Friday, January 11, 2013

Sickness and Evil

I recently saw a TED talk about psychopaths and I came to think that a lot of normal people are wrongly identified as psychopaths. At the end of the talk the speaker says he refused the offer of lunch with a fellow who'd been released from an insane asylum after many years of perhaps wrongful incarceration. He posed it in "what would do?" kind of way.

The presumption in my mind when I heard the talk being that we should not shun a person with a mental illness. It's not contagious. But then I got to thinking, there are other reasons to decline a lunch invitation with someone.

I would not decline lunch with Elmore Leonard because I think he is a wonderful writer. I believe he has a real understanding of criminal motivation and it comes out in his writing. I've complained elsewhere about the bogus motivations of some villains. But truer words have seldom been spoken than,"In Elmore’s world, death stalks the land disguised as money.” I love the lines of dialog Mr. Leonard puts into his characters' mouths.

Elmore Leonard writes about criminals who have a crystal clear motivation: money. Criminals motivated by getting money are fun characters to read and write about because most of them are stupid enough to get caught, but they think they're smarter than they really are.

"No, dear, you just THINK you're Professor Moriarty."

I don't think we can ever write about a villain motivated by insanity. Let's suppose the fella thinks he's an emperor simply because some moistened bint lobbed a simitar at him. No crime in that. But let's suppose he proceeds to behead his girlfriend for treason when she deprecates watery tarts as a basis of government. His crime is motivated by preserving power, not by insanity. Insanity is a means, not a motive. Likewise, when a woman drowns a kitten because she thinks it's a demon, her motivation isn't insanity, it is purifying the world. This is a twist on the mistaken-identity, misunderstanding conflict between characters.

After money, Revenge is an effective motivator for both villains and heroes alike. When the Hebrew prophet said "an eye for an eye" he limited the damages that can be lawfully sought by an aggrieved parties to just an eye. He did this because it is common to amplify slights into major insults.

Revenge motivates the villain most villainously when it is disproportionate.

Suppose you lost you job as a school treasurer--an elected position. And suppose further that your home was in default and about to be foreclosed upon by the bank. And you hope to revenge yourself against the voters who insulted you by voting for the other guy and the bankers who want to take your house away. What to do? It's altogether reasonable for someone angered in this way to seek revenge and do so in the largest way possible.

This could be done, if you're evil enough, through a number of purchases of explosives over the course of months and the placement thereof in your home and the local public school--the site of your humiliation.

Nothing particularly crazy about seeking revenge is there?

In Bath, MI on May 16th of 1927, an evil man did did exactly that killing several dozens of innocent children and adults. The mind recoils at such evil. Rejecting it, we think he had to be sick. No, he was evil.

In the decades that have followed, other feckless losers have perpetrated similar crimes and the phrase, "If it bleeds, it leads," is part of the news cycle. So much so, that the Revenge motive is supplemented by the Notoriety motive.

This brings us to the legal, but evil acts of news outlets who profit from the pain of disasters like this. You can sell a lot of newspapers displaying the image of the feckless loser and endlessly asking "why?" Give us dirty laundry.

This is legal, but it is evil. Legal-but-evil acts are the Original Sin of the businessman. For this reason Hollywood can easily and believably paint the manufacturer, the employer, the producer as the villain.

Criminals motivated by getting money are stupid enough to get caught. The ones that are smart enough to NOT get caught find evil-but-legal means to enrich themselves by impoverishing the rest of us. They aren't criminals because they never get caught. We are all a little less safe whenever the media makes the feckless loser mass-murderer into a pop-star.

So let's return to the fellow who was incarcerated for several years as a supposed psychopath. When you consider the sane acts of this person, you realize the man is amoral. He regards other people as mere furnishings of his life. Maybe he's sane or maybe he's crazy, that's questionable. But there is no doubt the fellow is a little more evil--he has less regard for his fellow-man--than most others.

Thus, I would have no qualms about declining a lunch invitation, not because he's sick, but because he's evil.


  1. Steve Poling your article is interesting,well written as it brings out a good point. Especially for a trial where the murderer claims insanity. I see the person as evil.

    1. That's what troubles me about an insanity defense, the accused stipulates that s/he did the misdeed, and justice demands that someone pays for it.


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