Budding Psychopaths or Immature Characters?

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The recent merciless bullying of bus monitor, Karen Klein, in Greece, New York, raises many questions, such as: How is empathy acquired? Is it teachable? Could we do a better job of cultivating empathy and social consciousness, especially in our young people?

Perhaps by now many of you have seen the disturbing video of some 7th grade students from a Greece, New York middle school mercilessly taunting and bullying a school bus safety monitor. One of the students who passively watched the assault unfold captured it on his cell phone camera, and posted the video of it on Facebook to share with friends. From there, the video went viral on YouTube. I deliberately didn’t want to rush out an article referencing this incident when the shocking details were just emerging and there was so much fresh outrage among those who had viewed the event. Rather, I thought that the many important issues the incident raised deserved more thoughtful contemplation. And now that the media frenzy has died down a bit, I feel compelled to comment.

Several times now, I have seen the video of the students harassing Karen Klein, and there are many unsettling things in it. The mere fact that 12-year-old children can be heard so indifferently and frequently dropping the F-bomb and B-word is disturbing enough. Hearing some suggesting rape, stabbing and cutting with a knife, and other vile acts is even more disturbing. The display of almost total disregard for and indifference to authority is also chilling. But by far the most disturbing thing for me was the apparent lack of pause given when Ms Klein, the victim of the assault, who did her best to maintain a calm demeanor, became quite visibly emotionally hurt, and was reduced to tears. Not only was there no pause in the assault when the victim was so clearly wounded, but the taunters seemed to relish their victim’s pain, sadistically piling on more abuse the more vulnerability she displayed. That callous indifference to the injury they had caused, and the glaring lack of empathy that necessarily underlies actions of that sort, sent shivers up my spine.

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Researchers have been telling us recently that the callous abuse of others, that is rooted in empathy deficits, is the hallmark feature of psychopathy. And there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether such a deficiency is primarily biologically-rooted. That’s because several studies have shown different types of brain activity in psychopaths, mainly in regions of the brain that are known to integrate experience with emotion. So, do the results of such research necessarily mean that psychopaths are simply born the way they are? Many already think so, despite a lack of solid evidence for that notion. And does the disturbing YouTube video of the assault on Ms Klein simply depict a bunch of budding psychopaths? Or could it be that the cultural illnesses and failures responsible for the prevalence of all forms of character disturbance are also the reason that empathy, a most essential aspect of character development, is often inadequately instilled in people, including our children? Every parent knows that children can be cruel. In my experience, they have to learn how to care. But recently there’s been a big debate in the professional community about just how ‘teachable’ real empathy is.

Although it doesn’t seem right or fair on some levels, I have had the good fortune to be more keenly observant, level-headed, informed, and ultimately more intimately engaged with my grandchildren than I was with my own children in working days. And I’ve been learning some very interesting things as a result. When my grandson was 3 years old, my son used to playfully suggest that he was a sociopath in the making because there were times he would push his little sister down, make her cry, and then simply grin about what he had done. But I have also watched in amazement as this little boy has grown, with ample coaching, direction, and very careful, intimate guidance — not just from his father and mother but from all the loving members of his family — to the point where he now hurts himself whenever he witnesses his sister hurt, and he truly regrets it when he inadvertently or accidentally causes her injury. As with most things, he simply knows how to behave more appropriately. But did he learn to be empathetic, or was it just fortunate that he had the innate capacity for empathy that could be nurtured and developed through careful rearing?

In my book Character Disturbance, I assert that character development in children is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week, lifelong process. And, as I have written about in a prior article, “socialization is a process” (see “Disturbances of Character, Part 2: Socialization is a Process”). Research is suggesting that for some individuals, biologically-based differences do indeed seem to impede progress in that process. But I have met only a few individuals in my lifetime who appeared so biologically disadvantaged that they simply couldn’t learn to do better. The brain is an amazingly plastic organ, especially in the formative years. But the ills of our time are sending us the message quite clearly that we must simply do a much better job of developing the character of our children. Sure, you can make the case that such efforts like Character Education programs in school are not the way to do this (see “Character Education: Learning to Be a Better Person”). But at least we’ve begun to acknowledge the root of many of our problems, and have finally started addressing what has become the defining issue of our time. So many of the social ills we suffer from, whether they be the shenanigans that caused chaos in world financial markets, to the depraved cultural environments that produce children who kill, can be traced to the character crisis that has beset us. And the kind of heartless indifference that can lead a seemingly normal young man to simply slay his pregnant wife and dump her body in the sea just to avoid exposing the lie he’d been perpetrating on his latest girlfriend (as in the Scott Peterson case) is a direct outgrowth of our age of rampant entitlement and callous disregard for others.

Psychopaths might be the most empathy-deficient persons among us, and their brain wiring might hinder them from becoming any different, but there is no shortage of heartlessness among the many other impaired characters out there. Ms Klein herself described the school children’s behavior as particularly cruel, but “not unusual.” So, while in some cases the challenge might be greater, we simply have to do a better job of cultivating a sense of social conscientiousness and moral obligation, especially in our younger persons. And they definitely must learn how to build themselves up (i.e. develop a legitimate and healthy sense of self-worth) in other ways than simply tearing someone else down. That tactic is just one of the many quick and easy, as well as thoughtless, ways to get something of value — a tactic and tendency that is one of the hallmark features of the disturbed character.

An outpouring of support for Ms Klein came from many empathic souls who donated enough money for her to take a lengthy vacation and then retire. Obviously, empathy, compassion, and social concern is still alive. But the many wounds inflicted daily by disturbed characters can’t be effectively healed merely by trying to compensate their victims. Our society’s most crippling illness is one that only thoughtful attendance, guidance, and cultural self-examination and realignment can cure.

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