Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Figuring Out Evil

I just started reading Barbara Oakley’s 2007 “Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend.” Trust me, this is a must-read.

Dr Oakley is a bio-engineer, and in her past lives served as an Army private (who rose through the ranks), a translator aboard Russian trawlers, a radio operator at the South Pole, author, and a mom. What got her started on her new voyage of discovery was coming to terms with her deceased sister, Carolyn, who really did steal her mom’s boyfriend.

Chances are there is someone like Carolyn in your own family, probably at least two or three. At other times in your life, you’ve had to contend with abusive bosses, backstabbing colleagues, clients from hell, and other forms of human unpleasantness. Call me a proctologist - I’m forever dealing with assholes.

Dr Oakley’s term is “successfully sinister.” These are your classic Machiavellians, out for themselves at the expense of anyone unfortunate enough to cross their field of vision. It turns out that “high-Machs” correspond very well to sociopathy, psychopathy, and borderline, though it is not as simple as that. We tend to associate a sociopath, for instance, as someone who resides in a maximum-security prison, but his or her more successful counterpart could be running a Fortune 500 company or heading up a university department or leading a government.

These are your master schemers and manipulators, socially charming, charismatic, and smart, not prone to making mistakes, indifferent to your needs, willing to squash you like a bug with no remorse.

But then we have the people who don’t grow up to be CEOs or professors or dictators. They simply make your life miserable. People like Carolyn, who break their mother’s hearts. 

The human condition is complex, and psychiatric/psychological labels and descriptors can only take us so far, as Dr Oakley makes abundantly clear. But we all know what it’s like to be abused and violated and taken advantage of, not to mention recoil in the presence of evil. But, what, precisely, are we contending with?

Ah, that is the question.

Much more to come ... 

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