Wait...What? 1: Assholes: A Better Theory*

By Peter Ludlow

[Pic: Max Asshole]

In a recent podcast entitled “A Golden Age for Assholes,” Sam Harris argued that there has been a rising tide of assholery in the United States and this can be attributed, in part, to figures like Donald Trump and Andrew Tate, who are not merely assholes, but are assholes that have kicked in the Overton Window of assholery and brought about A Golden Age for Assholes. How did they accomplish this? By making it acceptable for everyone to be assholes! Thus, we are led to conclude, because of mega-assholes like Trump and Tate, we now live in an age of epic assholery. Later I will get into the issue of whether Trump and Tate are really to blame for a plague of assholery, but first I want to get into more basic questions. Such as, what is an asshole anyway?

I think that Harris has an excessively narrow take on assholery. I could also say that he has a completely weird take on assholery. This is clear from the alleged truisms he offers about being an asshole.

  • To be an asshole is to care about the wrong things.
  • To be an asshole is to mistake one’s vices for virtues.
  • It is to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to live a good life.
  • To be an asshole is to mistake shamelessness for integrity.

 And finally 

  • They only truly care about themselves.

In short Harris seems to think that being an asshole amounts to being wrong in a lot of your values while also being totally self-absorbed. His list perhaps successfully categorizes Trump and Tate as assholes, but is this really what makes them assholes? Being wrong in a big way about things like what is a good life and the difference between virtues and vices? Sometimes, as “The Dude,” pointed out to Walter in The Big Lebowski, “you’re not wrong… you’re just an asshole.

For example, someone may merge in front of me just before the highway exit rather than when they were supposed to, several hundred meters earlier, and I may call them an asshole, and I may come to think they are habitual in their assholery, but even so I seldom suspect that the offending person mistakes their virtues for vices, or that they care about the wrong things, or that they are mistaking shamelessness for integrity, or that they misunderstand what it means to live a good life. And as much as I might think it in the moment, I don’t really have reason to believe that the person merging in front of me only truly cares about themselves. The person may care about many people, and maybe they would even care about me if we met under better circumstances. What they don’t care about is whether they piss me off as they violate the norms of driving civility when they are making their exit. No doubt there are self-interested assholes, and they are extra annoying because of their self-interest. But that self-interest isn’t what makes them assholes. What makes them assholes is that they say and do.

The problem is that Harris has tried to define “asshole” so that the term only applies to a small group of individuals – I would say to a small subset of the assholes. Why? Well, for all of us there are kinds of assholes that are especially annoying, and we feel some pull to tidy up the concept of assholery so that it only applies to those extra annoying assholes. THEY are the real assholes around here; not the rest of us. But while for sure some assholes are bigger assholes than others, and certain kinds of assholes may be particularly grating to certain kinds of people, it just doesn’t do to try and narrow the meaning of “asshole” down to cover only your personal and political enemies. This doesn’t mean you can’t assign these particular assholes to the inner circle of Dante’s inferno; it is just to say that it is bad practice to let some people off the hook from being labeled “asshole” just because you are aligned with them in some way or another. 

Another question I have is whether Trump and Tate are merely assholes or something more like sociopaths. There seems to be a difference. Is it being an asshole to try and engineer an insurrection (as Trump allegedly did) or to engage in the human trafficking of Romanian women (as Tate allegedly did)? I feel like we are starting to leave assholery behind in these cases. Trump and Tate are certainly assholes but let’s not overlook the fact that they are perhaps also sociopaths. I would say that assholery has more to do with things like Trump mocking reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from arthrogryposis than trying to subvert a US election

Could we say that sociopaths are just super-duper assholes? Maybe, but I’m not buying. There is good reason to think that assholes and sociopaths are different things altogether. For example, it is really odd to say something like “Hitler was such an asshole.” Now I understand that some philosophers will want to say that Hitler was an asshole but by Grice’s maxims of communication you aren’t supposed to state what is obvious. And, well, sure, but consider this: There is definitely something weak and obvious about saying “Hitler was such a bad man,” but saying “Hitler was such an asshole” seems comically different. And even if evil genocidal maniac and treasonous election denier and alleged human trafficker are just extreme ends of assholery, my point is that there is still lots and lots of assholery that falls short of that. Which is to say that Harris has an excessively narrow understanding of what an asshole is, even if we are indeed living in The Golden Age of Assholery.

Of course, Sam Harris can define “asshole” however he likes. If he wants, he can define it so that there are precisely two living assholes in the entire world – Trump and Tate. But I am rather more interested in the common use of “asshole,” and it is definitely broader in scope that what Harris has in mind here. As I noted earlier, I understand the common usage of the word to apply to the person that merges in front of me just before the exit rather than when they were supposed to. Or alternatively, it might apply to the person who flips me off when I merge in front of them just before the exit when I should have done so several hundred meters earlier. Insurrections and human trafficking are a different kind of bad. Like actual evil bad as opposed to violating the norms of civility. (That’s where I’m headed here – that assholes are people that violate norms of civility.)

Here we should also say something about the difference between doing asshole things and being an asshole. If we are being fair, everyone does asshole things, but not everyone is an asshole. Sometimes a friend might say to you, with an intonation of surprise, “why are you being such an asshole?” The good news is that this suggests you are not yet an asshole in their eyes, you are just being an asshole in the moment. You are not alone in this. Everyone is an asshole sometimes. This of course leads to the impossible to answer question of how many asshole things you have to do in order to be considered an asshole. I say the question is impossible to answer because it is similar in structure to the question of how many cigarettes you have to smoke before one can say you’re a smoker. More than one, I’m pretty sure. But it turns out you can actually qualify as an asshole by just doing one super asshole thing. In my view Trump probably qualified as an asshole-for-life just by virtue of mocking that disabled reporter. He didn’t need to do any other asshole things. That was enough! So sometimes you count as an asshole because of the frequency of your assholery, and other times you qualify by virtue of the spectacularness of your assholery. Now that I think of it, you might not have to do any asshole thing at all. You might just be plotting your asshole actions and have those plans thwarted by an early death (in which case you’re a dead asshole) or some other obstruction.

Look, Sam Harris is no philosopher – at least not an academic philosopher – so maybe we can turn to academic philosophers here for a deeper analysis. Maybe. But I’m here to say don’t get your hopes up.

UC Irvine philosopher Aaron James wrote a whole book about assholery. In fact, it was a New York Times Best Seller entitled “Assholes: a theory,” subsequently turned into a feature length documentary of the same name . The book does indeed offer a theory, which, in a nutshell, is that an asshole is someone that "allows himself to enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” This theory, according to the documentary, was inspired by a moment when Aaron James was surfing and an asshole surfer cut in front of him, denying him his tasty wave. I have questions. Granting that the evil wave-Bogarting surfer was indeed an asshole, does James actually have evidence that this evil surfer “allowed himself to enjoy special advantages?” Maybe. He stole the wave, after all. But how do we know that this was due to an “entrenched sense of entitlement,” or for that matter that this sense of entitlement led the evil surfer to feel “immunized against the complaints of other people?” Don’t overthink things; maybe what made him an asshole was that he violated the norms of surfing civility.

Maybe James’ theory nails the psychology of that particular wave-stealing surfer, but I really have doubts that it applies to most assholes. Actually, I have more than doubts. I’m completely certain that he is wrong. Here, James’ analysis perhaps suffers from the fact that he never had the privilege of running a bar in Mexico. I, on the other hand, have had that experience and I can assure you that there are many people with zero sense of entitlement who are quite happy to be raging assholes. And I’m not just talking about drunken assholes. It turns out you can be an asshole in a bar without drinking a thing. Who knew? Even sober patrons can break shit, jump lines, clog toilets with paper, annoy other customers, annoy servers, annoy the DJ, annoy me, start fights, break more shit. If you doubt me, ask any other bar owner. If you doubt them, ask to see the surveillance footage.

Here is what I learned from my Mexican-bar-running experience. Many assholes are entitled tourists, but many more are broke-ass locals, some are rich locals, and a surprisingly high number are Mexican drag queens. The one thing they seem to have in common is that they were all assholes. At the end of the day, I feel like James has fallen into the same trap that Harris did: the temptation to try and limit the extension of “asshole” to some special few with which we are not aligned. In James’ case this is a broader net than we got from Harris; James is fond of applying it to corporate bosses and bankers and cable news folk and presidents, which is to say entitled folk, but I am here to say once again that entitlement has little to do with it. Assholery is completely egalitarian.

On this subject James also remarks that assholes are almost exclusively men. This is how he puts it.

If women can be assholes, the fact that assholes are mainly men presents a deeply explanatory problem…. We have to ask why the asshole type crops up in the set of human beings born male so much more than the set of human beings born female. This is truly a marvelous fact of life, which presumable has some explanation. But what?

Before we get into the “what” let’s pause to ask whether this is really “truly a marvelous fact of life” or whether it is total bullshit. It is true that we are less apt to hear the term “asshole” applied to women, but that is perhaps because some people think it is not nice to call women “assholes” and other people have other (worse) expressions for women that don’t toe the line. So, for example, if a car cuts in front of you, you might scream “asshole” at the car, but if you see that the driver is a woman you might say nothing at all. Other people (not you) might scream the b-word or the c-word instead. My point here is that women do asshole things and that they too can be assholes, whatever we chose to (not) call them. This fact can’t really be lost on James; in the documentary, John Cleese says that his own mother was an asshole.

James is aware of the b-word option, and he goes into some length talking about the difference between the a-word and the b-word. Allow me to share a bit.

the bitch listens to the voiced complaints of others, making at least a show of recognition. Nevertheless, what is said makes no motivational difference to what she does; once her face-to-face encounter with you is over, it is as though you never talked…The bitch betrays you behind your back. The asshole fails to recognize you to your face.”

Wowzers, what a thing to say and from what experience does that take even come? No matter. As in the case of “asshole” we can define the b-word however we like, but if we are interested in making sense of how people actually use the word, this take seems to be pulled out of James’ literal asshole. Look, I’ve seen the b-word used an awful lot, and it seems to me that as in the case of “asshole” it applies to violations of the norms of civility, but more precisely to “norms of civility” that are set up exclusively for women. So, for example, women get called the b-word if they don’t smile when you talk to them, or if they try to break into the conversation, or if they merely happen to have accepted a role of authority over you. So again, the b-word is just the a-word with a different (more oppressive) set of norms operative.

It is interesting that in Mexican Spanish the equivalent of “asshole” would be “pendejo” which in turn has the feminine form “pendeja.” It literally means “pubic hair” and is often translated as “idiot” but is routinely used where we would use “asshole.” I have asked Mexican friends about the use of these terms and the responses are mixed. Some people say that “pendejo” and “pendeja” are are used with equal frequency. Other people say that “pendeja” is used less because it is too crude to call womwn that. Instead, these people prefer using “tonta” or “idiota”, which strikes me as worse than “pendeja.” I mean, I would rather be called a “pubic hair” than an “idiot” but maybe that is just me. But in any case, even those that favor “idiota” say that if a woman cuts in front of you at the highway exit you are entitled to say “pendeja.”

The cases I have been discussing can be summed up with the observation that assholes are not predominantly limited to people that are more privileged. Anyone can be an asshole. Even women! Even Mexican drag queens!

James’ general idea that assholes are the privileged folk is mirrored in Eric Schwitzgebel’s paper “Jerks: A Field Guide” which also appeared in a book of his with MIT Press. Here is how he describes the phenomenon of jerkdom. 

“All normal jerks distribute their jerkishness mostly down the social hierarchy, and to anonymous strangers. Waitresses, students, clerks, strangers on the road – these are the unfortunates who bear the brunt of it. With a modicum of self-control, the jerk, though he implicitly or explicitly regards himself as more important than most of the people around him, recognises that the perspectives of those above him in the hierarchy also deserve some consideration.”

Of course, Schwitzgebel’s jerks, like James’ assholes, must be men. (He notes, “I’ve called the jerk ‘he’, for reasons you might guess.”) Quit honestly, I haven’t used or heard the term “jerk” since I was in junior high in the 1970s, so maybe I’ve lost the handle on what it meant or maybe I have no idea what it means now, but as I recall, the world was once full of little jerks (like me and my friends) that did things like egg houses and disrespect elders and talk shit to teachers and throw sparkplugs through church window. For sure there were jerks that distributed jerkiness down the social hierarchy but at least as I remember it, the jerks were more often dishing it up the hierarchy.

It is really hard to avoid thinking that this recent academic work on assholes and jerks has adopted the fundamental axiom of the academy these days, which is that only persons of privilege can be actual bad guys. All evil extrudes from social privilege, and this apparently now includes the evils of assholery and jerkiness. No doubt the conclusions drawn by James and Schwitzgebel were well received in the academy. Hopefully, the day will come when people in the academy will feel free to call out this axiom for the bullshit that it is, or at least question the wisdom of using it, without critical scrutiny, as the foundation of their work.

Let’s pause and take stock of where we are. It’s my view that acts of assholery are acts of incivility and that assholes are people who have a disposition to engage in these acts or intend to do so enough, however much enough is. Sam Harris says that being an asshole isn’t a matter of being uncivil, but I think he is dead wrong about that. What makes Trump an asshole is not that he (allegedly) attempted to subvert the democratic process, but that he does things like make fun of disabled reporters and engages in name calling etc. And yes, he does all that from a place of privilege, but that place of privilege isn’t what makes him an asshole. It’s what he does that makes him an asshole.

Can you accidently be an asshole? This is complicated. When I was an assistant professor at SUNY Stony Brook, I spent a term visiting Cambridge University. One day, I was hanging out with some Cambridge graduate students and chatting and the conversation evolved into some academic repartee. I thought we were just talking shit to each other, but when I left, I heard one of them say “what an asshole.” Now, the deal is that if I was violating norms of civility, I had no idea that I was. Perhaps I should have better known the norms of civility at Cambridge. But just how much is one supposed to know? You can’t know everything. And there are basic rules about not offending hosts, but maybe I should have gone the extra mile and taken a class on Cambridge etiquette. Who knows?

But wait! There is another possibility here – years after the fact, a philosopher with some experience of British academics told me that the problem was not that I had engaged in shit talking, it was that I had engaged in shit talking. In other words, had I been a philosopher of sufficient pedigree, my remarks would have been no problem. But as I was a mere junior philosopher from a state university in the colonies it was beneath my station to engage with them in this way. It is kind of the inverse of James-Schwitzgebel theory; I wasn’t an asshole because I was acting out of a place of privilege but I was an asshole because I was acting out of a place of a lack of privilege.

I guess James and Schwitzgebel would say that the actual assholes/jerks in my scenario were the Cambridge philosophers, and I would like to agree. In any case, we have to allow that people are often called “asshole” or the b-word or “jerk” when they are none of the above. For example, sometimes you violate a rule of civility because you just don’t have an option. Maybe you are driving like an asshole because it’s an emergency and you have to get to the hospital in a hurry. Or maybe you are being called the b-word because of archaic norms of civility for women. On the flip side, sometimes you didn’t know you were violating a norm of civility, but you were; it was your responsibility to know the norms of civility where you are, so you were an asshole whether you knew it or not and whether someone called you that or not. If all this is right, then our working definition of “asshole” is now something like this, where we understand “norms” to be genuine norms, not presumed norms:

An asshole is one who…  

      1. has the disposition to (often enough) violate norms of  civility, either by intent or due to a failure to make a  reasonable effort to know the operative norms of civility

         and/or

      2. plots to violate norms of civility 

This doesn’t answer every question, of course. I never said what “enough” was, and we haven’t even defined civility yet (there is a reason for this, hang on). I’ve given examples of uncivil actions, so you probably know what I’m talking about, but I’ve left all sorts of open cases. For example, are rules of dining etiquette among the rules of civility? Am I violating the rules of civility when I unintentionally use the wrong spoon at Cambridge high table dinner? I’m inclined to think not, but this is the sort of question I want to leave open for discussion.

Dining etiquette would be one end of the norms of civility (involving small matters, if you will), but the other end involves actions that are bigger than face-to-face actions but still seem to be considered uncivil things to do. So, if you rob people, you are a criminal, but if you rob retirees and children and Churches you are more likely to be considered uncivil in your criminality and hence an asshole criminal. There are rules of civility, even for criminals, and if you break those you are not just a criminal, but an asshole as well. If someone robs your money, they are a thief, but if they take your ID as well, they are an asshole because they are causing you extra headaches for nothing. That just isn’t a civil way to be a thief.

This notion of civility is tied to what you do, so that we can say that there is a notion of “civil for a criminal.” A criminal might do something that is merely a crime if they do it, but an asshole move if someone else did it. For example, when narcos demand extortion money from a bar, that is just narcos being criminals. But when the Mexican police come and demand extortion money, they are being assholes. Why? Because they violated the rules of civility for police in their interactions with those they are sworn to serve and protect.

You probably have lots of questions about this idea. I do too. Like what about big picture events in which unnecessary harm is introduced? For example, was the firebombing of Dresden an asshole move by the allies in World War II? There is room to discuss here, but I’m inclined to think that it wasn’t an asshole move because it didn’t involve a matter of personal civility. It was just a war crime. It violated big picture norms. I can’t work out all the twists and turns of this line of thought here. I’m mostly just dropping it here to encourage discussion: Where are the borders between crimes and incivilities – between criminals and assholes? For the moment we have bigger fish to fry.

Our bigger fish involves Sam Harris and his claim that Trump and Tate were ushering in a golden age of assholery – the thesis that those guys are signaling to their followers that it is o.k. to be an asshole. This is not my take on the matter. In point of fact, I don’t think Trump and Tate followers read it that way either. What Trump and Tate are communicating to their fans is that many people are showing deference to the wrong set of rules. If we want America to be great again we need to get back to that older set of norms in which it was ok for men to be, well, assholes. Except, in the day, they weren’t assholes. They were just men being men.

And here is the rub with the concept of an asshole – it is tied to your concept of norms of civility, so that if you have different norms of civility you end up with different, competing concepts of assholery. Trump and Tate aren’t inviting us to a new era of ubiquitous assholery. They are inviting us to accept an old set of norms, which, if we took them up on it, would make us the assholes and not Trump and Tate.

So, you see, this isn’t even about there being a dispute over the definition of “asshole.” We could all completely agree with the definition I gave above. The disputes turn on which norms of civility we are going to feed into the asshole-making machine.

I’m not here advocating some form of asshole relativity. Some norms of civility are better than other norms of civility, and those are the norms that are going to determine who the true assholes are. I’m old enough to remember the era when Trump’s rules of civility ruled the day – salute the flag but mock the disabled, etc. – and I can assure you that those days sucked hard. Don’t go back there! You might prefer to say that Trump’s norms aren’t really norms – they are fake norms. That’s fine too.

Right now, you might be thinking, “but wait, wasn’t this Sam Harris’ point about assholes? – believing the wrong things and valuing the wrong things?” And nice try, but no. You can totally mistake vices for virtues and/or care about the wrong things and not be an asshole, so long as you follow the actual norms of civility and are nice to the people with a different ordering of values. It isn’t being wrong that makes you an asshole. By the same token, extrapolating from what The Dude said to Walter, you can be right about everything but still be an asshole. We probably all know some asshole that furiously writes articles defending the correct normative position in the hopes that this will make people think they aren’t an asshole. Sadly, for them, this strategy does not work.

Finally, it gnaws at me when people like Sam Harris appear to be saying that Trumpistas have abandoned norms of civility altogether and are calling for a new era of free-range assholery. That just isn’t true. No one is advocating blanket assholery. People are engaged in a dispute about norms. This is basically a debate about who is the real asshole and that turns on the question of which set of norms of civility are correct. Ignoring that element to the contemporary political landscape underestimates the opposition and it forecloses the opportunity to discuss the best set of norms. This isn’t a Golden age of assholery. It is a unique opportunity to have a serious discussion about two cultures with competing values and about what norms of civility and respect look like in those cultures. It is an opportunity for both sides to reflect on which norms of civility are actually best, given that we all must live together on this tiny planet.

*Thanks to Eric Winsberg and Stephanie Harvard for helpful discussion on the mean streets of Playa del Carmen.

(Photo: Steve Pyke)

About the Author

Peter Ludlow is a permanent resident of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and sometimes a resident of Miami and Medellin, Colombia. He works in and writes about various topics in philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, virtual worlds, cyber rights, hacktivism, and blockchain technologies. He has also written on the topics of bullshit, why we should dissolve the American Philosophical Association, and why the latest book by former APA President Philip Kitcher is so terrible. MTV.com once described him as one of the 10 most influential video game players of all time (ALL time – going back to Aristotle!). He owns Bored Ape #1866.