Discover more from Small Potatoes
My transgressive habit: What the New York Times made me remove from my article last week
A first post on perversity
Sorry for the clickbaity title. I did publish something on my favourite transgressive habit in the New York Times last week, and they did make me take stuff out. But, despite what the title might imply, it wasn’t because it was too shocking for them. I just went over the length limit.
About a month ago, I was invited to participate in a project by the NYT where they asked 16 “writers and public figures” to send in light-hearted pieces that described “true acts of joyous transgression or delicious irresponsibility — the kind that generate a frisson of excitement.” They asked for regular habits, not one-shot transgressions, and said that submissions had to be short—no longer than 250 words.
I was on vacation, but I agreed right away. I’m very interested in the topic of perverse actions. I wrote a New Yorker article on the topic a few years ago and gave a TED talk on it earlier this year. I’m hoping to do a lot more thinking and writing about it (including here) in the months and years that follow.
I sent in something a bit over the length limit, the editor said it was wonderful, totally loved it, and then cut 100 words and rewrote most of what remained. We went back and forth over a few drafts, and then the editor said that due to design issues, they had to “cut these down a bit”, and sent me a revision that was 120 words long. I didn’t take it badly (this was not my first rodeo; this sort of thing happens all the time), and I made some minor edits, and this is what they published:
They made some last-minute edits without consulting me, and there are some mistakes. I’m actually a professor at the University of Toronto; I’m an emeritus professor at Yale (meaning that I still hold various privileges, but don’t work there anymore). And I haven’t spent my career studying transgression; it’s a relatively recent interest.
But, whatever. I’m happy enough with the final product and grateful to be included. Also, cool illustration!
Here is the original version I sent:
Most bad acts are bad because they are unwanted; we smoke cigarettes, raid the fridge at two in the morning, and scream at our children, but we don’t usually want to do these things and would do a lot to make these urges disappear.
Perverse or transgressive desires are different. We know they’re wrong, but we own them; we do them because they are wrong. Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, describes going into an orchard with his friends to steal some pears, and writes: “I had no motivation for wickedness except wickedness itself … It was foul, and I loved it.” My own transgressive acts are more irrational than immoral. A few years ago, after carefully going over reviews and getting advice from friends, I ignored what everyone told me and bought a 10-year-old bright red Mini-Cooper that I had to scrunch up to fit into. The unreasonableness was part of the appeal.
My most regular transgression is a form of hate-reading, where I spend hours reading people whose views I find repugnant and unhinged. In part it’s just a regular bad habit—some of this stuff is just hard to resist. Also, you can learn things from awful people you can’t get anywhere else. But there’s also a transgressive appeal. We live in censorious times, on both the right and the left, and there is a small pleasure in this small and private act of rebellion.
Does this seem too tame? In his recent Netflix show about his recovery from addiction, Baby J, John Mulvaney tells a somewhat humiliating story about what he did to get money for drugs. He then says to the crowd: “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful, and unlikable that story is, just remember: That’s one I’m willing to tell you.”1
And here is the whole thing, with 15 other writers. It’s an enjoyable read—the other contributions are well-written, funny, and (of course) very short.
But, right away, I noticed two things.
First, almost all of the “transgressions” are really tame.
Eating at Chick-fil-A
Ordering from Amazon
Listening to R. Kelly
Doing drugs (specifically, dropping acid at concerts)
Eating ribs; drinking martinis
Drunk lying (but about small silly things)
Taking one’s children to eat at McDonald’s
Playing gory video games
Facebook stalking people from one’s past
I know that some people might disapprove of these behaviours, but as transgressions, they’re weak sauce. I don’t think anyone really feels bad about doing them. Worse, some have the flavour of humblebrags. I’m such an ethical consumer that it bothers me to shop at Amazon; I’m such a supporter of gay rights that I feel a frisson of guilt when I eat “the homophobic chicken” of Chick-fil-A. I do psychedelics; pretty cool, eh?
And, yes, my own transgression
is similarly weak. Some confession! It also carries its own bit of virtue signalling—I read bad people, but I know that they are bad! I disapprove! I’m one of the good ones.
I predicted the other contributions would be as sorry as mine, which is why I included the Mulvaney quote in my original submission.
Does this seem too tame? In his recent Netflix show about his recovery from addiction, Baby J, John Mulvaney tells a somewhat humiliating story about what he did to get money for drugs. He then says to the crowd: “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful, and unlikable that story is, just remember: That’s one I’m willing to tell you.”
Hate-reading, gossiping, and drinking martinis—those are the ones I’m willing to tell you. If any of the 16 of us got transgressive pleasure out of bullying our subordinates, kicking puppies, or sending anonymous death threats, well, we’d keep it to ourselves.
To be fair, though, some of the other transgressions did ramp it up a bit:
Sleeping with one’s friends
Shoplifting (but points lost because it’s qualified to make it clear how harmless it is)
Ozempic for vanity (vanity is a tough thing for some of us to confess to—big props for this one)
Graffitiing my house (my favourite, more about it below)
The second thing I noticed was how few of the entries were transgressive in an interesting sense. We are not 21st-century Augustines sneaking into orchards to steal pears. Our marching orders were to tell of “true acts of joyous transgression or delicious irresponsibility”, but what was sent in were pretty mundane cases where we know that something is wrong—or sort of wrong—but we do it anyway because we like it. The homophobic chicken tastes too good to pass up. McDonald’s is cheap and the kids love it. Amazon is convenient. Getting high at concerts is fun. To call these transgressive acts is to take them way too seriously.
The one possible exception here comes from the writer Emily Dreyfuss, who wrote about graffitiing her house.
And yes, the neighbors think I’m nuts and wonder aloud things like, “Are you allowed to do that?” and “Does it count as tagging if you do it to your own house?” I hold up my ungloved hands, dripping in paint, and shrug, hoping to convey that life is too short to worry. Yes, it’s graffiti. Yes, it’s weird. Yes yes yes.
This looks like true transgression; you get the sense that Dreyfuss is painting not despite her neighbours’ disapproval, but, to at least some extent, because of it. The perceived wrongness of what she’s doing is part of the draw.
This is the sort of transgression that I’m interested in.
Do you want some more examples of transgressive acts? About a year ago, I started The Perversity Project, where I asked people to send me stories of when they were drawn to bad acts. (Feel free to click on the link and add your own.). Here are the instructions:
Here is a typical response:
Flirted with a woman's boyfriend knowing fully well he liked me. I subsequently refused to steal him despite his efforts. I knew I could steal him if I wanted, but I didn't want to do that. I just wanted her to feel uncomfortable whenever three of us were in the same room. Causing people pain is wrong, but that is exactly why I did it.
Jolene! (Listen to this if you don’t get the reference.) Sometimes the acts are self-destructive, as with this one, a young man who literally skates on thin ice:
ice-skating on a pond, dark unfrozen spot 30 yards out, instead of avoiding it, I skate towards it, knowing but wondering, knowing but wondering, and... splash!
Some perverse acts are awful. The ultimate perverse agent in modern culture is the Joker. In Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight. Alfred describes him like this: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Clip here).
There is a psychological literature on those troubling individuals who are drawn to this sort of behaviour, and there is even a measure of it—the “Need for Chaos” scale—where you can see how much you and your loved ones enjoy watching the world burn. How do you answer questions like these?
I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over
I think society should be burned to the ground.
I need chaos around me—it is too boring if nothing is going on.
Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.
a\About 20% of Americans score high on this scale (typically, young men on the political extremes). Jokers walk amongst us.
Sometimes, though, perverse acts are mild, like this one.
When I first became of legal drinking age I used to go out to bars with friends and when I spoke to new people (particularly males) I would lie about who I was: I had a set story, I said that my name was Peach and I was studying medicine - obviously completely untrue. When I think about why I did it, it was just because I could.
when I was in a professional choir as a child, at every concert I felt the desire to sing a few notes very incorrectly on purpose. To this day, I don't completely understand why.
Or this, a sweetly mild act of rebellion:
Sometimes I walk on the grass instead of the path just because it’s wrong
And then, there’s this, my personal favorite:
On one occasion in my early twenties I was out with a friend. He decided to get himself an ice cream and, before he had a chance to try it, I stuck my finger in it. I played it off as a joke. But really I had had the sudden thought "man, it would be fucked up if I just jammed my finger in his ice cream."
In later posts, I’ll discuss what’s going in these cases, and lay out some different theories of perverse and transgressive action. I’ll talk as well about why perversity matters, how it shapes our culture and our politics, and how it makes the world a lot more interesting.
Thanks for reading Small Potatoes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I like this version better (of course I do!), but reading it over now, I appreciate why the editor was unhappy with it. It’s not just that it was too long; it didn’t follow the guidelines. Given what the editor asked for, everything other than the third paragraph was padding.