130. pococurante

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them:
that’s the essence of inhumanity. After all, my dear, if you watch people carefully,
you’ll be surprised to find how like hate is to love.

— George Bernard Shaw, The Devil’s Disciple (1901), Act II



pococurante
, noun: Caring little; indifferent; nonchalant. Adjective: A careless or indifferent person.

Denzel Washington loves his Jesus. He goes to church every Sunday. Allegedly he reads his bible every single day. But you know who he apparently doesn’t love? Atheists.

“The overwhelming majority of sociopaths aren’t violent. They just have a desire to win. They just don’t have a conscience — they don’t have it. The majority of them are atheists as well. So that was the book that was sort of my Bible if you will… in preparation for this part.”

The part in question is his role in the recently released film Safehouse, where he plays an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal. Denzel was talking in an interview (from which the above quote was taken) about his preparation for his part in the film. Now, to be perfectly honest, I think that this is a non-story. Here’s another interview where he talks about the movie:


Washington talks more about waterboarding than he does about atheism. Atheism is mentioned in passing, more as his own personal takeaway from Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door: The ruthless versus the rest of us.

Now, before we get carried away with media portrayals of sociopathy, it’s important to actually define what a sociopath is. Both sociopathy and psychopathy are classed under Antisocial Personality Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, fourth edition (DSM-IV), and are characterized as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Both sociopathy and psychopathy are characterized by (among other things) a noticeable lack of remorse, regard for the safety or well-being of others, deception (“as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure”), impulsiveness, and “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.”

This is not just a lack of guilt—it’s a complete inability to relate to other human beings. What’s probably most frightening about sociopaths is that they often look “normal,” and that’s part of the mask. The character of Dexter in Jeff Lindsay’s novels exemplifies this sociopathic trait: They don’t understand how other people operate. They’re often very intelligent and are able to study and emulate human behavior in the way that an actor takes on a role, but they don’t internalize.

Okay—back to Denzel.

Shortly after these interviews, the reference to atheists blew up in atheist circles. “Did Actor Denzel Washington Really Call Atheists ‘Sociopaths?’” goes one recent headline from this morning, which signals to me that this is yet another example of people needing some excuse to get bent out of shape. You see this a lot in the gay community too, although (to be fair) atheists don’t have a reason to hear anti-atheist slurs, whereas homophobia really is woven into the societal fabric to an extent. And atheists aren’t routinely harassed, bullied, tortured and beaten to death (or worse) for being atheists. Or being suspected of atheism.

But to be fair to atheists (and myself), we’re tired of having to defend our morality against those who say that you can’t be good without god. I’m not going to waste a keystroke on the various ways that nasty little question is thrown around, but I can make the jump that by even mentioning atheism in the same sentence as sociopathy that Denzel Washington is saying that atheists are sociopaths. But he didn’t. He’s an actor who was quoting from a book. If anything, we should be going after Martha Stout for writing that about atheists! And that would be a waste of time and energy.

So yes, Denzel is a very religious man. He has never made that a secret.

But you know who we’re not talking about in terms of sociopathy? Religious conservatives.

Now, I don’t think that Michele Bachmann, Tony Perkins, Rick Santorum, Tracy Morgan and any politician or celebrity who has made anti-gay remarks are necessarily sociopaths. Nor do I think that opposing gay rights or gay marriage should raise suspicion of a person being antisocial (although for some it should make us wonder about what other issues they’re potentially hiding). They hide behind their “traditional beliefs” and their religious arguments, and on the surface it appears that they genuinely don’t understand why people are so outraged at what they’re saying and doing.

However, many of these people (Tracy Morgan excluded) are just too intelligent to be that simple. If they were your average, church-going rube fundamentalists I might be willing to cede that, but these are educated individuals who have managed to get elected to fairly high political offices (although that in itself is not necessarily proof of intelligence—a certain former President comes to mind). You can’t get to that level without some cunning, or at least knowing how to surround yourself with the right people.

And regarding homosexuality, I think that if you were to pin every anti-gay politician to the wall or (the ghost of Christopher Hitchens forbid) waterboard them long enough, I think they’d all admit that it’s a MacGuffin that keeps conservative voters coming to the polls and voting keeping them in power. Most of them probably don’t personally care much what two guys or girls do in their bedroom.

However, what I do see in the eyes and speeches of Bachmann, Perry, Santorum and Kevin Bryant is indifference, be it genuine or willful. And when your political agenda trumps achieving equality for GLBT Americans, there’s something dangerously wrong with your moral compass.

So who’s the most sociopathical sociopath of them all?

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