synthetic zero

October 13th, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently about the notion of “nice guys” vs “bad boys” or “dangerous” men as it plays out in Western culture, or at least in, say, North American culture, because that dichotomy has never made sense to me, intuitively, despite the fact that I was born and grew up in the US. This came home to me when I was on the plane the other day watching the forgettable teen flick “I Love You Beth Cooper” about a valedictorian who, for some reason, is in love with the head cheerleader, who, aside from being pretty, doesn’t seem to have much going for her. Watching this guy I was struck both by how I identified with some aspects of the lead character (nerdy, intellectual, considerate, etc.) and found other aspects totally unfamiliar (nervousness, awkwardness, inability to execute his plans, clumsiness, fear in the face of physical threat, not to mention atrocious taste in women.) This movie really epitomizes the ways in which the typical nice guy/bad boy dichotomy never made sense to me.

It’s not that I don’t have a weak/strong duality in my mind — it’s just that it looks very different. My version of it draws, I think, more from Japanese culture, and it relates a bit to the difference between Japanese ideas about the relationship between power and virtue, and Western ideas of the same. In the West, there’s a sort of presumption that to be “good” is to be somehow a bit of a sap; being good is sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others, not being willing to do what it takes to get ahead, and so on. People have to be threatened by a vengeful God in order to act in a virtuous way; without that threat, the idea is that you would act selfishly and crassly.

In the East, and particularly in Japanese culture, however, the idea is a bit different. Instead of a meek saint, you have the image of a Zen master or a samurai warrior. A samurai is not someone you’d want to fuck with, he’s someone who could kill you in a second without a second thought if he needed to, and someone who could easily crush the average asshole, yet whatever motivates the samurai isn’t selfishness. Selfish people, on the other hand, are seen as weak (because they are); selfishness provides many targets for manipulation, for being open to getting conned, it’s a weakness, with even an air of the pathetic. In the West, selfishness is seen as an advantage; in the East, particularly in Japan, it’s a weakness. The most paradigmatic insult in Western culture is to call someone an asshole; in Japanese culture, you call someone an idiot (bakatare) — because being selfish (an asshole) isn’t seen as the primary vice, it’s ineptitude that’s the vice.

In the end, I think of the Western idea of nice guy vs bad boy as a sort of unevolved notion; that is, a samurai is basically an “advanced” bad boy. In the end, in other words, I am on the side of the bad boys, because I myself am not someone who is motivated by sentiment or by sympathy for people in the ordinary sense; I don’t do things for people because I feel their pain or am trying to be “nice”. Beneath my apparently nice exterior is actually a fairly ruthless person, just like my samurai ancestors. But I’m not out to get you, or anyone else, because, unlike the asshole bad boys out there, I find the notion of working primarily for your own selfish ends to be quite simpleminded, an easy way to get taken advantage of, a vulnerability, and a form of ineptitude. If you really examine the world, the way things work, and you really do your best to find a way to live in the world in the most effective way possible, then the idea of being primarily selfish makes no sense, it’s stupid and constraining, and it leads to failure and loss in the long run, because it’s based on the false notion that we can be separated out from everything around us. It’s a weakness in the most direct sense: because it’s based on a limited perspective, nine times out of ten, the selfish person is going to be defeated by the unselfish, but not meek, strong, together person.

The samurai personality does share some traits with the bad boys of Western culture: we do think of ourselves as the alpha male (or in the case of women, the alpha female), the top dog, in most situations. It’s an egotistical stance, of course, but there’s an egalitarian component to it: it’s not that we think that we’re on top and everyone else has to be “below” us by virtue of our birth, or something — everyone has the potential to be great, everyone could be great if they woke up to their full potentiality, their full dimensionality. And it has a humble aspect, because in this same world view we recognize that there are other people who have it together, or even more so (our comrades, the ones we “fight” alongside, as well as the people who agree to be our spouses, or our teachers, our parents, etc.) The fact, however, that the samurai personality or the Zen master may be considerate and honorable doesn’t, however, make them akin to the “nice guys” of Western culture. However much we want to acknowledge the true potential of all people, there is, for better or worse, an arrogance about us, which takes the following form — unlike, perhaps, the Western “bad boy” who might demand respect, in an odd way, the samurai simply withdraws their respect (or our support, or our desire) from those who don’t respect them. We withdraw from those who don’t recognize what is really going on: if someone mistakes consideration for weakness, that person simply gets to be free from what we might have offered to them. We are arrogant, but unless you attack us or other people we’re trying to help, the worst we’ll do to you is withdraw what we’d offered, whether it’s help, support, desire, love, or whatever else.

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3 responses to this post:
  1. Magda O! says:

    Interesting that you posted this today when I was just telling you that you seem non-threatening, one of the reasons women must be so attracted to you. In this way I definitely did not mean meek or sentimental (as I know you aren’t) but perhaps that you aren’t selfish and arrogant but rather you recognize situations in a very truthful way, thus you are truthful to the situation, thus you are truthful to the people in it.

    That of course is my impression from the few days of meeting you.

    Your deconstruction of the good boy/bad boy dichotomy totally relates to me because my own partner, Jason, is neither. Many see him as the “good boy” and many, including myself see many “bad boy” qualities in him. It frustrates me that people who know us both use words like, “he is so whipped.” “he will do anything for you” etc, this of course de-notating passivity in his character towards me and our relationship. The complete opposite is true because I would never be with someone who was so simple. Yes, he will do almost anything for me, but isn’t that just being in love? He does many things that are revered in literature and art, but in “real life” seen as weak.

    October 13th, 2009 at 6:29 pm
  2. Magda O! says:

    I love the last sentence. It sums up him perfectly. It sums up a strong person perfectly.

    October 13th, 2009 at 6:30 pm
  3. mitsu says:

    It wasn’t just your comment because when I thought about it I think I understood what you meant; but I have been thinking about this issue for a while, for various reasons. It’s always struck me as a slighty odd binary that plays itself out over and over again in popular culture and even in people’s lives; yet it always seemed puzzling and wrong to me, though for some reason exactly how has become increasingly clear to me due to some things I’ve observed lately.

    October 13th, 2009 at 6:58 pm

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