And so here we are, ready for an assault on our Everest: the mind that lies behind the low-reactor Sociopath face. A face that gazes upon the worlds of Losers and the Clueless with divine inscrutability. It’s certainly been a long climb.
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With the resurrection of David Wallace and the ascent of Robert California to a richly undeserved heaven-on-earth, a harem of young East European women, the crew at The Office teed up their final season, and presented us with our last and biggest challenge. And finally, we are ready to take it on.
Under the creepily steady gaze of Robert California, Jim wilts and chokes. Dwight blusters like a frightened dog, “Stop trying to get into my head!” But ultimately even that courageous Clueless soul cowers.
But you and I, we are going to break through. Our gaze may flinch. We may lose the staring contest with Robert California. We may fail to perturb the preternatural poise of David Wallace. But we will figure out the minds that lie beneath.
As The Office winds its way to a satisfyingly redemptive American series finale this week, the remaining questions in our own little sideshow tent will be answered in deeply unsatisfying and empty ways.
Here’s a brief recap of the series so far if you need it. Welcome to the finale of the Gervais Principle.
Power from Emptiness
In the grand, operatic world of the Titans, a Sociopath has fallen. Dunder-Mifflin is now Sabre, and the once-mighty CFO David Wallace skulks in his lair, unshaven and somewhat drunk, spiraling down into a personal hell under the increasingly worried gaze of his wife. His normal preternatural poise has temporarily collapsed. He looks out at the world with a crazed gleam in his eyes.
Fallen and disgraced, rocking to the manic beat of his son’s drumming, Wallace yells defiance at the universe:
Raging at an absent god — one who does not talk back or otherwise provide proof of his presence — is the sign of a recurring liminal passage in the Sociopath life, marking the start of yet another Sisyphean effort to extract a sliver of meaning from existence.
For Wallace, “Suck it” is not just a cry of despair and defiance. It is also the name of the product that returns him to grace in the human world. And it is a product that not even the prodigiously gullible Michael believes in at inception.
Rather appropriately, Wallace’s Suck It! is a vacuum cleaner. Originally developed for use as a toy, and later sold to the military for millions, allowing him to buy back Dunder-Mifflin. An amoral device that generates power from emptiness.
That is what Sociopaths ultimately do with their lives if they survive long enough: generate amoral power from increasing inner emptiness, transforming themselves into forces of nature.
As a side-effect, they also manufacture transient meanings to fuel the theaters of religiosity (including various secular religions) that lend meaning to lives of Losers and the Clueless. This meaning is achieved via subtraction, through withdrawal of complexities that the latter are predisposed to ignore, leaving behind simpler, more satisfying and more tractable realities for them to inhabit.
When Sociopath stories end, the Loser and Clueless stories that continue become bereft of meaning; sound and fury signifying nothing. When Sociopaths turn their attentions en masse to new frontiers, they leave behind complete cargo cults that continue to function for a while. The Office in its last season is such a world, with its major Sociopath stories complete, and its borderline Sociopaths, Jim and Darryl, busy flirting with the full-blown kind in Philadelphia. The show never really jumped the shark during its nine-year run (though it came close with the PB&J wedding). The Sociopaths merely left the building.
The Quest for Unmediated Realities
The Sociopath journey begins with what is essentially a religious dissatisfaction. A dissatisfaction that awakens the first time Sociopaths contemplate their situation in life.
On the one hand, they find the contemporary account of reality to be suspiciously convenient for those with power: it explains the prevailing social order as a necessary and natural one a little too neatly.
On the other hand, they find themselves facing the intolerable expectation that they accept powerless stations, defined by scripted actions and fixed rewards within that order.
Whether they dismiss prevailing accounts as rationalizations and begin a search for deeper meanings, or defy expectations and reach for power beyond their station, Sociopaths begin their unscripted journeys to rid themselves of that fundamental dissatisfaction; the sense that reality is more complex than whatever is being presented to them. That important things are being hidden from view, and not for their own good.
They are not entirely sure what they are looking for, but they do know that they are looking to engage reality directly, without mediation by other humans. To turn the famous line from A Few Good Men around, they are looking for the truth about social realities because they think they can handle it.
Sociopathy in our little conceptual universe derived from The Office is not about hatred for other humans. It is about this seeking of unmediated realities, a process in which ultimately other humans, including mentor Sociopaths, only get in the way.
The Sociopath’s journey, mythologized to serve the religious needs of the Clueless, is what gives us the Hero’s Journey. Mythologized in a different way to serve Loser religiosity, the Sociopath becomes the priestly agent of larger intangible forces, offering absolution for sins and unpredictable signs of grace.
To the Sociopath, the very same journey, lived from the inside, is a nihilistic journey into emptiness, a gradual abandonment of the possibility of ultimate meanings.
The first sort of possible meaning to be abandoned is moral meaning.
In The Office, we never see an instance of the emergence of amorality. We encounter fully-formed Sociopaths already in an amoral state of being.
But examples can be found elsewhere.
In the Yes, Minister episode Whiskey Priest, we find this illuminating exchange between Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Sociopath Permanent Secretary, and the Clueless Minister, Jim Hacker. The exchange follows a disagreement over an issue that Hacker is attempting to address with morality, and Appleby with pragmatism:
My arguments had clearly left him unaffected. “You are a moral vacuum Humphrey,’ I informed him.
“If you say so, Minister.” And he smiled courteously and inclined his head, as if to thank me for a gracious compliment.
Of course, Hacker is soon persuaded to get off his moral high horse and pursue the expedient course indicated by Sir Humphrey, as the personal political costs become clear to him.
Later, when Hacker’s private secretary Bernard Wooley comes to Sir Humphrey with the worry that he too might turn into a moral vacuum, the latter manages to enlighten Bernard and turn his worry into an aspiration. The moment of enlightenment is also the moment Bernard casts asides his Loser doubts and turns into a committed Sociopath, on the fast track to the top job.
Amorality is merely the first step. As the journey proceeds, Sociopaths progressively rip away layer after layer of social reality. The Sociopath’s journey can be understood as progressive unmasking of a sequence of increasingly ancient and fearsome gods, each reigning over a harsher social order, governing fewer humans. If morality falls by the wayside when the first layer is ripped away, other reassuring certainties, such as the idea of a benevolent universe, and predictable relationships between efforts and rewards, fall away in deeper layers.
With each new layer decoded, Sociopaths find transient meaning, but not enduring satisfaction.
Much to their surprise, however, they find that in the unsatisfying meanings they uncover, lie the keys to power over others. In seeking to penetrate mediated experiences of reality, they unexpectedly find themselves mediating those very realities for others. They acquire agency in the broadest sense of the word. Losers and the Clueless delegate to them not mere specialist matters like heart surgery or car repair, but control over the meanings of their very lives.
So in seeking to unmask the gods, they find themselves turning into the gods.
When they speak, they find that their words become imbued with divine authority. When they are spoken to, they hear prayerful tones of awe. The Clueless want to be them, Losers want to defer to them.
Gods Who Talk Back
To understand the theaters of religiosity inhabited by the Clueless and Losers, it is useful to start with a quote usually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.
The divide between theism and atheism is a divide for small and average minds. Whether or not you mythologize your metaphysics by adding gods and divine events is ultimately irrelevant.
The important distinction, for the great mind of the Sociopath, is whether or not the god talks back. This is why we began this series, four years ago, by characterizing Sociopaths with an interchangeable pair of adjectives: Darwinist/Protestant Ethic. One is nominally an atheist perspective, while the other is a theist perspective. But in neither perspective does the divine talk back.
That the gods do not talk back when we address them, is a realization that is as old as humanity itself. But conscious acceptance of the fact has always been rare, and eagerness to believe the opposite common. William James was the first to really get why:
Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
Anchored as they are in thoughts about social realities — people and events — the religions of Losers and the Clueless are ultimately religions of happiness. Heaven is simply the part of the social order deemed sacred, and contemplated in private. Even in solitude, they are never truly alone, because they seek exactly the socially mediated relationship to reality that the Sociopath seeks to escape. Their gods are present with them even in their solitude, talking back in comforting tones through social memories chosen for review.
This inability to experience being alone is what James called the religion of healthy-mindedness, which we recognize today, a century later, as the social well-adjustedness of Losers and the childlike obliviousness of the Clueless. We examined these in detail in previous parts.
The gods of the Sociopaths, by contrast, are absent meanings and voices. Theirs is a true aloneness. Their religions are the opposite of healthy-minded. They are, for the most part, recipes for neurotic self-destruction, but with a shot at freedom.
When Sociopaths accept the divine roles that the Clueless and Losers eagerly thrust upon them, they find themselves ruling the realities of others. But any human stand-in for an omnipotent conception of divinity must ultimately betray the believer.
The key, when betraying the Clueless, is to get them to blame themselves. With Losers, the key is to get them to blame each other. Each pattern of blame redirection gives us a particular theater of religiosity, and specific role for the Sociopath within it. Each also rewards the Sociopath with a specific kind of agency.
The Rankable Hero-God
Small minds discuss people. In Jamesian solitude, the minds of the Clueless turn to contemplation of their idols.
The gods of the Clueless are idealized organizations and unreconstructed idols. In what is perhaps the finest soliloquy in The Office, Dwight reveals his hidden passion for table tennis by reciting the names of a pantheon of minor gods:
All of my heroes are table tennis players. Zoran Primorac, Jan-Ove Waldner, Wang Tao, Jorg Rosskopf and of course Ashraf Helmy. I even have a life-size poster of Hugo Hoyama on my wall. And the first time I left Pennsylvania, was to go to the hall of fame induction ceremony of Andrzej Grubba.
The urge to give expression to religious feeling by reciting the names of rankable gods is a deep and primitive one. To recite the names with Dwight-like unreconstructed ardor is to create farce. In our godless times, the urge finds expression in any sort of unexamined taxonomic urge. In its mature form, this instinct creates the satisfying rituals of rosaries and metered hymns.
What is notable about Dwight’s table-tennis religiosity is the far-removed but familiar nature of its object. Though he is good enough to beat Jim, what makes professional table tennis a useful heavenly realm for him is that it is legible but almost unattainable. It is a large, but finite and countable number of steps away. His heroes are very distant, but a countable number of medals and rankings away. The heroes themselves can be ranked on the upper rungs of a stairway to heaven.
The Clueless seek idols to emulate. Their gods are heroes they want to be like, and whose lives and stories they contemplate in private. The rules of the Clueless heavens are not fundamentally different from the rules of Clueless Earth.
It is not just the gods who are finite and countable in number, everything in Clueless religion is legible. Nothing is intangible. Sins are countable as points docked. Rewards and punishments are also countable. When Dwight attempts an office coup for instance, Michael punishes him by making him do his laundry for a month.
Serving as high-ranking heroic god in this legible religion is easy. So long as Sociopaths stay sufficiently distant, and hide the elevator they took to heaven, their status is secure. They are perceived as being too high up to directly compete with. Even failures do not tarnish their divine images. When gods fail, they merely drop a few rungs, shuffling heavenly rankings.
It is a fundamentally innocent, child-like religiosity. And as we saw last time, the programmed organization exists primarily to protect this innocence, for use in sacrificial betrayals, when failures are blamed on their incompetence.
Moments of Sociopath betrayal, for the Clueless, are also their rare moments of unscripted autonomy. But mostly, they do not take advantage of such moments. Instead, they react with either a misguided sense of honor and loyalty, accepting punishment for incompetence, or ineffectually attempt to dodge blame. Occasionally, they might try a Clueless kind of revenge, such as Michael’s attempt to start his own paper company.
In rare cases, the reaction to betrayal is a loss of innocence, an event that the Sociopath cannot entirely control.
If the Sociopath is lucky, the betrayed Clueless will catch an unmediated glimpse of illegible realities, successfully process the terror, get beyond revenge motives, and turn into into an amoral new Sociopath. A potential ally or competitor, but always a welcome source of new energy and scarce companionship in the Sociopath world. This is very rare. Direct Clueless-to-Sociopath transitions, without time spent in Loserdom, is unlikely.
If the Sociopath is less lucky, blame for betrayal will be directed at an existing group of Losers, where it will diffuse harmlessly as general resentment and disappointment that cannot be processed within Clueless frames. This outcome might lead to the Clueless graduating to Loserdom themselves, where they turn into less useful, checked-out pawns.
The latter outcome can be engineered, as we saw last time in our Golden Ticket counterfactual example, but not very reliably. The former cannot be engineered at all. Enlightenment can always be encouraged, but never scripted.
Wrangling Loser Spirituality
Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events. In Jamesian solitude, the minds of Losers turn to endlessly reliving social events and the associated churn of status and emotions. The banal sorrows and pleasures of group life, which we saw in Part IV, are endlessly reviewed for significance in private.
The external consequence of such private processing of intangibles is emotional resolution that heals or creates rifts.
The internal consequence of such private processing is that Losers see themselves as spiritual, not religious.
They may still participate in the theater of temples and icons, especially if those external objects are suitably aestheticized to symbolize their inner experiences. But they ultimately look inwards for significance. So to Losers, there is a distinction between the symbolically meaningful gravitas of organized religion and the meaningless absurdity of table-tennis or Star Trek religiosity.
Their “spirituality” manifests as a yearning to be indivisibly part of something bigger than themselves. They satisfy this yearning by looking for pools of positive collective emotions into which to dissolve their sense of self.
So their heaven is not a pantheon of heroes, reachable via a long ladder of achievement. Instead, it is an abstraction derived from emotional experiences shared with others. Atheist Losers call it belongingness. Theist Losers might describe it as oneness with the divine, but it is not the non-social self-dissolution of the Sociopath mystic. It is just regular belongingness with some theological flavors added.
It is this capacity of intellectual abstraction from “religious” to “spiritual,” and the emotional capacity for dissolving identities into groups, that allows Losers to convince themselves that they are more evolved than the Clueless.
This difference between Clueless (ritualistic) and Loser (spiritual) moral calculi, appropriately exaggerated, is illustrated in the episode The Job, where Dwight tries to teach a course on paper manufacturing for the staff during a temporary tenure as manager:
Dwight: Good! Now, let us discuss precipitation. Stanley! When rainfall occurs, does it usually fall in a liquid, solid, or gaseous… state?
Dwight: Very good! You have earned one Schrute Buck.
Stanley: I don’t want it.
Dwight: Then you have been deducted 50 Schrute Bucks!
Stanley: Make it 100.
Dwight: We — Don’t you wanna earn Schrute Bucks?
Stanley: No. In fact, I’ll give you a billion Stanley Nickels if you never talk to me again.
Dwight: What’s the ratio of Stanley Nickels to Schrute Bucks?
Stanley: The same as the ratio of unicorns to leprechauns.
Instead of such farcical calculations, Loser resolution-seeking works by balancing illegible emotional experiences against each other, in a process of null-seeking. So the anger caused by an act of betrayal might be soothed by a symbolic act of contrition that restores emotional balance to the moral universe, and perceived relative status.
But by their very nature, emotions overweight social behavior over material substance. Having a $100 bill thrown contemptuously at you hurts. Being politely handed $10 feels good. The Loser mind, predictably, sees the first act as a slight and seeks revenge, and the second act as nice and seeks to repay it.
We saw an example from the The Office last time. In the sales-commissions episode we find that for the support staff, sharing in the salespeople’s commissions and being thrown a thank-you party are emotionally equivalent. Both heal the emotional rift, but one leaves the salespeople vastly better off.
The Sociopath as Priest
It is this strangely incomplete calculus that creates the shifting Loser world of rifts and alliances. By operating with a more complete calculus, Sociopaths are able to manipulate this world through the divide-and-conquer mechanisms. The result is that the Losers end up blaming each other for their losses, seek collective emotional resolution, and fail to adequately address the balance sheet of material rewards and losses.
To succeed, this strategy requires that Losers not look too closely at the non-emotional books. This is why, as we saw last time, divide-and-conquer is the most effective means for dealing with them, since it naturally creates emotional drama that keeps them busy while they are being manipulated.
Sociopaths encourage this mode of processing by framing their own contributions to betrayal situations as necessary and inevitable. They also carefully avoid contributing to the emotional texture of unfolding events, otherwise their roles might come under scrutiny by being included in the emotional computations.
This is a crucial point. This is the practical reason for the low-reactor affect of Sociopathy.
For theatrically skilled Sociopaths, other non-vanilla affects are possible. “Divine anger” (Jan), ”charming but firm elder” (Jo Bennett) and “unpredictable demigod” (Robert California) are examples. These framing affects are designed to shape outcomes without direct participation, in ways that cannot be achieved by neutral low-reactor affects.
Any apparent participation in Loser/Clueless processing, such as David Wallace’s guest participation in the office charity auction, or Jo’s invitation to Michael to visit her in Florida, are strictly nominal and not meant to be taken seriously (Michael of course, does not get this, and attempts to cash in the invitation, at which point Jo rebuffs him).
These non-vanilla personalities operate by adding to, or subtracting from, the net emotional energy available to go around in Loser emotional calculations, but without intimate involvement. Sociopaths basically create the emotional boundary conditions of Loser life in simple or complex ways, depending on their skill level.
In the theater of Loser spirituality, the Sociopath must add only inevitable-seeming events that have material consequences, and non-participatory emotional boundary conditions.
So to the Loser, the Sociopath effectively presents a priestly mode of divine but constrained agency, accompanied by non-involved emotional power. This puts them in the position of being able to grant absolution to Losers for their sins.
Here’s how this happens. Whatever emotions Losers cannot resolve among themselves remains as unprocessed, private negative emotions. These they are naturally inclined to view as sinful, since their god is shared positive emotions. Looking around, in the Sociopaths, they find trusted sources of non-involved, healing emotional capital.
And so with every divide-and-conquer betrayal, instead of blaming the Sociopaths who govern the social order, they look to them for absolution and emotional healing. Guilt is the one emotion that Losers cannot always resolve for themselves, since it sometimes requires quantities of forgiveness that mere humans cannot dispense, but priests can, as reserve bankers of the fiat currencies of Loser emotional life.
But as with betrayals of the Clueless, the moment of betrayal presents unscripted danger for the Sociopath. This is especially likely if the Sociopath demonstrates a failing that breaks the priestly character.
Losers are usually collectively, rather than singly betrayed, but Sociopaths are created one at a time. The danger is that some individual Loser just might catch an unmediated glimpse of reality during a divide-and-conquer move, assign blame correctly, and turn into a competing Sociopath, instead of seeking absolution.
Unlike Clueless loss of innocence, which is an awakening to the illegible side of the social order, Loser disillusionment is a loss of faith in shared emotional experience as the central social reality of life (in other words, they awaken to the thought that love is not what makes the world go around, and is not all you need).
The newly minted Sociopath might even acquire agency over the group’s desire for collective action, and achieve enlightenment and power at the same time. But as with Clueless enlightenment, this is often a welcome development for Sociopaths, despite the immediate competitive threat. New free energy is always welcome. A mob cannot be reasoned with. A union with a Sociopath leader can.
And as with the Clueless, enlightenment can be encouraged but not scripted.
Meaning and Power through Withdrawal
Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas. And in Jamesian solitude, Sociopaths find ideas contending in their minds. The creative destruction they script in the world of Losers and Clueless is mirrored by a creative destruction in their minds.
This process creates power, but destroys meaning, especially the meanings of social realities. The result is increasing inner emptiness and external power.
It is this very emptiness that allows the Sociopath to play hero for the Clueless and priest for Losers. Recall that Sociopaths create meaning for others through the things they subtract, rather than the things they add. This is something conspiracy theorists typically don’t get: manufacturing fake realities is very hard. But subtractive simplification of reality is much easier, and yields just as much power.
From the persona they present to the Clueless, they subtract human fallibility and imperfection, presenting an illusory ideal of heroic perfection for the Clueless to identify with, and hopelessly strive toward.
From the persona they present to Losers, they subtract all participatory emotion, turning themselves into detached priests, bearing messages and gifts of emotional capital from hidden benevolent realities.
In each case, the Sociopath’s role is marked by a withdrawal of information from the scene: information about their own personalities and inner lives, and information about specific situations and material realities.
It helps that the moral calculi of both the Clueless and Losers are incomplete, so they are primed to not notice what is being withdrawn.
The former cannot process anything that is not finite, countable and external. They can only process the legible.
The latter cannot process the material aspect of anything that involves strong emotions, or unresolved private negative emotions. Where the material cannot be separated from the emotional — intense financial negotiations are a prime example – they cannot process reality at all.
What the Clueless and Losers cannot process, the Sociopaths withdraw from the scene. What is left behind is more meaningful by virtue of being simpler than unmediated, uncensored reality. From the Loser and Clueless points of view, Sociopaths are merely removing noise that they don’t know how to deal with anyway.
The Clueless can process the legible, so a legible world is presented to them.
Losers can process a world where emotional significance is the only kind of significance, so a world pregnant with emotional significance is created for them.
Which means that the power of Sociopaths derives from the things they remove from the scene: illegible, emotionally charged material realities that are potentially infinite in their complexity.
In other words, the raw material of power.
Over these withdrawn realities, Sociopaths exercise agency on behalf of others. They do not grab power. Power is simply ceded to them.
This process of carving out, via subtraction, finite and tractable realities for the Clueless and Losers to inhabit, can be repeated ad infinitum, creating layers of social realities for evolving Clueless and Losers to journey through. If the first layer is a morality theater run by the amoral, other theaters involve other comforting social realities. If this sounds like gamification, it’s because it is.
It is possible to progress through these layers without discovering the Sociopath world at all. Losers and Clueless can discover and decode specific bits of social reality, like the idea of amorality. Such discoveries do not automatically turn them into Sociopaths.
Sociopathy is not about ripping off a specific mask from the face of social reality. It is about recognizing that there are no social realities. There are only masks. Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe.
There is, to the Sociopath, only one reality governing everything from quarks to galaxies. Humans have no special place within it. Any idea predicated on the special status of the human — such as justice, fairness, equality, talent — is raw material for a theater of mediated realities that can be created via subtraction of conflicting evidence, polishing and masking.
Mask is an appropriate term for any social reality created through subtraction, because an appearance of human-like agency for non-human realities is what the inhabitants require. By humanizing the non-human universe, we make the human special.
All that is required is to control people who believe in fairness, is to remove any evidence suggesting that the world might fundamentally not be a fair place, and mask it appropriately with a justice principle such as an afterlife calculus, or a retirement fantasy.
So the process of ripping away masks of social reality and getting behind them ultimately turns into a routine skill for the Sociopath: game design. Once you do it a few times, it becomes second nature, a sort of basic power literacy. An understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed, and growing skill at wrangling those processes.
But the acquisition of this skill comes with a cost.
When a layer of social reality is penetrated and turned into a means for manipulating the realities of others, it is automatically devalued. To create medals and ranking schemes for the benefit of the Clueless is to see them as mere baubles yourself. To turn status-seeking into a control mechanism is to devalue status.
To devalue something is to judge any meaning it carries as inconsequential. In terms of our metaphor of masks of gods, the moment you rip off a mask and wear it yourself, whatever that mask represents becomes worth much less. So the Sociopath’s journey is fundamentally a nihilistic one.
The climactic moment in this journey is the point where skill at manipulating social realities becomes unconscious.
Suddenly, it becomes apparent that all social realities are based on fictional meanings created by denying some aspect of natural, undivided reality. Reality that does not revolve around the needs of humans.
The mask-ripping process itself becomes revealed as an act within the last theater of social reality, the one within which at least manipulating social realities seems to be a meaningful process in some meta-sense. Game design with good and evil behaviors.
Losing this illusion is a total-perspective-vortex moment for the Sociopath: he comes face-to-face with the oldest and most fearsome god of all: the absent God. In that moment, the Sociopath viscerally experiences the vast inner emptiness that results from the sudden dissolution of all social realities. There’s just a pile of masks with no face beneath. Just quarks and stuff (it is interesting that we have chosen to label the Higgs boson the “god” particle; our mask-seeking is truly desperate).
This is reality shock: the visceral experience of the fact that there is only one reality, with no special place for humans. This is the shock that sends David Wallace across the last threshold into fully-realized Sociopathy, as his entire theater of manipulative game-designer authority crumbles around him.
This moment is visceral, not intellectual. It is again possible to get to a merely intellectual appreciation of the “this is all there is” raw physicality of the human condition. That is not the same thing.
That is why, when Robert California explains his detachment from the power struggle between Andy Bernard and usurper Nelly Bertram, nobody really gets what he is talking about:
“All life is sex, and all sex is competition, and there are no rules to that game. There is one person in charge of every office in America. That person is Charles Darwin.”
Darwinism here is merely a motif for an experienced reality, not a description of it. It is a way for a Sociopath to explain his condition to others using the categories of our times. A thousand years ago, an awakened Sociopath might have used any of a hundred theological motifs for the same idea: the absence of god, the absence of deeper meanings beneath visible social realities.
This is why the term absent god is more appropriate than atheism. For Sociopath philosophies to be coherent, there is no need to postulate the non-existence of god (though that is the Occam’s razor choice). He merely needs to be divinely Otherwise Occupied and absent from our little universe.
The ultimate parent merely needs to be away. That’s enough for Sociopaths to play. This is why some of the greatest Sociopaths in history have actually been sincerely religious (Rockefeller for instance, was a committed Baptist).
The reality shock really is a shock for the Sociopath. Jan does not ever recover from it. Ryan never gets far enough to encounter it. On The Office, only three characters weather the shock: David Wallace, Robert California and Toby.
To weather the shock is to first process the sheer terror of a viscerally absent god, and then suddenly awaken to the deep freedom the condition represents.
Free as in Speech, Free as in Lunch
Once the Sociopath overcomes reality shock and frames his life condition as one defined by an absence of ultimate parental authority, and the fictitious nature of all social realities, he experiences a great sense of unlimited possibilities and power.
Daddy and Mommy are not here. Anything is possible, and I can get away with anything. I can make up any sort of bullshit and my younger siblings will buy it.
The sense of freedom is one I like to describe as free as speech, and as in lunch.
Free as in speech describes the Sociopath’s complete creative freedom in scripting social realities for others. Cherished human values are merely his crayon box.
Free as in lunch describes the Sociopath’s complete freedom from accountability, in his exercise of the agency ceded to him by the Losers and Clueless, via their belief in the reality of social orders.
Non-Sociopaths dimly recognize the nature of the free Sociopath world through their own categories: “moral hazard” and “principal-agent problem.” They vaguely sense that the realities being presented to them are bullshit: things said by people who are not lying so much as indifferent to whether or not they are telling the truth. Sociopath freedom of speech is the freedom to bullshit: they are bullshit artists in the truest sense of the phrase.
What non-Sociopaths don’t recognize is that these aren’t just strange and unusual environmental conditions that can be found in small pockets at the tops of pyramids of power, such as Lance Armstrong’s racing team, within a social order that otherwise makes some sort of sense.
It is the default condition of the universe. The universe is a morally hazardous place. The small pockets of unusual environmental conditions are in fact the fictional realities non-Sociopaths inhabit. This figure-ground inversion of non-Sociopath world-views gives us the default perspective of the Sociopath.
Non-Sociopaths, as Jack Nicholson correctly argued, really cannot handle the truth. The truth of an absent god. The truth of social realities as canvases for fiction for those who choose to create them. The truth of values as crayons in the pockets of unsupervised Sociopaths. The truth of the non-centrality of humans in the larger scheme of things.
When these truths are recognized, internalized and turned into default ways of seeing the world, creative-destruction becomes merely the act of living free, not a divinely ordained imperative or a primal urge. Creative destruction is not a script, but the absence of scripts. The freedom of Sociopaths is the same as the freedom of non-human animals. Those who view it as base merely provide yet another opportunity for Sociopaths to create non-base fictions for them to inhabit.
Sociopath lives, lived under these conditions of freedom, are incomprehensible to non-Sociopaths. So they imagine hidden social realities governing the lives of Sociopaths, turning them into forces of nature.
That is the ultimate imaginative act for non-Sociopaths: filling the inaccessible world of Sociopaths with convenient extrapolated social realities. Fictions that they can use to explain free Sociopath lives to themselves as being caused by some mysterious, hidden social order.
So Sociopath hero-god-priests come to inhabit entire universes imagined for them. And from these universes, a peculiar sort of Sociopath sometimes descends. One who seems to play neither hero, nor detached priest. One who strives, but fails, to participate in the emotional realities of non-Sociopaths. One who seeks to protect the innocent and help the disillusioned rediscover faith.
We are finally ready to explain Toby.
The Birth of the Messiah
Of those who weather reality shock, most simply accept their life and their permanent estrangement from non-Sociopaths. They have ascended to freedoms they cannot explain to those who do not possess them. They are somewhere between contemptuous and mildly indulgent towards those who inhabit the realities they create. Indifference is the default middle-ground attitude.
In other words, most Sociopaths learn to creatively exercise and enjoy their freedoms.
Some freely emulate other Sociopaths. Others carve out more imaginative paths. Morality becomes a matter of expressing fundamental dispositions rather than respecting social values. Kindness or cruelty, freely expressed. Those who are amused by suffering use their powers to cause it. Those who enjoy watching happiness theaters, create them through detached benevolence.
But freedom can also be a scary condition. It offers no canned reasons to do one thing instead of another, or even do anything at all. It offers no fixed motivations. There is nobody to blame for failures, no meaningful external validation for success. If physics allows it, you can do it. The consequences mean whatever you decide they mean.
So for some, freedom becomes a burden rather than a source of power. Life without scripted purposes and roles, instead of being viewed as a canvas for creative expression, becomes intolerably meaningless. The visceral knowledge that every act is a free choice, for which one can only hold oneself accountable, with nowhere to direct blame and nowhere to seek solace or absolution, becomes something they yearn to un-know.
The dissolution of social realities leaves behind only the cryptic material universe that must be painstakingly decoded through that supremely nihilistic behavior, scientific inquiry. But without a social order within which to value and make sense of decoded realities, such inquiry comes to seem like a worthless endeavor. Is a dinosaur fossil more meaningful than the Higgs boson? It is a meaningless question.
Freedom gained becomes paradise lost: the paradise of finite realities, mediated meanings and a comforting social order.
And so some Sociopaths reject the freedom and attempt to rejoin humanity.
What is known cannot now be un-known. There is no way to reverse the effects of the red pill of Sociopathy.
So instead, such Sociopaths turn into compassionate Messiahs, protecting the innocence of the Clueless, restoring the faith of Losers, using their Sociopath powers to guard the exits of paradise lest some unwittingly walk out. Unlike Sociopaths at peace with their freedom, who generally welcome enlightened new company, Messiahs send them home to paradise when they can.
They continue hopelessly to try and participate, especially in collective Loser emotion. But the experience is empty for them, knowing what they know. So despite themselves, they subtract emotional content rather than adding either positive or negative content. They become social black holes.
Michael gets this instinctively. His hatred of Toby is the most rational of all his behaviors.
But the redeemer Sociopath, seeking to preserve paradise for those who have not yet lost it, is ultimately human too. Despite himself, he too must ultimately fail to guard the exits. This is why Toby has piles of unprocessed Loser complaints in his office. Unredeemable emotional IOUs handed to a priest offering meaningless absolution.
And so we have the story of Toby. A theist Sociopath born as a Seminary drop-out. An ineffectual Messiah who wanders off to Costa Rica to find peace, but finds himself crucified in a ziplining accident. Resurrected, he returns unhappily to Dunder-Mifflin, where he continues to fail to protect paradise.
His story ends with him screaming disconsolately at his own absent god, in an empty church:
Why you got to be so MEAN to me?
Certainty of Nothingness
So here we are, at the end of our long journey of over 30,000 words. We visited the worlds of the Losers and the Clueless and learned to speak their languages. We pondered the workings of Clueless arrested development and the Loser stock market. We talked about the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose world of organizational sins.
And now we’ve toured the worlds of the free, unsupervised children of an absent god who commit those sins, leaving others to suffer the consequences.
We’re left, at the end of our journey, pondering the human condition according to The Office. Is the human journey one of creative progress scripted by gods. Or one of accumulating social costs created by the unsupervised and indifferent free children of an absent god?
Do we have any ultimate answers? Did we learn anything?
I can do no better than to close with the final scene of Burn After Reading.
After the colossal political mess that is the subject of the movie winds down, leaving behind a trail of dead bodies and ruined careers, we find a jaded CIA officer, played by J. K. Simmons, taking stock with an underling:
CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
Palmer: I don’t know, sir.
CIA Superior: I don’t fuckin’ know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
Palmer: Yes, sir.
CIA Superior: I’m fucked if I know what we did.
Palmer: Yes, sir, it’s, uh, hard to say
CIA Superior: Jesus Fucking Christ.
Thank you Office fans, you’ve been great. Writing this series has been the most pointless, yet simultaneously the most rewarding, undertaking of my life.
I am glad to report I learned nothing other than to not do it again.
Enjoy the series finale tonight. An e-book version will be inflicted on you shortly.