Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review of Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James

According to the author, the definition of an asshole, who is almost always male, is (emphasis mine):

A person is an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against complaints of other people.

An Asshole (capitalization mine) is to be distinguished from a Jerk; the latter only systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations.

The Asshole refuses to recognize you as a moral equal. This is a key reason that Assholitude arises in the first place. The recipient ends up fighting for moral recognition, and this is where the frustration on part of the recipient comes from. There's the humilation of knowing that you are considered inferior; and that there's nothing you can do to change that.

The opposite of an Asshole---presumably something to aspire to---is the Fully Cooperative Person (capitalization mine). These are people who "see themselves as equals, as having grounds for special treatment only in special circumstances that others will equally enjoy at the appropriate times.''

An example is a person's birthday; we expect (well, most people expect) special celebrations of their existence on that day, but they will equally well celebrate their friends' existence some other day. For the Asshole, every day is his birthday.

The author offers classification of different types of asshole. There is a delicate balance between deciding that someone is an asshole and deciding that he doesn't really rise to the level of assholitude (one really does need to enrich the English vocabulary to discuss this subject; the author doesn't use this ugly word, however).

The classification: I won't spell out the details. After all, you should read the book. I do provide some example asshole sub-types from the book, so you can compare your knowledge of these people with the label to get some idea.

1. Boorish asshole: Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore
2. Smug asshole: Richard Dawkins, Gustave Flaubert, Bernhard-Henri Levy

    Flaubert: "Woman is a vulgar animal from whom man has created an excessively beautiful ideal".

    This subtype also has a French translation due to the French public intellectual being overrepresented in the list: le smug asshole.

3. The asshole boss: Naomi Campbell and General Patton

4. The royal royal asshole: Henry VIII

5. The presidential asshole: Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, Dick Cheney, Silvio Berlusconi

6. The corporate asshole: some guy I've never heard of

7. The reckless asshole: Cheney and his Iraq-war cohort

8. The self-aggrandizing asshole: Cheney

One odd thing about the above list is that it's not using attributes consistently. I would have expected better from a professional philosopher :). The corporate/presdential/royal royal asshole has in common the fact that their position changes them into assholes. The smug and other categories of asshole seem to point to internal causes. I was left a bit dissatisfied by this. Perhaps it would have been better to have a typology with several layers: external causes vs internal, and then drill down, perhaps cross-classifying across sub-categories (Cheney ends up everywhere; perhaps the generalized universal one-size-fits-all asshole type applies). We need a type-theoretic treatment of assholes, with a full feature specification.  Maybe HPSG practitioners can help. The author does provide further classifications in a subsequent chapter, but I think the classification criteria can be improved.

The author continues by discussing why it is that it is mostly men that are assholes. He basically argues that it is largely culturally determined; there are female assholes (Ann Coulter is mentioned). This of course raises the question: to what extent is the asshole to blame for their behavior, if most of it is the result of a conditioning process? I didn't quite get his conclusion, but I think he's saying that the asshole bears some moral responsibility and can therefore be blamed for his behavior.

The author then moves on to asshole management; on his home page, he has a 13-step list (not mentioned in the book as such), but basically it's an amalgam of Stoic principles and small steps one can take to minimize one's own unhappiness. The bottom line is you are not going to change the asshole's behavior, so focus on other issues you can control (e.g., vigilant avoidance, only working with the asshole on your own terms, etc.).  Ideal asshole management needs years of training, it seems, a bit like doing aikido.

The author also talks about things like asshole capitalism, the erosion of social structure as a consequence of the way the political system is set out. He believes that Italy is a prime example of asshole capitalism, and that the US is getting there. His basic theory is that asshole capitalism arises if there are incentives to achieving "unbounded personal enrichment", undermanagement in that there is no system in place for damping the tendency to be an asshole (e.g., in Japan there is a shaming culture). He also lists destabilization (gradual degradation), but this seems more like a consequence of the first two to me.

Some reflections on the implications of this book:

One possibly upsetting consequence of reading this book is the realization that, at some point or another in our lives (especially if you are male), we have acted like an asshole. The author provides us with this lifeline: someone can act like an asshole---in a particular situation or over a particular day or week---without really, ultimately, being an asshole. Wow, that's a relief! Because I feel much better about myself now. I've acted like an asshole (um, more than once). I'm sure you have; actually, I can't think of many male academics I know that haven't acted like assholes at one time or another (and I can think of a few females academics who did). By the way, if, while reading this, you didn't realize that you've acted like an asshole in the past but you think pretty much everyone around is one, you probably are the asshole we are discussing here. The author notes this point: "if you would be willing to call yourself an asshole, this indicates that you are not in fact one." The corollary of this statement is the one that's more interesting for me (I'm not one to focus on the positive, I always look at the negative side ;). The author also astutely observes that you may either feel (a) shame, or (b) a thrill of joy, at discovering that you are, in your opinion, an asshole (under the above self-test). (a) is OK, (b) not so much. You can also be a half-assed asshole, not a full-fledged one; but even that is bad enough.

Ultimately, in my opinion, thinking about assholitude is a bit like talking about alcoholism; a significant proportion of the population is already part of the problem, and a major part of the problem is the inability to recognize that one has a problem through the way one is.

Another thing that the author doesn't mention but which I think is true is that each one of us has an inner asshole waiting to leap out. The same thing happens with racism. The distinguished liberal professor who would never say an unkind word about a particular minority, and steadfastly votes left of center, will happily express contempt for some sub-class or the other if you just open the way for their inner feelings to express themselves. You can always get the most enlightened and open person to eventually say something that counts as racist.  In India, I used to study in a left-wing university, where equality for all was what mattered, and my fellow students were super-conscious of projecting egalitarianism. Even the formal courses on western philosophy were all about studying (and memorizing) Marxist-Leninist pronouncements. But even this group would find some regional group to mock. Surprisingly, these Khaki kurta-clad intellectuals would mock Punjabis the most in front of me; this is surprising because I am Punjabi---why would they mock this group to my face? Biharis were another common target. They saw no irony in the disconnect between their egalitarian concerns and their mocking of regional groups.

 So how can one mitigate the influence of one's inner asshole? Remind yourself periodically that your interlocutors are your moral equals, that courtesy and respect do not need to be abandoned when bringing up your opinions.

This book is hugely relevant for academics. The most dramatic manifestation of academic assholeness is in the reviewing process. Reviewers can be unnecessarily harsh when they critique a paper. And yet, I actually sympathize with such an asshole reviewer; I too have felt the rage when reading an incompetently done piece of work. My solution to that has been to write my asshole-version of the review, and let it sit for a day or two. I got it out of my system, I feel happy as I am know I am right and the authors are obviously, each one of them, a piece of shit.  Then I rewrite the review. I first start with the positive achievements, and rephrase all my criticisms into a milder form. When I do this, I always find that some of my criticisms were the product of rage, and they do fall by the wayside. I do sometimes fail to do this, but the cases are diminishing with increasing age and experience. Another way to mitigate the assholitude that comes naturally to us during the reviewing process is to sign your review. That will definitely motivate you clean up your act. Academics don't just sit back and take the criticism. If the "enemy" knows who you are, and this opens up the possibility of blowback, your tone will automatically improve. My harshest reviewers have almost always been anonymous.

The book also made me think about my life in Berlin/Germany: how commuters will elbow you out of their way to get into the train first, how people walk right through you as if you were not even there, and how they just walk past you without acknowledging you if you hold the door open for them. Anyone inside a car automatically acquires a sense of special entitlement too. How everyone plays music ever more loudly on their headphones with every passing year. How people will park all their bags on the seat around them in the train and roll their eyes if you want them to move their stuff so you can sit. How people will smoke in no-smoking areas (and folks have been beaten up and hospitalized in Berlin for asking such people not to smoke in these areas).

Compared to Japan, or even Paris or the midwest in the US, the contrast is dramatic, and I could not help thinking that somehow German society has managed to foster the culture of assholism. But thankfully we have not succumbed to asshole capitalism (at least not to the extent that the US or Italy has). It would be very interesting to study where this culture of self-entitlement came from. Why didn't Germany evolve into a *relatively* polite society like their immediate neighbor France, or the extremely polite Japanese? It's a fascinating question. However, on the positive side, one thing I took away from this book is to follow Epictetus and just accept things as they are and not fume about all the daily injustices one experiences. Let it go, as the song goes.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

One year of night dialysis

I'm now in my fourth year of hemodialysis, and 31 years from my first dialyses and transplant back in New Delhi. For one year, 2011-12, I did dialysis in a center in Berlin, but I couldn't handle it---dialysis patients in Germany are by far the most inconsiderate of all, compared to dialysis I have done in Australia, Copenhagen, Japan (Kyoto and Tokyo), Spain (Barcelona), USA. France comes a close second to inconsiderateness. They will watch TV with the volume on their headphones set to maximum, talk loudly to neighbors even if others are sleeping, shout out loud and do all manner of objectionable things.

So, after training for nine months, I switched to home dialysis. I tried it for a year, but that didn't work out either. I documented my experiences here:

Eventually, my doctors got sick of my complaints about the so-called technical support and (diplomatically) kicked me out of the dialysis center by recommending I do night dialysis in a different center. So here I am, one year later, on night dialysis. I have to say I have converged; this is as optimal as I think dialysis will ever get for me. My days are relatively free. I have trained myself to meditate myself to sleep once I am hooked up to the machine, and to not move my shunt arm during the night (it is amazing what you can train your mind to do if you only try). One year later, I am nearly off all my blood pressure medication, and for the first time in my life I am nearly medication free. This is the most normal I have ever been in my 32 years since my kidneys failed.
So I am happy to say that I am now pretty satisfied with my dialysis situation. Night dialysis works for me.

The downsides: There are some disadvantages, however, that I have to learn to live with.

1. Come rain or snow, I have to go to dialysis in the evening, around 8:15PM, when I am dog-tired, and take a one hour trip to the center. And I get done at 5:15AM, which means that I take the train home at 6:00AM and am home by 6:30. Taking the early morning train in Berlin is fraught with danger: there is vomit, there are seriously deranged people about, there are people looking for a fight after a night out drinking. You see the margins of society in full display, and it is not a pretty sight. Statistically, I am pretty sure that one day something bad will happen to me on one of these trains. 

2. I feel much fitter; I can do 165 pushups (in five reps of 30-40 each) and am steadily building up to my goal of 250. But I can't build muscle because it's a losing battle with dialysis; most of the protein gets sucked away by the machine. I have lost 5 kilos since I started dialysis, mostly muscle I had built up during my transplant days. I had built that muscle up with weight training, something I cannot do any more because my shunt arm is not allowed to lift anything more than 10 kgs. So I train with 6 kg weights, and that has almost no effect on muscle size (although my stamina has gone up). I've lost significant muscle mass on my legs. (Have to work on this in 2015, need to find more time to build pure muscular power.)

3. I am still at the mercy of the expertise level of the nurses, and the formal rigor they bring to the table. And the same type of chaos I experienced earlier in patient management continues.  Whether I have a good night or not depends to a great extent on the nurse in charge. If they tape my needles even slightly wrong (hitting the wall of the shunt) I am going to get alarms all night. If they don't remove the air bubbles from the heparin pump, the machine will detect the bubbles eventually and set off alarms, waking me up. I mentioned all this to the doctor, and asked them to set up a checklist to ensure that every detail is checked (this is how they do it in Tokyo: one nurse comes and works through a checklist with the nurse in charge to make sure everything was done right). But I was told that we don't do checklists; the results are there for us to see and for me to experience in all their fullness.

4. Nobody is tracking the slow deterioration of my shunt, except of course for me. I have had two ultrasounds so far on my shunt, and the evidence is clear: the blood flow is decreasing. This means I will soon need a procedure for widening up the shunt. However, no one but me is keeping track of the reduction in blood flow volume.  There just isn't any record of what the results of the first ultrasound were, and no comparison with the second ultrasound; if I didn't have the volumes memorized we would not know that volume went down over the last year.  That has been my experience in Germany. When my shunt was built, it was a major operation with general anesthesia. The last thing I heard before they made me inhale the gas to knock me out was "Where's the patient's checklist?" "We can't find it, it's not in the folder." "OK, we'll do it without." The anesthesiologist (or was it the surgeon? don't remember) also used a ball point pen to make a cross on the arm on which the shunt was to be built. The broader point is that a dialysis patient has to be his own doctor; if you don't get informed and track your own life, you are going to pay a price.

What to do about the fact that chance plays such a big role in one's career/life trajectory?

 Adam Ruben writes about Pure, Stupid Luck: how luck governs success in academia:

Although he's absolutely right, I feel that this article's point is beside the point for an academic for whom the dice didn't give all sixes, or indeed for anyone. First, luck plays a role in everything (not just academia). That is something outside your control, so you'd better learn to accept what you can't influence. Second, bad luck comes in different variants. A terminal illness that gives you weeks to live is catastrophic. Not becoming the world's leading scientist is...well, if you consider that bad luck, then ask yourself why you do science. If it is for the fame, then you're better off in the film industry. Scientists who are able to publish in top journals with ease are not just lucky; more often then not, the editor in chief works down the hall from them in their own department, or they have worked on building such a vast network of friends that usually get friendly reviews. Or indeed they are just that good. The unethical aspect of publishing (using your colleagues' influence to get published) is unethical and not something you should emulate. The ethical way to proceed to is to try to become just that good. That's a constructive thing you can do to thwart the inevitable buffeting chance will subject you to. You will get as far as you will get---even there chance plays a role---but that is a much more constructive thing to do than to say it's pure, stupid luck.  Why does one become a scientist? For many the answer eventually becomes: for the power, for the fame. But that should not be your answer. The answer should be: to do the science.

I have been thinking about this question---the role of luck---in response to a question from a student. She was worried about her future in science. The question for me is: what can the individual do? One answer comes from So Good They Can't Ignore You. The basic thesis of this book is that you need to develop unique skills. That's something largely under your control and will have unexpected (positive) consequences for your life. It may not make you the world's leading authority in whatever, but as I said, that should not be your goal in the first place.

The final point emerges in this amazing book, Worldly Philosopher. This is a biography of a Berliner who went on to become an economist: Albert O. Hirschman. Although the story of AO's escape from Nazi Germany and the aftermath itself is an amazing one, one basic insight I got from this book was that nothing goes as planned or hoped for, but you have to try to turn that to your advantage. You have to try to make a virtue out of the unexpected outcome. A related idea is that you should try to turn a disadvantage---a bad outcome from said dice roll---to your advantage. There is often a way if you think about possible ways to leverage your bad luck. I think these are much more useful observations than Adam Ruben's.