After reading Martha Stout’s 2006 The Sociopath Next Door recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about sociopaths. Stout contends that four percent of the U.S. population are sociopaths, people without conscience, which Stout describes as “an intervening sense of obligation based in our emotional attachment to others.” Here‘s a snippet from Stout’s book describing some of the positions that sociopaths might enjoy, including this:
But you do enjoy jobs that afford you a certain undersupervised control over a few individuals or small groups, preferably people and groups who are relatively helpless or in some way vulnerable. You are a teacher or a psychotherapist, a divorce lawyer or a high school coach. Or maybe you are a consultant of some kind, a broker or a gallery owner or a human services director. Or maybe you do not have a paid position and are instead the president of your condominium association, or a volunteer hospital worker, or a parent. Whatever your job, you manipulate and bully the people who are under your thumb, as often and as outrageously as you can without getting fired or held accountable. You do this for its own sake, even when it serves no purpose except to give you a thrill. Making people jump means you have power – or this is the way you see it – and bullying provides you with an adrenaline rush. It is fun.
Could this describe a misdemeanor judge you know? A prosecutor? If you believe that four of every ninety-nine people around you are sociopaths, you start seeing signs of sociopathy everywhere.
The hallmark of a sociopath, says Stout, is feigned victimhood. “The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.”
I have noted before the ascendancy of victimocracy, in which victimhood is esteemed even above merit and victims are given special authority to determine the course of the state. I was reminded of the victimocracy recently by communications by members of the board of a criminal-defense lawyers’ association.
Two members of the board separately did things that didn’t serve the interests of the organization. Other members called them out; the criticism was not gentle, but it was fair. Those who had been criticized went into victim mode: they had been “attacked,” “insulted,” “disrespected.” They inaccurately described things that others had said to make them seem like attacks. Both described the criticism as “bullying.” One had “never been so insulted” as by the criticism.
Why would these people—these criminal-defense lawyers communicating with other criminal-defense lawyers—cry “victim”? Because they think it’ll work. They’ll be pitied, their transgressions will be ignored, they’ll get their way.
The pity play or attempt to appeal to the sympathy of others was also addressed in research conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections and The Hazelden Foundation (2002). There, researchers concluded that criminal thinkers most often attempt to control others by portraying themselves as a victim, turning to fear tactics only when the victim stance fails to get them what they want.
The act of eliciting pity from another unequivocally makes the elicitor something to be pitied, a victim, per se. It is human nature to aid the pitied. Hence, the pity play, or victim stance, stands to get the Sociopath what he or she wants easily and without being found out as a bad guy. This is manipulation.
Your Conscience, the Sociopath’s Weapon of Choice, Psychology Today.
I’m not saying that these two lawyers are sociopaths—not everyone who takes a victim stance is a sociopath—but their play for pity had me reflecting on how, with our solicitude for the feelings of victims, we have created an amiable playground for sociopaths.
We criminal-defense lawyers are not generally aligned with victims. Our clients are usually getting screwed by victimocracy. If a pity play could work in the board of directors of a criminal-defense lawyers’ association, it could work anywhere. And anywhere a pity play works a sociopath will make a pity play.
The more power we give victims, the more power we give sociopaths. We don’t want to give sociopaths any more power than Texas voters already give them. But we can’t be pitiless—pity serves a valuable social function, and if we were pitiless, we’d be sociopaths ourselves.
So what’s the solution? I think it is to act like criminal-defense lawyers: be kind to real victims, but question the stories of those who claim to be victims. Like those of the board members wanting to be victims, sociopaths’ stories won’t stand up to scrutiny.