Meaning is derived from experience.
In our first encounter with something new, we don’t know what to expect. What does it mean? We may be able to derive the meaning from context. Familiar things around the unfamiliar, help to define it. We make connections in our minds when we learn how the new, relates to the familiar.
Meaning comes in layers. First we learn the definition. With time, as one becomes more familiar with the new experience, we begin to develop more nuanced meanings. We form expectations of where we can expect to find it, how it behaves, how it will respond to our actions, how we relate to it and how it relates to us.
We learn meaning with our whole bodies. If this new thing affects our emotions, it takes on a deeper, more three-dimensional meaning. It becomes significant to us in a new way. We may feel attracted or repulsed by it . If it seems to fit a familiar pattern, a comparison juxtaposes the new in relation to the old. Either it is similar or it is the opposite. Like déjà vu, the feeling of the familiar or unfamiliar is a visceral sensation.
This process of attaining meaning happens naturally for us, we barely register it. Something new becomes part of our normal reality when we’ve classified, categorized, defined and established our relationship to it. Through experience, meaning becomes the visceral component of wisdom.
Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire says that we imitate each other when deciding what we want. That is true to a point. As infants without experience, imitation is an ingenious substitute for judgment: we watch others’ facial expressions for clues about what they’ve judged to be good. As adults, we still refer outside ourselves for inspiration, but increasingly we trust in what we feel because we’ve learned from experience. Internalized experience makes us less imitative and more individuated. Our history reminds us of who we are and what we chose to value. We form boundaries around these identities and our desires are less easily influenced than they were as children.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, have deadened visceral responses. Their “shallow affect“, lack of empathy and their fearlessness, all indicate a lack of nervous or gut reactions. This “deadness” limits their ability to learn with their whole bodies and to feel deeply connected to other human beings or even to reality. They are unable to deeply experience life. That’s why psychopaths can lie and believe their own lies, because words are meaningless to them and reality doesn’t feel any more real than lies do. It’s what makes them such incredibly convincing liars, they don’t feel like they’re lying. They don’t feel anything.
Without visceral responses, psychopaths don’t perceive meaning in their experiences. Without meaning, reality takes on a two-dimensional, cartoonish quality. Shallow and fluid, cartoon reality can’t be trusted.
The ability to trust gives us self-confidence, social connection, agency and a social identity. People and societies need to trust in order to function. Because psychopaths can’t trust, they approach life from a position of powerlessness: manipulating, lying, cheating, first ingratiating themselves and then backstabbing. They envy our trust and the power and position we derive from it. They want to bypass the shame of their own powerlessness and make someone else feel it instead. It’s their intent to prove that we were wrong to trust, that we are powerless to know the truth. The psychopathic agenda is to sabotage our connection with reality itself.
Blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
At the beginning of the con, a psychopath lies increasingly and constantly, to everyone. He adds props and presents them at every opportunity. He convinces his true-believers to wittingly or unwittingly repeat his lies for him. Psychopaths like to say that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. A psychopath might go as far as living his own lie when no one is watching, in an attempt to believe that it’s real.
The psychopath is a story-driven-character who needs to be the hero in his fairy tales. When he’s not the center of attention, his ennui oppresses him, he suspects that he doesn’t really exist. The remedy for his existential crisis, is drama. This dead, non-existent creature comes alive when he tells a story, plots a con, sets up his props, gathers his true-believers and performs for an audience. The more believers he has, the more “real” the story becomes for the psychopath. Drama anchors the free-floating psychopath to his fantasy. Reality and fantasy begin to blur into each other.
What’s a MacGuffin?
Once he has set the stage, the psychopath directs his players’ attention to the MacGuffin. In fiction, MacGuffin refers to a plot device that advances the plot by motivating the characters’ actions. A MacGuffin might be: the jewels, the title, the secret, the document, the briefcase, the bomb or whatever else will motivate the characters. The term was made popular by movie director and producer Alfred Hitchcock, who succinctly described it as “what everybody on the screen is looking for, but the audience don’t care.”
Like movie directors, psychopaths focus the drama around a MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is the hook by which the psychopath anchors his victims’ emotions to the fantasy. Whether it’s money, status or glory, the true-believers are inspired to care deeply about the MacGuffin. Psychopaths notice that by eliciting our caring, they can make us respond. This fascinates them. They are, themselves, incapable of caring deeply about anything, so a normal person’s capacity to care stands out in stark relief for them. In particular, the psychopath likes to manipulate other people to care about them. In that case, the MacGuffin becomes the psychopath’s own success as they risk, or pretends to risk, life and limb while everyone watches in nail-biting suspense. This is why psychopaths will so often self-sabotage. They can cut off their own nose to spite their own face while you watch, horrified, because they don’t care, but they know that you do.
How does a MacGuffin work?
To understand how MacGuffins work, we need to understand mimesis. Mimesis is part of the human learning process. It is our instinct. Rather than being born knowing what is good to eat, (like a cow or horse knows to eat grass) it is our instinct to learn by watching other people’s faces when they taste something. Then we extend that learning ability far beyond eating.
Mimesis is more than just copying or imitating, it is also representation. In mimesis, human beings substitute symbolic representations in place of an actual thing, person or event as a way to organize and communicate information. For example, when discussing a person, we don’t need to point to the actual person, we can just say their name and all the things we know about that person are brought to mind. Or, a person’s picture or some other symbol may be substituted as a representation of that person. The same applies to objects or events. Human beings are so good at mimesis that we actually use substitutes in place of substitutes, which can be further substituted by other symbols. For example, if a film about an event is representing the actual event, then the title of the film is a substitute for the film. Further, the written title is a substitute for the spoken title and vice versa. Any reference that substitutes one thing for another, is a form of mimesis. As human beings, our thought processes are so immersed in mimesis that we don’t even notice it. Even though we are cognizant that a word or symbol is only a representation of the original, we still respond to a symbol with emotions appropriate to the original.
Psychopaths, conversely, have trouble processing abstract and emotional words.
“Psychopathic subjects,” Kiehl et al. say, “performed more poorly, manifested as slower reaction times, than control participants, when processing abstract word stimuli.” This is consistent, they say, with studies showing that psychopaths have trouble processing abstract words, performing abstract categorization tasks, understanding metaphors, and processing emotionally weighted words and speech.”
Ironically, even though they feel little connection to the symbols, psychopaths are still obsessed with symbolism. This is because for a psychopath, a representation has as much meaning as the original being represented — both are equally meaningless and equally two-dimensional. On the other hand, psychopaths understand that for their victims, a symbol will evoke emotions attached to the memory or belief of what it represents, inspiring us to care deeply. A MacGuffin, because it’s only symbolic, is more malleable than reality. This means that psychopaths can use a MacGuffin as an emotional hook to manipulate their victims into action.
Mirroring is another psychopath strategy for blurring boundaries between themselves and their victims. By mirroring us, they appear more like us. This makes it easier for them to arouse our empathy so they can bypass our defenses against emotional contagion. When someone reminds us of ourselves, it’s easier to imagine their pain, as our pain and their desires, as our desires.
Once we’re convinced that the mirror is real and our boundaries are bypassed, the psychopath switches tactics. Now, he reverses positions with us. Whereas before he had been imitating us through mirroring, now he wants us to imitate him. He attempts to inspire mimetic desire in the true believers by portraying a desire for the MacGuffin. Whether he is manipulating an entire cast of characters or focused on a single victim, the psychopath’s fundamental call to action is now a call to imitate him in his quest for the MacGuffin.
Like all mythological beings, a psychopath can play several roles within the system because, of course, he has no boundaries. He is at the same time, an actor, the director and the audience. As an actor and the protagonist, he pretends to be deeply involved in chasing after the MacGuffin, playing out his role as the hero. As the director, he has already scripted the storyline, told his lies and allows the other actors to follow his lead. As the audience, he doesn’t care about the MacGuffin, he is just enjoying the drama.
Sometimes, the psychopath tailors the MacGuffin slightly differently for each of his players, making each one feel special by telling them that they were chosen for privileged information and a special role. This way, psychopaths appeal to each person’s narcissism while simultaneously compartmentalizing the players so that they never compare stories. Each player wants desperately to maintain their privileged status and they won’t break their vow of secrecy. Even the chosen scapegoat, believes that the psychopath is on their side, until the very end. All of this is very amusing to the psychopath who knows how deeply invested each player has become in a MacGuffin which never existed at all.
Unlike reality, a MacGuffin can be manipulated. But in a psychopath’s mind, when they manipulate a symbol they have manipulated reality, as long as someone believes. This makes them feel powerful. The props, the other players and especially the drama, bolster the solidity of the MacGuffin. It all adds to its “truthiness” feel, keeping the victims busy chasing after ethereal illusions. In time, the MacGuffin becomes intertwined with the rest of the victim’s core beliefs. It becomes a part of his reality. The longer the dramatic production continues, the more real it becomes to the victims. A psychopath introduced the MacGuffin, but through rationalization, the victims’ own behavior reinforces their belief in the veracity of the MacGuffin, because the victims have to believe that they are acting rationally.
MacGuffins Work Because We Lie to Ourselves.
Marketing drives the engine of our economy. We know it’s manipulative but we accept it because we believe that we are still in control of our choices. Marketing guru Seth Godin advises, “Create a vacuum, don’t fill it.” Dangling desires and planting seeds of envy, marketers –like psychopaths– make you feel a need you never knew you had. A person with an emptiness in his gut is going to spend time, energy and money chasing any MacGuffin that promises to fill that hole.
Psychopaths and advertisers aren’t the only ones who use manipulative tactics. We manipulate ourselves. How many times have you heard, “you make your own reality”, “smile and soon you’ll feel happy” or “fake it until you make it”? We’re encouraged to pretend: “don’t show what you really feel, smile to make others happy, pretend everything is fine even when it’s not. ”
It’s bad enough to accept and to speak false words, but when we involve our expressions and mannerisms in the pretense, we are lying to our own bodies. If becoming happy is simply a matter of applying the correct expression to your face, what does that say about the meaning of happiness? Believing lies with your whole body and in your gut, inevitably leads to what is known as an existential crisis, a state of mind where you don’t know what to believe anymore. If I’ve been able to lie to myself and convince myself of my own lies, then how do I know what’s real? MacGuffins work because when we lied to ourselves, we blurred our own boundaries.
This is why lies are evil and destructive. It’s why lies are the primary tool of psychopaths and also why they get stuck in their own sticky web of disbelief: They are deceivers, and when they’ve seen how easy it is to deceive and to be deceived, how can they ever believe? Like the self-referencing loop in faulty computer code, there seems to be no logical way out of paranoia.
Through a process of double think, they find themselves envying our ability to feel and to trust what we feel, while simultaneously disdaining it as a weakness. They envy the comfort we derive from our beliefs — a comfort the psychopath has never experienced because he never bonded to humanity. Instead, the psychopath rationalizes that comfort derived from trust is an illusion, a crutch we need because we are weak and fearful. He disdains comfort as a weakness while paradoxically, he envies how it empowers.
I’ve often heard it said about psychopaths, “It’s amazing how they believe their own lies!” I imagine though, that psychopaths say the same thing about us. The difference is –and they know this– that psychopaths don’t deeply believe in anything. We, on the other hand, allow our beliefs to affect us deeply. Psychopaths study humanity. They may not grasp the concept of being informed by intuition and they may believe we are lying to ourselves, but they do understand the effect of emotional experiences. The MacGuffin is the vehicle by which they provide their victims with an emotional experience that the psychopaths can control.
The philosophical question “what’s real and what’s for sale?” has probably been asked since poets have first had leisure time to ponder. But philosophical pondering and seeds of doubt are NOT what psychopaths are trying to plant. Because even though our self-delusion can chip away at our sense of reality, we can still continue to function. Function, itself, is what psychopaths want to sabotage. And like any good saboteur, they will connect their weapon of destruction to the core of their target. The MacGuffin will not appear as a seed of doubt. To do the most damage, the MacGuffin must appear to be 180 degrees the opposite of a lie, it must feel like the most honest truth you’ve ever known. Their intent is to replace an integral piece of our core belief system with a core that is riddled with maggots, so that when it fails, the entire system ceases functioning.
Like a trojan horse, the MacGuffin is a device the psychopath uses to transport his poison into our system. In an ironic twist, a MacGuffin must be eagerly chased, happily embraced, and greedily consumed by the players in order for it to work. Our own actions in pursuit of the MacGuffin are the key to convincing us that the MacGuffin is real. Just like smiling can help us feel happier, chasing MacGuffins makes them feel real because we rationalize and justify our behavior.
Though the MacGuffin begins as a mimetic desire modeled by the psychopath, it becomes internalized as a deeply felt belief. Experience teaches us through memories stored in our bodies but false experience infects these beliefs. This infection of false memories, the MacGuffin, undermines our ability to know what’s good for us, to know that we can trust our gut to remind us of who we are and what we value.
What’s it for?
The purpose of any dramatic production is to elicit the portrayed emotions of the actors, in the audience, through empathy for the characters. The difference in a psychopathic production, is that the audience and the players are unaware that the drama is manipulated, they believe it’s real. Without this boundary between art and reality, empathy becomes uncontrolled emotional contagion.
For the psychopath, this initial emotional contagion is only an intermediate goal. The ultimate goal is reached when they pull the rug out from under you and you realize that you’ve been duped into caring with all your heart for an imaginary MacGuffin. In the end, the psychopath wants you to feel that you were betrayed, not by him, but by your own self. He wants you to take responsibility for your own betrayal and believe that your trust in yourself was arrogance. He wants your instincts reduced to meaninglessness. Your abilities to trust and power to function are stripped away. This transfer of powerlessness and shame to the victims is the ultimate goal because this is what the psychopath himself feels.
The dramatic production is the “ritual” that a psychopath uses to induct an authentic three-dimensional being into his two-dimensional cartoon hell, where reality begins and ends at his command. Nothing beyond his control is allowed to exist. Certainly anyone arrogant enough to believe they are autonomous from him needs to be brought down a few pegs. When he’s done with his victim, he wants the victim to envy him for his power over cartoon hell and its cartoon inhabitants.
In Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard describes the role of the sacred victim as a “container of violence”. More accurately, the ritual –by which the victim is slandered, accused, proven guilty and then ritually executed — is the container of violence. The purpose of violence containers is to maintain boundaries between rivals and create ritual purity by expelling toxic emotions. It’s the drama and the violence, sanctioned by the religious or secular authorities, which contain and direct the violence of the community preventing it from raging uncontrolled. From the perspective of the victims though, that is a lie. Violence doesn’t seem controlled at all, as they find themselves slimed with the toxic shame of their accusers. But from the perspective of the community, it’s quite cathartic to release responsibility for their shame and place it on the source of their envy: the innocent, powerless victim. From the accusers’ schadenfreude perspective, the scapegoat deserves it.
Drama, rituals, symbols, substitutions, religions, wars, laws and even economic transactions are all methods of accessing emotions under strictly controlled conditions and directing them toward a designated container. By their nature, these methods cross boundaries, so they are considered “the sacred” and viewed with reverence or even fear. According to mimetic theory, we require these outlets for our emotions because our desires are mimetic. In other words, we desire what others have, simply because they have it and this triggers rivalries, blurs boundaries and threatens the stability of the community.
Girard further explains that the objects we desire are not really what inspire our envy. It is the model who holds the object and the model’s desire for the object, which makes the object valuable and desirable. In other words, the envious person wants to “be” the person they envy. This is most obvious in the psychopath, who envies the authentic human being and wants to reduce them to a cardboard cutout of himself: someone full of envy. Most importantly, the psychopathic betrayal reveals what he envies, because psychopaths rob us, through betrayal, of the power to believe, to trust and to form bonds in the community. In other words,a psychopath wants to steal the victims’ essence and identity. In this way, he trades places with his victims, he BECOMES the victim and the victim becomes him.
It’s apparent that mimesis is the force that makes all of this transference and projection possible. This doesn’t make mimesis bad. On the contrary, symbols are the way human beings learn, organize and communicate. Without mimesis we wouldn’t have art, theater and poetry. We wouldn’t be able to label the things we encounter and communicate the ideas to others through symbols and pictures. In psychopaths though, something goes wrong in the process, they stay infantile and without boundaries. Their capacity to mirror, never develops into a capacity for empathy or the ability to understand meaning.
Long before Johns and Quay (1964) wrote that psychopaths, “know the words but can’t hear the music” (p217), Jesus was asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” and he answered:
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matthew 13:13).
Jesus used parables to teach the feeling of the lesson. He knew that a profound truth about spirituality, which might otherwise be difficult to convey, could be better understood through symbols.
But Jesus also understood that there were those who would still not get the message. Instead, those shallow people would grasp the symbol and cling to it like a false idol.
Jesus tried to convey this same message with regard to the ritual purity laws, which he was so often accused of breaking. He said, ” Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) While the religious authorities were fixated on interpreting the letter of the law, Jesus explained that the laws were symbolic, meant to guide us in the spirit of their meaning and fulfilled through right action and right thought, so that our bodies can learn what feels right.
It’s a mistake to allow a belief, a law, a ritual or any other form of symbolism to become more real than reality itself. When psychopaths take our symbols of truth and mirror them to us, they invert the truth and mock reality. In the hands of psychopaths, mimesis, the tool that humanity uses to feel empathy and communicate understanding, perverts into a MacGuffin for spreading a contagion of shame and exerting control.
Human beings have always hungered for meaning, the proliferation of self-help books on the market attests to that. This hunger makes us vulnerable to MacGuffins. How do we distinguish a MacGuffin from the real thing? Rene Girard’s themes for discerning myth from reality are a guide for revealing MacGuffins.
- Chaos, lack of order, lack of differentiation, blurring of boundaries.
- A scapegoat is slandered and accused.
- Evidence is presented that the scapegoat is guilty
- The scapegoat is convicted, killed, or banned.
- Order is restored.
And if something creates a vacuum or a bigger hole in your heart than the one made by your dysfunctional family, then it’s a MacGuffin. Ironically, it takes experience and a commitment to reality, to recognize MacGuffins because our intuition never did lie to us, but we learned to ignore its truth when we were tempted by the MacGuffins.
Copyright © 2013 Skylar