Are we raising a generation of psychopaths? I think the question is being raised because many people think that we are. This is itself quite revealing, but perhaps for surprising reasons.
First of all, I think it’s fair to say that one of the great achievements of the last decade, in western culture at least, has been the mainstreaming of mental health as a subject of discussion, and a general recognition of the importance of empathy. For a few years in the mid-2010s, this felt like something of a quiet revolution, a rounding out and maturing of a culture, adding a whole new dimension to how we understand and treat each other, and ourselves. People began reading Psychology Today. Op-Ed pieces on mental health abounded. Celebrities began to discuss their own mental ‘struggles’. To their great credit, Prince William and Harry became prominent mental health campaigners.
New terms entered our collective lexicon: I began to hear previously obscure psychological terms like ‘gaslighting’ pop up in ordinary conversations; depression ceased to be a taboo subject; and suddenly far more people had a range of psychological diagnoses to hand, and the definitions memorized: ADHD, OCD, Aspergers and autism, and then inevitably the more pejorative terms, such as ‘borderline personality’, ‘narcissist’ and ‘psychopath’.
All this seemed great. Suddenly, we had a far more emotionally and psychologically literate society. No longer would depression be something one would have to hide or gloss over and at any rate keep silent about. No longer would being in therapy imply one was ‘crazy’. No longer would a kid in school be bullied by students – and even teachers – because they were socially awkward or couldn’t focus. Knowledge would breed understanding, and lead to a more empathetic society.
All this was a significant achievement, and probably the most positively transformative thing that happened in western culture this century. But as with every major shift in culture, there has also been a downside, which has blown up into view in the last few years.
As with so much in the culture these days, this downside began to become apparent and quickly pronounced with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. His bizarre antics and statements inevitably led to a great deal of armchair diagnosing of his curious personality: he became a public study in narcissism and sociopathy, and so on. Upon his election, and as has been widely reported, social media – previously a fairly benign place – blew up into a febrile and fractious space, and society found itself increasingly polarised as a consequence.
One of the by-products of the rising toxicity of social media, and by extension the public sphere in the west, has been the sudden and weird political economization – and indeed weaponization – of the language and lexicon of mental health. This has happened in two ways.
First, to struggle with one’s mental health is no longer understood only as a spectrum of human suffering. It is now also seen, and communicated by many, as an identity in and of itself, or even something positive – Greta Thunberg famously calls being autistic her ‘superpower’. It is not simply that someone may struggle with ADHD, or depression, or autism. Many define themselves by their diagnosis. Mental health has become, like so many other aspects of our lives, something performative. And as a consequence, the labels and categories of mental health have gained utility and currency in the culture.
Thus, we see people speaking ‘as someone with autism’, or ADHD, or depression, and so on. When Thunberg declared her autism diagnosis, it also inoculated her – a public figure – against criticism, as any criticism was then easily framed as criticism of someone vulnerable. Similarly, many public figures and journalists have found that to frame themselves as a victim – especially with regard to their mental health – is an effective way to gain traction in the culture. People are praised for ‘being brave’ or ‘strong’ in talking publicly about their mental health.
But in all this, there is a noticeable silence about understanding the causes and conditions of poor mental health. Often, it seems that it is enough to simply declare something in public – almost as a form of rite or ritual. In other words, talk of mental health has gone beyond opening up a space in which people may be free from judgment to look to their well-being and to heal and has entered a space where it has become performative, something that has a certain economic value. There are innumerable writers and public figures today who appear to have become professionally ill – who talk of nothing but their vulnerability, or their victim status. As with so many other areas of capitalist culture, the incentives behind this are not about private healing. They are also about money.
Second, where once the discussion of mental health was exclusively concerned with understanding and empathizing with others, this was now joined by a concern for judging them, too. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard someone refer to their ex as a ‘narcissist’ or ‘psychopath’ or ‘borderline personality’ who was ‘gaslighting’ them the whole time. Similarly, on an almost daily basis, I read or hear people say something to the effect that ‘X politician is a narcissist who is gaslighting the nation’.
All of a sudden, every bad private experience is being described in quasi-medical terms, as we seek to clinically diagnose a broken heart or wounded pride. And all of a sudden, every public eccentric – or personality that isn’t apparently generated by a focus-group – is being pathologized as a ‘psychopath’, a ‘narcissist’, or whatever it may be.
And so, this brings us back to the question. Are we raising a generation of psychopaths? I would argue that, no, we are not. But what we have done is generate a culture where our first reaction is to pathologize behavior we do not like, or perhaps do not understand, and to diagnose the people engaged in that behavior. Implied in calling someone a psychopath, or any other label, is typically the drawing of a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between the ‘good’ or ‘sane’ people, and the ‘bad’ or ‘mad’. This is what labels do: they do not explain why someone is the way they are or does what they do, but instead simply states what they are, and usually to draw attention to – or assert – that who they are or what they do is abnormal, beyond the pale, and usually – ultimately – their fault, or their moral failing. For all the talk of empathy that was characteristic of the early discussions of mental health a decade ago, the discussion now has all the hallmarks not of seeking to understand and embrace people, but to judge and discount them.
And in saying this, I am not arguing that people are acting normally, or with empathy. I think the question ‘are we raising a generation of psychopaths’ is, in some ways, a fair question, as we’re certainly seeing an emergence of increasingly anti-social behavior, especially on social media, which of course bleeds out into the real world. In recent years, online bullying has skyrocketed, and there has been a general perception that social media, in recent years, has become increasingly toxic. Where a few years ago it was more polite and playful, it is an increasingly bad-tempered and combative space, full of snark, and increasing use of bullying tactics in heated debates, including efforts to name, blame and shame people on social media for perceived thought crimes, or insalubrious associations.
And since the pandemic began, the UK has seen a 32% increase in investment scams, as people seek to protect their money or find alternative forms of income, and a 38% increase in online romance scams, as people seek out more online dating during the pandemic, indicating that the con-artists are out in force, taking cynical advantage of the credulous and the vulnerable more than they ever have before.
But it is worth asking: is there another explanation for all these problems, and the increase in anti-social behavior, that does not require us to pathologize people, let alone young people?
I think there is, and it is very simple: what if there is a pathology, but that it is to be found in the system, not the people manipulated by it?
Since the 1980s, we’ve lived in what has been termed a neoliberal economy. That is, an economy where the market is prized above all else, and that the solution to every problem is seen as the removal of state regulation and barriers to a pure market logic. In this system, people are not ends in themselves, or first and foremost citizens, but rather means to economic ends, and conceived primarily as consumers of goods. Additionally, this neoliberal period, which has since its beginning been highly data-driven, has had a close relationship with computing, which became commercially available at the same time as neoliberal economic policy was adopted by Reagan and Thatcher. One could go so far as to say that computing is the technology of neoliberalism, and neoliberalism is the economics of computing.
The result has been a society that has been hollowed out. Today, the only value deemed meaningful is tangible, quantifiable, especially economic quantification. Thus, anything qualitative, or intangible, has been deemed not just of no value, but even completely meaningless. Thus, we have seen the closure of ‘loss-making’ local and social services, where their true value was never something that could be expressed quantitatively, still less in direct and tangible economic terms. We’ve seen either the hollowing out of cultural institutions – such as the church – that were an end in themselves, and which treated people as ends in themselves – or their transformation into profit-oriented businesses, as is the case with the popular American mega-churches. At the same time, we’ve seen the transformation of brands and consumer items into quasi-religious symbols, or priceless relics. Since the 1980s, sports stars have become idols, via marketing by brands; brands have become identities, like Nike or Apple; product-launch events have become harvest festivals, in which high-priests of tech speak from raised stages, speaking in the tongues of technology jargon, before rapt congregations of consumers, cheering and clapping; sports cards of dead or retired sporting idols sell for millions of dollars, like relics of old religions.
And yet, these new forms of neoliberal, consumerist meaning is hollow, because it is cynical and manipulative, and deep down we all know it. If people are acting out this cynical logic, no longer able to see people as people, but just as customers and consumers, can we blame them? They have been raised by a culture that does not prize culture unless that culture is generated by the neoliberal economy. And if people are angry in their efforts to reject that culture, and in doing look to either reject the establishment – as Trump supporters did – or to reform the establishment – as the woke activists do – can we blame them? Both ‘sides’ – which have more in common in their underlying concerns than we generally care to admit – are exhausted by forty years of an economy that has treated them as means to ends, not ends in themselves, and has been cynically manipulating them.
So, are we raising a generation of psychopaths? I don’t think so. But even if we are, what made them that way? Either way, the real issue is not that people are psychologically pathological. It is that we live in a neoliberal system that is pathological for the human psyche. The culture may have recently given us the language and lexicon to diagnose and pathologize each other, but we’d do better, I think, to turn those tools on the system itself, and diagnose the conditions within it that have left us, as a society, so psychologically fragile.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.