Susan Orlean has written a beautiful, melancholy post about the challenges of dealing with her mother’s physical and mental decline — and having to deal with it from hundreds of miles away. She writes,

Sometimes I’m dazzled by how modern and fabulous we are, and how easy everything can be for us; that’s the gilded glow of technology, and I marvel at it all the time. And then my mom will call, and in the course of the conversation she’ll say something disjointed that disturbs me and reminds me of her frailty, and then she’ll mention that it’s snowing hard in Ohio and I’ll wonder how she’s going to get to the grocery store, and I look at my gadgets and gizmos, and I realize none of them will help me. If anything, they’ve filled me with the unreal idea that everything is possible; that virtual is actual; that you can delete things you don’t like; that you can find and have whatever it is you want whenever you want it; but instead I’m learning that the truest, immutable facts of life are a lot harder and slower and sometimes sadder, and always mystifying.

Please do read the whole little essay, which is touching and true.

The first commenter on the post responds in this way: “Susan, why does your note seem a notch too precious to me? We’re all amateurs, but we all muddle through. Perhaps it’s the Manhattan lifestyle, but most of us expect to have to do these things, take care of children and parents.”

Now, there are answers to this comment. One might note that it’s one thing to expect to deal with suffering, another thing altogether to be thrown into the midst of it. Theory and practice, you know. One might note that this comment could be equally directed towards someone who wrote a post about being diagnosed with cancer: “Perhaps it’s the Manhattan lifestyle, but most of us expect that we will suffer and die.” (So quit your whining.) One might also ask what “the Manhattan lifestyle” has to do with anything.

But nobody is likely to bother, because we all know that a person who writes something like this is one of two kinds of sociopath: the simple kind, who genuinely has no compassion for someone else’s pain, or the complex kind, who suppresses any compassion in order to try to hurt someone he doesn’t know, just for kicks. Obliviousness or intentional cruelty, those are the options. And in either case a critique is futile: the first kind of sociopath wouldn’t understand that there’s a problem, and the second would just smirk with satisfaction at having gotten a rise out of someone.

Yes, I know, I come back to this over and over again. But I think it matters. This kind of response is so common in online discourse that it forces, or should force, all of us to ask just what kind of people surround us, just how many of these sociopaths there are, and what variety they tend to be. And why they’re like that.

Just after I read the post by Orlean and (unfortunately) allowed my eyes to drift down to the comments, I read at Letters of Note the fifteen-year-old John Updike’s commendation of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Among other things, Updike wrote:

I admire the magnificent plotting of Annie’s adventures. They are just as adventure strips should be—fast moving, slightly macabre (witness Mr. Am), occasionally humorous, and above all, they show a great deal of the viciousness of human nature. I am very fond of the gossip-in-the-street scenes you frequently use. Contrary to comic-strip tradition, the people are not pleasantly benign, but gossiping, sadistic, and stupid, which is just as it really is.

That about sums it up.

Text Patterns

December 9, 2010


  1. I don't know any of the psychological language for this, but I think there is a kind of person who experiences pain, but believes that his or her pain will be lessoned if someone else feels pain. It is like hitting another person's thumb with a hammer and hoping that this will make your headache go away.

  2. "This kind of response is so common in online discourse that it forces, or should force, all of us to ask just what kind of people surround us, just how many of these sociopaths there are, and what variety they tend to be. And why they're like that."

    More importantly, it forces us to ask what kind of people we are and what variety of sociopath we tend to be.

  3. I read this yesterday and what first occurred to me was how much pornography (some? most? all?) depends on being inured to the fact that the persons being depicted are human beings for who both the fact they are having sex, and having it record/distribute is consequential.

    As that's rather inflamatory, I decided not to post, forgot about it, and then when I came back to ready today it popped in my head again.

    At present, and after years of pleasurable success, my Australian collaborator and I are struggling mightily with the limits of technology to fascinating our working together. At every turn we seem to be reminded of how poorly this internet thing conveys nuances essential to our being able to understand each other. (Technology is especially bad at transliterating silence.)

    Borrowing from Alan and J.Lanier both, I have a growing suspicion that this medium that allows us to find interesting people to interact with so easily also (subtly? not so subtly?) nudges us towards treating them like objects, because when we encounter people through this medium we really only encounter a stripped down, objectified version of the human being on the other side of the wires.

    For myself, I'm trying to use the telephone more, and meet people in person more. But as Alan pointed out in another post, opting out of this connected, wired world is hard, for a lot of different reasons, some understandable, and some entirely regrettable.

  4. This overlooks a third option, which is indicated by the Manhattan reference. It is that one can dehumanize another group based on certain characteristics; race or gender would be obvious examples, but in this case it's the culture of the "liberal elite." These people seemingly don't understand the everyday trials and suffering of "normal people" and so should be mocked for their softness and being disconnectedness from true reality. They actually might think they're doing some good. Though Orlean's is not one, I've certainly encountered some self-indulgent faux-depth that would merit a harsh response.

    In sum, jumping to the judgment of sociopathic seems pretty harsh, and in some ways similar to just the kind of lack of empathy that you're attempting to diagnose.

  5. The excerpt is kind of silly. You know, you can just order online and the grocery store will deliver to your door. Don't complain about technology not solving your problems when technology has already solved your problem.

  6. About ten percent of the population has a cluster B personality disorder. That's before the DSM started gutting personality disorders. They did this largely becauase they are untreatable, and, therefore, undermine a PhD's sense of total control. They nevertheless exist and define evil. These animals walk among us and comprise a fair number of us.

  7. Andrew sociopathy is a serious character disorder and the mere act of being thoughtless in a comment on a blog post doesnt seal the diagnosis. And you are not a psychiatrist or psychologist.

    Accusing this person of having no compassion is presumptious. It was unnecessary and thoughtless but someone who is truly having a hard time could certainly be forgiven for thinking someone is doing a lot of whining and getting positive attention for it, oblivious of the many many people who have a harder burden and suffer without a lot of "props".

    I wouldnt have commented on Orleans problems although I could tell her a few stories because so many people are just…young. You arent born knowing this stuff.

    As to babies, I had the same fear, but I kept reminding myself of all the idiots (sic) who seem to be raising relatively healthy safe children all over the place, which in my case, includes WalMart, Target, the local recreation center, and the roller rink, not the exclusive private schools, clubs, and playgroups of the larger cities.

    Perhaps some time in a support group in Queens (snark intended) would be helpful for Orleans and others with life difficulties.

  8. PS I mentioned to a shrink that 1/25 people were sociopaths and he said, no it's only 4% (he he) I did not correct him – what does that make me? And of course online manners are so touchy as someone mentioned.

    Also Character disorders, or Axis II disorders are not untreatable. The difficulty is that the person with the disorder does not recognize he has a problem, removing the vital component of patient cooperation. However there is some work being done in Seattle with Borderline PD with some success preliminarily. Some people with PDs do become aware that it isnt working for them.

  9. I don't think it's so much a question of people BEING sociopaths as it is the internet ENABLING consequence-free action. Like it or not, a large chunk of everyone's morality is based around rewards and punishment (not all of our morality, but it's a factor, as in Kohlberg's moral stages). Also keep in mind that social practices heavily constrain and influence our possible actions in the physical world but aren't as well established in the digital one. We're just going to act more diversely if we have fewer default actions.

  10. I don't think there was anything sociopathic about the comment. I think it was misguided, in that the poster failed to consider the matter fully and hence arrived at the wrong conclusion. but if that makes someone a sociopath, then we are all sociopaths, in our own way, given that we are all liable to draw mistaken conclusions about the moral gravity of situations from time to time.

  11. my own experience realizing the huge number of sociopaths (evil people) in the world involved a spat of litigation with my neighbor. a friend who knew of my situation suggested a book he had heard reviewed on the radio called _the_sociopath_next_door_ by martha stout. this rather quick, easy read vividly illuminated my neighbor's behavior in a welcome light and guided us to a resolution that is far better than if i had continued to 'call them out on their s**t' if anyone out there is scratching their head at the application of the term 'sociopath' i would steer them to dr. stout's fine book.

  12. Nothing will prepare you for the time when your parent becomes child-like. No level of "expectation" will shield you from the raw pain of it. Your role as a parent to your own children doesn't even prepare you. Unlike an aging parent with Alzheimer's or dementia, babies and toddlers learn, they remember, their brains grow.

    The commenter sounds so very smug. Smug perhaps like I was in the belief that my own mother, with her zest for life and sparkling intellect would always be so. And sure, we muddle through – I guess some of us like to think we muddle through with some compassion in our hearts. To be critical when someone reveals their fears and heartache seems especially hurtful and callous.

    Good for you for calling the behaviour out.

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