(Original, much shorter version published on Boundary Crosser)
A friend recently pointed me to the moral alignment test that’s been so popular lately on Reddit and Buzzfeed. At first, it gave me a good chuckle about how what used to be called “geek culture” is just “culture” now. (Every tabletop role-player I’ve ever known has been able to describe their real-world alignment, and my own “Chaotic Good” shirt is a few years old now.) Once I was done being amused, I realized this might be a good time to talk about what it’s like to be a chaotic person in a world that usually caters to the lawful.
Like the Meyers-Briggs, alignment can help us understand ourselves better through a personality type. But I also like it for being simpler: alignment only measures two axes – good (selfless) vs evil (selfish), and lawful (orderly) vs chaotic (disorderly). The good-evil and law-chaos axes are separate, but when combined, they form your alignment. To whatever extent possible, a lawful person prefers to follow the rules and do whatever is considered legal or proper. Likewise, a chaotic person is more interested in following their own ideals than keeping to whatever society deems appropriate. On either axis, you can also be neutral. This means either that you don’t particularly care about that axis, or that you try to preserve a balance between law/chaos or good/evil. Being neutral can help with code-switching or translating for people with very different views. Some people, such as yours truly, fluctuate between a few alignments such as chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and neutral good, depending on mood, nutrition, the day of the week, etc.
For just one example of how the two axes work when combined, a lawful neutral person cares a lot about following (and enforcing) rules, laws, and cultural mores, but doesn’t care much at all about whether they are fair or just. Likewise, a chaotic good person cares about helping others, but usually prefers to do it in a way that involves fighting against authority or the establishment. This gives us seven other possibilities beyond the standard lawful good (a.k.a Goody Two-Shoes) and chaotic evil (“You will never escape from my fiendish clutches, Mr. Bond. [cue villainous cackling]”).
Why does this need to be addressed in the first place? Because western culture has been pretty obsessed with dualism for a very long time. When you meet someone who insists all people are either good or bad (or liberal / conservative, or male / female, or religious / going to hell, or atheist / stupid, any false dichotomy will do), what you’re really seeing is their dualism fetish on full display. In more subtle ways, this bias causes even well-meaning, open-minded people to unthinkingly collapse “order” with things like “good” and “creative”, while collapsing its opposite (“disorder” or “chaos”) with things like “bad”, “destructive”, or even “evil”. This seems most evident in the areas of law enforcement and mental health; more on that below.
“Why should I clean my room, if entropy dictates it will inevitably get messy again?” my teenage self used to love to ask my dad, who still admits to being a bit of a neat freak. His response was inevitably “My house, my rules.” His reaction to the first version of this piece made me laugh: “Sounds like a long, complicated justification for being a slob.” I first became aware of this type of pro-lawful bias when reading these three pages of the Principia Discordia as a teenager. Changeling: the Dreaming, especially its concept of Autumn People, helped a lot as well. Suddenly, I no longer felt like there was something wrong with me – I was simply Discordian or Unseelie like plenty of others.
After some more time pondering our differences, I’ve come to understand that this is an issue of personal preference, and that neither neatness nor messiness needs to be a moral failing. As long as I can find my stuff easily, a cluttered house is beneath my notice unless I’m having guests over. I have more important things to do with my own space, and am not interested in apologizing for that. Now that I’m no longer an angsty, overreactive teenager, my dad and I can agree to disagree on my messiness. But a psychological professional might consider it an indicator of mental illness.
Consider for a moment that in psychology and psychiatry, the word “disorder” is synonymous with “disease” and “sickness”. Besides that, everyone knows what a type A personality or an anal retentive person is, but who has heard of a “type B” personality or an “anal expulsive”? Even some people who’ve taken an intro psychology course forget about those over time, because they never seem to be mentioned in popular culture.
One of the hallmarks of a bad psychologist or counselor is that they focus too much on what’s “normal” (in other words, “orderly”) and too little on what works best for each individual patient. The process of getting a master’s or doctorate in psychiatry, psychology, or counseling can make this pro-lawful bias even worse. Find someone like my psychiatrist, who recently told me creating art daily is just as important as regular exercise. Mental health professionals who frequently work with artists, LGBTQ+, polyamorous, and/or kinky folk may be more likely to take a neutral approach on the law-chaos axis, since they should already know how to spot a mentally healthy nonconformist.
Further consider that at least in the United States, it’s possible (and not even that difficult if you’re inventive) to get arrested for “disorderly conduct.” This charge amounts to “acting too weirdly in public”. This is another example of how our culture likes to demonize or pathologize disorder and chaos. Hardly anyone in psychiatry or law enforcement seems to notice, because they already collapse order with concepts like “right” and “proper” and “the mark of a sane mind” and “a good citizen”.Chaotic types march to the beat of our own drummer and resent being told what to do. This, of course, is further evidence to a rigidly lawful person of how unruly and disruptive we are. It may give us some “bad boy” or “naughty girl” mystique with some, but that’s fleeting and of limited value. Better to medicate or prosecute the problem away, lest our radical free expression infect any of the more docile worker bees. (News flash: Unless they’re already non-lawful, that probably won’t work anyway.)
Let me be clear that I have no desire to malign psychology or law enforcement here. Both are useful and necessary disciplines that can help people. If you’re mentally ill, you should get treatment. If you’re actively harming someone, you should get arrested. But when psychology or law enforcement oversteps its bounds into policing harmless behaviors, artists and other free spirits get arrested or institutionalized for being too “oppositional” or “disorderly” to control easily. It’s how people end up in trouble with the law for planting a vegetable garden on their own property or feeding the homeless. Or wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic for being Black and (justifiably) angry. Or criminalized for nothing more than peaceful protest. That is the kind of authoritarian, lawful-centric bullshit that needs to die.
Beyond that, there’s an important axiom in psychology that many people don’t seem to know about: if it isn’t maladaptive, it isn’t a disorder. This means that if the voices in your head tell you to go out and feed the poor or cure cancer, there isn’t actually anything wrong with you (or nothing that a therapist should be trying to fix, anyway). If your house is a huge mess, but you can still find your stuff when you need it, your mess isn’t maladaptive. Indeed, research suggests that creative people tend to be messier than others. If you’re like my mom, her bulletin board piled with so many notes and coupons and bills and I-don’t-even-know-what-else that no one but her can touch it without at least five things falling off… well, more power to you if that’s how your creative disorder works.
Because yes, creative disorder is a thing – picture a painter’s studio or a filmmaker’s cutting-room floor for an easy example – just as destructive order is a thing. Think about the last time were caught up in bureaucratic red tape, or a customer service representative told you “I’m sorry, but that’s just our policy.” Destructive order in action. I suspect Greyfaces are only so aggressive with imposing their order on those who don’t want it because they lack imagination. Or perhaps because someone convinced them they weren’t allowed to have any. Perhaps this makes them feel jealous, or insecure, or simply uneasy. The insults they sling at us when they feel this way can be insidious: “Lazy”. “Uncooperative”. “Inconsistent”. “Childish”. “Oppositional”. “Disorganized”. “Slovenly”. “Special snowflake”. “Not a good fit for the company”. But at a base level, lawful bias against chaotic people is the same as any other prejudice: shaming people for being themselves is shitty. Try not to do it, and don’t tolerate people who habitually do it to you.
None of the above should be taken to mean most humans are Greyfaces or Autumn People. Far from it. Look for communities and subcultures that celebrate uniqueness and creativity. Some non-chaotic folk will even think you brave, or call you a trend-setter, for acting how they feel they never could. They may not believe you’re just doing what comes naturally. They might join your revolution, if you’re trying to start one, and if you ask in the right way. But even if they don’t, you can always move to another city… or become a wandering adventurer… or invent something no one else has ever thought of. It all depends on what possibilities move you. A chaotic person’s greatest strength is the instinctive ability to see the distinction between their authentic self and whatever expectations family, friends, work, and society have placed upon them. Try to remember the words of George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Be unreasonable. Freedom of expression means the freedom to be as unreasonable, messy, unusual, or freaky as you like, so long as you aren’t causing direct harm to anybody. Making others feel uncomfortable by holding up a mirror is a necessary function of artists, philosophers, or really any nonconformist. So organize a flash mob. Spray-paint an anti-authoritarian rant near a major intersection. Get a bunch of people to protest for (or against) something totally nonsensical. March to whatever syncopated, irregular drumbeat makes you happy. Be wild and free and haphazard and a force of motherfucking nature. Only when disorderly conduct is as commonplace as marijuana smoking will everyone finally begin to realize it should already be decriminalized. You can think of it as a public service if that helps motivate you. Or for more fun, you can think of it as poetic terrorism.
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