2013-12-31 18:47

One of the things I like about Pacific Rim is its introduction of the term Kaiju to English. I remember loving Godzilla movies as a kid. And there’s a thing to them I always thought was fascinating, which is that Godzilla sort of started out as the monster which destroys Japan, but ends up being the monster which defends Japan. And this, I sort of empathize with, if that’s the right word.

For a long time, I’ve been sort of aware that I am, even among autistics, pretty low-empathy. Furthermore, for someone who’s autistic, I am unreasonably charismatic and effective at manipulation, a highly unusual trait in autistics. I’ve spent some time talking to a psychologist about this, and concluded that I just-shy-of sweep the diagnostic criteria for what the DSM-IV called “antisocial personality disorder”, and the DSM-III called either “sociopathy” or “psychopathy”, the distinctions between those categories being a little fuzzy.

But, of course, obviously I care about other people, quite a bit. Which is sort of atypical, to put it mildly. So you might ask, why do I still think about this? And the answer is: I don’t think what I’m doing is the same thing that most people appear to be experiencing. I think I’m adopting a stance based on consideration and philosophy, rather than having some kind of innate preference in the matter.

What do you mean, no preference in the matter?

It’s hard to express the distinction I’m getting at. When cats are happy, they typically purr. Sometimes, cats will add a sort of high-pitched noise to their purr, which some researchers suggest is intended to be about the frequency of human baby crying, to obtain food. My cat does that when there’s a food shortage or just because she’s happy. I think purring is cool. I like that sound. I will make cats make that sound.

So, there’s another sort of similar sound cats make. A cat which is cornered and really does not want to fight may hiss, but if it’s really terrified or mad, it will growl. A lot of people don’t even know cats make this noise, because they don’t make it very often normally; you have to have a cat and an animal it really dislikes to get this noise much. Or just be really mean to the cat. When I was a kid, I would sometimes catch one of the cats and prevent it from escaping until it got really upset and started growling. Why? For the same reason I made them purr: I liked the noise. I was vaguely offended that the cat would not switch between these noises easily, or would avoid me because I’d been scaring it. I have stopped doing that, because I have a more complicated model of the world, and I’ve decided I want cats to be happy. But… I didn’t have any particular innate sense that terrifying or upsetting animals was a Bad Thing. I just observed that it produced a result I like.

Perhaps a little spookier: I don’t really have any remorse to speak of here. I recognize that this behavior was “bad” in some way. I note that it fails to align with what I now believe about moral actions. I don’t do it anymore. But I don’t have any experience which is even remotely similar to what I hear people describe when they talk about remorse. I experience distress when things I do fail to produce desired results. I don’t experience distress just because the results I desired at some point in the past are now results I don’t desire.

Ice, glass, and souls.

I like breaking things. Mostly, I like watching things break. Ice, glass, you name it. I like watching things shatter. And most of the time, people are a kind of things. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned a thing: You cannot shatter a thing and still have it. And if you like having the thing, you may want to specifically avoid shattering it. I still have a heck of a mean streak, though, because I am innately skilled at finding weak points in people’s sense of self, and hitting them in ways that cause them to experience structural failures. And I love it. Only… Well, I have objections to it. Philosophical objections.

People have told me that having these objections means I don’t really have that instinct or whatever, but I don’t buy it. If you know bacon is bad for your blood pressure, so you don’t eat bacon, that doesn’t mean you’re an innate vegetarian who doesn’t like the taste of bacon. It just means you’re able to make tradeoffs between different kinds of gratification, including highly abstract ones like “living longer”.

Originally, the main reason I stopped being mean to people was just that I realized I couldn’t beat them all, and that I couldn’t go around randomly being mean to people and not have to beat them all. Over time I have gradually adapted a little better, and since then I’ve developed philosophy. And yet, the fundamental reason I’m not randomly destructive of other people’s sense of self is not that I’m kind and compassionate, it’s that I know I cannot have pleasant interactions with people who have been destroyed. In fact, I’ve developed a really nice strategy for getting opportunities to smash people up occasionally. Bullies. I go around emitting social cues that bullies tend to look for as signs of targets. Then I get people to play with. And that’s fun, but it’s also just socially useful enough that people are inclined to tolerate it and not get too freaked out by it, mostly.

Goal-directed behavior

Frequently, when I see fictional villains, I am not particularly upset by or horrified by their evil schemes, except that they’re doing it so badly. I don’t tend to get the visceral reaction of aversion and horror to a person wanting to do a horrible thing. I do, however, get a very strong negative reaction to people doing something that’s not well-considered and likely to lead to success. I don’t really get why people pursue some of these things, but ultimately, most motivations are sort of arbitrary. That someone’s motivation fails to align with my philosophical beliefs about morality is not horrifying to me. That they are wasting their time doing it badly, or failing to recognize an internal inconsistency in their motivations, does bother me quite a bit.

There’s a sort of recurring trope in religious debates, which is that sooner or later, someone asks why people who don’t believe in God don’t just murder, rape, etcetera. And this always struck me as pretty stupid. Seriously, if you’re trying to decide between going to work and collecting a paycheck, and wandering out and killing people, and the big deciding point is that someone told you an invisible man will set you on fire later if you pick the wrong one, I don’t really feel a lot safer knowing that you believed them.

There’s a similar thing going on with empathy. People seem surprised that I’d claim to have no particular empathic response to people most of the time, or at least the ability to turn it off (or forget to turn it back on), and yet be nice to people. Why is this surprising? If most people do it by instinct, presumably that instinct exists for a reason, right? Like, it was useful to have that instinct? People with that instinct were more successful? So. Why wouldn’t you expect a reasonably competent person to act that way anyway? I mean, it works. It is an effective way to get things of value.

I grant that I am a lot more likely to occasionally and unexpectedly act in non-empathic ways than most people, but there is the further question of what goals we adopt. I’m pretty well aware that I am not immortal in any practical sense. If I want to have goals, I should probably pick goals more interesting than short-term personal gain. So I have adopted goals involving trying to change the world so it is more like I want it to be. And that, it turns out, means making things nicer and safer for people. And it turns out that sometimes, the ability to behave in non-empathic ways to achieve those goals is a benefit. There’s some fascinating reporting suggesting that there are people in a number of fields, such as brain surgeons, who are unusually likely to have sociopathic traits, because they can’t do their jobs competently without them. I sort of get that. I see people who are crippled by doubt and indecision because if they screw up someone could get badly hurt. Well, yes, and if you do nothing someone could get badly hurt. Sucks to be you, I guess? Just make a decision and go with it.

Seeking excitement and challenge.

One of the things I’ve heard claimed is that at least some serial killers, etc., view “getting away with it” as a challenge. I can sort of get the idea of wanting a challenge. One of the reasons I find most modern “trolling” in MMOs annoying is the complete lack of effort or challenge. People enter a chat system which has hundreds of participants, say obviously stupid or abusive things, and then gloat about how they got responses. Uh. That’s sort of like bragging about your martial arts skills, then showing off a series of videos in which you hunch over and punch toddlers, who fall down. Toddlers of an age where they tend to fall down fairly often anyway, no less. Provoking people to react is not a major accomplishment. Provoking people to react without being personally engaged is utterly, totally, trivial, because being disengaged offends people in and of itself, and not being personally engaged is extremely easy. (Well. It is for me, anyway.)

And this is where things start to come together a bit. I sort of get the idea of wanting to seek some kind of excitement or challenge. I enjoy the metagame of old-school “trolling” in the form more typical of Kibology. And then there’s the bullies. See, the thing about bullies is, at least some of them are pretty sociopathic, or at least, have disconnected enough from what they’re doing that they aren’t emotionally engaged, making it hard to have any effect on them.

And a thing which is hard to do could be a challenge, and thus a thing which is interesting. A thing which might be fun. And as a side-effect, well, any time a troll spends fighting me, they are spending not fighting other people, most of whom are frankly going to be easy pickings for a troll.


So tying this together: It occurs to me that, at some level, Godzilla may not be primarily interested in defending Japan, so much as in beating down other kaiju, because they’re the only things it’s interesting to fight. And maybe that defends people, but the real point of it is just finding something that it takes some exertion to fight. Something challenging, and fun. Fighting bullies is an opportunity to let loose and be as destructive as I want without worrying too much about people getting hurt.

With slight apologies to Nietzsche: Whoever is already a monster should see to it that he fights monsters. And if I gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss is gonna break eye contact first.

Peter Seebach



  1. Funny, I’ve known you since 7th grade, and never known you to have a mean streak. Forget to be empathetic, perhaps. But you were never a bully, even when you could be. Where you lack empathy, you also lack self-empathy: an awareness of your own feelings. (Empathy towards others is derived from self-empathy.) So I’m skeptical about whether you truly don’t care about other people, or if you simply have difficulty recognizing when you do care. You seem to derive a lot of pleasure from being nice to people for not caring about them. If you really didn’t care, you’d derive just as much pleasure from non-social enterprises.

    One thing about mean people is that meanness is an assertion of power. If you really don’t care about what other people think, then you’re not going to neglect them, not bully them.

    Dave Leppik · 2014-01-03 15:32 · #

  2. By 7th grade, I’d mostly learned not to be obviously mean. You’ll note that “not obviously mean” is actually a pretty common trait in sociopaths in general. I mean, it’s not hard to be subtle, mostly.

    And I’m not entirely sure I like being nice to people anywhere near as much as I like solving interesting programming problems. But interacting with people is sort of useful, so…

    I am not totally sure about the power/meanness thing. I’m bad at reading social power things, so I don’t always pick them up. I just like watching things break, mostly.

    seebs · 2014-01-03 21:39 · #

  3. I wanted to thank you for posting this online. I find people fascinating in general, and motives and thoughts and emotions. What you’re saying is something that few people can and will say, and it gives me new material to work with and new ways to interpret things. It’s super useful, basically, and you are self aware enough to give lots of juicy details about it.

    It’s also an example of how people with different ways of processing and values and priorities can still fit the description of good or bad people.

    People act differently when they’re kids and adults, but that does sound different. I’ll chew on this (figuratively) for a long time.

    Have a good day!

    — Tiger · 2014-02-15 19:54 · #