My brother-in-law, Leonard Wolf, is a gentle and caring man by nature, a Chaucer scholar by training-and also an expert in the terror and horror genres in film and literature. Those interests brought him, some years ago, to consider writing a book about a real-life serial killer.
The man had murdered ten people, including three of his own family members, before being caught. The murders were horrifyingly intimate: he strangled his victims.
Leonard visited the murderer in prison several times. Finally, he worked up the courage to ask the one question that most intrigued him: “How could you do such a terrible thing to people? Didn’t you feel any pity for them?”
To which the killer replied very matter-of-factly,”Oh, no- I had to turn that part that part of me off. If I had felt any of their distress, I couldn’t have done it.”
Empathy is the prime inhibitor of human cruelty: withholding our natural inclination to feel with another allows us to treat the other as an It.
That strangler’s chilling phrase- “I had to turn that part of me off”- alludes to the human capacity for intentionally capping off our empathy, for turning a cold eye and ear to another’s plight. Suppressing our natural inclination to feel with another unleashes cruelty.
When being turned out of caring is a person’s defining trait, they typically belong to one of the types that psychologists dub-“the Dark Triad”: narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths. All three types share to varying degrees an unappealing, though sometimes well-concealed, core: social malevolence and duplicity, self-centeredness and aggression, and emotional coldness.
We would do well to familiarize ourselves with the hallmarks of this threesome, if only to better recognize them. Modern society, glorifying me-first motives and worshiping celebrity demigods of greed unleashed and vanity idealized, may be inadvertently inviting these types to flourish.
Most people who fall into the Dark Triad do not qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis, though at their extremes they shade into mental illness or become outlaws- particularly psychopaths. But the far more common “subclinical” variety live among us, populating offices, schools, bars, and the routine byways of daily life.