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What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, movies, psychology, television, Villains Journey

Gender, Psychopaths, And The (Revealing) Differences

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Psychopaths are akin to the nastiest side-effects of the human condition. They are, by their nature, an extreme manifestation of certain traits that often run counter to humanity’s best strengths. A big part of our success, as a species, is our ability to coordinate, cooperate, and empathize with one another in ways that balance selflessness with survival. Psychopaths completely throw off this balance.

Between popular misconceptions and a glut of TV shows and movies that glorify psychopaths, most people don’t know the specifics of these twisted minds. In a medical context, psychopathy isn’t considered a mental illness like schizophrenia or OCD. It’s a personality disorder in which individuals exhibit a set of common traits such as:

Having little to no empathy, conscious, or capacity for guilt

Poor impulse control and reckless disregard for the consequences of their actions

A low threshold for boredom coupled with a high capacity for stimulation

Little respect for authority and a predilection for controlling others

Excessively high self-esteem and strong inclination towards selfish behavior

Basically, these are traits consistent with every classic supervillain ever made. Look at all the defining traits for a character like Lex Luthor. That’s the essence of a psychopath. It’s not just that they’re more selfish and less likely to regret bad behavior. They take their selfishness to an extreme and regret doesn’t even enter the equation. Guilt, for a psychopath, may as well be an alien concept.

Naturally, that kind of deviant behavior ensures that psychopaths are highly represented in prison. While they’re not always violent, they tend to be cold and calculating in their actions, not caring for mortality, law, or social norms. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes them useful as ancient blood-thirsty warriors and modern dictators. In ordinary society, though, they can be dangerous.

However, and this is where discussions generally get heated, that danger manifests differently when gender enters the equation. While men, women, and everything in between are equally prone to becoming psychopaths, an emerging body of research is showing that the effect is not entirely equal.

One recent study revealed that while female psychopaths share most of the same traits as their male counterparts, those traits vary in a few key ways. They’re just as inclined to selfishness, manipulation, and deviance. They just go about it differently. You could even argue they’re more cunning in their approach.

That same study also showed that female psychopathy is frequently attributed to mental illness or other disorders, such as borderline personality disorder. While there often is overlap, it’s actually somewhat convenient from the perspective of a psychopath. It allows them to cloak their psychopathic behavior as an illness that warrants sympathy.

That approach does plenty to serve the interest of the psychopath because sympathy is an easy emotion to manipulate. Others don’t see them as selfish, callous, or reckless. They see them as victims. That means they need treatment, attention, and care, which can both stroke their ego and serve their interests. It’s working smarter and not harder.

While it’s difficult to know for sure whether someone has a legitimate issue with mental illness, the fact people are more prone to attribute psychopathic behavior with illness in women reveals something critical about our approach to gender. We’re perfectly fine labeling a man a psychopath if he fits the criteria, but we’re more inclined to make excuses for women.

Some of that, in my opinion, has more to do with popular culture than gender politics. When most people think of a psychopath, the first image that comes to mind isn’t some devious woman who emotionally manipulates everyone around her to get what she wants. They tend to conjure images of villains like Lex Luthor and serial killers like Ted Bundy.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of female psychopaths in popular culture. From the Wicked Witch of the West to Regina George in “Mean Girls,” most people can think of at least one female psychopath in fiction. Some can even identify a few notable female psychopaths from history. However, the fact they’re not the first image that comes to mind when we think of psychopaths is telling.

On some levels, we don’t want to believe that women can be as psychotic as men. Historically, society has been less inclined to attribute heinous crimes to women. More recently, especially with the anti-harassment movement, there’s an even greater tendency to give women the benefit of the doubt, even when there are documented cases of deceit.

Another major difference manifests in the preferred tactics that psychopaths utilize. One study by the International Journal of Women’s Health concluded that female psychopaths are more included to use flirting and sexuality to manipulate others into serving their selfish ends. While I doubt that’ll surprise anyone familiar with the traits of a psychopath, it further plays into a distinct gender-driven narrative.

Some of that is due to logistics. Male psychopaths tend to bully others more directly because of basic strength differences. A female psychopath is less capable of imposing their will on someone physically, but emotions can be every bit as powerful as muscles. When sex enters the equation, the incentives get even stronger.

These methods can be both effective and devious, but they serve the same goal. It helps the psychopath get what they want, be it attention, money, power, or just a good thrill. Psychopaths have a low threshold for boredom and a high threshold for satisfaction so they need to use whatever tactics work best for them. Women just work with different tools.

The end results for male and female psychopaths is just as striking. While all psychopaths care little for law or morality, female psychopaths are less inclined to commit homicide. They’re also less likely to end up in prison, but that may just be a byproduct of having different tactics that make killing less appealing to a psychopath’s interests.

Now, and I wish I didn’t have to make this disclaimer, none of this is to imply that female psychopaths are worse than male psychopaths. At the end of the day, the damage done by psychopathic behavior is gender neutral. Using, abusing, and manipulating people for selfish ends is deplorable, regardless of what body parts someone has or doesn’t have.

There’s still something to be said about how psychopaths conduct themselves and how we react to their behavior. In some ways, we may be doing female psychopaths a favor by approaching them differently than their male counterparts. Psychopaths don’t need much incentive to take advantage of other peoples’ more considerate tendencies. Our attitudes towards gender are only making their job easier.

Like it or not, psychopaths are part of our society. Some of them even wield a distressing amount of power and influence. This is one domain in which we have to be brutally honest and exceedingly fair in how we deal with psychopaths of any gender because they most definitely won’t.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, philosophy, psychology, sex in society

Does (Too Much) Knowledge Drive You Crazy? “Rick And Morty” Says Yes!

Greetings, and wubba lubba dub dub! If you remember that wacky string of words from a previous article, then you know, in part, what this will be about. That’s right. I’m going to talk about “Rick and Morty” again.

I promise it involves a serious issue and one I’ve touched on before. I know that’s hard to do when “Rick and Morty” contains characters named Mr. Poopybutthole, but I’m willing to rise to that challenge because I think this show illustrates that issue better than most, while still being hilariously subversive.

In some ways, the issue stems from problems I already highlighted with the crippling effects of boredom. It’s an issue Rick Sanchez deals with many times in the show and it’s just one of the reasons why I pegged him as someone who might relate to an emerging generation that will have to deal with more boredom than any generation before it.

However, this may even go beyond boredom in the sense that it strains our sanity more directly. In a world that’s already full of traffic jams, internet trolls, and reality TV shows featuring spoiled toddlers, that’s already pushing it. It all boils down to one simple question.

“Does too much knowledge drive us crazy?”

It’s a question that “Rick and Morty” tries to address in the least subtle way possible. In an episode called “Morty’s Mind Blowers,” which inspired this article, Morty briefly gains ultimate knowledge by gazing into the eyes of an alien turtle. I swear on Pamela Anderson’s tits that’s not made up. That really happened.

Naturally, this drives Morty nuts, which is saying something because it’s hardly the first time he’s been horribly traumatized. This is a different kind of trauma, though. Having all that knowledge, plenty of which strains his teenage brain more than it can handle, leaves him completely unhinged. He carries himself as someone who will need heavy medication and a padded cell.

Rick, being the lovable asshole he is, just shrugs this off and offers a simple solution. He’ll simply remove Morty’s memory of the experience from his brain. In fact, he reveals that he does this quite often, so much so that there’s a whole room full of Morty’s memories that he’s removed during their mind-bending adventures. Again, not a word of that is made up.

It’s an extension, of sorts, on a concept I’ve discussed earlier in dealing with trauma. I think most would see, to some extent, the merit of removing traumatic memories from someone’s brain. It spares them undue suffering and helps them function. On the basis of limiting someone’s pain, I think it could be argued that it’s a moral thing to do.

If, however, we use that same moral concept of reducing suffering, then what does that mean when excessive knowledge strains the human psyche to untenable extremes? If such knowledge inevitably leads to suffering, then it might take more than just removing memories to fix it.

It’s a distressing, but documented phenomenon and not just in shows like “Rick and Morty” either. There is a body of research that shows a correlation between mental illness and individuals with genius IQs. While correlation and causation are very different concepts, so much so that they’re easily confused, it’s hard to ignore the pattern here.

Those with obscenely high IQs know more you, me, or 99 percent of the average population. They see the world in a way that’s so different that it’s hard to relate to them on a fundamental level. It goes beyond the comical social awkwardness we see in shows like “The Big Bang Theory.” It can be downright debilitating for some people.

It speaks to the inherent limits of our caveman brains. As I’ve said many times before, our brains are not wired to process ultimate knowledge. They’re wired with two purposes in mind, namely survival and reproduction. While I enjoy writing stories about the latter, it’s hard to get around the former.

Knowing a lot means thinking a lot. Thinking a lot means realizing things that most people never even contemplate, either because they’re too busy trying to get laid or too stupid to wrap their head around it. In that sense, idiots may have an advantage when it comes to sanity, but what happens when it gets harder to be a happy idiot in this world?

As I write this, our society is being influenced by something called the Flynn Effect. In essence, it’s like Moore’s Law in that it documents a general rise in our collective IQ as civilization advances. That has huge implications and not just for the viral video industry that lives off the theatrics of idiots.

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I’ve noted that it’s getting a lot easier and cheaper these days to educate people without sending them to the hormonal torture camp that is high school. This generation, as well as the next one, is the most educated generations of all time. Is it possible that as people get smarter, they’ll be more prone to mental illness?

It’s a difficult question to answer, especially when you throw brain augmentation like those being developed by Neuralink into the mix. It may very well be the case that Morty wouldn’t have needed his memories removed if he just had some sort of brain implant that allowed him to process all the knowledge he had. That may be what keeps everybody sane in the distant future.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but the conclusion of “Morty’s Mind Blowers” isn’t very hopeful. Near the end, Morty tries to absorb all the other memories he’s had purged from his brain over the years. Once he has them all back, he decides there’s only one solution. He tries to kill himself. Yes, it gets that dark.

Naturally, he doesn’t succeed and not because someone talked him down. He doesn’t succeed because his sister, Summer, shows up and we find out that Rick actually had a plan for something like this, as he often does with everything.

To solve the issue, and effectively render all the conflict in the episode pointless, Summer purges Rick and Morty’s memory of the events of the entire episode. She then restores them to what they were at the beginning and makes it seem as though they fell asleep watching TV. There’s no real resolution, no greater insight, and no real lesson learned. This isn’t a 50s sitcom. This is “Rick and Morty.”

That resolution, as crass as it might be, might be the most we can do at this point. Our caveman brains are still painfully limited, even as our ability to craft and share knowledge grows. At what point do we reach a tipping point where so much knowledge starts to drive us crazy?

We don’t know for sure and the development of brain augmentation is sure to complicate things, but shows like “Rick and Morty” highlight just how hilariously unequipped we are to deal with this stuff at the moment. For now, we might be best taking Rick’s own advice and simply not thinking about it.

In that sense, maybe reading some of my sexy stories will help. It’s just a suggestion.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights, Rick and Morty, Thought Experiment