At a recent rationalist gathering, someone I don’t know very well looked at my outfit and told me, in utter seriousness, “if I dressed like you, I would be undeniably evil.” He changed the topic a moment later, but I proceeded to think about this comment for the next few weeks. It would be hypocritical to be angry about it, because he was correct: the way I look deliberately connotes at least otherness, if not deviance depending on the audience. It is, however, rare for someone to call it outright.
I have to thank the schlocky murder-erotica TV drama Hannibal for bringing me the phrase “ethics become aesthetics” (a condensed version of a theory put forth in Susan Sontag’s On Style). Inexorably, the way one looks is tied to the way one constructs their worldview. How much can you judge about how someone moves through the world, without ever talking to them? Who are they performing for? What is it they care about? What do they want you to know?
In my case, I took great care to weaponize my appearance. I have what could be characterized as an actively dangerous aesthetic. Lots of black, harsh angles, militaristic connotations. I don’t characterize myself as evil, but I’m happy to look it, in that I actively don’t want to look good. I think it should be important to establish yourself as someone who exists outside of the prevailing moral dogma. This should be something people know about you from the start. In the era of fake news, cancel culture (groan) and a guilty-until-proven-innocent structure of discourse, is important not to be an easy mark.
This is the guide for why you should want to look evil.
The most common morality systems are faulty.
I used to be close with someone who could be called an ineffective altruist. They were nationally recognized for their charitable work, which was driven by a solemn religiosity. They were also so hung up on the idea of repairing the world, of playing the long game, that they came to regard the people around them as collateral damage. They could absolutely demoralize you and then say, “I’m doing this for the greater good.” This was a person I later cast in a space opera as the planet-destroying villain, driven by delusions of godlike justice. It was very easy to think, if this is what goodness is, I don’t want to be good. I started thinking that morally it would be better to be the kind of person they would despise.
Around this time I was also attending a middling Jesuit university with squeaky-clean facade. I quickly found myself entirely uncomfortable with Catholics – the wheeling and dealing of sin and confession; the professors brazenly shoehorning their own faith into their coursework; the trite pro-LGBTQ signage around campus at odds with the deacon who banned gay marriage in the chapel, convinced that the local archdiocese would pull their support and disrupt the university’s cash flow; the useless storefront of Campus Psychological Services, which redirected you to the priests stationed in the dorms as counsel. Guilt and secrecy were the backbones of the culture. Many of the students wore matching necklaces from spiritual retreats; the whole thing was culty. So I set myself up as someone unrecruitable, someone who could never be one of ‘those people’. I acquired a leather jacket, got more piercings, all the ’80s movie trappings of someone who doesn’t care what you think, man. It might have made me moderately obnoxious (I once got suckered into a trip to the chapel wearing a t-shirt that said HELL IS SO HOT RIGHT NOW) but it also made me a lightning rod for discourse in my classes because I was the de facto contrarian. People expected my opinions to be novel, which made my work better. It was productive.
The moral here is that it’s effective to cast yourself as someone who isn’t playing by the rules. Quite literally wearing your ethics on your sleeve can do a lot of the legwork in saying I am not like you, I don’t believe what you believe, and can more accurately set the tone for the interactions you want to be having in these morally-governed spaces.
Much of what we think of as morality is just play-acting.
One malady of late capitalism is that none of us want to look like we’re doing too little. Public performance has always been an aspect of morality (think self-flagellating monks, or Victorians in their funerary black), and the demands of looking like a morally upstanding citizen today are painstakingly specific. The information age has given us a cornucopia of choices regarding who we are allowed to be in society, but we cherrypick certain behaviors to put our best foot forward. Just a sampling: wear a smile, even when there is nothing to smile about, because you need to look and sound authentic (happiness is of course taken to be the default authentic state). Sit up straight, even when exhausted; maybe get a standing desk so you can lord your able-bodiedness over your peers. You may talk to your officemates about certain preapproved topics when allowed time to be lax (definitely don’t mention that it feels like the world is ending), but don’t be too lax. Perform self-care, but not too much. Repost the correct current events to your newsfeed so everyone can know you did your part by raising awareness. Always be aware, but stay optimistic, like someone who doesn’t read the news. Do meatless Mondays. Make a show of riding your bike. Act like your small acts save the world, even though a handful of people with more power than you can dream of are actively trying to kill it. These rituals are distracting, exhausting virtue signaling. They barely do anything for the net good of the planet other than telegraphing please like me to your immediate peers. They are not the kind of actions that, when everyone does them, will make a difference; they are bare-minimum nods to environmentalism that don’t change the fact that the people at the top of the heap won’t do anything that matters in time to fix the state of this planet (also your affinity for quinoa is decimating indigenous populations in South America).
I’m not saying we should all give up. I’m saying that many of the behaviors we partake in to increase our social worth are inefficiencies, and it is possible to care deeply about justice without constructing a shell of empty symbols to do it. The mask can slip off with little consequence. Speedrunning the impractical parts of these social contracts may at worst lead to some meaningless name-calling about being uncaring. It is worthwhile to construct yourself as the kind of person who doesn’t care about these things, who has convictions that exist outside of hollow late capitalist ethics. To save yourself some energy, look like someone who wants to bring down the system, not like someone who wants to earn a gold star from it.
Any system that defines good and evil as inexorable, all-or-nothing states of being is not a just system.
Hell was the worst idea humans ever had. Hell makes everything a moral imperative – you’re either 100% saved or 100% damned, no matter how complicated the human experience. Even in secular circles, this sort of thinking is carried out in paradigms like cancel culture, in which a community decides to cast members out based on often small infractions which are then extrapolated into rigid judgments about the person’s character as a whole.
I participate in some social justice work. It was never an active decision to do so; it felt like a reflex, like some primordial decision-making structure told me I had to do it. I help edit a list of known offenders within a certain community, people prone to abuses of power or coercive business practices. It is left up to the readers to decide whether they can handle working with the people documented on the list. Some mistake the existence of a list like this as evidence of rampant cancel culture, and assume me to be its figurehead, but my only goal to make sure instances of abuse are documented in a field that has no formal accountability. The list doesn’t tell anyone who they should shun. But if someone wants to based on information provided in the list, that is their choice.
In working on a project like this, embracing underhandedness is necessary. The list is effective because it acts as a proverbial anvil hovering over the heads of people who do deplorable things, and embracing the role of a villain made dealing with these tough subjects tolerable. There is a vicious kind of joy in singling out what makes a person dangerous, and then documenting it dispassionately, like a hunter hanging a game trophy. Being a threat can be thrilling. Power can be balanced swiftly and gracefully from afar, if the need arises.
Being a villain, however, requires being an outsider. I have had opportunities parlay this project into restorative justice, to become a compassionate advocate instead of a slightly rude fly on the wall, and it was always imperative that I decline these. The list works because it doesn’t provide any definitive judgments. The moment I take a stand for the goodness of certain people over others, presuming the innocence of some but not others, the whole endeavor becomes moot. It would cease to be an unbiased instrument of justice and would instead be a popularity contest. It only functions if my personal judgments are entirely out of the picture, if I maintain a moral otherness as someone on the outside of the system looking in.
On looking vs. being:
I’ll admit that I went through about five separate drafts of this essay because I didn’t want to come off as an absolute asshole. Some of the ideas here are what I would typify as “dark side theologies” (and I’m sure there’s a real term for this that I don’t know): ideas that immediately threaten group security by reducing rule adherence. Or, more simply: ideas that would make me an absolute misanthrope depending on context. To round this out and to rescue my ego, I’d like to loop back around to the comment that started this screed off, with my emphasis: “if I dressed like you, I would be undeniably evil.” The sentence structure seems to indicate that while I only look like I should be evil, there is some ineffable factor that keeps me from actually being evil (something that the person who said this doesn’t seem to think he has). This conversation happened in a place where I clearly look like an iconoclast, but where ethically, I don’t seem to be one. I’m happy to interpret this as reinforcement that what you appear to be isn’t what you are.