Those of us in business, who sometimes work on the edge of abnormal psychology, say coaches and HR staff—occasionally find ourselves trying to figure out whether a certain exec is narcissistic or just a plain asshole. Of course, the fact is that the exec may be both or neither. But whatever we decide, it should determine whether we attempt to “fix” the exec, or just terminate him. (Executive narcissists, more often than not, are male.)
The massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, however, demands a far more difficult assessment. Was Adam Lanza evil, or just crazy? Most of us lack the background to make that call. So I was delighted (delighted may not be the best term, but I’m intrigued that someone finally addressed the issue) to see that Martin Seligman made the call for me in today’s Washington Post, detailed the distinctions between crazy and evil and also made the requisite recommendations for dealing with such folk. (The article is a “keeper” for future reference. It masterfully defines and distinguishes between crazy and evil.)
Seligman comes to the decision with impeccable credentials: former president of the American Psychological association, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the eminently useful book “What You Can Change and What You Can’t.” Though the Post article failed to mention, Seligman is also the primary go-to researcher and teacher in the field of “Positive Psychology.”
As Seligman writes, “crazy” refers to a person with delusions, hallucinations and bizarre beliefs. So Will McAvoy, in Sorkin’s Newsroom, refers to certain Tea Party members with their bizarre beliefs—much to my amusement--as “crazy.” And then elucidates their belief structure. More psychologically significant, crazy people are labeled with such technical terms as “insane,” “psychotic” or “schizophrenic.” Obviously, “crazy” sometimes lacks precision, and is applied in a lot of different ways in both our popular and scientific culture. But it’s clearly pejorative.
“Evil” is not a term widely used other than in religious circles. However, I was surprised to notice that David Brooks referred to both sinfulness and evil in a column “When the good do bad.” But Seligman, wise soul that he is, thankfully takes on “evil.” He points out that “evil” is as ancient a label as “crazy.”
Its hallmark is a narrow moral circle in which other people are objects of moral indifference or hatred, people deemed not to deserve to live. In this usage, the label evil is not mysterious nor derived from a belief in “the devil.” Rather, it is clarifying; it denotes people inclined to be violent and to put many other people at risk.
We know evil when we see it: “mean,” “violent,” “full of hate,” “selfish,” “grandiose,” “without a conscience” and “bullying” all signal evil. Whatever mental illness he may have had, Adam Lanza died and, most likely, lived at the extreme end of evil.
Crazy and evil, like narcissistic and asshole, are separable: a person can be crazy, evil, neither or both. What’s clear, though, is that the American public and policymakers need to do their homework before they decide on restraining or rehabilitating people. And, as Seligman says, the past record and future promise are dismal. And, frankly, the policy makers need to get on with that research and those decisions, otherwise. . . .
FYI: Since modern science has shield away from “classifying and unpacking craziness,” you won’t find the distinction between evil and crazy in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Nor, for that matter, will you find a clear-cut diagnosis of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, but I won’t have difficulty labeling him and his ilk.
Martin E. P. Seligman, Evil vs. crazy: What’s in the minds of mass murderers? The Washington Post, January 4, 2013.
Flickr photo: God's world USA