Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Selection: “The Science of Evil” by Simon Baron-Cohen Book Selection: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen but more importantly an autism researcher and psychologist) suggests that we step back not only from the loaded label “evil” for sadistic and low-empathy actions but also from four common psychological disorders and recognize in all of them the common element of low empathy – a trait that may be related to low levels of activity in the specific areas of the brain associated with the sort of mimicking of others’ emotions most of us do routinely and subconsciously.  Someone looks sad, so you feel a bit sad, unless...’re (1) a sociopath, (2) a narcissist, (3) a “borderline personality disorder” case, or (4) (less socially-destructively) an Asperger’s case.  This is of course just a rough taxonomy.  Not only do the labels change and other, more obscure conditions crop up, but there are minds who combine elements of these different types. 

In fact, about three years ago, I think I met someone – let’s use the pseudonym X – who seems to fit almost perfectly the list of symptoms associated with borderline and Asperger’s, which is extremely interesting (at least to me), since, despite Baron-Cohen’s strong desire to ditch pejorative labels of limited diagnostic or therapeutic value, a (3)+(4) hybrid still means combining one of what he calls the “Zero-Negative” types (that is, zero empathy with no socially-beneficial behaviors arising from the condition) with the one “Zero-Positive” type he identifies (Asperger’s, which can entail a lack of empathy but also hyperlexic and systematizing skills to which all of us nerds, philosophy majors, copyeditors, and music-alphabetizers aspire, or which we approximate in one way or another – making me suspect there’ll one day be talk of a “nerd-Asperger’s spectrum” taken every bit as seriously as the “Asperger’s-autism spectrum” is today). 

In old-fashioned judgmental language, though, this means poor X may be “half good, half evil.” 

Borderline sufferers are not necessarily literally evil, of course, but are often characterized by extreme mood swings, bad treatment of those close to them, and an almost banal litany of emotionally-chaotic and self-destructive behaviors: alcoholism, intense but unstable relationships, promiscuity, self-mutilation, alternating intimacy and withdrawal, feelings of emptiness, feelings of self-loathing and thus contempt for those who treat them well, sadomasochistic tendencies, gender confusion, lack of a stable core identity, and so on. 

Asperger’s cases – and one begins to wonder whether half of academia and nerddom, myself included, qualify to some extent – can be downright rigid and moralistic, by contrast, reliable to an almost robotic degree, as long as you don’t mind the kind of reliability that sometimes means wearing the same outfit or eating the same meal every day, or reading for six days in a row about some odd, often dry topic such as containerized shipping or chronologically-arranged changes in the membership roster of the Justice League. 

Asperger’s actually sounds a lot like being a philosophy major to me (and Rousseau did say a person engaged in philosophy is doing something unnatural), since people with the condition tend to ask “Why?” about things for which most people (to the great frustration and confusion of the Asperger’s sufferer) have no thought-out answers or rules, just vague instincts that allow them to muddle through (and to master complex intuitive tasks like socializing and dancing that Asperger’s sufferers may find alarming – or just boring). 

This, if my admittedly wholly-amateur diagnosis is accurate, tended to leave X in one of three modes, which we might for simplicity call “good,
normal, and bad,” which I suspect correlate roughly to “Asperger’s dominant, Asperger’s and borderline tendencies in yin-yang-like balance, and borderline dominant.”

In what I’m calling X’s normal mode, I think the quiet, shy, studious tendencies of the Asperger’s case – who mostly wants to sit undisturbed and read – tamped down the borderline tendencies, which veer toward histrionics, making “scenes,” dragging people into “drama,” starting arguments over seemingly nothing, etc.

Now, the truly scary thing about X was the occasional alternative use of the systematizing and moralistic Asperger’s modes of thought – which could make one a moralist or a fine economist – for the sinister purpose of defending and rationalizing the borderline modes of thought.  Confronting someone who thinks it’s “stupid” not to have all the Justice League members (or presidents or what have you) memorized is weird enough, but it’s downright alarming to confront someone who thinks it’s “stupid” to avoid histrionics, conflict, self-destructive behavior, cruelty, and assorted intrigue. 

Someone calmly rationalizing what would conventionally be seen as mean and terrible behavior sounds suspiciously like a sociopath (they’re deliberately rather than just inadvertently cruel, treating others’ pain as a sort of insignificant experiment) rather than just a borderline, raising the subsidiary question of whether it makes a moral or psychological difference in the end.

Maybe it makes a huge difference, though.  Even the very empathic and pro-therapeutic Baron-Cohen is inclined to think that sociopaths can’t be cured – but perhaps someone like X can be, if my (3)+(4) diagnosis is accurate.  If that “normal” position I described, that balancing point between histrionic and withdrawn, can be strengthened and built upon, X might turn out not so unlike the rest of us, with our moments of suppressed anger and our occasional inappropriate thoughts. 


On an even more optimistic note, much as I would hate to claim I have discovered a “cure” for Asperger’s, I can’t helping thinking how much more (yes, even more) I would have seemed like an Asperger’s case twenty years ago.  Eventually, I consciously made an effort to emote in a more conventional fashion, the way a full-blown Asperger’s case might cope with social awkwardness by making a conscious effort to remember every joke that he notices getting a big laugh (or some other Mr. Data-like rubric for avoiding having to intuit one’s way through the emotive maze of everyday social behavior). 

The thing is, even though I may never have been an actual Asperger’s case – likely just a nerd (and certainly not devoid of empathy) – I can remember how clearly I could sense my mental habits changing and, admittedly at some cost to my ego, how I could feel myself falling into more natural emotive grooves that were, in some sense, already there.  It’s much the same when, say, you’re swinging a golf club wrong and someone shows you the right way to do it – and suddenly it feels as if you were meant to do it that way all along. 

I suspect many Asperger’s cases could, to their great relief, experience a similar settling into more-normal emotive (and in the process empathic) habits – but it will require many of them, at least of the “arrogant nerd” variety, to admit that there might be benefits to changing the rigid habits they already have (for which they no doubt have very convincing rationales – as a nerd in Bart’s high school put it, matter of factly, “I make a point never to turn my neck unless I expect to see something,” or words to that effect). 

It’s very difficult to get borderlines to admit, say, that alcohol may be impairing their judgment – yet ironically it was something of a struggle to convince uptight young Todd, nerd that he was/is, that drinking alcohol might be a good thing.  It just seemed such an obvious threat to rationality when I was young.  My hero, magician and skeptic James Randi, doesn’t drink for precisely the same reason.  Indeed, one of the reasons I didn’t embrace libertarianism sooner as a teen was concern that drug legalization would just make an already-irrational populace more irrational. 

At some point, I decided I had enough rationality to spare and could probably get away with the occasional drink...or dance...or date...or fanciful notion.  Having always had a sense of humor helped (and Asperger’s cases, too, often have good senses of humor and irony, counter-intuitive as that might seem – and as someone who is still a rationalist, I am delighted by the thought that reason and humor go together instead of being at odds; as the book Inside Jokes, which I blogged about two months ago, argues, the whole point of humor may be grasping reason enough to spot failures of reasoning).

But far more important than the question of whether my method (of consciously mimicking emotions and habits I thought I might be short on until they became second nature) can get nerds to dance is the question of whether it could even, say, get mean-spirited borderlines to retrain their brains to be nice. 

Having some Aspy tendencies might help them in that process – systematization, ritual, habit, performance.  The mask can become quite natural.  Sociopaths certainly know that – unfortunately, they use the mask to pass as nice people instead of becoming nice people.  (Of course, this doesn’t necessarily make them so unusual – there are garden-variety sadists aplenty in every pack of high school jocks, beefy pub-crawlers looking for a fight, and sorority sisters torturing the new girl.  Indeed, I would like to see stats, though they could never be convincingly compiled, on just how many people out there are jerks and how many aren’t.  Does that sound Aspy in itself?  Perhaps, but it’s a pretty important question.)


One big aid for the philosophy-major-type nerd seeking to become more attuned to others’ happiness is, frankly, utilitarianism.  What is utilitarianism if not the ultimate calculating-nerd’s moral philosophy for coordinating one’s own happiness with the happiness of others (and what better way is there for humanity as a whole to behave)?  Baron-Cohen ends by arguing that empathy is the most important psychological resource that the human race has.  Yet, I would add (being more conservative than Baron-Cohen), we’ve lived through a few decades in which pooh-poohing traditional morality has perhaps degenerated, frighteningly, into pooh-poohing kindness itself and treating sadism as hip, the last thing a world of people struggling to coordinate their desires with those of their fellow-beings needs.

I’ve long been convinced, like John Stuart Mill before me, that most moral codes are (consciously or not) successful to the degree they inculcate habits that (more often than not) foster happiness (Thou shalt not steal, etc.).  If Baron-Cohen’s book helps humans in general – who are not always as adept as Asperger’s cases and philosophy students at spotting underlying patterns – to see a precious structure of empathic mutual happiness-fostering beneath the countless strange types of traditionalist, legalistic, or creedal scaffolding surrounding that structure (codes that may or may not still serve that underlying purpose), he will have furthered the most moral and important mission in the world. 

But that’s me thinking philosophically and politically.  On a more psychological note, imagine the benefits if this book is a step toward teaching even those without the usual neural structures for caring to begin doing so.  It would be like creating fully-human individuals where there were partially-human ones before – and bringing into the fold some of the loneliest people on Earth. 

(And if you disagree, I will resist any residual nerd impulse to call you stupid or to forbid you to borrow my comic books – and you are definitely invited to the newly-expanded and more open-ended debate-and-more events I plan to host in Williamsburg in the fall, about which, more in the weeks ahead.  I hope they will make people happy, even ones who come from a variety of very strange mindsets.  And I will keep trying to be less uptight and less argumentative, except as necessary.)

On a similar note, the author of the book Loud in the House of Myself, who seems to have overcome something like borderline personality disorder, contacted me after I made somewhat dismissive comments about her book, assuring me she’s not trying to glorify mental illness but to show people her path toward taking personal responsibility (so go read it).  And Ali Kokmen has brought to my attention an impending book called Hiding in Plain Sight about the curious fact (though it’s perhaps unsurprising in the age of the Internet) that sociopaths, rather than just skulking around behaving like horror movie characters, are now sharing advice with each other for living roughly-normal lives. 

I think one of the most interesting wrinkles in that tale (and one that makes sociopaths, if they are correctly self-identifying, sound reassuringly like almost any other subculture concerned about recognition, self-definition, and boundary-marking) is that on the site SociopathWorld edited by the Hiding in Plain Sight author, there have even been discussions about why Asperger’s cases get so much pity and even admiration from the public (libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has written about hoping the whole world is becoming more autistic, by which he basically seems to mean Asperger’s-like), while sociopaths are hated and feared.  Both behave callously, goes the argument (and I’d bet the sociopaths aren’t very happy with Baron-Cohen for literally labeling sociopaths “negative” and Aspies “positive”). 

Of course, to the rest of us, constantly modeling the emotions and intentions of those around us, being callous by accident or callous by design makes all the difference in the world – the first sort of person may learn to do better and the second sort may not want to, or may even use new social skills to achieve even more sadistic ends. 

But, to put it in the crudest terms, it’s nice to see a science of how-not-to-be-a-jerk arising, and the effort to figure out what the people around us want and how to avoid pissing them off is a project in which, one way or another, we are all engaged, whether we come to it naturally or have to write little reminders on our hands that say “Don’t laugh during funeral.”  

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