Do We Live In The Age of Sociopaths?

Seems like either a pessimistic assessment of the age or a loose use the word to me, but I still found this New Inquiry excerpt from Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television a bit thought provoking:

My greatest regret is that I’m not a sociopath. I suspect I’m not alone. I have written before that we live in the age of awkwardness, but a strong case could be made that we live in the age of the sociopath. They are dominant figures on television, for example, and within essentially every television genre. Cartoon shows have been fascinated by sociopathic fathers (with varying degrees of sanity) ever since the writers of The Simpsons realized that Homer was a better central character than Bart. Showing that cartoon children are capable of radical evil as well, Eric Cartman of South Park has been spouting racial invective and hatching evil plots for well over a decade at this point. On the other end of the spectrum, the flagships of high-brow cable drama have almost all been sociopaths of varying stripes: the mafioso Tony Soprano ofThe Sopranos, the gangsters Stringer Bell and Marlo of The Wire, the seductive imposter Don Draper of Mad Men, and even the serial-killer title character of Dexter. In between, one might name the various reality show contestants betraying each other in their attempt to avoid being “voted off the island”; Dr. House, who seeks a diagnosis with complete indifference and even hostility toward his patients’ feelings; the womanizing character played by Charlie Sheen on the sitcom Two and a Half Men; Glenn Close’s evil, plotting lawyer in Damages; the invincible badass Jack Bauer who will stop at nothing in his sociopathic devotion to stopping terrorism in 24—and of course the various sociopathic pursuers of profit, whether in business or in politics, who populate the evening news.

On a certain level, this trend may not seem like anything new. It seems as though most cultures have lionized ruthless individuals who make their own rules, even if they ultimately feel constrained to punish them for their self-assertion as well. Yet there is something new going on in this entertainment trend that goes beyond the understandable desire to fantasize about living without the restrictions of society. The fantasy sociopath is somehow outside social norms—largely bereft of human sympathy, for instance, and generally amoral—and yet is simultaneously a master manipulator, who can instrumentalize social norms to get what he or she wants.

Your Thoughts?

  • RickR

    I’m going with “loose use of the word”.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Dexter and even Gregory House are interesting to viewers because their sociopathic ways are so unlike most peoples’ day-to-day lives. These fictional characters are both fascinating and repellant.

    Despite the common perception about corporate executives, I’ve only known one sociopath in real life. As soon as his disorder was verified, he was shown the door quite quickly. People don’t like sociopaths and, more importantly, don’t trust them.

  • Samantha Vimes

    Homer is selfish, but not sociopathic. He genuinely feels bad when he realizes he’s harmed the people he loves, and although his first thought is often, “Why can’t they just cheer up so I don’t feel guilty?”, he’s been known to make sincere efforts to remedy matters.

    • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

      I was talking to a buddy of mine today about a person I know who is a sociopath. I was drawing the distinction between a sociopath and myself. A sociopath has no moral compass. I have a moral compass that I chose to ignore. Big difference.

    • josh

      Homer has a moral compass, or more to the point, he has empathy which a sociopath lacks. He’s just too impulsive to follow it correctly much of the time, or too stupid to realize how other people feel. (Of course, it depends a bit on who is writing him and what the needs of the joke are.)

    • Jennifer Guffin

      Rather than sociopathic, I’d say Homer has a narcissistic personality disorder.

  • kevinalexander

    Do we live in the age of sociopaths? It seems to me that we always have. How are these people any different than the most interesting characters in Grimm ‘s fairy tales?

  • imthegenieicandoanything

    Um, “Same as it ever was.”

  • kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    I would not describe Homer as sociopathic. More like spectacularly stupid and clueless.

    And those who think House is a sociopath don’t watch the show very attentively.

    House cares too much and it’s eating him alive. His mental health problems are a constant theme in the show.

    But Peter Griffin is sociopathic for instance.

  • John Morales
  • Stacy

    Yeah, complete fail calling Homer Simpson a sociopath. He’s actually a loving husband and father, albeit a spectacularly dim-witted and un-self-reflective one.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    I have not seen the Sopranos, but I have seen all of The Wire, seasons 1-5 of Dexter, and the first season of Mad Men, and I’m not convinced that “sociopathy,” even in the loose Hollywood sense, really explains the appeal of the characters that Kotsko mentions. Indeed, none of these characters really fits what Kotsko says when he writes,

    It is hard to believe, however, that the exploration of the dark side of the human psyche for its own sake is behind the appeal of these sociopathic characters. What, then, is going on in this trend? My hypothesis is that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?” And the answer they provide? “Then I would be powerful and free.”

    First of all, none of the characters that he mentions “did not give a fuck about anyone,” and while some may be powerful in certain ways, they are anything but “free.”

    Stringer Bell seems to be a particularly bad example because he is basically an antagonist. Even in gray moral world of The Wire, he’s still what would be considered a “bad guy.” It’s just that he’s not a one-dimensional bad guy. He doesn’t want to see himself as a thug or a gangster, but rather a businessman (who happens to deal in an illegal product). He’s willing to kill or be violent if he thinks he has to, but he finds violence to be a double-edged sword. He wants to have a sense of legitimacy. That makes him a sympathetic and complicated villain, but he’s still a villain, and the story of The Wire does not encourage the viewer to live vicariously through him, especially given how he ends up.

    Don Draper does give “a fuck” about his friends and family, and even the women with whom he has affairs. (BTW, no pun is intended here. I mean “fuck” strictly in the figurative sense that Kotsko uses.) His flaws do weigh on his conscience. His status as an imposter is a Sword of Damocles over his head as well. He is hardly “free.”

    Dexter is the closest character to a regular sociopath. However, he does “give a fuck” about his adoptive family, his girlfriend and later wife, and her kids. Also, a big part of the plot arcs of Dexter is that his serial killing activity does have its negative consequences. Sometimes his compulsion gets in the way of a police investigation that would catch his quarry before he does. He has to lie continually to keep from getting caught, and in one season where he does end up partnering with someone, that someone goes amok and kills innocents. Dexter is not “free,” and he is flawed in ways that are not entirely sympathetic.

    One thing I would agree on is that the shows that Kotsko mentions do present thought experiments as to what could happen if one indulged one’s darker impulses and wishes. It’s just that the results of these experiments tend to indicate why such indulgence is a really bad idea.

  • smrnda

    I think part of the reason might be that characters who are morally ‘pure’ can be rather dull to read or write about, mostly since their behavior is always going to end up being pretty predictable, and the viewer or reader is always going to know how they are *supposed* to feel about whatever is going on. The other thing is that if you have a character who is too good or too likable, if anything bad happens to them it’ll make the audience feel bad.

    If a protagonist is in any way morally questionable, you don’t necessarily feel good when they win but you don’t feel bad when something bad happens to them – the viewer watches without really identifying with the character, and it gives the writers some leverage in terms of what they can write which will be well-received by the viewers.

    In terms of capitalism, I recall a quote from Orwell where he says that the workers always end up being robbed, but that the robbery is committed by sleepwalkers. Sorry about not being able to source that. I’d just say that most members of the ruling class are ‘bad’ the way that most prison guards abuse their authority; it’s the path of least resistance in what they do.

  • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

    My thoughts? Whoever this author was, they *really* overuse the term “sociopath”. As mentioned above, Homer is simply an often-selfish, unreflective schlub. Nowhere close to a cold, calculating sociopath. And quite capable of moments of regret and trying to do the right thing in the end. Quite un-sociopathic, actually.

    Don Draper is another misdiagnosis. He’s somebody with a lot of secrets, charismatic and a master manipulator, and capable of being quite selfish when he wants to be. But *very* far from sociopathic.

    The Dexter character is definitely sociopathic, and deliberately written to be, though not a realistic sociopath. He’s played as a kind of “sociopath with a heart of gold” who uses his “powers” to fight greater evil. Like Jack Bauer, a characterization I really dislike, as it seems like a device to justify evil when applied to the “right” targets. No coincidence that these were George W. Bush era characters.

    • Stolen Dormouse

      I haven’t seen the Dexter television series, but read some of the novels. In the novels, [Spoiler Alert!] Dexter’s adoptive father, a police officer, recognizes the sociopathic traits in the child and works to channel them to “good.” Also, Dexter’s problems derive from a horrendous experience in his early life. But he wants to be normal, as difficult as that is for him.

  • Katkinkate

    Do you really mean sociopath, which I thought was basically antisocial to the extreme or psychopath, which I thought meant totally without empathy for others beyond how to use them for their own plans. I thought sociopaths had trouble participating in society in a healthy way, but did form emotional attachments to individuals. While the psychopaths were the cold-hearted ones that didn’t care for anyone but themselves, but usually knew enough about acting like everyone else to live effectively in society, often without drawing suspicious attention to themselves. Sociopaths end up in mental health care or as hermits/recluses and psychopaths as the heads of corporations and governments and the occasional serial killer.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ben100 benblanchard

      I believe you actually have that reversed….. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Psychopath_vs_Sociopath

    • http://www.facebook.com/ben100 benblanchard

      When I asked about it, my psychologist said that it can be thought of as a spectrum, where psychopaths are at one end with too much emotion/ too little control, and sociopaths at the other with too little emotion/ too much control….

  • http://justdfacsmaam.wordpress.com MarkNS

    The author rather cavalierly tosses the “sociopath” label about. The people on reality shows are psychopaths for playing by the rules of a game where lying is allowed? That’s nonsense. Several of the other examples, as pointed out by other commentators, are also clearly not sociopaths. Someone writing about the prevalence of sociopaths on TV should at least know what a sociopath is.

  • http://skepticalsquirrel.wordpress.com/ Anj

    The most obvious sociopath on TV recently is Sherlock Holmes in the BBC “Sherlock” series.

    But, I think that the term psychopath and sociopath are thrown about a lot these days, often interchangeably, to the point where it can seem more like people are obsessed with the concept of sociopaths or psychopaths.

    There are books coming out by the truckload about psychopaths and sociopaths, certain sections of the media (non-mainstream mostly) seem obsessed with it to the point where it can seem that there are psychopaths and sociopaths lurking under every bed.

    Maybe we are just very interested in people who have a different emotional makeup than ourselves, but the coverage in the media would indicate that psychopaths and sociopaths are everywhere, whereas in reality, the % of the population that are either is extremely small.

    So, in answer to the title question, no, I do not think we live in an age of sociopaths, I think we live in an age where we believe we are surrounded by them, and anyone who does anything against an individual is immediately labelled as either a psychopath or sociopath. “Someone took a dislike to me at work, they must be a psychopath”…”My ex is a psychopath” etc etc

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    I have no interest in reading what this guy has to say, because he failed to mention Mr. White from Breaking Bad in his list of sociopathic television protagonists. (I’m only half-joking… how can I trust someone’s opinion who doesn’t watch Breaking Bad?!?)

    • J. J. Ramsey

      That crossed my mind as well. Of course, Mr. White doesn’t exactly help Kotsko’s thesis either. Heck, he suffers from the web of lies that he makes even more than Dexter does.

  • Karen

    I agree with Anj, especially about Sherlock in the new BBC series. As Sherlock says in one episode “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath; do your research.”

    • Paul Durrant

      Sherlock (BBC TV Series) may have claimed to be a sociopath, but clearly is not. But I’d better not say any more for fear of spoilers.

  • Jesse

    Kotsko not only doesn’t relly understand the concepts of sociopathy and psychopathy (or what the terms mean, it seems) but he understands even less of literature or storytelling.

    Example: why were fans upset about the “Han Solo shot first” edit, and Lucas’ essentially trying to talk his way out of it? Because if Han Solo was always a good guy, never willing to use violence except in obvious self-defense, then the whole moral arc of the movie loses weight. It becomes essentially meaningless, and makes the character a lot less interesting (it also removes his ability to be a foil to Skywalker).

    Or: the character of Wolverine, of the X-Men, is easily one of the most popular characters that franchise produced. Back when he was conceived, he was morally ambiguous — quite willing to kill, and shown doing so. The fact that he was trying to do good is what made his inner conflict at all interesting, as it mirrored the same conflict that we all have.

    Homer Simpson, as many people have noted above, really wants to do the right thing — he just hasn’t got any capacity for self-reflection. That’s a huge goddamned emotional core of the Simpsons and it is the reason why it works at all (the contrast to Family Guy is interesting because Peter Griffin seems to have much less interest in doing the right thing at all).

    Both Jack Bauer and Dexter are very different examinations of character. Dexter is fighting with a compulsion and is trying to channel it to “do good.” Jack Bauer behaves reprehensibly but it is in the service of a greater good (at least in the context of 24). The latter is, I would argue, a much older conceit. Just read any fairy tales and you see “good” characters do things that are, on the whole, pretty awful. (The Grimm’s version of Cinderella in particular).

    This is why, by the way, it took a lot of doing to make Superman much of an interesting character, and it really wasn’t until comic books were seen as a more adult medium that it happened.

    (I could go on. But really, if this was a whole book then I missed my calling. And it demonstrates why I have less respect for literary critics as I get older. No wonder it was such an easy A in college).

    • Corey

      One of the most ignorant and misguided attempts at literary analysis i’ve ever seen. Your character analysis is entirely boorish and pig-headed, claiming that some personal idiosyncratic interpretation is “THE REASON” why a character works. I don’t know what school of literary criticism you’re operating from, the “half-baked-10th-grade-language-arts-intro-to-characterization-school” of literary criticism perhaps? A giant eclipsing the work of Greenblatt, Richards, Brooks, Bakhtin, and all others. You should apply for professorship at Harvard or Oxford. You’re an obvious shoe in.

    • Jesse

      @Corey — well, if a 10th grade language arts education can pick apart Kotsko’s thesis, so be it :-)

      Look, the issue is that he seems to conflate liking sociopaths or admiring them with putting them in stories– he seems to ignore completely, in fact, that Tony Soprano, to use one example suffers greatly from is choices. So the “proper” moral calculus is maintained.

      The other issue is that with his definition of sociopath I could easily come up with a 100 names of characters that fit his description, and were quite popular. The whole essay makes no real sense to me. I mean, read the Icelandic sagas, if you really want to go back — those guys were pretty sociopathic by our standards. Or fairy tales — Andersen’s in particular are pretty bleak, and some of Grimm’s are full of “good” people doing things like cutting off people’s heads, cheating them, stealing, deception, all that jazz. (There’s one about the haughty princess in particular which is like a long love letter to spousal abuse).

      And by the FSM, I wasn’t saying that my reading is the only possible one, just offering one reason (among many) why some things work(ed) as well as they do.

  • Corey

    I think the point is that mainstream society seems to hold a positive and admiring view of sociopathic behavior in our fictional characters and public personalities. A lot of people nowadays think sociopathy is a good approach to life (see Ayn Rand and her legions). But a lot of negative comments on here seem to overlook that point and instead focus on whether specific examples were “true” sociopaths or not. So, to sociopathic I would like to add “contentious” and “obtuse” which are traits common to the overly-self-concerned/barely-concerned-with-others personality.

  • http://www.reason-being.com reasonbeing

    Could it be as simple as people wanting their TV personalities to be sociopaths because it makes for good TV? The same idea that if we see a car wreck we have to slow down and rubberneck to “check it out”. We seem drawn to this type of thing. I do not think it implies that we have a little bit of “sociopath” within us. But rather, we find chaos, immorality, and other sociopathic behavior entertaining. Perhaps this is because it is a fantasy world–most of us do not live that way.

  • eric

    Yeah, IMO not so new. Go back 50 years, 100 years, longer, you find the same characters in stories. ‘Master manipulator who is outside social norms’ could be Verne’s Nemo (1870). Heck, it could be Homer’s Odysseus (800 BC).

    It almost sounds like Kotsko’s talking about antiheroes. They’ve been around a long, long time. Dexter (2006) isn’t Batman (1939), but he might scratch the same ‘oh to be a vigilante’ escapist itch.

    I haven’t read Kotsko’s book, so maybe someone who has can tell me why he thinks modern literature’s antiheroes are distinctly different from earlier antiheroes.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yeah, he seems to be new to the whole concept of antiheroes and mistakes them all for sociopaths.

  • http://kurtkeefner.com Kurt Keefner

    Sociopaths are common in the media, ranging from Tony Soprano to Hannibal Lecter to the Glen Close character in Damages to countless rapacious executives. They may not be more common than 200 years ago, but they are more liked than 40 or 50 years ago.

    Part of the reason for this is the mistrust of authority that started in the sixties. We no longer automatically trust doctors and politicians.

    Part of it is the rise of actual incidence of serial murder, which took off in the 1970s. Real sociopaths have become a larger part of life.

    But part of the reason is the way in which the media have encouraged a type I call the Pretender. The Pretender is a person who unselfconsciously pretends a sense of life. He acts cool or smart-ass or folksy, etc.

    Such a person lives in a bubble universe and because he sees the world as a way of reinforcing his put-on sense of life, real people don’t seem very real to him. As a result he has diminished empathy and tends to cheer when others get used, as long as it’s in a clever or funny way.

    Dr. House is a Pretender or, if he is not, many of his fans who enjoy his mean put-downs, are. Sociopaths and Pretenders are not the same thing. I think a lot of people who enjoy fictional sociopaths are Pretenders. It’s easy to become one when one is raised on modern TV.

    I have written about the Pretender in my forthcoming book, Killing Cool: Slaying the False Self and Finding True Awareness, to be published on Kindle in about three months.

  • sambarge

    I think the author is describing the Seinfeld legacy in television. We expect our tv characters to adhere to what was a revolutionary concept when Seinfeld first aired – no hugging, no growing, no learning. It was the first time we watched a group of narcissists be self-absorbed and kind of terrible and thought it was great.

    Now, when we have characters who learn and get better (ala Cosby Show) we think it’s quaint and family-appropriate viewing but not artistic, adult or interesting.

  • Jordan

    The author clearly doesn’t know what a psychopath is vs. sociopath so his article is pretty meaningless.

  • MTiffany

    I’m going to go with “Should have a dinner appointment with Hannibal Lecter as sanction for misuse of word.”

  • Felix
  • Laurent Weppe

    Cartoon shows have been fascinated by sociopathic fathers (with varying degrees of sanity) ever since the writers of The Simpsons realized that Homer was a better central character than Bart

    Homer is an over-emotional manchild who has during the run of the series fucked up the laws of physics God knows how many times to help/save his family/friends/neighbours.

    ***

    Showing that cartoon children are capable of radical evil as well, Eric Cartman of South Park has been spouting racial invective and hatching evil plots for well over a decade at this point

    Cartman is also an over-emotional kid who hides behind his schoolyard bully antics. I’m not a regular follower of the series, so I don’t know if it happened during an episode I missed or not, but every time I’ve seen him, I thought “One day he will just piss of someone stronger than him who’s not polite enough to let it slide and will get the crap beaten out of him in a way that will make him look more miserable than Kenny

    ***

    the invincible badass Jack Bauer who will stop at nothing in his sociopathic devotion to stopping terrorism in 24

    Bauer, is a walking ball of PTSD always on the verge of killing himself who only goes forward because the writters gave him a not only a plot-armor but a plot-wheelchair?

    ***

    There’s a big problem in taking this text seriously, since in his list of sociopathic fictional protagonists, the author uses very loosely the word (for instance, a sociopathic Homer would have killed Bart in cold blood before crying in public during his funerals, a sociopathic Bauer would have demanded countless promotions for his anti-terrorist activities and would eventually have joined one of the terrorist factions he fought against had his demands not be met): if anything, it seems here that “sociopath” is used to describe individuals who break social conventions or laws and show little remorse about it. The problem is that everyone will at some point in their life break social conventions and laws they feel are stupid and/or unjust, making such a definition of the “sociopath” useless.
    *
    The thing is, I do think there is a “lionization” of sociopaths in fictions: but for a simple reason: they make great villains, both despised and feared by the audience; and when used as protagonists or “good” secondary characters, they add a layer of ambiguity to the story.

  • outeast

    Since neither psychopathy nor sociopathy have consensus definitions, the many comments here deriding the writer for his supposed inability to distinguish the two are… misplaced.

    (Notice that The World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems’ (ICD-10) uses the diagnosis of Dissocial personality disorder for both ‘psychopathy (state)’ and ‘sociopathic personality disorder’; see http://apps.who.int/classifications/icd10/browse/2010/en#/F60.2).

  • felixscerri

    Who says we “love” sociopaths, why is the question considered “a given”.
    I find sociopaths in comedy extremely irritating, I just want to kill them, LITERALLY !
    Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory and Marie from Everybody Loves (spineless) Raymond particularly drive me to distraction.
    There is some extremely bad behaviour being perpetrated and accepted by a gullible audience as funny in these two supposed comedies, In reality they are tools that those in power use to manipulate and condition society so that we accept the sick behaviours of the ruling elite who have the same set of values.
    Raymond is such a spineless character, what woman would stay with such a gutless individual. And his mother Marie is just pure evil which they don’t even try to hide. We’re supposed to laugh at this crap ?

  • carcash

    I think it’s wrong to say that we live in age of sociopaths. There has always been sociopaths and psychopaths, but untill now they have been un noticed…actually history if full of these types. But i think todays capitalistic/corporate world favorites these kind of personalites. And what it comes ro these shows, i dont think enyone of these characters is a sociopath…maybe the closest is tony soprano, but even he shows some emotions occasionally.