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Karens and the nature of evil
On the necessity of the Karen meme
Recently the Karen meme instantiated itself in my life in a very real way, taking the form of a car chase followed by a police report.
See, I normally take the trash to the dump with my dog, Minerva, a German Shepherd. It’s one of our many rituals for her to sit in the passenger seat and stick her head out the window, and she loves it. The car is an old and stinky one, used pretty much solely for this purpose, and the dump is not far. This summer I made such a trip, stopping on my way back home at a small local market. I left Minerva in my car as I went inside, grabbed a six-pack of beer, paid immediately at the register (there’s never any line), and walked out. In the literal minute that I had been in the store a white ~45-year-old woman had come over to my car. As I approached she began to berate me (there were more interjections by her, and more repetitions by me, so this is not exactly verbatim, but it’s close):
Karen: WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU? THIS IS ANIMAL ABUSE!
Me: What are you talking about?
Karen: IF YOU EVER LEAVE YOUR DOG IN A HOT CAR AGAIN I WILL FIND YOU AND CALL THE COPS. YOU’RE AN ABUSER.
Me: It’s only 80 degrees out. The AC was blasting before I went in, so the car is cool. I was only in there for a minute. And also, the windows are down. Look at my dog. She’s totally fine. [My dog is stone-faced while sitting in the car with the windows down].
Karen: I WILL CALL THE COPS ON YOU.
Me: Cars don’t just randomly heat up super quickly with the windows down. We’re not in a record heat wave or anything, we’re in a sunny summer day with a breeze. You can’t get mad at someone just for having their animal outside during the summer.
Karen: YOU’RE AN ANIMAL ABUSER. I’M GOING TO CALL THE COPS AND THEY’RE GOING TO ARREST YOU.
Me: I know my dog very well, she goes the beach all the time in much hotter weather, and sitting in a parked car with the windows down for literally a single minute on a day in the low 80s with a breeze is totally fine and she is in absolutely zero danger.
Karen: I AM CALLING THE COPS. THEY ARE GONNA TAKE YOUR DOG AWAY FROM YOU.
Me: Do it, Karen. Let’s see what they say.
Karen: YOU FUCKING LITTLE BITCH. CALL ME A “KAREN.” FUCK YOU!
In a cosmic irony I couldn’t make up if I tried, right across from us at the time of her screaming at me was another parked car that had its windows down and, my hand to God, there were two German Shepherds in it, their tongues lolling over the side of the doors. I had noticed them going in because I love the breed, and had remarked to myself on the coincidence. The owners were now walking back out of the exact same establishment I had just come from. Karen appeared not to see it, but the owners of the car looked over at me with what I can only describe as a painful sympathy.
I got in my car (the temperature of which was still noticeably cooler than the outside air due to the AC having been on), and began to drive off. She hurried over to her car and pursued me recklessly down the road, tailgating me. As I began to go back to my house she continued to follow me, obviously wanting to know where I lived. I pulled onto a dirt road so she wouldn’t find that out and she quickly skidded her car lengthwise across the entrance to the road, blocking me in so I couldn’t escape. She got out of her car and continued to scream at me.
Karen: FUCK YOU! I’M CALLING THE COPS.
Me: FINE! CALL THEM! BRING THEM HERE KAREN.
At this point the Karen seemed to realize she’d made a mistake. She had pursued me with a motor vehicle and then parked in the middle of traffic in order to trap me somewhere. If she called the cops, surely they’d ask: Why is your car parked in such a crazy dangerous way to block the entrance/exit to this street? Why did you chase this man? So, after screaming at me some more, she walked up, snapped a picture of my license plate, screamed “GOT IT!” and left with tires screeching.
I knew for sure she’d call the police, so once I was home (making sure I wasn’t followed) I did too. I called the department number and told them about the incident, my side of the story, about her reckless driving, and they told me a cop would call me back. Which he did, quite promptly.
Apparently what had happened was the woman stormed down to the police station to file a report in person. The cop who took it was the one I was speaking to. He was, fate would have it, a K9 officer. When she told him the story, he said he kept waiting for her to get to the part where I had done something wrong. He explained to her that he worked with German Shepherds, and that today wasn’t actually that hot, there was a nice breeze and it was in the low 80s, and that there was no evidence from her the car had gotten to abnormal temperatures, and that she admitted the windows had been down the whole time, and that it sounded like I was just popping inside briefly, and also that the dog was not in any visible distress and therefore not at risk. He was incredulous that she couldn’t understand that this was okay, and he actually apologized to me. She also reported officially on the police report that I called her a “Karen.” The cop indirectly implied (while still maintaining the plausible deniability of professionalism) that the station had gotten a good chuckle out of a Karen accusation being included in a police report. He told me not to worry about it, and that my side of the story had been recorded for posterity. We ended the conversation by chatting about working-line German Shepherds for a bit, as Minerva’s father was a trained bomb dog.
(I shouldn’t have to say it but I will because this is the internet: I love my dog more than anything else in this world outside of my family. She sleeps in my bed, and I try hard to not just keep her safe and healthy but to enrich her life every day with outings, frisbee, runs, beach visits, swimming, and hiking. At no point was she ever even close to being in danger, this woman was in a total confusion regarding the very basics of temperature, dogs, and biology. She was so emotionally hyped she couldn’t even ID the dog correctly, as she apparently kept emphasizing to the police that I had a long-haired German Shepherd, but Minerva is a short-haired German Shepherd.)
This all could have been turned out quite differently. I could have lost my temper. She could have crashed her car into mine. Luckily, I happen to know how to talk to cops, how to express myself articulately, and how to remain calm and not escalate emergency situations from all my years being an emergency medical technician in college (where I often worked with cops). All these random facts about my background allowed me to get through the circumstance with minor incidence (car chase excepted). I never escalated the situation, except for calling her a Karen. And doing only that was very purposeful on my part. Forcing someone to put “He called me a Karen!” into a police report rendered the report the equivalent of a Gödel sentence: a statement that contradicts itself, like the infamous “This sentence is untrue.” I knew that the police would know that any report wherein one of the main complaints was “I was called a Karen” would not be worth taking seriously.
I’m also aware that my casual usage of the Karen meme might hurt some people. And I’m the first to say that affixing a stereotypical behavior to a common name or demographic (like middle-aged white women) is deeply unfair. I sympathize, and wish that somehow the meme were different. While anyone from any gender or demographic can be a Karen, my Karen literally had the exact hair style from the meme.
So, despite my misgivings about connecting negative memes to specific demographics, I want to argue that the Karen meme serves a necessary and important function, specifically because of a naivety deep in American culture. For what American culture lacks most is an adult understanding of what motivates evil. America’s notion of evil is always the childish one of good guys fighting bad guys. But that’s not what evil is. What evil actually is, most often, is good corrupted.
In the modern myths of American culture, its movies, the “bad guys” do evil openly and proudly. The Emperor in Star Wars. Lord Voldemort. Sauron. Sometimes the motivation is power or money, but even in cases where bad guys in Hollywood have a reason beyond merely being bad, they certainly seem to relish the role. Don’t even get me started on Marvel movies.
Consider the most fundamental myth-maker in America: Disney. In the standard Disney film, there’s some obviously bad protagonist (Scar, Jafar, Gaston, Ursula, an Evil Queen, literally Hades) and they interject themselves into the protagonist’s life, wronging them in some way, and the protagonists in turn are always the reactive force that stops the plan of the evil doer. It’s worth noting that almost universally the enemy dies by an accident at the end of a Disney movie. They all slip. Scar falls even though Simba offers him an out. Gaston loses his balance off a roof. The Evil Queen is struck by lightning and falls off a rock.
The only Disney character badass enough to kill the antagonist is Eric, the prince in The Little Mermaid, who steers a ship with a broken bow directly into Ursula’s stomach (all to save Ariel from certain death as Ursula cackles “So much for true love!”), but even then, the scene is ambiguous if it was his steering or merely an accident. Disney’s unwillingness to paint in shades of gray is the early childish form of what Richard Hofstadter famously called the “paranoid style” of American politics.
Now compare Disney films to Studio Ghibli films (Japan’s Disney). Studio Ghibli movies are totally different. The most common plot concerns two warring factions who both have self-motivated and differing views of the world. In Princess Mononoke the conflict is between the forest spirits and Iron Town, a village of technological and even social progress (like having women in prominent roles and taking care of lepers). On the side of Iron Town, there is Lady Eboshi, the reason for all this progress; on the side of the forest spirits, we have Sen, the wolf girl. Both sides come across as sympathetic in some ways, and the goal of the protagonist Ashitaka is to prevent escalation. The last shot of the movie is a picture of regrowth as the town and forest learn to live side by side.
Even the first movie by the Studio Ghibli team, the less known Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, has the same structure. And in Studio Ghibli movies without explicit factions, like Spirited Away, the antagonists are much more sympathetic than in Disney. Like No-Face, the black ghostly masked figure who chases and tries to eat Sen, the young protagonist, only to eventually become her friend and ally. Protagonists in Ghibli films make their way through their charm and ability to see both sides. And I feel strongly that Studio Ghibli films are closer to the truth of how the world works than Disney films, despite both being aimed at children.
The root cause of the Disney-esque culture of America, which matures into our paranoid style of politics, is our assumption that most evil doers are sadists. And of course, sadists do exist. They represent the most stereotypical of evil doers. People who randomly beat up old ladies on street corners. Jeffery Dahmer. School shooters. As sadists, these people get off on causing pain and violence. There’s often a psychosexual component to it, and it’s usually men. During youth it’s more common, likely due to lack of cognitive development—high school bullies and mean girls are often sadists, to a certain degree. But most grow out of it, only dabbling in sadism, and true adult sadists are only a tiny percent of the population. And the stats support it—a vast majority of violent crime is committed by only a fraction of the population. But sadists are overrepresented in media, because it’s easy to see how they’re bad. Compare that to the actual historical reality, which is that most evil was caused instead by people best described not as sadists, but as moralists.
Here are the words of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz during its years of peak operation, the man who ordered over two million people into showers that were not showers and then sent their bodies up into the sky as smoke.
Based on my present knowledge I can see today clearly, severely and bitterly for me, that the entire ideology about the world in which I believed so firmly and unswervingly was based on completely wrong premises and had to absolutely collapse one day. And so my actions in the service of this ideology were completely wrong, even though I faithfully believed the idea was correct.
No one wants to hear this, but I think we should take this confession seriously. Here’s how Höss’ childhood is described:
His father, a former army officer who served in German East Africa, ran a tea and coffee business; he brought his son up on strict religious principles and with military discipline, having decided that he would enter the priesthood. Höss grew up with an almost fanatical belief in the central role of duty in a moral life.
Like any historical figure, there are multiple perspectives; perhaps Rudolf Höss was indeed a sadist—some accounts describe him as cold and sociopathic, and such behavior would of course be necessary to do what he did. That’s certainly the more comfortable position. But I think it’s just as likely that he really thought he was doing good, and that it is not some strange historical coincidence his father expected him to be a priest. In other words, he was a moralist.
I am not, I repeat, not, saying that Rudolf Höss was a good person. He was one of the worst people to ever live. I’m saying he likely thought himself a good person, and that’s why he did what he did, taking on the “hard choices” no one else would to make the world a better place. It’s difficult for us to understand, but Nazis at the time didn’t see Jews as victims. Rather, Jews were the “oppressors” who had arranged for Germany’s humiliation in WWI. Of course, the Nazis were wrong about this, merely inflamed by their own racism, but that doesn’t stop their actions having been motivated by the belief they were the good underdogs fighting the bad guys.
But, come on, weren’t the Nazis obviously the baddies? From their dark uniforms alone, right? Some even had skulls on their helmets! All true. But the US Marines sure had a lot of skull iconography in WWII as well, and they were the good guys. And both sides dressed sometimes in gray, sometimes in green. But we never see Nazis in green and marines in gray in movies, do we?
It sounds trite, but somehow it gets forgotten no one willingly wears a sign on their chest saying “I’m evil.” People love to gawk over the fact that Hitler loved dogs and was a vegetarian, indeed, he would pester his dinner companions with pictures of animal slaughter to dissuade them from eating meat, arguing that it was needless suffering. To this day, the animal cruelty laws in Germany are the same laws the Nazis originally passed. This is not some contradictory aspect of Hitler and the Nazis. It’s the other way around—Hitler’s strong sense of morality was the cause of the evil he sowed, and his beliefs about killing the “bad guys” and not eating meat were, from his perspective, never in contradiction. In fact, they stemmed from the exact same aspect of his psychology. All the Nazi higher-ups were evil racists, but I think most were evil racists not because they were sadists, but because they were moralists looking for someone to blame, and, having settled upon a group of people they thought were the baddies, did unimaginably horrible things to them. And I’m willing to say the exact same things about the terrorists who so defined my childhood, the people who flew planes into the Twin Towers. They too thought they were doing good. They were moralists.
We can pretend to be phrenologists for a moment and imagine that morality is a specific module of the human brain, a self-contained lump of gray matter. A moralist is someone with an overdeveloped moral lobe. And having such an overdeveloped sense of morality is pretty much the only way you can get on a plane and kill yourself and thousands of other people. No one was doing it for the sadistic fun of it, as much as we may wish to believe. On close analysis, I believe that even the most despicable figures, like Stalin and Pol Pot, at least in their earlier motivations are moralists, and if they do become sadists, they do it because they think it is necessary to achieve their moral vision.
Consider the case of British imperialism, which is widely considered a great historical evil now. But it wasn’t at the time. In fact, Britain’s colonization of India was supported by the leading moral philosophers of the day, such as James Mill, an early utilitarian, who justified colonialism on utilitarian grounds. And while some may point to modern villains like Putin, when Putin gives speeches about his reasons for the Ukraine invasion they focus entirely on the West’s (perceived by Putin) corruption, hegemony, oppression, and aggression.
Despite the slippery nature of this truth, the knowledge of moralism being the root of evil runs like a vein of ore through western culture, rediscovered over and over. Even at its most mythic and metaphorical. Like how in Tolkein’s mythology, orcs are corrupted elves. Or like how in Christianity every devil was once an angel. Or Anakin Skywalker, such a paragon, becoming the croaking bald head of Darth Vader.
Me, personally, I stopped believing in red or blue lightsabers a long time ago. Mainly through reading literature and having life experiences. Almost everyone who wronged me generally thought they were doing right, hell, even middle school bullies probably had their excuses and own perspectives. When I’ve messed up, I generally thought I was doing good, and I just turned out to be wrong about what the “good” was. From such lessons my lightsaber would now be what neutral force users wield in Star Wars canon: gray—those who seek balance within the force. This is the role of the peacemaker who realizes that compromises where no one really wins are the most important counterforce to those who want to dominate others. Pragmatists, policy wonks, diplomats, writers who take on a myriad of perspectives, Studio Ghibli, artists more interested in beauty than politics, empaths, pacifists, decentralization aficionados, intellectuals hyper-focused on their domains of study, libertarians, localists, hippies on communes who just want to be left alone and not interfered with—gray lightsabers all.
The Karen meme, in its own small way, provides a defense against the evils of moralism. As a meme it is a flimsy shield, and only applies to a specific type of incident (for moralism, I hope I’ve made clear, is certainly not unique to middle-aged white women). But the meme at least points out that self-interjection into the plot of the world often harms rather than helps.
Of course, the Karen meme is sometimes interpreted in that particularly American fashion, implying Karens are Karen-ing because they’re sadists. That they want to speak to the manager because they want to make an employee’s life miserable. And this may happen, occasionally. But I think far more often Karens have lopsidedly large moral lobes, and so see the shadows of evil everywhere in this world and work tirelessly to root it out, even if the evil is just an unresponsive employee behind a desk who should be doing their job and helping people and instead is working against the Karen at every turn. And each time a lightsaber buzzes on in Hollywood as either blue or red a Karen is born.
When my personal Karen chased me down in her car I could feel her seething hatred. In that moment she would have happily watched me die—indeed, she was willing to endanger both me and my dog with her reckless driving. She was possessed by her own moral certitude, searching for injustices she was so primed to see she couldn’t help but see. She was, like all who desperately yearn to make the world a more just place, left uniquely open to a certain kind of demonic possession. And the true history of the world is these demons coming and going, fighting on one side and then the other, all while the wheel of history remains stubbornly blind to the wisdom that the most common source of evil is good.