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What is a villain?

Do we all want to be villains?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

"The villain," say Chuck Klosterman in his rambling, rollicking, yet oddly coherent book I Wear The Black Hat, "is the person who knows the most but cares the least." This, then, is a fascinating book about everybody's temptation by villainy, a subject about which we know the least and care the most.


The book forms its definition of villainy by tracing the theme from Newt Gingrich to Darth Vader to Snidely Whiplash to O.J. Simpson to Bill Clinton, passing through The Eagles, Machiavelli, Charles Bronson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and more on the way (including a somewhat abortive attempt to include Hitler).

Klosterman, who writes the column, The Ethicist for The New York Times, and who has written several other books, seems to be obsessed with pop culture to the point of compulsion, but the immediacy and informality of his style brings the reader in on that compulsion too. The book, which, if I'm honest, I did not have high hopes for, turns out to be as much a study in a sort of meta-self-exploration as it is about villainy.

It's greatest success is that, in discussing a theory of an abstraction, villainy, the treatment via the many personal fixations and feelings of the author does not get in the way. In fact, this treatment magnifies the reader's ability to check the book's suppositions against his own intuitions, since Klosterman's total inability to ignore his intuitions becomes infectious.

Klosterman is so comfortable switching back and forth from the intellectual realm to the popular realm that he does his readers the enormous service of forcing them to reject the divide between the intellectual and nonintellectual completely.

For example, on one page he offers this criticism of the ubiquity of espoused relativism in our culture: "It's possible that context doesn't matter at all. It seems like it should matter deeply, because we've all been trained to believe 'context is everything.' But why do we believe that? It's because that phrase allows us to make things mean whatever we want, for whatever purpose we need."

A mere two pages later he is positing, with just as much seriousness, that "The most villainous move any person can make is tying a woman to the railroad tracks."

Klosterman was prompted to write I Wear the Black Hat, because, as the title suggests, he finds himself identifying with and rooting for the villain in most situations. As he describes it in terms of Star Wars, little boys (and, let's be honest, this is a book that is largely aimed at a male audience) love Luke Skywalker, but as they get older they begin to prefer Han Solo, who acts like a bad boy but is on the side of good, and eventually find themselves most compelled by Darth Vader, villain extraordinaire.

That seems like a fair assessment of the general feelings towards those characters to me (and reflects my own experience). So the central question the book is left with is this: Why do we like the people we, ourselves, identify as bad?

The book offers a partial answer to the question. Those who know the most and care the least have a level of confidence that looks liberating, and that liberation is attractive. The amorality that villains get to have by "wanting to be bad" looks easy.

So the question that the book is valuable for raising turns out not to be "Do we see villainy in ourselves?" It turns out to be "Do we want to?"

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
Surprising Science

Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.

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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
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  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

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  • We spend 40 percent of our childhoods asleep, a time for cognitive growth and development.
  • A recent study found an association between irregular sleep patterns in childhood and either psychotic experiences or borderline personality disorder during teenage years.
  • The researchers hope their findings can help identify at-risk youth to improve early intervention.
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