Kurt Vonnegut: Promoter of Ponerology?

Posted by admin on April 8, 2013

It’s always interesting and somewhat validating to discover that ideas that you’ve only recently recognized as important were recognized as important by others a while ago. It’s especially interesting and validating to discover that they were recognized as important by someone quite insightful. I have made a few such discoveries regarding ponerology in the past several years. And last week I made another one when I came across a ten year-old interview.

The interview is of the famed and beloved late iconoclastic author and social critic Kurt Vonnegut, who skewered many aspects of our society in classics like Slaughterhouse-Five and somewhat lesser known, but also brilliant, works like Player Piano. It was originally published in the January 27, 2003 issue of In These Times, amidst an atmosphere rife with apprehension about the imminent United States invasion of Iraq.

I was quite struck by these lines of Vonnegut’s from the interview:

“…those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka ‘Christians,’ and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or ‘PPs.’

To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete’s foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!
And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick.
What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can’t.”

Consider all of the things Vonnegut got across there in less than four full paragraphs. He explained, to some extent:

There it is. In less than four paragraphs, over ten years ago, Vonnegut laid out much of the framework for what I only began to seriously suspect almost ten years later when I finally focused on and ended up writing about it at great length in pages about psychopathy and ponerology.

Vonnegut even emphatically recommends a specific book, The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley. I ended up discovering this book a couple years ago and now recommend it in many of my writings, as well as in the resources section of this site.

Whenever I come across work by social critics like Vonnegut, I always wonder if they have considered the ponerologic factors that may underlie the dysfunctional symptoms on which they focus. This interview makes clear that, at least toward the end of his life, even though he may not have known about the actual word or field of ponerology, Vonnegut had done just that.

Whatever your view of Vonnegut’s particular politics, it’s hard to deny that he was a singular character with a deep insight into some of the innermost workings of our social systems and a passionate concern for the welfare of humanity. And it’s quite interesting to know that his life experience had brought him to such a level of consciousness about the role psychopathy might play in our culture’s unhealthy and unsustainable state. I believe that if he were alive today and made aware of it, he would be an outspoken advocate for more solidly establishing and promoting the discipline of ponerology.

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