This is a response to Cat Faber’s song “Sociopaths,” on her new album The King’s Lute. I recommend the album, especially the title song, the very funny “All Your Songs Are Belong to Us” with Mary Crowell’s unmistakable touch on the piano, the 3-against-2 counterpoint of “Common Ground,” and the calm affirmation of “Atheist’s Anthem.”
It’s not that I dislike “Sociopaths,” but it’s an excellent springboard for discussion, and I hope there will be some. The song (which can be found in full in the PDF lead sheet songbook) begins:
Emotions are catching, I’m sad when you cry,
You’re cheered by the joy in a sparkling eye.
Sympathy sways us like music so clear,
That four in a hundred can’t hear.
So they no more can share in your pain or your glee
Than a deaf child can hear or a blind child can see.
Human their seeming, their speaking, their stride,
But they’re not really human inside.
The song goes on to compare such people to the Fae, the version of the “fair folk” who live by their glamour and have no sympathy for humans. There are certainly people who by the makeup of their brains are much less empathetic than most of us, perhaps not at all. But such people are nonetheless human and can’t be exempted from moral responsibility.
Conversely, destructive behavior isn’t proof of that condition any more than illiteracy is proof of a reading disorder. The last lines give these three signs of a sociopath: “Duty neglected, however it cries — Promises broken, and lies.” These, though, usually are just the signs of someone who’s trying to live by getting away with deception. It’s a learned approach to life, born of a desire for the unearned, emulation of bad examples, or refusal to acknowledge the consequences of one’s actions.
Few people are born as inhuman monsters. Many learn to ignore the reality of what they’re doing. Many populations in history, not just the “four in a hundred,” have learned to accept huge evils without blinking. Even if Hitler was a sociopath, he would have been just another beer hall bully without the support of millions of “normal” people. The contagious of emotions also applies to hostile ones, and if people follow them without thinking, they can become a destroying mob. When evil becomes socially acceptable, it may be the person who is less swayed by others’ emotions who recognizes what’s wrong.
The positive side of this is that people can make others better by the examples they set; doing good is also contagious. Every example of integrity and honesty can encourage the people who see it to do the same. When a bit of nonsense is repeated over and over, one person saying “no” to it can have an impact. If you assume that the people who do bad things are inherently not human, then there’s no redeeming them, but people always have a choice, even if it’s harder for some than for others to recognize what they’re doing.