“Society needs to condemn a little more and condone a little less,” said former Prime Minister John Major. Good advice. One day we may even implement it when we encounter people we suspect of having evil tendencies. And I don’t just mean the likes of obvious suspects such as Joanna Dennehy who professed to kill for fun and apparently laughed throughout her sentencing.
One of my favourite films is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the underlying theme of which is our indifference to those around us as well as our self-absorption. We tend not to notice bizarre behaviour until it affects us directly. Yet psychopaths may be more commonplace than we think. According to recent research, one in 25 business leaders could qualify.
Even if I say so myself, I’ve always been good at spotting the enemy. In an office once we had a rota system of answering the phone, taking turns to pick up. One time it rang and it was my turn but I was carrying several heavy parcels. I asked my colleague to make an exception and take the call. “Not my turn; it’s yours,” she replied, very casually. She wouldn’t change her mind, not just the once, you understand, despite my pleading – she wouldn’t broach even a 30-second deviation from what she wanted or didn’t want to do. My heart sank; I knew she was a psycho and I was right. A year of hell ensued.
My stepfather was a psychopath too. When mother confided in him she needed cancer surgery, his eyes rolled around their sockets and he just said, very quietly: “I don’t think I’ll be good with someone who’s ill. I didn’t bargain for this.” Some people may say one episode does not a psychopath make. Actually, such incidents, revealing total absence of human empathy, are shattering and defining moments. No one, repeat no one, in their right mind, would react in such a way.
Meeting psychos in the public eye can be especially illuminating. I once met a famous politician at a public gathering and for some unfathomable tried to talk to him. Trouble is, my stammer intervened. He quickly lost patience and snapped at me and ridiculed me in front of everyone. I was left smarting from the encounter, rather like the character of Ken in A Fish Called Wanda. I was not in the least surprised when the person in question was later jailed. Such behaviour is never a one-off.
Unfortunately, we don’t notice much about other people’s behaviour. You don’t have to kill three people, like Dennehy did, to be a fully-fledged psychopath. It’s more that you simply do what you want to do at all times. Psychopaths are self-centred, manipulative and have very low anxiety levels. That, granted, is based on mere observance, not psychiatric training.
Sadly, the goalposts of unacceptable behaviour have consistently narrowed. We scarcely bat an eyelid when somebody spits in public, drops litter or insults us on the tube. Such errant behaviour, if overlooked, quickly escalates. Next comes monstrous ingratitude for services rendered and casual theft. Overlooking such behaviour does no good for society and the person so afflicted who might just be brought back to the straight and narrow if his waywardness were sanctioned early.
Psychopaths like control and power for their own sake. Hence I’ve noticed that the mass media is, in particular, replete with them. Something about being able to mould opinions seems to go hand in hand with monstrous egotism. I’ve almost lost track of the number of employers who I’ve witnessed treating their staff like empty cans, to be tossed around willy-nilly. Such people never take a step back and see themselves as others – hopefully – see them.
On a day-to-day level, few people seem prepared to intervene if they saw anti-social conduct for fear of the repercussions. Hence such behaviour is likely to increase. The kid who’s not ticked off when he daubs his chewing gum on a painting in an art gallery will go on to do more. As for casual rudeness and ingratitude, have we now become so desensitised that we fail to