Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Psychopaths Next Door


Part of my morning ritual everyday is to visit the two comics pages online and Foxtrot is one of them (the other is Doonesbury.) I've enjoyed Foxtrot for a number of years, though to be honest there are times when I wonder why as it doesn't really hit the issues like Doonesbury does, but then maybe that's why.

My last blog entry, Grizzly Man and Psychopaths, got me thinking about psychopaths and what it is that separates someone who anyone would look at and say, "God, that person's a psychopath", and the average person who for a multitude of possible reasons does things that are psychopathic in nature. Yesterday morning's cartoon rekindled this thinking, not only because it turned up here in Foxtrot, but I have heard kids at school talk about the videogame "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City", which Bill Amend is making fun of here in his comic strip. Here's a description of Grand Theft Auto (GTA):

The new GTA game is set in a fictional take on Miami, Florida, known as Vice City. The year is 1986, and Tommy Vercetti has just been released from prison after doing a 15-year stretch for the mob. The mob--more specifically, the Forelli family--appreciates Tommy's refusal to squeal in exchange for a lesser sentence, so they send him down to Vice City to establish some new operations. Tommy's first order of business in Vice City is to score a large amount of cocaine to work with. But Tommy's first drug deal goes sour, leaving him with no money, no cocaine, and no idea who wronged him. The mob is, of course, angry over the whole situation, and now Tommy has to make up for the loss before the gangsters come down from Liberty City to clean up the mess. As Tommy, you'll start the investigation, figure out who ripped you off, take care of business, and set up shop in Vice City in a big, big way. Oh, and you'll also drive taxis, get involved in a turf war between the Cubans and the Haitians, befriend a Scottish rock group named Love Fist, become a pizza delivery boy, smash up the local mall, demolish a building to lower real estate prices, hook up with a biker gang, run an adult film studio, take down a bank, and much, much more.

If you're concerned that this may be a bit over-the-top for your average teenager, be assured that GTA has its lighter side, too:

While Grand Theft Auto has always been a violent, mature-themed series, it has always balanced the violent crime with an equal amount of tongue-in-cheek humor and style. Vice City is no exception, presenting an exaggerated view of the 1980s that makes use of a number of the kitschy pop-culture stereotypes found in film and television from the decade. The drug-laced tale recalls such films as Scarface and television shows like Miami Vice. The humor comes mostly from the radio, which really drives home the sort of form-over-function mentality that most people associate with the '80s.

Now I have to ask myself, why is it that a game like this, and many others like it, is so popular with the average teenage boy? Now of course no one can really make the case that these games are turning kids into drug lords (well, at least not that I'm aware of anyway), but how is it that
something like this is so appealing to boys? They get to act like criminals, wantonly kill and maim, and indulge "form-over-function" mentalities - this is entertainment? I'm inclined to think that the reason this appeals is that it wouldn't take very much for a person to engage in this sort of thing in the real world were the circumstance right to induce such a thing, in other words it hits buttons in boys, and by and large it's boys who are playing these sorts of games, that are a basic part of their programming. So is there a thin line between our otherwise normally civilized selves and some psychopath self? I think that's true, but then maybe it's not so much a psychopath lurking in us as it is a high capacity for cruelty. The average human has a fair higher capacity for cruelty than they're otherwise inclined to think is the case, and maybe with a psychopath they're simply indulging cruelty without remorse - the rest of us, over time, will likely experience some measure of remorse, but they don't have that problem.

Well whatever the nature of psychopaths may be, there's us, the normal Jane and Joe, that we should be mindful of. Arnold Toynbee wrote a piece back in 1970 that you can find at Human Savagery Cracks Thin Veneer. He sums up what I've been thinking on this subject rather nicely:

There is a persistent vein of violence and cruelty in human nature. Man has often striven to rid himself of what he recognizes as being a hideous moral blemish, unworthy of human nature's better side. Sometimes man has fancied that he has succeed in civilizing himself.

Yes, indeed. We need to be sure that we don't kid ourselves about ourselves, like Timothy Treadwell in "Grizzly Man" kidded himself about the grizzlies and their relationship with him - we are cruel creatures, much of our actions throughout the world support this, even as do the videogames that our children play and enjoy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it isn't so much cruelty, which implies some empathetic understanding of what kind of impact one's actions have on another, as much as the testosterone enhanced pleasure of dominance, agression and the thrill of the chase.
Maybe boys are just biologically programmed to fight and raid and risk their lives.
Whenever I see crews of yard workers dressed in bright orange overalls, I feel a certain sadness. It strikes me that they are all usually about the same age, that is to say, young adults, healthy, strong, handsome, looking for all the world like the best and brightest of the young men of our community. Why are so many of our young men behind bars? What is the flaw in our civilization?

7:38 PM  
Blogger James said...


I honestly think it's more than just testosterone. Sure, that's a factor when it comes to aggressiveness, but that's not what I'm really after here. It's more when we do things that are deliberately beyond the pale, killing thousands or millions of people; someone, many "someones" in fact, who engages in acts of torture; any time we justify death and destruction on the basis of our own superiority to someone under our power; the recent nearly beating to death of a man by some 19 youths because the guy simply honked his car horn, and the list of horrific actions, big and small, goes on and on. I don't think these are things we can simply chalk up to testosterone, there's something askew in the ethical/moral framework of the people responsible for these sorts of crimes and I think it's more something that's fundamental to all humans, though for most it's masked because of fear of the law, or otherwise their basic needs are taken care of such that indulging this sort of behavior is insufficiently compeling. I think of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" - the thin veneer of civilization is suddenly taken away and the kids become savages; there's no reason to think adults would be much different, and it's that beastial core that I think supports the psychopath.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Dr. Charles said...

history really does repeat itself, and when i thought the world was changing for the better in the late 1990's along came terrorism and a few middle eastern wars, civil wars as always in africa, bombings in spain, chechnya, etc.... it goes on and on

gta was fun to play a few times when i used to be into that sort of thing :)

10:28 PM  
Blogger James said...

OMG! Dr. C. used to play GTA?!?! A whole new dimension to the man is revealed! In all honesty, I often wonder how much I'd enjoy something like GTA - some years ago I was quite the Star Wars fanatic. Not the same level of realism there as with GTA, but the shoot-em-up process was there and I loved it. Makes me wonder about those inner demons ...

5:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still maintain that under the right conditions those inner demons can serve and protect, under the wrong conditions, they are a menace to society. The trick is to channel that call of the wild into something positive. Paintball, anyone?

2:15 AM  
Anonymous David C said...

The link of young men's liking of video game violence and applying violence in the real world is very blurry. I've enjoyed the occasional GTA as well as my friend (#2 in the class) as well as others (#300 something).

I hate to sound nerdy, but the GTA games offer a unique set of logical puzzles never realized before in video games...
But the violence has a bit of an attraction to it I suppose.

1:46 PM  
Blogger James said...

Atmika: You're right, these inner demons serve and protect, but against what? Lawless or amoral individuals who can't restrain the inner demons? We, and specifically males, seem to be programmed for violence, but I'm not directing this so much at violence as an inherent ability to be uncivilized, to indulge in behaviors that are bad, if not deadly, for those we don't like for whatever specious reason that comes to the fore. In this regard, as the Germans more than adequately showed, women are just as susceptible as men.

David: Again, my point is not that violent behavior associated with GTA or any of the other violent games of one flavor or another out there, begets violence, but rather that we seem to be programmed in some way for it, that we even enjoy it which is why games like GTA are popular. Where we trip off from just violence to condoning and participating in genocide or the murder of a group of people or a person we simply don't like I have no clue, but given our violent proclivities it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's not so easy for it to happen.

We kid ourselves that we're somehow civilized, that we're not inclined to do anything like the Nazis or the Rwandans did, and I'm convinced that there's a vestige of the amoral psychopath running through most of us that, given the right environmental and societal pressures, will get out and do horrific damage. We tend to look at psychopaths as being rare and an anamoly, and my point is that no, they're not, what makes someone a psychopath lays dormant in most people, waiting to come out, but we like to kid ourselves that this isn't true.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous David C said...

Kids at school giving you guff, James? Your dormant psychopath idea is turning the inheriant flaws of man into quite the distopia. All such extreme behavior is the result of a simple human activity - interaction. We naturally fear anything beyond our skins, not to say we arn't nuerotic about diseases. I'll agree that we're all built with a tendency towards violence, and when not practicing outward agression we lie hidden from agressive factors. It's purly instict, evident in all creatures. Our grand intellect allows us to properly king ourselves above animals, and has established a 'reasonable' explination for what we do. Every evil force always exerts a justification, despite how ludicrous it may be.

3:30 PM  
Blogger James said...

No David, the kids at school aren't giving me "guff", nor do I think of them as psycopaths.

A "dystopia"? I don't think I'm saying that we all live in a dystopia, though certainly there have been times when such has been created and the basis for doing so would tie directly into my thinking about how we're programmed to be inhuman and on some level psychopathic. Who would ever create a dystopia, as for example Hitler did for the Jews, other than someone who was indulging some level of psycopathy?

What people fear isn't the issue here. The Germans didn't fear the Jews as much as they were looking for someone to simply blame things on, the Russians and Mao were all into control and they excused any behavior to keep it, the Hutus were after revenge - fear isn't the issue, and it's fair easier to understand and rationalize a reaction to fear than anyway coming up with something to make comfortable the slaughter of a million or more people.

4:05 PM  

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