It is the rare film adaptation of a novel or short story that equals the quality of the original; those that are better than the original are particularly scarce. To my mind, one of the few in that latter category is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I was so impressed with the movie that I went out and bought a Philip K. Dick short story collection to read ‘Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?’
The original was disappointing. I thought the movie was visually, conceptually, and plotfully more interesting than the short story.
And thematically more interesting. The beginning and the climax of the story bookend the central question, ‘What is it to be human?’ The answer in the movie is compassion. As the replicant/android Roy (Rutger Hauer) traps Decker (Harrison Ford) and prepares to kill him, Roy realizes that his internal pre-programmed clock is about to kill him first. And so he impulsively acts from compassion, and saves Decker, even though Decker had been hunting Roy to kill him the whole movie, and even though androids supposedly do not experience emotions. Which leaves a couple of questions.
Conservatives typically lampoon liberals by describing sit-ins with everyone singing Kumbaya. The implied liberal message is that, at heart everyone is good, so why can’t we all get along?
The liberals are right. Or rather they are almost right, because almost everyone is good at heart. The problem is, in the rare instances when liberals are wrong, they are disastrously so.
In a recent post I discussed the film Munich, and noted that one difference between popular literature and great literature is that in popular literature there are good guys who are like us, and bad guys who are different. In great literature, however, everyone is us; everyone shows us our own reflection. Some readers might have thought of one name:
Shakespeare’s ability to make us sympathize with antagonists from Lady Macbeth to Shylock is a reflection of his genius. But Othello’s nemesis, Iago, elicits no sympathy. He seems impenetrable, and to those of us with that compassionate mark of humanity, he is baffling. He is devoid of compassion. He represents pure evil.
Our intellectual and emotional discomfort with such a possibility is shown in various interpretations of Othello, where actors and directors seek to ascribe a motive, any human motive, to Iago. Mental health professionals recognize the real problem here: Iago’s motives are inhuman. He is simply devoid of humanity and compassion, he seeks nothing more than amusement in mayhem and suffering.
It would be interesting to know whom Shakespeare modeled Iago after, because it is clear that Shakespeare patterned him after someone who was a pure sociopath. The Bard simply understood the character too well to admit any other explanation.
Sociopathy is also referred to by some as psychopathy, and psychologists, psychiatrists, criminologists and others disagree about the terms.1)Some of them, however, disagree that they even disagree about the terms. I carried on a brief correspondence with a major scholar in the field who took exception to my choice of terms. When I supplied references to support my position, he simply ignored them and doubled down. It’s an interesting but all-too-common human behavior that we will return to in the future. I avoid the term ‘psychopath’ because in the common usage it has become conflated with both psychosis, and with the phrase ‘going psycho,’ which is often simply outrage. The concepts of both psychosis and outrage miss critical concepts: the pure sociopath is highly logical, and largely devoid of emotion.
A lack of emotion, in fact, is the point of the opening scene of Blade Runner. The replicant Leon (Brion James) is being subjected to an advanced version of the lie detector. Because androids are inhuman, they should not emotionally and physiologically respond to questions and stimuli that normal people would. That is a key insight into the sociopath: they are emotionally deficient. Some scholars, in fact, theorize that the reason extreme sociopaths, ‘malignant narcissists’ like Ted Bundy, torture and rape their victims is because only extreme violence generates much emotional response within them.
These are the woolly wolves, the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Most people are unaware of the extent of this problem, but sociopaths are all around us. One noted scholar states that one out of every seven people is a sociopath.2)Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway Books, 2005. That number seems high, but in fact the great majority of sociopaths function well enough in the world. They seem a bit odd but inflict minimal harm to others. Later I may introduce you to one sociopath whom I have come to think of as not only functioning in a normal context, but in some ways may be an advanced form of humanity. Continued below…
The problem here, however, is the ‘low arousal state’ that is a symptom of sociopathy, the behavior that Leon was being tested for. The full-blown sociopath does not experience love, but neither does he experience panic or even nervousness. One of the diagnostic features for sociopathy, in fact, is a low blood pressure and pulse rate.
This low arousal helps explain why the sociopath is so dangerous. We hear the calm in his voice, and we mistake it for confidence. We see the recklessness in his cavalier attitude, and assume it reflects bravery and experience. We look at his control, and think it is discipline and self-mastery.
It is none of those things; sociopaths just don’t care. They don’t care what we think, because they don’t care about us. We are nothing more than objects of curiosity and amusement for them. And so in their insouciance, they come across as authority.
Closely allied with the sociopath, under the larger classification of ‘character disorders’, is the narcissist. The narcissist represents a conflicting picture, because he also doesn’t care about us or what we think, but he does care very much what we think about him. However, the narcissist is also convinced that everyone, or at least any reasonable person, adores him. He responds to anyone who does not adore him with venom, or he simply ignores them altogether. Because he believes everyone important loves him, in his element the narcissist can also be very relaxed and self-confident.
Once we consider the sociopath and the narcissist, we can understand how they often succeed in organizations, where they can move up the ladder too quickly for unified resistance to emerge against them. They also can succeed in the large organization of government, where the electorate only sees a carefully manipulated view of candidates. Particularly concerning, in large organizations and government sometimes the only thing that can stop the sociopath/narcissist is an even colder, shrewder sociopath/narcissist.
As we go through this the presidential election cycle, observe the candidates closely. Try to decide if any of them might be sociopaths or narcissists, and which ones are probably normal people.
Because we have entered a period of increased anger and outrage in government, and angry people are not thoughtful, observant, and reflective people. For that reason, angry people are often the easiest for the sociopath and narcissist to recruit and motivate.
And outrage would explain some of the outrageous candidates we are seeing at the moment.
Images from Blade Runner © Warner Bros. 1982.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Some of them, however, disagree that they even disagree about the terms. I carried on a brief correspondence with a major scholar in the field who took exception to my choice of terms. When I supplied references to support my position, he simply ignored them and doubled down. It’s an interesting but all-too-common human behavior that we will return to in the future.|
|2.||↑||Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway Books, 2005.|