“Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.”
- Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887)
There is nothing more elementary in the development of the human mind than that of perception. I don’t necessarily want to teach a Psychology 101 class here, but there are some basic principles that are absolutely essential to forming an educated opinion on the matters of the day. An infant is born into this world with no preconceived notions about its perspective. It is simply deposited into a world of disassociated shapes, colors, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations. Over the course of a child’s young life, it slowly but surely brings these disparate elements together into a sense of cohesion that psychologists refer to as the Gestalt. Gestalt is a German word meaning the whole of the form.
Children do this by learning to group sensations into meaningful associations through their similarity, proximity, continuity and, ultimately, closure. As they age, they begin to see that far away objects do not grow in size as one approaches them, but rather that it is their own perspective that changes. The growth of this understanding of perspective continues throughout their development as they begin to differentiate themselves from their surroundings, eventually leading to the ability to identify other human beings as separate entities with their own distinct sets of emotions, intentions and desires. We call this ability empathy, and it is one of the leading developmental stumbling blocks for autism, schizophrenia and various other abnormal psychologies we study today.
You see, the perception of those who cannot develop empathy is limited within the individual’s own sphere of sensation. There is no extrapolation. No wearing of someone else’s shoes. No link between the knife that hurts you with the knife that hurts them. As far as the abnormal psyche is concerned, the behavior of others is completely irrational and not based on anything other than the whim of a frightening and confusing universe. In effect, other people are not real, only internal perception is; a perception that is inherently flawed.
There is a form of abnormal psychology that is difficult for the average observer to see as such, however. The psychopath may lack an empathic ability, but they are keenly aware of the laws of the universe around them. They learn to mimic the emotions and actions of their tribe in order to blend in and avoid the learned social consequences of deviant behavior. They do not choose to avoid causing harm to others out of an empathic sense of good will, but rather as an avoidance of punishment. This results in a frightening individual with a complete lack of concern for the welfare of those around him or her capable of hiding in plain sight. As soon as the eye of society turns its back, they are free to behave in whatever manner they choose.
There is, like most things, an ongoing debate in the psychological community whether this is due mainly to genetic disposition or in the developmental guidance of the child. As with most nature versus nurture debates, it is likely a blurred combination of the two. There is little doubt, however, that the basis for all perspective development begins in infancy. Psychologist John Bowlby hypothesized his Maternal Deprivation Theory in 1951, and it has largely been held as gospel by the psychological community since. In the theory, Bowlby postulated that if a child was deprived of its basic needs of attachment to a primary caregiver, or mother in the traditional sense of the term, in its early life, the child would be at far greater risk for delinquency, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, depression, and affectionless psychopathy later in life. Experiment after experiment has held Bowlby’s theory to be accurate. Combined with the work of the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock in the 1940s, the basis for much of today’s early childhood raising techniques have aimed at maximizing the growth of healthy attachment in infants to lay a foundation of stability for the rest of their lives.
It is interesting to note here that the while the classic proletariat mass of peasants throughout history have reared their own children, there are two sets of peoples who have traditionally not done so. The upper echelon has a long history of distancing themselves from their children, pushing the unwanted crying and smelling ball of needs onto wet nurses and nannies trained to take care of the barest of essentials in order to raise a child that is best seen, not heard. In turn, the slave population of a society, while truly desiring to care for their own infants, have seen them systematically torn from their breast and shifted around as one would with a commodity of corn or cotton.
We like to look at these types of behavior and say they happened so long ago, they are no longer relevant. Yet, in the grand history of humanity, slavery in this country was ended a very short time ago, and true equality has still not been achieved. Poverty is still thrusting this population into similar patterns of maternal deprivation. Meanwhile, I dare you to show me evidence that George W. Bush, his siblings or his many privileged peers were raised in a manner of which Dr. Spock and Dr. Bowlby would approve. When you stop to think about it, this leaves us with a group of aggressive, psychopathically-prone individuals at the top, and the sad produce of an institutionalized psychosis at the very bottom.
Our perception, however, is that everyone is similar in nature to ourselves. That is what empathy has taught us, and for our direct friends, family, co-workers and most everyone you pass on the street, that holds true. We, for the most part, do not inflict harm upon others. We abhor such behavior. But, this is not what flourishes at the very top and bottom of the bell curve. Along with extreme wealth and extreme poverty comes a tendency for extreme violence. Now, I am not accusing every individual of a certain social strata of psychopathy. I am speaking in generalities, and I am asking you to expand your own empathic understanding of others to include those who were not raised in conditions similar to your own. As Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, the Beatles and every other philosopher and religious leader worth their salt have told us, it is through love and love alone that we shall achieve peace. So love these damaged individuals for who they are, not for what they have done. For if you fear them, you become them. Love them and you will help change this world for the better.