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.

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