Why Would You Call Someone a Sociopath?

January 26, 2015 - Features

[TW: ableist speech]

What’s the purpose of calling people sociopaths? Why use that word, in particular, versus any of the alternatives available to you in a heated argument?

For example, you could use a typical curse word like asshole, which also implies that the target doesn’t care about people’s feelings. But cursing makes the speaker seem upset, which they might not want. People often dismiss each other by saying “you’re emotional, calm down.” Swearing can also make you seem immature in some contexts. By contrast, a long, uncommon, technical-sounding word like sociopath makes the speaker sound cool, detached, and higher status. And you imply that the target is the opposite because of stereotypes about mental illness.

So why not go even further, and accuse the target of having antisocial personality disorder? Sociopath sounds fancy, but it hasn’t been an actual DSM-sanctioned diagnosis since 1968. A more technically accurate term could in theory make the speaker sound even more detached and superior. But I suspect that goes too far; if you said “You have antisocial personality disorder” to someone in a Twitter argument, you would sound ridiculous. And it’s easy to counter – “what are you, a fucking psychologist?” Because it’s precise, and has a strict definition in the DSM, it can’t be applied to people casually without inviting argument. Sociopath is useful because it sounds technical, but isn’t.

And yet it has advantages over even more informal terms like crazy or insane. It implies something a little more specific: a person who lacks empathy and doesn’t care about the consequences of their actions, maybe. This is a loose popular understanding of the definition of antisocial personality disorder. This understanding seems to be what’s implied in the vast array of fictional character diagnoses and online quizzes that yield themselves to a Google search of the word. Although I’m not sure that’s even what it implies to most people. I think it might be more broadly understood as being related to serial killers. Crazy has slid so far into the realm of generic insult that it can’t carry meanings like that any more, and more specific is always more insulting, even if the specific meanings vary based on who hears the word.

But if specific is more insulting, why not just say what you mean? Why not say, “You don’t care about other people”? My instinct is, that’s easy to laugh off for the type of people who receive such accusations. For, perhaps, obvious reasons. But if you change it just a little, it suddenly sounds harsher: “you aren’t capable of caring about other people.” I can imagine even a hardened harasser getting a little defensive about that.

That’s what a word like sociopath does. It implies that the thing that makes me angry about you is a cognitive disability. And that’s instantly more hurtful, because we associate mental illness and disability with weakness, danger, and lack of self-awareness in a way we don’t with personality traits. Someone who doesn’t care about other people is a jerk; someone who can’t care about other people is pitiable at best, instantly viewed as a dangerous criminal at worst. There is no rhyme or reason to this. It’s just a consequence of the way our culture treats the mentally ill. Once a society designates a group as lower status, it has to tell stories about why they belong there over and over.

So, what’s the purpose of calling someone a sociopath? It’s a word that positions the speaker is high status, but in a way that isn’t easily challenged. At the same time, it positions the target in a group that is seen as worthy only of pity and contempt. The perfect crime. But a word of warning, Twitter geniuses: things won’t be this good forever. As a previously technical-ish term which is no longer in favor in professional use, and which is used increasingly in a purely insulting context, sociopath is following a familiar trajectory. Like moron, lunatic, the r-word, and the abbreviations spaz and psycho before it, sociopath is surely well on the path to being either a generic insult or an outright slur. Do be careful to get out in time.

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