Institutions

On being honestly bad

To make insurrection against oppressive institutions, one must be as bad as one honestly is.

I am trying to express myself in some mode of life as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I want to allow myself, arms which are not so much arms as disarmaments, and are for that reason the only legitimate and effective arms available in our world already armed to its teeth: unchecked boisterousness, indiscriminate participation in all things, and naïve transparency. I hypothesize that anyone who holds fast to these rules cannot err. Wherever the dust settles after a whole, naïve, honest soul distributes itself unrestrained into society, it cannot do otherwise than improve that society (and that soul). Unlimited expression, from the launching point of unbiased immersion in all things of the world, abetted by an absolute rejection of all temptation to dissimulation, means nothing other than giving back to the world a true image of itself.

The typical person, on the contrary, consumes the stuff of the world and gives back to that world the same glossy, airbrushed centerfold that made the currently existing world falsely appear desirable in the first place. This corrupt quid pro quo between the individual and society is effected primarily by the individual’s effort to represent itself as better than the horrible shit which constitutes it.1 Whether they do this for dubious or laudable motives, the effect remains the same. This is the ethos of good people, including and especially the most enlightened and radically good people.

There are three specific mechanisms by which most people—the good, cool, attractive, admirable citizenry—convert their dying society into a semblance of living individuals. They are opposite the three ethical tendencies articulated above. First, a scandalously disproportionate personal preference for silence over honest expression, at once the most discreet and common way to flatter contemporary society by internalizing and concealing all of its nastiest dimensions. Second, the masturbatory romance of exile, motivated by the long-standing but idiotic fantasy that there may still exist some space “outside” of society, a kind of spatial and aesthetic version of silence. And finally, by the sex appeal of strategy or cunning, as if some individual or group will be so clever and powerful as to calculate their way out of this historical nightmare in which instrumental calculation is precisely that which has already hollowed out everything which makes life worth living.

There has never been anything politically progressive, let alone radical, about the citizen who modestly bides their time, reflects on some path to goodness, and then pursues it with intelligent discipline. The radicalism of a particular stance or goal cannot change the fact that all currently existing ways of being good require a fundamentally conservative relation to the world as the price of entry. It is indeed the easiest way to live in compliance with and in active support of the people and institutions which dominate at any point in time. To be a good person is to be innocent in the present, innocent in the view of today’s arbitrary and contingent judges, but to betray the truth of human history inside of oneself and to become guilty in the judgment of future generations who will only wonder why we lied to ourselves. But of course, the alternative is not to be any kind of bad person, as if any kind of badness is necessarily politically progressive.

To help constitute a real and concrete insurrection against oppressive institutions, one must be honestly bad. We must risk ourselves to admit how terrible we are in order to indict the institutions which have generated and deformed us. The personal risk is what makes honest badness a real mechanism of social change, rather than just one more empty gesture in the dead world of representational politics. It is the risk of losing respect and admiration and status quo opportunities in the real assertion of one’s true self that makes this type of communication uniquely capable of constituting real and potentially contagious, radical bonds of opposition and igniting creative expenditures into new worlds. It is what game theorists call a “credible commitment.” The willingness to lose rewards from the status quo implies one must really mean and believe in what one is saying and doing. It is only real risks which inspire others to take real risks and in this way constitute real social movement.

The truth is that I want to do whatever I want at all times, with unlimited resources, and I want recognition for my brilliance and admiration from the entire world. In one sense, with respect to basic morality, this is insane, maniacally egotistical and childishly selfish, but it is nonetheless truly and undoubtedly what I want. I could easily say that I also want all these things for everyone else—and that would be true!—but even that is just an easy way to improve my image on the moral register of representational politics. I truly think all people deserve these things equally and I want to fight for all of us to get them, but the truth is I primarily want these things for myself because I don’t even know most people and I don’t even like a great many of the people I do know. I am truly, in fact, a maniacal child. And really, why wouldn’t I be? Does any currently available type of life trajectory today really provide a plausible pathway through which childhood forms of selfishness are ever able to grow into something more noble? Today, children don’t grow into adult human beings but are merely channeled into compliance by institutions which then reward them with the legitimate label of “Adult.”

Because I want to obtain at least a few things for myself and survive with a little bit of happiness, I simply tell myself that it’s insane to want everything I want and forget the full range of my honest desires, I build a private world of comfort and fantasy regarding my suppressed but heroically simmering greatness, and then I try to be what is called good in order to get along with people, minimize tension, and promote myself. Silence, exile, cunning, and nothing is changed by the fact that I am trying as passionately as anyone to live in dedication to justice and equality for all as soon as possible.

A dedication to social justice can make one even more dishonest. I try to be kind and patient to everyone even if I honestly think they’re ethically pathetic accomplices of hideous evil and boring as hell. Does that make me a good person or a liar? In the accounting books of currently existing institutions, in the order of the recorded spectacle which is the only actually existing reality, I am truly being a good person in defeat of my bad tendencies. I will be liked and trusted and my goodness will bring good things within the current social order. But the ultimate fact is that I am only pretending to be a good person; not only am I in truth merely a selfish and self-righteous child, now I am also dishonest and lacking integrity. Alas, I have joined the ranks of the ethically pathetic accomplices of hideous evil and the boring as hell.

Let us be truly together in the honesty of our evils rather than eternally alone in the falsity of our morals. Let us deface the currency. Anyone who really listens will understand, because they know as well as we that their current life is as sorry as our own. Of course, those who refuse to listen to our truths won’t understand, but what is beautiful about the real movement of history is that the refusal or inability to understand it never prevents one from being swept away. The irony is that in this real movement which cannot do anything other than revalue all values, the ugliness of our honesty will become good and attractive and all currently existing institutions will not be destroyed so much as evacuated.

  1. I write “it” because we are not necessarily talking about a living thing yet; so far I am only discussing the human thing, a thing which may embody what its environment feeds it, and perceive its own excrement as evidence of “liberty,” but does not necessarily do anything that could yet be called human life.

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Murphy, Justin. 2015. "On being honestly bad," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2015/04/19/on-being-honestly-bad/ (August 13, 2017).