In Praise of the Bad Guy
- In Pimp by Iceberg Slim, almost the entire book is devoted to his life on the streets, to learning the game of pimping and mastering it. Then comes a riveting account of his time in prison, and finally, at the end, a fiery denunciation of his wasted years as a pimp. This moralizing ending has largely been ignored. Instead, the book has become a manual for how to be the ultimate pimp. In his other books, it is the con artist, the gang leader and hustler who holds our attention and draws our sympathy. We become absorbed in reading about the pressures of life on the streets and how each individual finds a way to get ahead, by any means necessary.
- In The Art of Seduction I describe the Rake character, a man who is amoral and faithless, but who is devastatingly seductive to women. History abounds with such examples. Lord Byron slept with his sister, ruined many a young girl with his heartlessness, treated his wife abominably, but the women kept flocking to him in great numbers. After Errol Flynn was acquitted of rape charges, even more women than before besieged him. The equivalent for men would be the Siren, the femme fatale.
- Shortly after the Don Imus incident, the media turned its artillery on hip hop and the nefarious effect of its lyrics and images on the youth of America. Why can’t the music reflect something healthier, more wholesome? Why does it have to be so violent, so misogynistic? This soon faded away, as do other attempts to make the culture kinder and gentler. Missing from these discussions is the possibility that it is the violence and aggression that is a large part of its appeal. The brilliant strategy employed by hip-hop is to actually invite and welcome these occasional moralistic attacks–they deepen its appeal to disaffected youth.
- In the movie Posse from Hell, one of my favorite Westerns, a gang of outlaws commits some terrible crimes in a town and a posse is formed to hunt them down. The posse is led by the sheriff (played by Audie Murphy), a man with his own dubious past. Murphy has a hard time finding volunteers–the townspeople are lazy and fearful. He finally forms a small posse and it heads out to chase the criminals. Along the way, however, each member of the group reveals a character flaw–greed, cowardice, stupidity–and they are either killed or abandon the cause. Only two are left at the end, Murphy and an unlikely youth from the big city. Both of these men have their own issues. Finally, they find and kill the criminals, but the moral of the story is that all men are a mix of good and bad; those who deny this part of themselves are in fact worse than the criminals because they cannot be redeemed.
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We live in a moralizing culture that produces and holds up certain ideals. These ideals promote the angel in all of us. When someone is praised, it is for their philanthropic work, what they are giving back to the community, what makes them a decent leader and positive role model. In a Hollywood film, it is the moralistic ending that is supposed to resonate in our minds–love conquers all, the good and the decent reap their rewards, etc. In the public spotlight, whenever someone wants to impress us, they get dewy-eyed and talk of various virtues in themselves or loved ones.
It is not that this is completely false, that we are all devils and nothing more. But it creates ideals no one can live up to, and in fact produces resentment and accounts for our secret attraction to what is dark and animal in human nature–the shadow side in us all, that part of us that manipulates, inflicts pain, etc. And so this seeps out of us unconsciously. We fill our books and films with characters who do bad things. We love reading about the actions of con artists, pimps, hustlers. We may consciously swallow the happy, moralistic ending, but our real passion goes towards the villain in ways we cannot explain.
What really draws us to the con artist, the pimp, the hustler, the Rasputins and Lord Byrons is that they are more genuine than we are. Instead of living a double life in which they show their good sides and deny the darkness, they are authentically human. Just like children, who find it hard to disguise their cruel streak. Secretly, we wish we could be more like them and indulge this part of our character that starts to smell for being so underground.
So next time you hear a moralizer denouncing hip hop, or railing against some athlete of dubious character, or disparaging homosexuals, or ranting against amoral books about power, or whatever it is, just do a mental calculation: the strength of their denunciation equals the strength of their attraction. They are trying to push down the very dark side that is trying to rise to consciousness. They can only express this “yes” with “no.” When you see a Hollywood film in which a criminal or dark character pushes the plot, but in the end a happy, moralistic ending is tacked on, focus on what dominates most of the film–the vivid descriptions of the dark sides that make us want to see the film. In other words, that dark side is finding unconscious expression.
Think of people’s words as distracting devices. What is really true about a person is often communicated by what he or she doesn’t say, by actions that mean something other than their conscious intentions. Disgust and fear can be disguised forms of attraction. This is a basic principle for any aspiring seducer.