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With ever increasing economic inequality, Israel Gaza massacres, the U.S. bombing of Iraq in the ISIS crisis and police brutality and racism in Ferguson, the world continues to descend into an abyss of darkness. Coincidentally in recent years, character disturbance seems to have become an epidemic in Western society. Narcissism, borderline sociopaths and trends of psychopathy have now come to pervade our everyday life. Is this larger pathology underlying much of the injustice and misery in the world?
The American Psychiatric Association identified these pervasive condition as dramatic, emotional erratic disorders and put them together as cluster B personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Categorized as an antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy is probably the most pathologized of all. In popular culture, it is portrayed with horrifying images of evil. When we hear the term psychopath, most people imagine someone like Hannibal Lecter in the movie Silence of the Lambs and notorious murders like Ted Bundy. But psychopathy is not all about those outlandish criminals.
In Psychopathy of Everyday Life, Martin Kantor (2006) argues how the majority of psychopaths are not lawbreakers or violent, but are living everywhere among us. Kantor gives a profile of those less serious and more common psychopaths, showing how they are blended in with our friends and families and argues that they are in some ways more dangerous to society than severe psychopaths.
Most of us naturally trust our fellow human beings and tend to think that people generally have good intentions. We can hardly imagine that there are people who deliberately try to destroy us. In fact, encountering a psychopath can turn our notion of humanity completely upside down. Psychopathy expert Robert Hare offered a profile of those psychopaths as people without conscience. Hare created a checklist of symptoms and pointed to their primary characteristics as lack of remorse or empathy along with pathological egocentricity, lying, callousness and superficial charm.
The term narcissism has become common nomenclature in our culture. It is often thought of as excessive self-love. It is defined with personality traits such as vanity and selfishness. Everyone possesses some narcissistic qualities and indeed we all need a healthy self-love. Yet distinctions need to be made. Some experts have pointed to narcissism as actually a disease of self-hatred. Pathological narcissism also causes destruction to those who are close to them.
Narcissism is different from psychopathy. For instance, psychologist Leon F. Seltzer points out how, while psychopaths know what they are doing, narcissists generally don’t intend to harm others. Yet at the same time there is often overlap. In 1964, psychologist Erich Fromm put forward the term malignant narcissism as an excessive version of narcissism with distinct characteristics of grandiosity and selfishness and characterized it as the most severe pathology. George Simon, a recognized expert on manipulators, notes how this type of narcissism is at the core of psychopathy. He points to their overly inflated view of themselves as superior beings and how the need to feel superiority makes them act callously toward others, which is rooted in a marked lack of empathy.
Erosion of Empathy
Developmental psycho-pathologist Simon Baron-Cohen put forward the idea of empathy erosion, which one can use to more deeply examine various psychological types such as psychopathy and autism. We all lie somewhere from high to low on a scale, as aspects of psychopathy are to some degree in all of us. He suggests looking at how empathy deficit exists in a spectrum, and that a psychopathic condition indicates near zero empathy.
What is empathy? Empathy allows us to deeply connect with others at an emotional level, to imagine and even experience another person’s pain, joy and sadness. Imagination awakens images in the body. These enlivened images make bridges between our world and others and bind us to concrete reality. Empathic impairment in psychopathy totally cuts people off from the force of imagination, disconnecting us from the underlying emotional reality. In the case of narcissistic personality disorder, it is more of their self-absorption that causes dissociation and leads to a failure of empathy.
Both types can intellectually understand other’s perspectives, but are not able to put themselves into their shoes. Their grasp of emotions stays at a cognitive level and this reflective capacity enables them to mimic emotions to charm and manipulate people to their advantage. With their inability to step outside of themselves, they are also not able to see their own actions from other’s perspectives. They are the masters of projection. They bend reality in favor of their own interests by means lies, manipulation and deflection. They are only concerned about what is done to them and transfer responsibility of their own wrongdoing upon others.
Hungry Ghosts of Infinite Desire
Individuals affected by psychopathy are caught in their own immediate needs. They move from one fleeting pleasure to another, engaging in sensation-seeking behaviors. They lack insight that is informed by past experience and that also allows us to predict the future. This is manifested in their proneness to boredom, impulsiveness and failure to develop and execute long-term plans. Their psychological state often resembles that of addiction.
Gabor Maté, Canadian physician who works with a population of addicts, described them as inhabitants of a realm of hungry ghosts, or the Buddhist version of hell, saying how “they’re always hungry, always empty, always seeking it from the outside”.
Imagine for a moment being constantly flooded by insatiable desire without an ability to think of the consequences of one’s actions upon others. Imagine having unlimited pursuit of unquenchable hungers without the burden of conscience. Nothing would stop us from getting what we want. There are no constraints in the quest for dominance and control.
Psychopaths are hollow, hungry ghosts dragging people into the underworld across the river Styx. Even though stories of serial killer psychopaths might be relatively rare, the deaths of women who have become a victim and a target of obsession, being raped, mutilated, or brutally murdered is a metaphor of what could happen to any of us who engage with these soulless individuals.
Psychologist Rafael López-Pedraza (1990) described a condition of lack of images as “a vacuum, a lacuna … out of which come excess and the madness of power” (p. 7). By being cut off from the life-force of imagination, psychopaths are always hungry. The beast within them smells victims and chases after them. With a beam-like intensity of focus, they idealize their prey by reflecting them in their narcissistic mirror. The seducers shower them with admiration, praise and declarations of undying love. Once they hunt down their targets, they become greedy. Those predators fixate a person who is spontaneous and constantly changing into their projection of idealized images. Those who have been conquered and caged into a psychopath’s photo frame naturally cannot maintain the frozen image of this idealized perfect self.
A stage of devaluing and discard will follow as victims are relinquished of their emotional energy and slowly sucked dry by this parasitic being. It is this unlimited and unhinged desire of those with empathy deficit that turn the living being into an object, a faceless and nameless ‘it’. Psychopathy is a force of deadening that deprives one’s autonomy, where those who are ruled by the internal vacuum manipulate others into submission.
Corporations and the Pursuit of Power
Psychopathic oriented individuals often rise to the top of social hierarchy. Because of the lack of conscience and inability to feel the pain that they inflict on others, they can move faster up the ladder and seize power. After being uprooted from the communal ground of humanity, they hold themselves above their fellows with the view of having a superior intelligence. Psychopaths take flight from ultimate freedom and become defined by relations of control and power. They break the bond of humanity; a delicate kinship that connects all living beings. This subhuman force condemns emotions such as fear and jealously or uses them for their own ends and considers attributes like compassion and cooperation as weaknesses and a detriment to their success.
The giant corporation with its hierarchical structure and centralized control that rewards high risk behavior came to be a suitable entity for psychopathic human beings to work at. Their motives of executing their own selfish agenda at any cost perfectly represent the very operational ethics of corporations; namely the doctrine of profit at any cost. Indeed, law professor and the co-creator of the film “The Corporation”, Joel Bakan (2004) describes the corporation as an “artificial person made in the image of a human psychopath”, and notes how it is now “seeking to remake real people in its image” (p. 135).
Through incarnating into the artificial construct of corporate personhood, those darkened souls pull human reality into a fictional direction. Everything revolves around their self-centered orbit, sucking those around them into this toxic vortex of endless desire. They freeze all that moves and then devour and colonize them as an extension of themselves.
They have successfully machinated economic and political institutions into a corporate state where 1% of psychopathic leaders control the course of history on a global scale and define the narrative of who we are as a race. Scholar-activist David Graeber (2013) characterized the last thirty years as the age of neoliberalism and noted the enforcement of this contorted worldview as “a relentless campaign against the human imagination” (p. 281). With this economic and political ideology, the idea of human freedom has come to mean “free markets” of derisked capitalism, and democracy is serving mass production and consumption. Under their imposed narrative, our autonomy is denied and we are restricted from experiencing the full range of emotions and human potential.
Psychopaths at the top of the hierarchy make all serve as their narcissistic supply. They pin humanity to their selfish desires. With sweatshop workers and child labor, they prey on the most vulnerable and innocent populations. Corporations’ unlimited greed turns humanity into disposable resources. How do they do that? How did they manipulate us to such a degree and get away with it?
Psychopaths are caught in their own narcissistic mirror. They cannot see others as who they are. Because they are divorced from concrete reality where those with empathy naturally reside, their perception of events is twisted. They use “doublespeak”; words that are always split and that only convey half-truth. They deflect anything that contradicts their version of reality by projecting those traits onto others around them. Those psychopathic individuals believe their own lies and drive everyone to participate in their grand scheme of conceited illusion, where we are made into caricatures in their story, each assigned roles to serve for their ungrounded sense of entitlement.
They are in a sense like expert con artists. They eloquently package their fantasy and appeal. Like a chameleon, they can morph their personality, tailoring it perfectly for each target. With their charm and smooth sales pitch they hypnotize and disarm those around them.
It is a subtle emotional rape where we become open and vulnerable to their suggestions. We are conditioned to be dependent on outer validation and seek for positive feedback. Through sophisticated marketing combined with extreme surveillance, they gain access to private thoughts of everyday people and study our innermost wishes, needs and insecurities. With ads and glamorous celebrity images, corporations send subliminal messages 24 hours a day. They make us believe that we are not good or beautiful enough while offering ‘perfect’ solutions to remake ourselves. Chris Hedges (2009) described what he called the empire of illusion, saying “we live in imaginary, virtual worlds created by corporations that profit from our deception”. He continued:
“Products and experiences—indeed, experience as a product—offered up for sale, sanctified by celebrities, are mirages. They promise us a new personality. They promise us success and fame. They promise to mend our brokenness.” (pp. 52-53)
Allured into their narcissistic mirror, we are pulled into a false self pumped up by vanity. With unlimited lines of credit and consumer goods they stimulate insatiable desires and drive us to forever expand and inflate this unrealistic sense of a grandiose self.
Liberal Democracy as Consumer Fraud
The corporate state slowly erodes our sense of reality with eloquent seduction. We are stripped empty and transfer the source of legitimacy outside. Now the pathology of psychopathy has become the authority. We begin to distrust ourselves and internalize echoes of their critical voices that judge as measures of our worthiness. The impulse for action no longer comes from inside each person. We are told what is right, wrong or appropriate. We are compelled to conform, trying to prove that we are good enough and worthy of love.
Under the guise of authority, the corporate state gains its unaccounted power. Government secrecy and manipulation through PR and propaganda creates a perfect ground for deception which violates the fundamental idea of consent of the governed in a democracy.
Many ideas of progress and change are translated into choices offered in the electoral arena, which has become nothing but a grand spectacle of illusion. We blindly accept what is presented outside as a masked democracy where opposition and dissent are not welcomed. We become objects that adjust to a reality that is prescribed for us. Trapped in the mirror of the corporate state, we are relegated to mere reflections of its animalistic desires.
For so long it seemed that nothing could dissolve the growing corporate power. Then something disrupted this force of deception. The 2008 financial meltdown along with the WikiLeaks publication of massive troves of documents revealing the illegality and wrongdoings of governments, triggered the global awakening to a crisis of legitimacy. The façade of democracy has now begun to crumble. Liberal democracy has shown itself to be one big consumer fraud packaged with selfish desires of a few elites.
Around the world, people are coming to realize that they all bought into a fantasy of the American dream and that they have been duped. Representative democracy and governments with false promises have begun to peel off their veneer of legitimacy and show their true face. WikiLeaks exposure of their lies shuttered their one sided mirror that always reflects their impeccable image. It brought narcissistic injury to psychopathic conspirators. When the system is confronted with reality, it always reacts irrationally. In this way, the whistleblowing website was met by the rage of the corporate empire.
The U.S. government engaged in an unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers. Those in power deflect the truth by attacking people who defend free speech and the Constitution. They turn the tables, making it look like those who confront their hypocrisy for public good are the aggressors.
Corporate Power as Pathology
In the global struggles and efforts toward meaningful social change, we are confronted with the psychopathy that has severely skewed the balance of society. Corporate power is a manifestation of pathology. Our battle against the corporate state challenges us to understand this invasive illness that has spread around the globe. What is the root of psychopathy?
The cause of all those antisocial personality attributes is largely a mystery. The nature or nurture debate rages on. Some suggest genetic origin and others point to emotional trauma that occurs in child development, specifically pointing to a failure of attachment to mother in an early age; a product of neglect and lack of opportunity to experience security and consistent parental love.
Narcissists hold onto the image of their idealized fictional self as good, glorious and loving. They avoid real intimacy where they would become vulnerable. They do so in order to protect their perfect self-image from being affected by emotions that they judge as negative. By defending the fiction of their perfection they fail to empathize with others.
Nobody is sure what causes narcissistic personality disorder, yet some trace it to narcissistic parenting and argue how in many cases, one or both parents was narcissistic. In this a child is treated as an extension of a caretaker and his or her self is undeveloped or repressed. Beneath this sense of importance, there may be pain of feeling not loved for who they are. Deep inside, they carry shame and a feeling of unworthiness and envy of those who got what they didn’t get. They repress these feelings and close down emotionally. They despise those who manifest authenticity and denounce those who display human virtues such as loyalty and empathy as weak and spoiled. Psychotherapist Joseph Burgo explains such narcissistic rage as a defense mechanism that they use to protect themselves against this shame. Their wound separates them from their true self and they create a falsely constructed self. They judge others as they were once judged and restrict others to act in a way that affirms the illusory image of perfection.
Psychopathy as Spiritual Malaise
Whatever the cause is, individuals who exhibit psychopathic characteristics are lost souls. They have exiled themselves from the heart and cling to the linear development of identity based solely on the intellect, denying their essential self that was deeply rooted in communion. Maté (2010) attributed the origin of hungry ghosts to “a spiritual void” (p. 83). He explained how:
“addiction floods in where self-knowledge — and therefore divine knowledge — are missing. To fill the unendurable void, we become attached to things of the world that cannot possibly compensate us for the loss of who we are.” (p. 413)
In a sense, psychopathy is a spiritual malaise that alienates us from our higher humanity, reducing us to animalistic and materialistic beings. This loss of deep connection to one’s core creates insatiable desire and internal emptiness. Cut off from the heart – a universal current of human emotions – they float on waves of sensations and short-lived emotions that are feigned by the head. They hover in their isolated boat without access to deep and rich human experience.
In their aloneness, their world never intersects with others in the sense of a true encounter in an exchange of being. Their morality becomes a rigid rationale and right or wrong is viewed from a narrow standpoint. It differs from a morality that is grounded in relationship. This morality is conscience. It calls for our constant engagement in determining what is right in each situation through putting ourselves in other’s shoes to imagine and foresee the consequences of our own actions. This is moral imagination, expressed in the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Without this empathic capacity, psychopaths lack conscience and they can play with human emotions without remorse, no matter the harm they may cause upon others.
Those who haven’t experienced love cannot bond with others emotionally and cannot form any meaningful relationship. It is as if they never fully entered into this world crossing the threshold between life and death. They are afraid of the chaos and uncertainty that happened at the moment of conception. With their ethos of separation, they build certainty and safeguard themselves from reality that threatens their fictional self. By avoiding real intimacy with people, they suppress authentic emotions and deny the flow of life.
Battle of Our Time
Psychopathy is a spiritual illness of egotism. Fromm referred to malignant narcissism as an embodiment of pure evil. Psychologist Gustav M. Gilbert, who studied the mind of Nazi bystanders at the Nuremberg tribunals, pointed to a lack of empathy as one striking factor that is commonly found by all Nazi defenders. He named it the source of evil. Is this egocentricity and absence of empathy the cause of all evil, militarism, corporatism, and imperialism that brings so much misery and suffering to the world?
Maybe this pathological human condition is a counter-force in human evolution. When we construct one-sided goodness, the aspects of ourselves that we shun from our notion of morality emerges as an evil. This absence of empathy is a dark shadow of Western civilization that has crystallized and manifested in its extremity as antisocial personality disorder, with demonic self-interest and social divisiveness. If we take this view, we can perhaps begin to see how evil is not something out there that exists independently from ourselves but is something that we help create. Then we might be able to recognize our responsibility for taking part in its creation. If we tend to what has become so dark instead of avoiding facing it or even trying to eradicate it in the name of a cure, it might teach us.
Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1943/1977) elucidated the role of evil and how it helps educate us to freedom and love:
“Love would be impossible for man and freedom would be impossible for man without the possibility of sailing down into the abyss. A man unable of his own free decision to choose good or evil, would be a being only led on a leading string to a good which must be attained of necessity and who had no power to choose the good of his own fully purified will, by the love which springs from freedom”. (p. 206)
The corporate state as an embodiment of psychopathy engages us with the hardest battle that we could ever imagine. It is a war declared against our own selves. Contrary to corporate values, innately we tend to be patient, kind and forgiving. When we are confronted with psychopathic aggression, we tend to be too trusting and may ask what is wrong with us. In their manipulative world, our good nature is turned against us and any slight reaction is exaggerated to create a drama. The psychopath uses what we share in confidence against us, takes advantage of kindness, exploits vulnerability and sympathy by playing pity and guilt trips. Protests and any attempts to hold them accountable for their wrongdoing will end in vain as they are without conscience or an ability to understand pain in the emotional sense. The more we fight, the more we lower ourselves to their level, betraying our own principles as we are challenged to hold ground defined by this narrow world view.
In a society run by psychopaths, we tend to lose our higher human nature. In a relationship with those dark wounded souls, we always lose because it is a game that is set out to make us go against ourselves. Yet, within this resistance lies a seed of redemption.
Our battle against the virus of psychopathy spreading through the world pushes us to the edge where we are faced with a loss of individuality. It challenges us to fortify our boundaries, watch our backs and act as if we matter, perhaps for the first time. It demands that we have empathy for ourselves and restore feelings that are uniquely our own. We declare adamant love for ourselves, and accept all that is within us; our insecurities, weaknesses and imperfections as well as attributes that we consider good and positive. This courage to love ourselves unconditionally frees us from psychopathic abuses. We overcome the urge to fight to defend our innocence and lay down the sword forever.
With this love that springs from freedom, we can forgive those who have wronged us and forgive ourselves for having betrayed our own heart by subjugating ourselves to the tyrannical rule of illegitimate authority. We can acknowledge psychopathic nature manifested outside, whether it is the State, corporations, or our own personal relations, without judgment. This is a state of equanimity where sympathy and antipathy are balanced and in this clarity of thoughts the untamable urge for power ceases to exist. With no fear or adulation, we can quietly observe and watch the manipulation and let go of the need to become a victim of pathology. We can simply walk away from the unhealthy relationship with the corporate state of mind that operates with the logic of domination and control.
Healing of the world requires knowledge and a deeper understanding of what has become so evil in the world. It also challenges us to have courage to confront the darkness and recognize it as a shadow that embodies the light. This is a radical love that recognizes the interconnection between good and evil. The awakening of this love within reconnects us to chaos – its unhindered autonomous force of imagination. This is, as psychologist and Jesuit priest Ignacio Martín-Baró (1994) witnessed, “an opening against all closure, flexibility against everything fixed, elasticity against all rigidity, a readiness to act against all stagnation” (p. 182). Images start to flow. We can move toward a decentralized future where all life is regarded as sacred, where we listen to one another in dialogue.
This is our battle, a revolution that happens inside each of us. Whether it is racism, Zionism and militarism, all illness of isms emanate from parts of us that seek for our recognition. Only with our uncompromising love can we can tend to and tame this internal hunger that creates the madness of power. In this revolution, we don’t make demands of anyone but ourselves. We are challenged to remember how we are forgiven for all our sins and have courage to claim our own significance. This is a compassionate demand and the world depends on our will to respond.
Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements. Her work is featured in many publications. Find her on twitter @nozomimagine