On the necessity of the Karen meme
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
(but I do wonder if the Karen in your story was acting out of misplaced concern for your dog, or if, instead, she likes confontation for its own sake, and was just looking for a pretext to justify her strange hobby)
This essay reminded me of a quote from CS Lewis, who also talks a lot about evil as the result of "disordered loves": "But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel for one of two reasons - either because they are sadists, that is, because they have a sexual perversion which makes cruelty a cause of sensual pleasure to them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it - money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. i do not mean, of course, that the people who do this are not desperately wicked. I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness : you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness."
All of this which has some interesting implications for EAs: https://twitter.com/MatthewAdelste1/status/1584934725625720832
I would characterize this woman’s moralism as deranged and suggestive of her own personal alienation. Hitler’s moralism was also deranged in that it was entirely other-directed. Most moral systems are inner-directed focused on restraining the individual’s tendency for anti-social behavior and aiding the common good. Deranged people focus only on expunging minority groups or castigating random strangers they are not really connected to at all.
Over-developed moralism can be an interesting topic but the Karen meme is so clearly just a way to make misogyny acceptable (they're white women, fuck them!) that I don't see the sense in playing into it. Blue collar, middle-aged white women don't actually have an inordinate amount of power in the world, aren't there some other groups more worthy of our ire? The over-educated East Coast elite SJW who employ the meme come more readily to mind for me as an example of a sickening level of righteousness.
I completely agree that the greatest evil tends to be done out of moral motivations. But once we acknowledge this we have to confront a follow-up question: how do we avoid doing evil ourselves? We cannot simply appeal to the purity of our moral convictions.
👏. Love this. I once started writing a novel called Karen, about a frustrated Karen with a half-Black GenZ trans daughter, set outside Charlottesville, VA, and she starts a movement to designate “Karen” as hate speech and a racial slur, and of course meets with shame and backlash... Then I realized mid way that no one would ever publish it, cause it was so intense and edgy, and so I stopped working on it.
BUT — DO WE NEED TO USE NAME ‘KAREN’?
Minerva has great ‘tude & your self-control is impeccable. Although empathizing with your encounter truly, madly, & deeply — and agree with need to express frustration for venting apropos emotions — as a ‘Karen The Good’, I’m hoping a less common name may be chosen for entitled, dangerously inappropriate white women. After all, as you know — original Central Park ‘Karen’ is named ‘Amy’. Yet ‘Amy’ meme would demonize ‘Amy the Good’ humans, too.
Suggestions welcome: ideally, a name that neither encourages general misogyny (Pandora; Eve) — nor is shared by countless innocents. “$300 Haircut?” “Acrylic nails?” “‘C-Title Hair Gel?”
Those aren’t [cliché alert] firing on all cylinders, but words are your biz: all Karens who haven’t snapped the tether await reasonable alternatives. No, using middle name isn’t the same. Our name is sacred: it’s who we are, in a sense. What do you think?
An epic essay.
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Since March 2020, the abyss has been working overtime.
Great piece, Erik. One of humanity's biggest faults is we don't know where the limit of "good" is, before our moralism turns into dogmatism.
Solzhenitsyn's "both good and evil cut through the heart of every human" quote fits here, too.
I do my best not to watch the Karen memes but end up looking at some of them. And I sometimes see the Karens having a a clear mental illness breakdown, perhaps a temporary one or possibly as a part of a chronic illness. Also, I think our definitions of Karens is very limited. It occurs to me that road ragers are also moralistic Karens driven by narcissism and a warped sense of injustice. And I'd say that at least 90% of the people who've road raged me have been men.
Great essay. I agree with you. The more one studies the root of genocide, the more one sees how the twisted logic of “morality” played its part. For an article I wrote on the dangerous rise of the white replacement conspiracy theory, I interviewed Dr. Alexander Hinton, an anthropologist and the head of genocide studies at Rutgers University. Dr. Hinton said, “Demonization is key. In mass violence, blame is always displaced.” Thus, the twisted morality. The one area I disagree with you on is regarding the ones who are more likely to be the antidote. While I agree with you to an extent about those who don’t want to intervene, sometimes that turns into apathy and allows a mass atrocity to continue. Sometimes people HAVE to take a side. During WW2, the U.S. wanted to remain an isolationist nation until it was attacked by Japan. But it also refused to let many Jews in, including Otto Frank and his family, which included Anne Frank. There is so much nuance to this topic. How much morality is helpful, and how much can lead to evil? Finally, so sorry about your Karen experience. People have gone nuts lately.
Super interesting read! tho it does make me wonder whether the source of evil is good and the knowledge of moralism or the fact that those people utilised moralism and leaned into the narrative of "i am actually the good guy" to justify their actions to themselves and others.
Love the layout of this. Personal story → Bigger idea → relating idea to history/entertainment/social norms → bringing idea to modern day issues where each side thinks they sit on a moral high horse of some sort and how media/entertainment industries use these strongly held beliefs to make us feel divided. These words were definitely influential and fit into my brain like a puzzle piece. Being a Disney kid in the late 90's/early 00's and coming to appreciate Studio Ghibli just a few years ago definitely has me thinking deeper about the state of our shared reality. Well done, indeed!
This is the reason I dread leaving my dog alone in the car for even a second to go anywhere. We’re overrun with self-appointed police lately and for all their passion and righteousness they don’t seem to be making the world a better place. Quite the opposite. This is timely as I’m working on a piece involving animal abuse and the good (but misguided) intentions underlying “evil” outcomes. I do think there is plenty of plain old malice and cruelty in the world, but it generally announces itself openly. The worse evils are the ones that cloak themselves in the mantle of morality and benevolence.
I also think it’s an issue of seeking power by those who feel powerless in there every day lives which is why Karens escalate, it’s a challenge to the power they seek. I had a similar incident where I just ignored a Karen and walked away. She couldn’t accept being ignored and followed me screaming louder and louder. She was frustrated that I didn’t validate her power and the fact I didn’t even acknowledge her existence drove her crazy.
Fantastic read! Thank you for sharing. I especially like your comparison of ghibli and disney and the way that shapes the next generation's morality