The Born Versus the Made Sociopath
For the born sociopath proactive misconduct is a self-evident pleasure. For the made sociopath it’s learned behavior that may or may not be fully internalized. In a partnership or cohort the rush earns brownie points, turning self-critique into self-congratulations. For a great description of the difference — and its complementary nature — take a look at the recent TV series, “Better Call Saul.” Bob Odenkirk’s character, Jimmy/Saul, is a born sociopath. Not only does he relish both the opportunity and the risk of taking advantage of pretty much anybody, doing so stimulates his creativity. His schemes are a big part of the show’s entertainment. His partner, and eventually his wife, Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler possesses a moral core that she more and more needs to exercise in good part because of her partnership with Jimmy/Saul — which she fully and visibly enjoys. That they continually find excuses is a product of the gratification each receives precisely because the born sociopath gains constant moral justifications for his conduct, and the made sociopath gains excitement that she justifies by dispensing pro bono legal services to a handful of underserved parties.
Rhea Seehorn (l.) and Bob Odenkirk (r.) as Kim Wexler and Saul Goodman, still from “Better Call Saul.” Courtesy of Instagram/AMC/Netflix.
The article by Michael Shaw we recently ran in the VAS eNewsletter (“Not Such Good Work If You Can Get It”) focused on artist Tom Sachs and the way he operates his studio. From it Shaw built a case warning younger and poorer artists who are naturally drawn to work as studio assistants for elite artists to be careful what you wish for. An in-depth description of the “scary” environment created by Sachs and his wife in the Atlantic (Katy Schneider and Adriane Quinlan, “Curbed,” March 13, 2023) raised the obvious question: do elite artists who hire young peers engage in widespread abuse? This is not a simple matter of physical, sexual, or psychological harm that in some cases may do real and lasting damage. It may take far less than that to stifle young talent from blossoming.
The model and mentoring of a master artist may, perhaps often, provide knowledge and inspiration that an art school cannot. I recall, though I never hired out as a studio assistant, being more motivated as a university student by guest artists such as Peter Alexander and Paul Wonner than the faculty artists. The reason was direct and simple, and not a knock on the faculty: These artists were regularly and visibly exhibiting in galleries and museums. They were networked and friendly with other artists who also were doing so, and introductions to the likes of Ron Cooper, Lynda Benglis, Robert Irwin and others expanded my own dialogue to include artists whose work mattered widely. Perhaps I was fortunate, but it convinced me that if you cannot possibly matter while still a student, being treated seriously by artists such as these conveyed to me that I could — indeed, that I would do so with time.
What the story of Sachs and his sociopathic ilk convey is that they take advantage of the ambition that does and should drive young artists into their clutches for their own purposes. In return what do they offer those kids? That they are paid is not an answer but an evasion. To turn a rancid studio operation into an art-as-life aesthetic project turns the ethos at the heart of a self-declared Fluxus aesthetic on its head. The responsibility of artists as employers is not a license for mistreatment any more than employees working on a construction site are left to their own devices when they suffer an injury on the job. Worse is the likely lessons that some take away from their experience: that this is normal behavior that is best replicated if one is to be successful.
Then there is the example of a multi-billion dollar media company deliberately delivering misinformation to the public because their greater fear is lost ratings. The lies conveyed to the public are, within company culture, felt as virtuous because of the singular yardstick of continuing and growing the profitability due to those ratings. Not telling their viewers exactly what they wish to hear is what becomes judged as immoral — but the flip in that judgment must begin somewhere, typically at the top of the organization (or the top of one of its branches). The consumers of misinformation as at the least complicit. The more times the justification for the corruption is repeated, the more normalized it becomes. The more normalized it becomes the further and more easily lies may be stretched for the simple reach that they are digested and retained by the audience as unquestioned truth.
Theresa Chromati, “A Life to by Lived within this Deep
Breath (I am with You as We Take This Step forward),”
2023, patinated bronze, 84 x 58 1/2 x 42 1/2”.
Courtesy of Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.
Gradually the innocent mass of listeners become accomplices. At the sociopathic core the pressure produced by their propaganda propels it; at the point of origin the perpetrator, far from feeling any guilt or shame, feels genuinely victimized. As learned behavior this becomes performative and artificial. So widespread has this become within the NPP that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the born from the made sociopath, enabling a Big Lie to lead to a dark historical epoch.
Ana Villagomez, “Heart Sifter (Brain Sitter),” 2023, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 56 x 40”. Courtesy of Josh Mazda Hiram Butler, Houston
What for the vast majority are ethical lines that we will not cross even in the worst of times, sociopaths cross easily because they are unable to equate the suffering of others, particularly their victims, with the prospect of their own suffering. What they see in others is their own reflection, so it is not surprising when we hear them say “everyone does it, and you know it.” Such language is not an argument, it is an expressive feature. The born sociopath is better at effecting authenticity because, well, for them it is authentic.
The scale and rationale of this failure of character differ wildly, as the few cases cited here are meant to signify, but all share in some individuals’ willingness to do harm to others when it protects or advances their own self-interest. The born sociopath experiences this as virtue. Any harm done is the fault of others, indeed a product of the evil intent of others. The made sociopath is either oblivious to their role (like Kim Wexler, they can feel the satisfaction of their own good works and intentions), or at some point they are susceptible to some shock of moral recognition. This can produce a well deserved self-reckoning or, in some public cases such as Benito Mussolini and Muammar Gaddafi, violent public revenge. A well functioning judiciary (ours has been noticeably compromised in recent decades) is a public surrogate meant to protect us from ourselves, or from taking it upon ourselves to mete out justice. The 84-year-old Florida man who shot Ralph Earl, age 16 is one of many excellent examples of the made sociopath. The man was conditioned to believe that he was is perpetual imminent danger. But he was also conditioned to believe that the law would side with him for such an act of “self-defense.”
Last month I connected this defect to the adrenal system, in which a pleasurable rush is the payoff for getting away with misconduct. For most of us that rush is anything but pleasurable because it produces feelings of shame and guilt in conjunction with such an act. When it produces such negative feelings in the absence of misconduct, we see a problem on the other side of the bell shaped curve from that occupied by the sociopaths. But they share in common feelings of victimhood. Sociopaths tend to be proactive; they will take advantage of you before you can, to their way of seeing the world, take advantage of them. Those who suffer guilt and shame for which they are blameless suffer privately. They are harmless — except to themselves.
For decades following the end of WWII we were spared the worst effects of this dynamic. This began to change in 1986 when the media Fairness Doctrine was repealed by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). From 1949 until its repeal the FCC required licensed radio and television to present fair and balanced (sound familiar?) coverage of public issues (the news) and equal editorial time to candidates from both parties. That lay the groundwork for the freak election of Donald Trump 30 years later. Mr. Trump singularly revived the malevolent force of a born sociopath gaining the reins of power in a major country, this time right here in America where we long believed it could never happen. He is explicit about his role models for leadership: Kim Jun Un, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping.
For those who may fear the loss of decades of social progress in the bestowing of individual privacy and health rights, improved racial and gender equity in the eyes of the law, the building social and political guardrails, and much more, do not doubt that progress was and remains real. But the emboldening effect of this single born sociopath activated what for so long was dormant or, at most, marginal: the animal spirits of bigotry, misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism. Worse, a spoiling for violence. Our resistance and response to the challenge of this form of social disease will, perhaps already has, greatly reduced the historic cycle of pain and destruction as we learn to focus on the long term project of self-evolution and moral maturation. But new and unnecessary suffering has been unleashed; thus far it has not run out of control.
Tomasz Plotka, “Sociopath,” screen print on paper, 28 x 20”. Courtesy of the artist.