Does it seem like we’re on some kind of horrific roller coaster with horrible crimes and murders on constant display, and that our car on the ride is not entirely safe because the criminals are real and to some extent among us, even perhaps in our coaster car? I’m calling that roller coaster the “Slay Ride”.
Why do people do such things?
We hear talk about 25 being an age of brain maturity, and an increasing number of studies, both psychological and physiological, tell use that sometime around age 25 elements of our physical brain that impact our response to risk, our ability to empathize, our ability to feel remorse, and other traits critical to our behavior are fully formed. This tells us that our opportunity to shape both physicality and psychology which reacts to that physicality is bounded.
That is, someone over 25 does not make better decisions unless their environment and educations have provided proper feedback and teaching so that those decisions are “good”; basic capabilities in the brain structure are impacted by development limiting the ability to perceive and experience empathy and remorse.
As a society, we seem to believe that raising age limits solves problems. I grew up with the younger age limits, and I disagree strongly because the best learning that a young person can have is to learn about things with a responsible adult. Abdicating such learning to college campuses (or the street) is in and of itself irresponsible. Yet, by illegalizing possession or use of “adult” level items, we prohibit the presence and stewardship of adults teaching and monitoring children as they learn – this is especially true with drinking.
Clearly, some steps must be taken and now. If that requires increasing age limits for gun purchases, or limiting the firepower available to the public, then so be it. We have hard problems to fix, and some reasonable albeit not perfect steps are required. That said, for the determined psychopath or sociopath, I am doubtful that much of a dent will be made, but it’s worth a try because the impact is horrific.
As our society has evolved, adults tend to spend a lot of time at work to pay the bills and then want adult play time to relax. At the same time, the advance of technology has provided things to keep children interested and engaged, such as video games, cell phones, social media, and so forth. Also, society has become (overly) concerned about children being on their own in a park or a bike ride a few miles from home limiting real word experience of the child to closely controlled environments, or to secretive activities – I know, we’ve all done that sometime in our childhood, learning what you can get away with is a part of growing up!
While the benefits of internet-enabled technologies are enormous in enabling diverse relationships and exposing us all to wide ranging view points and ideas, the generally anonymous nature of the internet and social media make it a challenge to critical thought because one must remember that people say and show what they want you to see, not necessarily what is true or is in any way representative of who they are or how they live.
During the development of the physical ability to empathize, to feel remorse, to understand risk taking, and so forth, it may be unhealthy to expose children to a quagmire of false, misleading, incendiary, and otherwise silly information punctuated with some honesty here and there. Then again, the real world tends to be like that too, lots of scams, lots of ads that are misleading if the fine print is not read, so I think we can agree that sorting this out is a critical skill for development. It will be encountered and again we cannot abdicate the responsibility for education to the streets or some ethereal instinct.
Further, in an apparent attempt to reduce trauma, we have created a swath of awards and rewards for average behavior to soften the sting of losing a game or coming in third and so forth. The rise in narcissism, a key component of psychopathy and sociopathy, is in some measure the perpetuation of early childhood where the young child simply understands their needs and wants and cannot yet process the need for patience, work, and so forth. Historically, successful societies have depended on a high level of selflessness in the citizenry, so when we wax selfish, we decline.
One of the many things that has stuck with me from I Claudius is a story about a fire in the imperial palace of Rome while Augustus was Emperor and Livia Drucilla was his wife. The young stammering, lame footed Claudius (who would succeed the assassinated Caligula) was told by Livia “If you haven’t got a bucket, pee on it. DO SOMETHING!”
Our society tends to react this same way, but while urine may douse a small fire, our methods tend to be less well thought out and sometimes add to the flames. Indeed, I recall an incident when upgrading a facility and monitoring folks cutting stainless steel pipes out with a plasma cutter. All combustibles were to have been removed, but there was a lingering round trash can perhaps two feet high and in diameter tapered to a smaller bottom. As luck would have it, some slag fell in the trash can and it burst into flame. Afraid of a safety violation, the worker tried to stomp the fire out and got his foot caught in the can causing his pants to catch on fire. Unafraid of the safety violation and concerned for Spencer’s wellbeing I popped the tab on a fire extinguisher and put the fire out. Nothing but his pride and jeans were harmed, and site safety agreed we’d done the right thing, once they wiped the tears of laughter from their eyes that is.
Sometimes, there are right things to do that entail risk, but the right thing must be done nonetheless. That’s Socrates’ entire point in Plato’s work Crito, even though it means that Socrates must not escape and must die as sentenced.
Our society is reactionary, tending to look for Glenda the good witch of the North with some simple solution like peeing on a fire. We also tend to hide behind maxims like “you can’t teach morality” – at least not in public education. But without preference to religion, we can certainly teach elements of the law and that breaking the law is “bad”. This will of course create questions and dichotomies a plenty as what is “bad” is often done by adults in children’s lives, speeding for instance, and consumption of illicit substances, to some extent. We have to face up to these things and deal with the mind formation of the young into empathetic, self-selfless balanced, critical thinkers.
Each of these United States mandates education of the young to some level through state law. Since the state law requires education, each of the several states and their citizens must pay for that education. The general philosophy behind education is to equip children with the ability to seek out and learn more as well as the basic knowledge and skills needed to contribute to society – literacy, some level of mathematics, geography, and many other topics. This is necessary for a healthy representative democracy at least inasmuch as people need to be able to inform themselves when voting.
While we may say “it takes a village to raise a child” we must admit that the village educates the child, like it or not – formal education is but a small part of what forms the human mind. A child raised in a poor high crime area gets an education quite different from one raised in a wealthy low crime area even if they attend the same classes at the same school in formal education. Which is better? I don’t think we know because the narcissism and lack of empathy that may develop in a low crime “privileged” area may be countered by self-survival narcissism and extreme trauma in the high crime area. Without educational balance, neither is ideal.
I suggest that there should be mandatory curricula for students that emphasize certain elements of success in society.
Law, Penalties, and Rights
I didn’t formally study law other than the constitution until I was in college and then it was a single course. Watching the many true crime shows leads me to believe that people are not educated in major areas of what is and is not a crime, what their rights are – especially their right to end interrogations by asking for a lawyer to be present and / or invoking the 5th amendment, and how they must behave when police approach with flashing lights or otherwise – what they must do when detained or arrested, what they must not do, and what they may do. A full understanding of what it means to consent to a search of a car or home should be taught.
Many people may not understand that evading police (running) is escalated to a felony in most states. They may also not understand that a criminal is held, in most states, culpable for any death resulting from a crime even if that death is one of their partners in crime or if they were simply in the car waiting to drive them away.
This teaching could be accomplished by a few hours watching real-life police shows along with appropriate commentary from an educator. Likewise, rights could be explained better by watching some interrogations using the Reid technique and the educator noting that the party being interrogated did not have to answer the questions, that the police lie during interrogations as a technique, and that the notion that the police make deals is wrongheaded – the district attorney can make deals. The discretion police have when deciding whom to arrest should also be emphasized because being cooperative and honest can make the difference between no charge and a felony.
America is the most giving nation on earth. Where donations are concerned, we are a very empathetic people, and that kind of empathy is broadly seen and experienced by anyone not living under a rock in this country.
Where we lack empathy, and where humans have historically lacked empathy, is the understanding of our actions on other people. Those actions can be personal or corporate as in unjust laws, and the impact can be stunning.
Consider a family living in a nice neighborhood that develops a fence problem which violates city code and is unsafe. As a good neighbor, you report that problem. The city demands that it be corrected and issues a fine. The neighbor does neither and a warrant is issued resulting in a week-long stay in jail with the problem still unresolved. This results in the loss of the neighbor’s job, insurance coverage and other benefits. Their car is repossessed, they lose their home and become homeless.
The good neighbor did not know that the family was living paycheck to paycheck and was having trouble with medical bills due to a child’s illness. Lots of people are living paycheck to paycheck, so there is every reason to have taken this into account, but we do not because we prefer to be anonymous and detached from our neighbors.
As a result of the foreclosure, the house becomes dilapidated and is a haunt for drug users and the drug trade. You now live next door to a crack house. This is not an overblown fantasy; such an event – a foreclosed house becoming a crack house requiring the SWAT team – happened in the neighborhood adjoining my own about five years ago.
Most likely, one or two neighbors could have helped fix the fence, you see. If they had empathy and compassion for their neighbor, and if they new their neighbor.
Some case studies including this type of thing, the impact of the loss of a family member – temporary and in the case of murder, those sorts of dark corners of our actions should be taught. While this may not develop true empathy, it can certainly provide a wider context for people to connect the dots when making decisions.
When we are born, all we can do is take (and, most likely, scream). As we learn and mature, most humans gradually become able to provide for themselves and perhaps others with the variation of standards of living being very wide in order to claim that people can “provide” for themselves. While a high level of self-sufficiency – home ownership for instance – is a part of the American Dream, our society is a complex web of demand, production, consumption, and service. In normal society, no one can provide what is sufficient to maintain a standard of living without help from others.
The term Narcissism and associated description Narcissist are bandied around so broadly that some level of context is required for us to make progress in our discussion, and, frankly, that’s hard to do. For convenience and clarity, we’ll call narcissism self-love going forward albeit that, too, is s foggy term.
Self-love is a required part of being alive. We must care for ourselves in some measure to survive, and this is instinctive at some level. As we mature, we learn to balance our self-love with the needs of others to achieve a reasonable accommodation so that we can both love ourselves and others.
Excessive self-love breaks the scales by one individual strongly believing that they are beyond reproach, are above the rules of society, and are worthy of all good things at the cost of other people. Such people also self-define “good” and no-one is worthy of being an impediment to them getting what they want. It is little wonder that such people feel little or no remorse because they believe in their heart of hearts that they were completely justified in whatever they did because other people are unimportant and unworthy of existence if they are in the way of the self-lover and what s/he wants.
It is here that we encounter the reason people say that morality cannot be taught. How can you teach a person that other people are, at times, more important than they themselves are? It is clear that people gain more than an opinion of where they fit but also have some brain formation tied to the environments to which they are exposed, trauma and how it is resolved, and all sorts of things that mean that this most private of inner beliefs drives a lot of behaviors, but what steps does one take to teach a proper balance, what is a proper balance, and who makes that decision?
I’m afraid the answer is that we just don’t know. It seems clear that overmuch indulgence, where the child can do no wrong and the parents “fix” everything can create a bad person. That is, spare the rod: spoil the child is in some measure true, however, overmuch punishment (and I’m presuming that it’s short of abuse) and restraint on freedom can produce self-loathing or if self-love survives, deep hatred for others.
This concern fills books, sermons, philosophies, and plenty of psychiatrist’s couch discussions. It is also clear that our society is struggling with the basic concept, the conflict between being who you truly are and somehow fitting into the square hole society has crafted for every round human.
At least in part, the key that unlocks this gate is empathy. If one’s actions and decisions truly do not harm others, then one should be who one is and do what one sees fit – which may or may not turn out well. But when our actions create harm either physical or emotional including of course manipulating people into doing things they ought not have done or never would have done except for our fooling them into thinking it was somehow good or normal, we are crossing a moral and ethical divide.
Our problem is that the divide is neither static nor easily codified; it is situational and depends on the level of responsibility a person has undertaken which is often related to the maturity of the person but there are a lot of cases where ten year old children bear responsibilities that most of us wouldn’t dare undertake.
It seems the best we can do is teach children that this is a problem that we face in life, and one best addressed by discussion with someone though to be wise when there is doubt.
If current research is correct, the ability to remediate certain anti-social personality disorders such as psychopathy and sociopathy is very limited, yet the symptoms of these problems while in development are broadly seen in normal childhood. While the number of people with such afflictions is large, the number that become violent or destructive is much smaller, we think owing to certain additional trauma or triggers. We think but we don’t know.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this pudding takes 18-25 years to cook, and we are constantly starting new batches. If the recipe is off, we need to take heed of trends and try to rework our response and methods to have better tasting pudding.
We should be asking in the now what, if anything, has changed dramatically in the past 25 years that influences childhood experience. The answers are disconcerting: the internet, social media, cell phones (and portable social media) and younger children having private access to phones, video games, parents being more absorbed by work to get by, police tactics, these and more things prove both assets and dangers in helping a young person form their minds and achieve requisite critical thinking skills to sort out our complex world satisfactorily.
Also, during the past 25 years we have seen the nearly complete evaporation of trust in our society. Longstanding institutions, religious and secular, have failed to deal with child sexual abuse by their members, staffs and leaders. Long term sexual abuse of adults including rape and sexual manipulation to get jobs or promotions has come to light along with promises of retribution and black-balling if non-compliant. Police are militarized and lack of compliance to their orders can result in death yet people pose a greater threat to the police force than ever before and do not take simple steps to prevent escalation and to de-escalate – de-escalation is everyone-s responsibility, not just the officers involved.
The first step to healing and dealing with all of these potential causes of harm is to establish multilateral trust. That means, provided our self-love is not too high, that you and I have a responsibility to other people to do what we can to restore trust and be ambassadors of reason and love. That all starts with “what can I do to help?” and repeated offers until some are taken. I know, this is hard, and I have little success, but we must try, mustn’t we?