A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



The difference between losers and sociopaths - an inkling

I've been struggling for the last few days to understand what's really going on in Venkatesh Rao's "Gervais" principle. I've been working on a expository blog post, in preparation for a seminar that I'll be running and it's been making me uncomfortable. Not only because trying to explain what Rao says makes me realise that I'm not really familiar with the detail of what he's saying: that's OK - that's part of the exercise and part of the endeavour of creating a blog as a commonplace. But also because I feel like I'm too close to him - I'm not putting out my interpretation of what he's saying, I'm just trotting out his party line and for someone as normally as opinionated as me, that makes me very uncomfortable.

I feel fortunate then, that at the same time, I've been reading Powerbase: How to Build - It How to Keep it by Marilyn Moats Kennedy. It made me see a really clear difference between the kinds of people that Rao would call "Losers" and the kind of people he would call "Sociopaths". What's also interesting about these difference is that I think you can make them into a continuum. There may be more than these dimensions, but these are the ones that I'll start with.

Rebekah Brooks in a Peter Pan outfit

Dimension 1 - self vs network.

Loser - the way to get success is to improve myself.

Sociopath - the way to get success is understand (and therefore be better able to manipulate) the network.[1]

Dimension 2 - ethics

Loser - means are not justified by ends, there is such a thing as right and wrong action (Christian morality - Nietzsche's "sklavenmorral")

Sociopath - means are justified by ends, the only wrong is losing [2] (Machievellian/neo Darwinian morality - Nietzsche's "herrenmorral")

And I think there might be a third dimension as well but I'm not sure I've got the kinks out of it yet.

Dimension 3 - reality

Loser - Focus on how things should be

Sociopath - Focus on how things are [3]

But what then of the Clueless? It's hard to talk about these important divisions in Rao's terms without sounding offensive. Part of the work of understanding what Rao is saying is scraping the rather tedious teenage Marilyn Manson makeup up off of the vocabulary. What helped with this is thinking about it in Shakespearean terms. In Shakespeare, very often the nicest people and the only really good people are what Rao and MacLeod by call clueless, in Shakespeare these are just what you might call ordinary people - most lovingly depicted as the mechanicals in a Midsummer Night's Dream. The porter in MacBeth, the gravediggers in Hamlet, the various peasants who assist Lear and Gloucester as they stagger through the countryside. Sociopaths have contempt for them or affection for them in degree to their contempt or affection for the human race (there is such a thing as a good sociopath). Losers generally loathe them. To quote John Stuart Mill:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

So where do the clueless show up on the dimensions that I've outlined? What I think is interesting is that cluelessness (or ordinariness) doesn't show up as a point along these continua. Rather it shows up as an inability to discern these continua which means that the only possibly strategy is to resign oneself to the most powerful human drive - to do what everybody else does. Clueless/ordinary people know from bitter experience that they can't change themselves through education and training to their advantage (dimension 1, self vs network), neither can they discern what is going on in society well enough to influence it to their own advantage. Probably, if we admitted it, in almost all aspects of our lives, we're all in this way very ordinary and do what others do.

Similarly for dimension 2 (ethics) ordinary people don't feel able either to determine their own morality (which is sociopathic) or use the logic of their ethics to cause trouble and question the way things are done (which is what Losers do) so they take their steer on morality from everybody around them.

Finally, thinking about this, I've stumbled on a definition of common sense that makes sense to me in relation to dimension 3 - reality. Most ordinary people just can't make enough sense of how the world is - and can't build a coherent enough picture of how the world should be - for either idealism or realism to actually determine their actions. And to the degree that they can't make these decisions for themselves they do and believe as everybody else does. And, really nobody but nobody should be smug or superior about this because however sociopath/Machievellian or Loser/idealist someone is in one sphere, almost every other aspect of their lives will be unexamined and reliant on "common sense." Even if every now and then our Loser idealism or our sociopathic machievellianism gives us a dream or an insight, for most of the time, in most ways, we believe what everybody else believes and we do what everybody else does. In the (again probably too adolescent) language of John Stuart Mill, we are pigs satisfied.

[1] One of the really interesting things about this focus is that in order to be a Sociopath you have to, to some degree focus on society in a way that many self-centred Losers simply don't. This would fit with some things that I'd been vaguely aware of for a long time - in my own personal experience some of the most ruthlessly manipulative people I've ever met have been sociologists. It also fits with a story that someone told me (I'm being vague, but I have the names) of an academic sociologist who got a job as a research sociologist at one of the big silicon valley tech companies.

[2] Whenever I think of this attitude, I think of Rebekah Brooks and that kind of smirk she has on her face - it seems to me to say "Well what the did you EXPECT me to do? Of course I hacked their phones! I needed the story. This is the British press, not a play school."

[3]What makes this reality dimension so confusing is that sociopaths regularly use ridiculously unrealistic and simplistic goals as a way of manipulating people and it's hard to know to what degree they actually believe what they're spouting.