Understanding the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Shootings — Empathy Disorders and the Effects of Societal Racism (Part I)

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Montreal Parking Garage, Braden Pezeshki photo

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  Martin Luther King

To be honest, I had a hard time writing this post.  There is so much swirling around on the Internet about what must be done, and who, or what, is at fault, that writing anything seems like appropriation of a tragedy.  But at the same time, there is also such a lack of systemic and systematic understanding of this event, and the potential for this moment of sacrifice to be lost, that I felt compelled to write.

On June 18, at the EAME Church in Charleston, SC, a young white man shot and killed nine members of the congregation during a Bible study session.  The suspect, Dylann Roof, allegedly entered the church at the start of the session, and participated in the scheduled study for nearly an hour before pulling out a .45 caliber handgun and methodically shooting the nine of the twelve participants.  He allegedly reloaded five times in the context of the event.  His first victim was 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, nephew of 87-year-old Susie Jackson, whom Roof had pointed his gun at first.  Tywanza had dove in front of Susie to protect her from being shot.  While shouting racial epithets, he proceeded to shoot at close range the rest of the churchgoers, leaving Tywanza Sanders’ mother, Felicia Sanders, intentionally alive, so he said, to spread the word of what happened there.

The basic facts and victim profiles can be found here.  Roof apparently had done research on the symbolic significance of the EAME Church, and was a member of multiple racist hate groups.  A picture of  Roof taken earlier shows him wearing a jacket with symbols from South African and Rhodesian apartheid promotion organizations.

It is difficult to wrap one’s head around the event itself, and imagining the wild terror and horror that occurred is traumatic.  The victims were not simple, one-dimensional individuals.  They were complex, deeply empathetically developed people.  The leader of the church, Pastor Clementa T. Pinckney, was also a state senator.  Other individuals shot were part of the larger heterogeneous community of the Church, ranging in age from 26-87 and served in a variety of service roles in the Charleston area.  It is important to understand this as part of their own empathetic development, and why they would welcome what obviously appeared on the surface as an Out-group individual into their Bible study group in the first place.  Obviously governed by high moral principles, they maintained their openness until Roof shot them.

Responses from political officials after the tragedy were at best obtuse, and at worst, appalling.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” she said.

Senator Tim Scott, who last year became the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate from the south since Reconstruction, said in a statement  “My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight. This senseless tragedy at a place of worship — where we come together to laugh, love and rejoice in God’s name — is absolutely despicable and can never be understood.”  If anything, Senator Scott’s response shows that racial paradigms of potential understanding — that because someone is also African-American, they have an immediately attuned sensitivity to such events — are deeply flawed.  It is the empathetic development of any given person that must be considered, as well as the reinforcing social system.  As Larry Wilmore of The Nightly Show said, “Black don’t distract.”

How to understand what happened that day in the EAME Church?  The debate that followed was mind-bending.  Conservatives on FOX News speculated that Roof, a declared white supremacist, had based his attack on religious grounds, appropriating the event for their ongoing theme of a War against Christians.  Political leaders in South Carolina, as shown above, declared the attacks a mystery.  Psychologists called the attack an outgrowth of anti-intellectualism in the U.S.  Both comics from the Comedy Central Network, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore, came in with by far the most sensible answers — trans-societal, inherent racism.  Jon Stewart, besides noting the Confederate Flag flying over the Confederate Memorial adjacent to the State Capitol Building, also drew attention to the numerous highways in South Carolina named after Confederate generals.

There were also numerous attributions of intent to the usual individual causes — mental illness, and lack of consistent open carry of firearms.  But understanding the interplay of both individual intent and larger societal forces was notably absent.  How does a 21-year-old man get to the point of being able to deliberately plan and execute a crime of such hate?

Societal Racism, Empathy Disorders,  and the Principle of Reinforcement

One of the things that has been sorely lacking from the discussion of this event has been a systemic understanding of how the influence of larger societal influences create the state of mind that would compel an individual such as Dylann Roof to, in a very cold-blooded fashion, pull out a gun and shoot nine innocent people who had only welcomed him into their circle an hour earlier.  Roof himself, when confessing to the police, had commented on how nice they were, and how that had almost dissuaded him from committing his murderous act.  Yet in the end, he had done it.  His stated goal of starting a race war was probably apt, and also lends insight into why he followed through.

But in order to have a more concrete understanding of how and why Roof, the individual, did what he did, we have to understand, to some extent, what was going on in his brain.  He made the decision to pull the trigger.  He was not in some wild, psychotic rage when he did it — though I’m willing to bet he experienced a distorted flood of positive reinforcement of his actions when he was killing all of them.  He did it because the society that he operated in reinforced the internal  justification for his behavior that he had created — the Principle of Reinforcement.  Everything that he did was constructed as part of his own pathology that resulted in a disordered empathetic connection with others.

Empathy disorders from a systemic and systematic perspective

That’s easy to say — but how did it actually work?  Let’s start with Roof and how his mind was likely working at the time of the attack.  At some level, we have to have a model of mental illness that describes how Roof thought when he made the series of decisions that he made both before, and during that fateful event.  The short version is this:  he has an empathy disorder, and by killing all those people, he got his rocks off.  He’s a vampire.

The understanding of mental illness in general in Western society has largely been focused on the individual, with treatment being considered primarily in the context of an individual modality.  The short version of this is that someone’s brain is sick, and you give them a pill and hope they get better, or you send them to talk it out with a psychotherapist.  There is more complex thinking out there, but it is rare.  If you have depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, there are pharmaceutical regimens one is supposed to be on to prevent aberrant behavior.  As long as you don’t ‘go off your meds’, you’re going to be ‘normal’.  Underlying this worldview is the Western belief that if you’re unhappy, it’s your problem.  How many times when you’re having a bad day, you’ve heard someone tell you ‘well, you realize you’re in charge of your own happiness?’

Even of the surface, this view of day-to-day existence is fallacious.  The reason you’re unhappy, of course, might have to do with your own egocentric frustrations (think Authoritarian v-Meme).  But often, it’s because someone else is doing something to you that’s making you miserable.  They’re part of a system that you also belong to, with the variable levels of empathetic connection that are embodied in all the blog posts I’ve already discussed.

Of course, sometimes we do things to others that make others upset.  If we’re at fault, if we’re more evolved empathetically, we then do things to make others in our social system feel more normative.  We apologize;  we send flowers;  we buy someone a beer.  These types of behaviors depend on either societal convention, or some integral definition of self — in a very basic sense, we get to the point of apology because we have an independently generated, data-driven, trust-based relationship with ourselves.  The latter is important, because it gives us the ability to reflect on our own actions, and make amends.  And making amends is what makes the social system able to keep chugging along.

If we don’t have that level of empathetic development — really at least a beginning of rational empathy — then society steps in for us.  All the external definition stuff that rests in the lower v-Memes is there.  Someone is there to tell us not to do something bad (Authoritarian).  There are rules, or laws we’re not supposed to break (Legalistic/Absolutistic).  There are taboos (Tribal/Magical) we’re not supposed to break, or rituals we should follow when we do.  And finally, we could even get down to Survival level thinking — if we do something wrong ourselves, we could die.

Almost every human being is a mix of both relational v-Memes — externally defined, and independently generated.  The Principle of Reinforcement will dictate largely which ones society tries to cultivate in you.  Not everyone in an advanced society (like socialist Denmark) has evolved to the level of Communitarian/Global Systemic.  But the cultural sidebars make everyone who hasn’t gotten there think, to some degree, in that fashion.  For example, no one argues about health care for everyone on the street in Copenhagen.  It just is.

But back to mental illness.  There are the kinds that are contained in the individual — and the psychologist’s treatment prescription book, called the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is encyclopedic in these types of things.

There is a section in the DSM, however, that focuses not on just the obvious malfunctioning of our neural circuits.   This section deals with what are called personality, or empathy disorders.  These disorders are poorly understood, and these are not so easily treatable — if they are treatable at all.  There are varying modalities — folks often have heard of Borderline Personality Disorder — but the landscape is more complex that just that.  Psychopaths, narcissists, histrionics and sociopaths also fall into this category.  My favorite writer on the more practical side of all of this is Bill Eddy, who coined the term High Conflict Individual, to describe how these people function.  They are victims, and blamers, and Bill does a great job of describing how one might deal with them one-on-one in a work environment, or a courtroom.

But all these insights are typically not systemic.  And the effect of the empathy-disordered on social systems is profound.  According to the NIH, some 14-17% of the population has some version of an empathy disorder.  That’s a lot of people.

My perspective is that if there is a definition of a healthy mind, it involves being empathetically connected to others, in relationships, defined externally or independently, in a way that either promotes stability of the social context, or evolution of the society, as well as some level of personal happiness.

The empathy disordered do not do that.  Instead of being relational constructors, they are relational disruptors.  Instead of damping out disagreements, according to that combination of external and independent relational formations that healthy people have, they inflame them.

Engineers will recognize this as a classic stability argument, dependent on the eigenvalues of the system.  The short version is that negative eigenvalues give convergent behavior;  positive eigenvalues give divergent behavior.  For systems with positive eigenvalues, all it takes is a little nudge to blow everything up.  You can’t look at the system for some huge force that makes it self-destruct.  That capacity is internal, and inherent.

From a v-Meme perspective, the empathy disordered occupy what I call ‘Authoritarian – collapsed egocentric’ mode.  There’s only one person whom the profoundly disordered recognizes as in existence — and that is the self.  It is a state beyond selfishness, though selfishness is part of the spectrum of emotions and behaviors available.  Like a black hole, the worst of the empathy disordered are collapsed in on themselves under their own personal gravity.

What that means, when rationally spooled out, is fascinating.  It means that the empathy disordered person probably has no subconscious boundaries that are important for establishing differentiation between themselves and other people.  It means that self-definition is solely dependent on external stimulus — there are no insides, and as such, the empathy disordered person is likely acutely aware of feelings of others around them — in fact, they have kind of a super-radar to figure out what one’s surroundings are, and how to adapt to them.  Detecting other’s empathetic signals is important, and the empathy disordered person often has no problem with that.

But because the processor inside someone who is empathy disordered is broken, how that person will react to a particular outside input is dependent solely on the pathology of that individual.  And since they are ‘collapsed egocentric’, they are likely to act in a way that is self-stimulating for their own pleasure.  They get off on others’ suffering.

Consider, for example, a child molester.  Most normal people do not need laws to prevent them from molesting children.  For myself, and most of us, such an act is reprehensible.  It’s gross and sickening.  Why would anyone want to traumatize a child for temporary pleasure?

But for the empathy disordered,  it is a different scenario.  Without boundaries, one cannot recognize the identity, let alone agency of the child.  The child is an object that exists solely for the stimulus of the disordered.  If the child screams or objects, this only feeds more emotion into the situation.  With no internal feedback damping, the empathy disordered individual only becomes more aroused, until neurological limits come into play.

Societies have evolved myths about such individuals — the iconography of the vampire is a great example.  Vampires see nothing when they look in the mirror (no independent definition.)  They externally are well-dressed.  They live only at night (lack of awareness of their condition from other people.)  They perish in sunlight (when people finally figure them out, they are ostracized, imprisoned, etc.) They drink others’ blood.

There is much more to write about the empathy-disordered, and how they make up the Dark Side of our empathetic evolution.  But some takeaway points would be as follows:

  • Collapsed egocentricity — only their feelings matter.
  • Lack of diversity of v-Memes — as Authoritarians, they decide on reality.
  • No integral definition — the only relationships that exist are ones that are defined externally.
  • Able to exquisitely sense their surroundings and blend in — they can often be very charismatic, often borrowing behaviors from higher v-Memes for their own purpose of desiring control.
  • Small disturbances can lead to explosive behavior.
  • Poor or non-existent boundaries — unable to see that other people are individuals.  No respect for different agency.
  • Relational disruptors.  Instead of being interested in relational evolution of their communities, they are interested in relational disruption –especially for their own neural stimulus.

And there is certainly a distribution of level of empathy disorders, besides the various types.  But when you’re dealing with 14-17% of the population, you have to realize that there are going to be extreme cases out on the tails of the distribution.  Here’s the main takeaway — there is largely, on an individual basis, NOTHING you can do about them until they commit an act that lands them into the legal system.  And even then, their skilled pattern of deception will aid them in escaping what society might call justice.

Understanding empathy disorders and how they operate lay open the lack of awareness regarding the mental illness side of the argument for stopping such heinous crimes.  You can spend all the money you want on treating the empathy disordered (they’re not likely to think they have a problem, BTW!,) and while you might intercept some individuals, lots are going to get through — the most deceptive and powerful.  And the thing that is easily forgotten — an empathy-disordered person is likely to obey all the rules, because they are focused so strongly on societal cues.  Until they decide they want the juice.

In summation, you cannot focus on fixing the sole individual in stopping events like the EAME shootings.  And while it is true that as a society, we need better mental health care, you can spend all the money you want, and you won’t even find, let alone fix these people.

One thought on “Understanding the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Shootings — Empathy Disorders and the Effects of Societal Racism (Part I)

  1. Here is another interesting blog post on Psychology Today as the response to the anti-intellectualism. The author talks about the fundamental problem in current US society is the lack of empathy (self-centeredness). It is interesting to see how commenters stuck in debating whether critical-thinking or empathy is more important as if these two are separated.


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