Recent read: Assholes*, a theory

No, that’s not for shock value. My dear and longtime friend Melissa recommended this book to me.

Melissa is not a constant or pushy TV, book, or movie recommender. She is an advanced thinker currently studying at an institution where ‘advanced thinker’ is a baseline expectation, and a hell of a nice lady. We disagree on a lot of things, but I respect her viewpoint.

Thus, when she recommended Assholes* to me, there were many possibilities, including ‘good read,’ ‘thoughtful discourse,’ and ‘broad hint.’ Such is our friendship that, had it been a broad hint, I would have valued the hint. I struggle in some ways with social situations; they do not come naturally to me. Now that I’ve read it, I’m glad to see it wasn’t a broad hint (or if it was, it sailed over my head), but an analysis of how to see and evaluate some of society’s bad actors. Including, at times, ourselves.

Prof. James proposes a straightforward definition of the Asshole. The Asshole considers him or herself exempt from social conventions (waiting in line, using a turn signal, tipping the waitress, taking the cell phone call outside the restaurant, taking the screaming baby outside the restaurant, holding the door so it doesn’t slam in the next person’s face). But motive matters: the Asshole is exempt because s/he is entitled to exemption. No other reason. The Asshole is special, and entitled to ignore the social contract, just by existing.

Thus, the person who acts like an Asshole once in a while on a bad day is not an Asshole, because most of the time that person knows and does better. The person who acts that way but knows it and seeks to dial it back is not an Asshole, because unrepentant privilege is part of the core definition. The Asshole does not self-examine, except perhaps to self-admire in a mirror.

Melissa and I had been engaged in a discussion of racial privilege that afternoon, and her intent may have been to illustrate how the privileged appear in the eyes of the unprivileged. I see the point. I can drive through most areas without risk of being pulled over for being black, since I’m not black. I get different and more favorable reactions in some situations, because I’m white. I probably got paid more because I was male. It represents a natural advantage. Because of that, goes the logic, I should seek to forgo this privilege. We don’t agree about the suitable reaction to that reality, but we agree that it exists and is unjust. The author brought the question up as it applies to his own favorite pastime, surfing. Evidently surfing has an accepted etiquette, and some people show no regard for it.

For me, nothing says Asshole like bad cell phone etiquette. You can be in the middle of a restaurant, having a conversation, and someone two booths away blares in with his outside voice. His cell phone rang. He would not want all of us to do that, but he is entitled, so he does it. He feels no remorse for behavior to which he is entitled. I do not understand how a group of people can gather around a meal table, or in a room together, and all stare down at electronic devices. When it happens, I just want to leave. Yet it does, and with increasing frequency, and evidently it’s the social consensus. Perhaps it is so much the social consensus that I’m being an Asshole by believing myself entitled to interaction when the expected behavior involves staring at a small rectangular communication and research tool. Who do I think I am, anyway? By not owning one, or wanting one, am I spitting on the social convention, making everyone around me uncomfortable as they post selfies, photograph their food, seek a video for the Daily Outrage, argue with strangers on Facebook, and manipulate the fall of multicolored candy pieces?

I liked the book. James’s style is readably articulate, the tone of a learned person not out to prove that to anyone. His examples will resonate with many. There’s only one issue I have with James’ stance, and it comes late in the book, where he has the discussion of how best to respond to the Asshole. His proposed solutions never involve the one I consider most obvious, which is to give the Asshole a consequence beyond “Hey, asshole, get to the back of the line.” I think James is right; if the Asshole were correctable, we would see evidence of the correction in progress. If there is no way to reform the Asshole, then the question is how we take least harm from him or her. James proposes selective assertion, which makes sense in that it’s not practical to challenge every instance, and we have to pick our spots. What he does not propose is selective assertion with real consequences, something that makes the Asshole actually suffer. Not to help correct the Asshole, but to warm the souls of the non-Assholes present.

Of course, not everyone is equipped to do this in safety. If the Asshole is trying to bull to the front of the line, and he’s built like an NFL lineman, the woman standing five feet high and weighing one hundred pounds only after a chocolate binge isn’t going to stop him. It could be risky for her. But what if, where possible, the Asshole gets a real consequence? ‘Vigilante justice,’ people will complain, as if that phrase is an automatic invalidation. Now and then it does happen, and we applaud. I think we need more of it, not less. While it doesn’t have to involve violence (could be as simple as a milky coffee thrown on the Asshole, or a bumper sticker that says “Certified Asshole” slapped onto a Mercedes taking up two parking spaces), I’m not opposed to the notion that it might now and then take tangible and painful form.

Some people really are Assholes, and now and then, someone will kick their asses. I’m in favor.


4 thoughts on “Recent read: Assholes*, a theory”

  1. As an RN, there is the occasional Assholes that I encounter as a patient. I fervently wish that some vigilante justice could be dispensed while the odd Asshole is in my care, but the litigious nature of current healthcare pointedly renders such actions as unethical and not in keeping with the pandering to the Almighty Patient Satisfaction scores of a hospital. I do suspect that morale of the employees would likely sky-rocket if occasional shenanigans aimed at the Asshole patient were overlooked.


  2. Except that by the act of throwing coffee (violent and criminal if hot) or the bumper sticker (violation of personal property and a petty crime), are both acts of Asshole-ism in themselves. And applauding them, even when deserved, is promoting Asshole-ism. That said, there are times when I find my self involved in said Asshole-ism. Perhaps the end take is that everyone, even those who are generally not Assholes, are Assholes sometimes.


    1. Well, Russell, if you read the book, they would not be acts of Assholism as the book defines it. I have no fundamental moral problem with an act simply because it is defined as violent (I believe some violence is justified) or criminal (I do not permit law to define my morality).


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