Beauty from Evil

I think humans are really good at creating goodness and beauty from evil and ugly things, and bad at reckoning with that. People struggle with this in two ways – either by refusing to/pretending to not see the beauty that emerges from ugliness or by insisting that a good trait must mean that the underlying raw material that it came from couldn’t be bad.1

I think as a society we need to get better at saying things like “this thing sure is beautiful, but it came from something evil and we need to destroy it to stop perpetuating the evil”, or, “this thing is so beautiful that we need to preserve it even though it perpetuates something evil”.

Some examples of things I’d consider “beauty from something evil”:

“Deuteronomy 2:10” by The Mountain Goats, a song I love. An exploration of the last days of the last of some species, it exists because humankind has driven animals to extinction and will continue to do so. (But it also exists because we were never heartless about that – there were some humans who ever so carefully and lovingly observed the species to its last days.) As good of a song it is, I think most people agree that we probably want the golden toad to be not extinct more than we want this song to exist. Also see a lot of other art – Afghan Girl, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), etc.

Caremongering facebook groups, and all the other interesting things on facebook, a platform whose default behaviour include sending ads of alcohol to alcoholics, financial scams to people looking for financial help, and racebaiting content to racialized people. Facebook is bad, but sometimes, there are good things on there. Still, most people seem to agree that the bad outweighs the good and we should probably nuke its servers from orbit or something.

All the modern rituals of femininity, which has only emerged under the systemic oppression of patriarchy. Things like: learning to be quiet and subservient. Learning to see yourself as an object, and deriving all your self-worth from how pretty you are.  Learning to dress, do your hair, and do makeup – ways to make the object that you are prettier, to increase your social status.

I think this one is a pretty central example. There are people who consider makeup/nails/hair an art form, and themselves artisans. Some of these people think that because it’s art, it can’t be critiqued as bad. See that now for the non-sequitur it is. The actual question needs to be: given the beauty that this art form provides, is it worth the evil that it perpetuates? (And, how much can we cast off of the evil parts, while keeping the art alive?)

There are definitely some cases where the beauty is worth it. Some people are really good at telling really funny stories about their own tiny humiliations, spreading tenfold joy from the pain of a stubbed toe or the awkwardness of a terrible first date. Does that mean we shouldn’t aspire as a culture to reduce the amount of toe stubbings? Man, I don’t know. How about yes except if you’re funny, in which case we only allow you to buy furniture with acute angles.

Even milder evils exist. Any sort of hurt that you can heal from sounds like a fine trade for enduring beauty (putting tattoos squarely in the green), and maybe even an ok trade for temporary joy (I enjoyed myself immensely but I’m unsure if I’d subject my stomach again to the mega spicy drunken noodles((well prepared noodles are a work of art. i am not taking questions about this)) at that one Thai place).

People who tell you to not confuse beauty for goodness are themselves confused about the fact that beauty is good. Beauty is good—but it can be overpriced. Shop wisely.

  1. btw the mostly finished draft of this post comes from 2021 but i still agree w everything here []

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