07 January 2013

Mentalizing amoklaufers

One of the local papers picked up an op-ed from the Hartford Courant in which Harold I. Schwartz, a Hartford psychiatrist, proposes that "theories of mind" may help us profile the potential mass shooter like the culprits in Aurora CO and Newtown CT. He suggests that the mass shooter or amoklaufer may have difficulties "mentalizing" other people. Mentalization, Schwartz explains, is "the actual psychological process through which we experience others as having thoughts and feelings that are separate from our own." While warning that the notion remains purely speculative, he implies that some people's capacity to mentalize may be genetically limited, while others' ability to mentalize may be compromised by personal or family trauma or neglect, by social isolation, exposure to violent media, etc. Where the ability to mentalize isn't fully developed, a person becomes susceptible to solipsism, the feeling that "our own thoughts and feelings are the only things that are real," while " others are merely the cardboard props that support our needs [and] can be discarded at will." A stunted capacity to mentalize may determine who kills and who doesn't, Schwartz proposes:

For every paranoid, grievance-collecting loner who has spent an isolated youth lost on the Internet or in video games and who is capable of mass murder, there are thousands who could never pick up a gun. Perhaps it is the sense of connectedness born of the capacity to mentalize and empathize with others that distinguishes those who might shoot from those who could not.

Schwartz wisely phrases the idea with scientific caution. I would be still more cautious about embracing the idea. Then again, I'm something of a cynic. It's easy to infer from one person killing another that the killer has no regard for the victim's life, that he sees the victim as just an object unworthy of consideration. But Schwartz's hypothesis, as summarized in his op-ed, doesn't take into account the possibility that a failure to mentalize could have consequences short of killing. I'm willing to believe that many people display a failure to mentalize in their everyday economic dealings with others. There are many possible transactions and relationships in which people can fail to mentalize others, if by that we mean treating the others as objects whose humanity or subjectivity need not be respected, without killing them. Schwartz may err in thinking of the failure to mentalize solely as a factor in killing rather than as a factor in exploitation or other abusive relationships. Once we recognize that failure to mentalize could have a range of results short of killing, we fall back to the main question. Given the multitude of sociopaths or people otherwise handicapped or disinhibited from treating people as objects, why do some kill while others don't? My current hunch is that amoklaufers, in particular, aren't distinguished so much by some lack or handicap, as Schwartz suggests, as by some "positive" or "active" element like a sense of entitlement. It seems less likely to me that the amoklaufer sees others as less real than himself than that he sees himself as special, privileged, entitled to transgress conventional moral boundaries. History gives us many examples of people who deemed themselves above the law, from the antinomian extremists of the Reformation era who, believing themselves the predestined elect of an omniscient God, could do anything yet remain saved, to the Leninists of modern time who felt that historical necessity rendered "bourgeois morality" irrelevant to those guided by history's inexorable laws. On a more personal level, we may not need such pretentious theological or ideological constructs to justify our feeling of entitlement to kill.  In short, the mental problem -- apart from the ridiculous availability of firearms and other death-dealing weapons -- may not be that some of us fail to see the rest as selves but that some have too inflated or exalted a sense of self compared to the rest. If so, the real solution may be to get the potential amoklaufer, not to mention many other nonlethal egomaniacs and sociopaths, to get over themselves -- whatever that may mean to you. But in our defiantly individualistic American culture, whether left or right, what will that take?

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