Spitzer’s fMRI

by Asher Kay

I have been preoccupied lately with what I call – for lack of a better term – “areas of concern”. When we think about a particular topic, object, person, or whatever, we tend to focus on certain aspects and exclude others. Take healthcare reform, for a recent example. When you think about healthcare reform, do you primarily think about how it will affect our society as a whole? How it will affect you personally? Do you think about the millions of uninsured and their plight? The people who die every day for lack of insurance coverage? Do you dwell on the cost of reform? The economic ramifications? Do you think of it as a policy problem? An ideological issue? You get the picture.

My preoccupation has led me to view what I read in a different way. When I’m reading an opinion piece, for instance, I think about what the columnist is *not* saying — what arguments and counter-arguments they are *not* addressing. It’s sort of put me off politics and politicians in general, to be honest. It affects my fiction reading too. In fiction, areas of interest are doubly interesting, because you have not only the protagonist’s areas of interest, but the writer’s as well.

Anyway…. With the above in mind, here’s a quote from a recent article about Eliot Spitzer:

I made an egregiously horrendous judgment at every level,” he adds. “Not just in terms of the risk/reward calculus, which seems like a very antiseptic way of thinking about it, but also in terms of what it meant to my family. I talk all the time about fiduciary duty. What more fundamental duty is there than to a spouse?

6 Comments to “Spitzer’s fMRI”

  1. Asher, good to hear from you.

    1. Personally—me, my wife, my daughter, the grandkids
    2. Millions of uninsured
    3. Society as a whole
    4-5-6 Costs, economics, policy ramifications
    7. Those who die for lack of insurance—too much like thinking of the millions who die for no good reason in earthquakes, famines, tsunamis, the bloody Congo.

    Dwelling too much on 7 means constant oscillation between rage and despair. Blocks thinking about what I can do for 1 and 2, which needs some clear thinking about 3,4,5 and 6.

  2. You make me think of the basic contrast between Lockeian (liberal) democracy and Rousseauian (republican) democracy. In the latter, the general good is arrived at by everyone trying very hard to think about what would be best for everybody. They may not think alike, but together they produce a General Will which is a compelling distillation of their collective best. In the former, the general good is arrived at by everyone trying very hard to think about what would be best for themselves. They won’t think alike and will regularly be at cross-purposes, but together they cancel out the worst impulses and create a society optimized for individual freedom.

    Spitzer’s an interesting case. He was actually doing some pretty cool things with knocking the stuffing out of big arrogant players on Wall Street and whatnot. As it turns out that was part of his own arrogance but as someone without that kind of driving neurosis, I note that getting stuff done at a certain level may have to be worth some concerning corollaries. Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King Jr. were good to their wives either, in their own ways.

  3. I think the most telling part of Spitzer’s quote is when he says, “…which seems like a very antiseptic way of thinking about it”. First of all, yes. Yes, Eliot, it does. I would personally add “creepy” to “antiseptic”, but “antiseptic” is, in itself, a very interesting choice of words. We take it to mean “cold” or “without reference to emotional content”, but metaphorically, you could say that there is a sepsis that he’s sterilizing by thinking about it this way. He is removing the act from the calculation about the act. “Risk/reward calculus” could apply to many things, from Backgammon to $5000 prostitutes. And further, “antiseptic” is itself an antiseptic word, in a way that “cold” or “creepy” are not. One gets the distinct feeling that this is a statement that he’s rehearsed in his head.

    So when he’s rehearsing the statement about his judgement, it occurs to him that others might be taken aback by his framing of the issue in terms of risk/reward calculus. And in his opinion, what people will be taken aback by is the “antiseptic” way he is thinking about it. Adding “which seems like…” is a way of reminding us that he is not, in fact, a reptile in a human body — that he is able to at least mimic the way people who do not apply risk/reward calculus to paying for kinky sex think.

  4. I’m aware of a hyperbole embedded in how I think about these things, but it struck me immediately about Spitzer that he’s fairly far thataway on the sociopathy spectrum. That is, he has no discernable empathy; fellow humans appear to him as objects in the old sense: puzzles to be solved, obstacles to be overcome, prizes to be won, tools to be used, etc. He’s a perfect lawyer in that his conceptual thinking is natively rule-oriented. Rules create a field of possibilities and consequences, but have no other compelling content.

    People like this generally understand as a function of experienced consequence that other people hold certain intangibles dear. They do in fact mimic and rehearse rhetorically appropriate gestures of compliance and may even overcompensate comically, although they do not grasp the intersubjective meaning of these rituals. Deep down they think everyone does their thinking in rules and risk-reward calculi. Beside lawyers, the other professional exemplars of this cast of mind are economists.

    In terms of actual brain function this is the opposite of reptilian, by the way; it’s the front of the brain that does rational calculation according to rules; the back of the brain does the feeling. In some sense Spitzer is ‘more evolved’ than the poor cavemen whose reason is slave to their emotions. But that’s not quite right either, because only emotions can create motivation (reasoning alone is always ambivalent). Just as they’re out of touch with others’ emotions, these folks are out of touch with their own.

  5. Carl – This is dead on. What I think we have is a (possibly mild) form of sociopathy. In our leaders, our crusaders, our heroes, it’s a good thing. In our serial killers, not so much. It depends, as Michael Connelly says in the Bosch novels, on “which dog you feed”.

    I also think that the empathy issue is very important, but also very complicated. Our empathy is seated to some extent in our limbic systems, in our amygdalae, in our “old” brain. But there is a very important component in our pre-frontal cortices, which shouldn’t be overlooked or undervalued. And the issues with empathy that occur in autism disorders could possibly be the result of *global* structural differences — differences possibly even related to embryogenetic differences.

    I am personally hyper-empathetic. I empathize so much that I could make a decent case that it’s a disability. It’s great for fiction-writing. It sucks for negotiating custody and child-support with your ex-spouse.

  6. Agreed.

    Re: the complication of empathy, I’ve learned that empathy comes in flavors and is not automatically inconsistent with the syndrome we are talking about. For a long time I was close with someone who believed herself to be hyper-empathetic, and I was happy to give her credit for that. But as it turned out, what she called empathy was actually interpersonal hypervigilance, the product of an arbitrary and violent childhood training regime. From this she had developed other-oriented rules of interpretation and interaction that simulated empathy quite effectively and might as well be called that, although there were these weird loose ends around the edges where people and situations didn’t fit her templates. I suspect that a fair amount of women’s supposed ‘natural’ empathy can be traced to this sort of ptsd.

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