Because it’s usually true!
Mark Twain once reportedly said that if you don’t smoke, drink, eat to excess, or chase women of easy virtue (he was talking to men), you don’t necessarily live longer, it just seems that way.
Mae West, that queen of playful naughtiness of the 20th century, once famously said, “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” Mae West was always challenging conventional sensibilities, especially for women, and had a ball doing it.
Augustine, before he became “Saint” Augustine once prayed, “Lord, make me chaste and pure, just not yet!” He wanted to experience more naughty and profane fun, before devoting himself to the sacred.
Even Aristotle, the founding philosopher of virtue ethics, didn’t believe that true virtue was possible (or even desirable!) until middle age; youth was a time to explore the edges of excess, to discover the “golden mean” of virtue by pushing the limits, and finding virtue, in part, by experiencing what it is not….
Of course there is a difference between playful or purposeful naughtiness, and malicious naughtiness, or truly bad behavior that intentionally causes real (or likely) harm to people. The law also makes the distinction between acts that are malum prohibitum –bad simply because they are prohibited, and acts that are malum en se – bad in themselves.
When I talk about naughtiness in this essay, I am talking about malum prohibitum.
Naughtiness can be more than playfully tweaking convention – the playful puppy tormenting the grouch old cat. Naughtiness can also be purposefully or creatively disruptive. Thinking or behaving “outside the box,” or “coloring outside the lines” is naughty, no matter how big the box, or how broadly extended the lines. Naughtiness can be an expression of freedom when creativity has been stifled or not permitted. When creative and energetic people get bored, they often respond with “naughty” behavior. When leaders capture and engage the creativity of their naughty miscreants, they tap into a great source of energy and innovation. Then the leader’s challenge is to keep that naughty energy inside acceptable boundaries. I have some experience with this, from my years with the Navy SEALs.
Naughtiness can also be extended to purposely ignoring regulations and laws. The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Review recently opened with an essay by Charles Murray entitled “50 shades of Red – Regulation Run Amok- and How to Fight Back.” This essay notes how increasingly constricting government regulations are not only impossible to follow, but also frequently work at cross-purposes to the good that regulations seek to promote. Murray advocates ”…. systematic civil disobedience. Not for all regulations, but for the pointless, stupid and tyrannical ones.” Murray is advocating discrete naughtiness, behavior that is malum prohibitum.
“Pointless, stupid, and tyrannical” extend beyond the statutory into the world of social propriety and conformity, all the way to prejudice, and bigotry. When faced with peer-pressure to conform, to be “cool,” to tolerate prejudice and immoral behavior, or to follow rules that merely satisfy those who would control us, naughty rebellion can be an act of courage. Courageously naughty people have disrupted and softened many of the constricting prejudices of our culture. Our willingness to break those rules and /or to tolerate or even support those who do, is an indicator of a free, vibrant, and healthy culture.
We as Americans, especially should tolerate – and even celebrate – many versions of naughtiness. We have just celebrated the 4th of July, recalling the courage of our founding fathers in signing the Declaration of Independence – a very “naughty” rebellion against the enforcers of what was then seen as good order and discipline. Our innovatively naughty and rebellious spirit has been a key part of what has defined America.
As I write this, I’m attending Stanford University’s Ignite certificate program on entrepreneurship. I’m learning how innovative entrepreneurs are naughty disruptors, and routinely upset many who are comfortable in the status quo. Every smart businessperson knows that some aggressive entrepreneur somewhere is working hard to overtake his/her business by completely disrupting and changing the market with a new product or business model. Those who don’t recognize or accept this reality don’t survive. Blockbuster ignored and completely underestimated Netflix, who naughtily upset their world. Look at how the music, phone, airline, taxi and retail industries have been completely disrupted in the last decade or two. And more naughty disruption is coming!
Naughty people disrupt and challenge the status quo – either playfully, like Mae West or Bill Murray, or as entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos (Amazon), or Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp (Uber,) or as idealistic revolutionaries, like Sam Adams, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Naughtiness (malum prohibitum) is a creative expression of the human spirit and the source of much human progress.
“Living well” demands that we exercise our freedom to break the rules sometimes, playfully, professionally, or idealistically, and in so doing, we must expect some will be offended. But in being naughty, we must also exercise reason and good judgment in selecting which rules we break, when, how, and why, and we must own the consequences of our naughtiness. When we choose to be disruptive and naughty, we should consider the values and context we are disrupting, and be on guard that our naughtiness does not violate truly important values (e.g. respect for human dignity), nor creep into the area of malum en se – doing real or likely harm to others – to merely scratch a naughty itch.
I conclude by challenging you to think a little differently about being naughty, and to reconsider your “Naughtiness Toleration Threshold.” Give naughtiness a bit more respect, and when appropriate, even celebrate its creativity and disruption. Being naughty is a very human expression of our will to rebel and be free.
So when you feel it, dare to get out there and enjoy a little more freedom! Be naughty – at least a little bit! I think you’ll be glad you did.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfiits. The rebels. The trouble makers….the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race foreward.” Steve Jobs in Apple’s Emmy-award winning “Think Different.” campaign.