• April 18, 2014

A Social Offender for Our Times

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"What are you working on?" is academe's standard conversation starter, and for the past five years Geoffrey Nunberg has had a nonstandard response: "a book on assholes."

"You get giggles," says the linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, "or you get, 'You must have a lot of time on your hands'—the idea being that a word that vulgar and simple can't possibly be worth writing about." Scholars have tended to regard the book as a jeu d'esprit, not a serious undertaking. Their reaction intrigued Nunberg: "When people say a word is beneath consideration, it's a sign that there's a lot going on."

Aaron James can relate. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Assholes: A Theory (Doubleday), which was published in late October, a few months after Nunberg's book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years (PublicAffairs). James took up the project with some trepidation. "I felt a real sense of risk about writing something that might not appeal to my intellectual friends."

Risky? Perhaps, but not without precedent. The Stanford business professor Robert I. Sutton had a best seller in 2007 with The No Asshole Rule. And the nonscholarly asshole canon is vast. Recent titles include A Is for Asshole: The Grownups' ABCs of Conflict Resolution, Assholes Finish First, Assholeology: The Science Behind Getting Your Way—and Getting Away With It, and Dear Asshole: 101 Tear-Out Letters to the Morons Who Muck Up Your Life.

Why the heightened interest? After all, assholes have been around for ages—even if the word's figurative use is modern. (It was soldier slang during World War II.) But something has changed. Consider Donald Trump, an unquestioned asshole in the eyes of James and Nunberg. The attention our culture pays to self-absorbed buffoons is for James evidence that assholery is on the rise. "Our narcissistic age thus might help explain why assholes seem to be everywhere of late." Nunberg takes it a step further, noting that every era has its emblematic scoundrel: Once it was the cad, later it was the phony, today it is the asshole.

"A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole." Thus did Norman Mailer introduce Lieutenant Dove, literature's first asshole, in the 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead. From the start, Nunberg writes, the word carried overtones of class. "Asshole" launched its "attack from the ground level, in the name of ordinary Joes, people whose moral authority derives not from their rank or breeding but their authenticity, which is exactly the thing that the asshole lacks."

So what is an asshole, exactly? How is he (and assholes are almost always men) distinct from other types of social malefactors? Are assholes born that way, or is their boorishness culturally conditioned? What explains the spike in the asshole population?

James was at the beach when he began mulling those questions. "I was watching one of the usual miscreants surf by on a wave and thought, Gosh, he's an asshole." Not an intellectual breakthrough, he concedes, but his reaction had what he calls "cognitive content." In other words, his statement was more than a mere expression of feeling. He started sketching a theory of assholes, refining his thinking at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, where he spent a year as a fellow in 2009.

He consulted Rousseau (who, James notes, was something of an asshole himself on account of his shabby parenting skills), Hobbes (especially his views on the "Foole" who breaks the social contract), Kant (his notion of self-conceit in particular), and more-recent scholarship on psychopaths. He spoke with psychologists, lawyers, and anthropologists, all of whom suggested asshole reading lists. "There are a lot of similar characters studied in other disciplines, like the free rider or the amoralist or the cheater," James says, calling his time at Stanford an "interdisciplinary education in asshole theory."

James argues for a three-part definition of assholes that boils down to this: Assholes act out of a deep-rooted sense of entitlement, a habitual and persistent belief that they deserve special treatment. (Nunberg points out that use of the phrase "sense of entitlement" tracks the spread of "asshole"—both have spiked since the 1970s.) How to distinguish an asshole from a scumbag, a jerk, a prick, or a schmuck? Assholes are systematic. We all do assholeish things, but only an asshole feels fully justified in always acting like an asshole. As James puts it, "If one is special on one's birthday, the asshole's birthday comes every day."

To put meat on the bones of his theory, James names names. He was loath to do it. "I don't see my job in life being the asshole police," he says. But after a few pages of throat clearing—"We happily admit that any examples are properly controversial ... we stand ready to update and revise"—he walks us through the "teeming asshole ecosystem." There is the boorish asshole, who willfully flouts basic standards of decency (Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore); the smug asshole, who is certain of his intellectual superiority (Richard Dawkins, Larry Summers, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, whom James describes as "a caricature of the intellectual asshole"); the asshole boss (think Michael Scott on television's The Office); the royal asshole (Henry VIII); the corporate asshole (Steve Jobs); the reckless asshole (Dick Cheney); the self-aggrandizing asshole (Cheney again, also Ralph Nader).

There are many species in the asshole kingdom.

Among the more intriguing issues taken up by James is the relationship between capitalism and asshole production. Simply put, does capitalism encourage assholes? James quotes Samuel Bowles, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who argues that market thinking "may set in motion a spiral of market-induced erosion of other-regarding and ethical values, which in turn prompts greater reliance on markets, which in turn further erodes values, and so on."

A society caught in that spiral, James argues, is a society in distress. The institutions that sustain capitalism—public education, religion, family, law—begin to fray, resulting in a profusion of assholes. Such a society is in the grip of what James calls "asshole capitalism." "Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more."

The result: Living standards rise for only a few; political power is concentrated in the hands of a minority, whose members change the rules to protect their own interests; and "liberty," "opportunity," and "prosperity" devolve into platitudes. Sound familiar? James thinks so. "The United States stands at the precipice," he writes. "Chances are fair to good that it has already reached a tipping point into asshole capitalism and perhaps irreversible decline."

It's a dour assessment from a sunny-seeming guy. James says that when he caught wind of Nunberg's book, he was chagrined, even suspecting that Nunberg had somehow scooped the idea from people they might know in common. James now sees an upside. "It's probably better not to be the sole asshole guy out there." Besides, his initial response was too defensive, he says, "too much like an asshole."

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