious one, a clear one.  Tony Soprano is not free, his behavior is completely tethered to what makes sense for his character.  He acts exactly like Tony Soprano would act.  That's what people want:  the limitations of that identity: if I know who I am, I know what I am capable of, I know my strengths and my limits, I know how I'd react to unknown dangers.  And I want other people to know this.  If other people know who I am, I wouldn't have to keep proving myself.  Strike that: I wouldn't have to prove myself in the first place.

Kotsko makes another mistake in thinking that our admiration of TV sociopaths like Don Draper and Tony Soprano reflects a universal psychology. It doesn't. It only reflects the psychology of the people who like those shows, which isn't a lot of people but is a very specific and vocal group of people: Aspirational 14%.  Those people have the unique problem of too much freedom, too much money (which is to say they are still living paycheck to paycheck, but only because they are spending it all on keeping up the identity), too many options and, most importantly, nothing to define them. 

The admiration of TV sociopaths is related to this desire of self-identification, and not to a lack of power or a failure of the social contract. The social contract is working just fine for the AMC/Netflix demographic. It does not explain a desire for more power; envy explains it.  Not knowing who I am, not knowing what I am supposed to do next and what I am not supposed to bother doing next-- makes us long for characters who know precisely what to do next even if it is the wrong things.  They may be flawed, but they are definite.  They exist. 


Telling a modern American that what they really want is less freedom seems like some dangerous talk, but it is true nonetheless.  Cynicism, irony has failed you, but you know no other way to be.  Don Draper is an ad man, so going to a "partners' meeting" run formally, by a secretary, doesn't seem bad at all.  It seems great.  Neither does wearing a suit and tie, every day, and a hat.  But your job doesn't define you, so going to a meeting seems stupid, a farce, play acting, so you display a cynical detachment from it.  And you're not going to wear a tie for anybody.  You know it's stupid, you're not buying this corporate bullshit.  This cynical posture is a front, a wall, it protects you from being defined by your actions; but what you don't see is that the very job you think you're undermining still receives the full power of your productivity.  That you're unhappy, or cynical, is irrelevant to it.  It doesn't care about you.  Why should it?  You don't even care about yourself.

That's what we envy in Don Draper.  That he can exist as himself without ironic detachment, that he can be defined as something.  And what they are and what they do match up  perfectly, even if it's "bad."  The truth you must face, now, immediately, is that if you were put in Draper's clothes, in his relationships, in his job, you yourself would immediately affect that cynical detachment:  "A partners' meeting? What for?  Come on, I see you guys in the hallways all the time" and you'd be as miserable as you are now.  But until you accept this truth about yourself, you'll think changing other things could save you.   Tell the truth: did you consider a career in advertising after you watched Mad Men?  Then you are lost.


It's impossible to deconstruct TV shows without considering their complement: advertising.  Ads, especially TV commercials, offer the exact opposite of cynical detachment: pure aspiration.  So while you resist allowing your career or relationship to define you-- "I'm more than a software engineer!" you beg objects-- cars, clothes, women-- to define you, and of course not actual cars, clothes, or women, but whatever other people have said those things represent.  Worse, cynicism and aspirational branding aren't two opposite ends of a pole, they form a cycle: the chasm between your cynical view of real life and the perfect definition of the aspirational images in ads makes you even more cynical towards real life; which drives you further into the safety of branding.  Which is why you drink.

The only salvation to this existential crisis is less freedom, not more.  The only question is whether you will impose these restrictions on yourself, or you will wait like cattle for someone else to impose them on you.  But they will be imposed.  It is inevitable.



Aspirational 14%, defined

Don Draper Voted "Most Influential Man"