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"There are many species in the asshole kingdom."
January 6, 2013 10:04 PM   Subscribe

"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?" -- The Chronicle talks to two professors, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg and philospher Aaron James, about their recent work on, well, assholes.

"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.'"
posted by bardic (71 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Christ, what a didactic...
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 10:09 PM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


Christ, what a culturally-conditioned entitled miscreant.

Actually, it sounds like they're talking about narcissism. Struggling to carve out a whole new intellectual construct to understand narcissists seems, well, kind of narcissistic.
posted by blucevalo at 10:15 PM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Slow day at the Department of Philosophy, huh."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:15 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Assholes are bad leaders.
posted by effugas at 10:20 PM on January 6, 2013


I'm a pussy and my boyfriend's a dick.
posted by Kerasia at 10:24 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


My ex-husband was an asshole...still is matter of fact.
posted by JujuB at 10:28 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Only an asshole would care, what goes in to our assholes and who puts it there. ("The Asshole Song" Romanovsky & Phillips)
posted by Goofyy at 10:38 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Michael Scott from The Office? I wouldn't call him an asshole, and in fact I think he is the epitome of schmuck.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:41 PM on January 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


(and assholes are almost always men)

I beg to differ, we just call the other gender something else.
posted by mullingitover at 10:47 PM on January 6, 2013 [29 favorites]


Michael Scott was not an asshole. He cared deeply and agonizingly for people.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:51 PM on January 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'd really like to see a joint paper with these guys and Harry Frankfurt.
posted by LionIndex at 10:52 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dennis Leary weighs in
posted by philip-random at 10:58 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Asshole, Jackoff, Scumbag!
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:00 PM on January 6, 2013


benito.strauss: “Michael Scott from The Office? I wouldn't call him an asshole, and in fact I think he is the epitome of schmuck.”

OnTheLastCastle: “Michael Scott was not an asshole. He cared deeply and agonizingly for people.”

Hm. I think Michael Scott was intended to be an asshole at first, since he was based on Ricky Gervais' character in the UK series. But before the first season was over, they'd slipped and brought in other characters that were worse and made Michael Scott a lot more sympathetic. And when they phased the character out they rehabilitated him completely, even making him conscious of his own bumbling incompetence.

There was that Todd Packer character, though. He was a genuine asshole.
posted by koeselitz at 11:03 PM on January 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


An asshole is whoever is more successful, assertive, and direct than me. They usually have the jobs I want and date the women I want to date.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 11:06 PM on January 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


The article author Evan R. Goldstein says assholes are almost always men. Has the author never heard of Ann Coulter, Dr Laura, Casey Anthony, Lori Drew, or watched the overly made up "news" announcers on Fox?
posted by eye of newt at 11:10 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Q: What's the difference between a BMW and horse?

A: With a horse the asshole is on the outside.
posted by islander at 11:13 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


How is he (and assholes are almost always men)


UNTRUE!
posted by louche mustachio at 11:16 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Slow day at the Department of Philosophy, huh."

A tenured friend of mine is working on a paper about the philosophy of sex with robots. *SPOILER ALERT* It's okay to have sex with robots.
posted by fatbird at 11:17 PM on January 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


Oh thank God.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:17 PM on January 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


"entitlement" rings false to me. I think part of it is less concern for others, rather than more about self. Those things might seem substantially the same, but there are subtle differences.
posted by anonymisc at 11:19 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


working on a paper about the philosophy of sex with robots. *SPOILER ALERT* It's okay to have sex with robots.

You know, in science you're usually supposed to draw the conclusion from the evidence you find, rather than search for evidence that supports a pre-existing conclusion. But in this case, we'll look the other way. For the common good. :)
posted by anonymisc at 11:22 PM on January 6, 2013


He mentioned that Dick Cheney exhibited several flavors of assholery.

I dunno. Maybe. I'm not really sure I buy this, but he makes a good point here about Cheney.

I don't really know what an asshole is, but I know a dickhead when I see one.
posted by mule98J at 11:29 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think I might print this out and leave it laying around the store for some one to see when I get back to work on wednesday...
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 11:42 PM on January 6, 2013


Clarification: an asshole is someone (usually a man, as it's a pretty gendered term) whose narcissism leads them to believe that they are entitled to obnoxious displays of self-centeredness, including and perhaps especially at the expense of others and others' actual entitlements, and especially one who believes that such behavior is charming or attractive to others.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:07 AM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


There was that Todd Packer character, though. He was a genuine asshole.

That character was originally from the UK version and served the same purpose there: to act as a foil for David Brent and show that he (Ricky Gervais's character) wasn't an asshole by pairing him up with a real asshole (Todd Packer).
posted by zixyer at 12:23 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Your asshole is the hole in your ass, or anus, where poop comes out. You feel awkward about that, because human conscious direction, and most social energy, is directed toward acquisition of resources and not the elimination of resources.

If you go to a party, people ask you "what do you do for a living?" And that's OK. It's OK to ask about the inputs. But nobody asks "how are you spending your money?" Not directly as a first question. Never. Because it doesn't make sense for us to focus on outputs when we could be focused on resource acquisition.

Dogs do this differently, because they acquire resources differently. To a dog, an asshole is a valuable indicator of potential resources, well worth sniffing. In dog language, an asshole is a good friend, not an "asshole".
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:24 AM on January 7, 2013 [18 favorites]


the takeaway quote from the first article, on the link between capitalism in crisis and, well, assholes.....

"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."
posted by C.A.S. at 12:45 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


But then there's this sense of "asshole" as a term for somebody who is a scumbag or douchebag or dumbfuck or butthead or shithead or douchefuck or fucktard or dipshit or assface or...

Or anybody who pisses us off.

It's not clear to me that we need a theory about these motherfuckers.

But don't put it all on assholes. We all have one. It's a natural thing.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:49 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Michael Moore may be many things (good and bad), but he isn't an asshole - at least, not as I think of the term. I suppose Aaron James felt compelled to toss in a few abrasive lefties to balance things out (Moore, Nader).
posted by Auden at 12:57 AM on January 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


(and assholes are almost always men)

Wait, do they mean the behavior is almost always displayed by men, or that the term is almost always applied to men?

I've always found that the behavior is pretty much equally divided by gender, but 'asshole', 'dick' and to lesser degree 'cock' are the male gendered insults to describe said behavior and 'bitch' or... the other one... are the female gendered insults to do the same.
posted by Jezztek at 1:03 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


We need a new term to describe Donald Trump... it is unfair to lump him in with all the honest, hardworking assholes out there.
posted by zaelic at 1:32 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If one is special on one's birthday, the asshole's birthday comes every day."

I get that. Everyday I serve that special table.


He mentioned that Dick Cheney exhibited several flavors of assholery.

I dunno. Maybe. I'm not really sure I buy this, but he makes a good point here about Cheney.

I don't really know what an asshole is, but I know a dickhead when I see one.


The best politicians multitask. And then shoot somebody in the face.

posted by qinn at 1:34 AM on January 7, 2013


I'm honestly not sure bitch and asshole scan as the same. I've far more often seen bitch used as an epithet based not on behavior (being very selfish, hurting others to help oneself, etc...) but rather on interest - that is, on not being interested in the person who subsequently calls her a bitch (see also, ironically, whore). The other main use I've seen - and here used toward both men and women - is for people based again not on behavior, but rather on language; catty, snippy, snide, and insulting language seems to equate a lot to being "bitchy". Asshole, on the other hand, I personally associate almost entirely with behavior; the person who cuts in front of others in line then justifies themself as being very busy, for example.

I think socialization plays a large role in how entitlement plays out and is described. I'd say the female equivalent of asshole (in terms of this narrow definition of entitlement) would be Princess - not a common insult, but I think one which carries many of the same connotations.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:00 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've far more often seen bitch used as an epithet based not on behavior (being very selfish, hurting others to help oneself, etc...) but rather on interest - that is, on not being interested in the person who subsequently calls her a bitch (see also, ironically, whore).

While certainly that does happen, in my experience this type of usage is less common then bitch being thrown around based on behavior, as per your example:

the person who cuts in front of others in line then justifies themself as being very busy

In my experience that is exactly the kind of behavior that would get a woman called a bitch (and a man an asshole). Or perhaps something like "My incompetent boss is a total [bitch] / [asshole] for stealing credit from my hard work after doing everything in their power to oppose my project when they thought it would be a failure.
posted by Jezztek at 2:26 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


but rather on interest - that is, on not being interested in the person who subsequently calls her a bitch

Generally when I have been called a bitch it was because of my interest in the name-caller and their asshole behavior, and my request that they either cease and desist or continue to be an asshole elsewhere.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:28 AM on January 7, 2013


I don't think that asshole and bitch are completely interchangeable, of course. I think bitch is a much more expansive term then asshole and is used more often and in more ways (like in some circles it seems to just be a synonym of "woman", or to imply that a man is behaving weak). Much like the word "Fuck" is used in ways beyond just as a synonym for sex.

Instead what I am saying is that when a woman is exhibiting the same behavior that would get a man called an"asshole" people less frequently use the word "asshole", as that word is largely reserved for men, instead they generally substitute "bitch", or less often the "c word".
posted by Jezztek at 2:36 AM on January 7, 2013


Navelgazer: "Clarification: an asshole is someone (usually a man, as it's a pretty gendered term) whose narcissism leads them to believe that they are entitled to obnoxious displays of self-centeredness, including and perhaps especially at the expense of others and others' actual entitlements, and especially one who believes that such behavior is charming or attractive to others"

I don't know how often an asshole believes that their behavior is charming or attractive; I think they just don't give a shit, and that's what makes them an asshole.
posted by Red Loop at 2:37 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Generally when I have been called a bitch it was because of my interest in the name-caller and their asshole behavior, and my request that they either cease and desist or continue to be an asshole elsewhere.

Similarly, I think almost every time I've been called an asshole (that I'm aware of at least) was when I worked at a small time movie theater, where one of my duties was removing / scolding unruly patrons ruining the movie for everyone else. The standard initial response I'd get to my intervention would be something elegant like "Go fuck yourself, asshole", "back off, asshole" or something along those lines. I strongly suspect if I were a woman they would have probably substituted bitch instead as per your experience.
posted by Jezztek at 2:51 AM on January 7, 2013


twoleftfeet: "Dogs do this differently, because they acquire resources differently. To a dog, an asshole is a valuable indicator of potential resources, well worth sniffing. In dog language, an asshole is a good friend, not an "asshole""

There is a competing theory about this aspect of dog behaviour. :)
posted by Jakey at 3:06 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"A person counts as 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 the complaints of other people."

James at Slate.
posted by dragonsi55 at 3:26 AM on January 7, 2013


What animal has an asshole halfway up its back?

A police horse.

The British version of that joke does not use the word "asshole", by the way.
posted by Decani at 3:43 AM on January 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


I've lived in this world for fourty four years now this month and I can't agree that "assholes are almost always men".
Assholes are almost always human though.
posted by Sailormom at 4:00 AM on January 7, 2013


For further reading... On Assholes: More Theory.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:20 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, he lost me with "There is the boorish asshole, who willfully flouts basic standards of decency (Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore)." One of those things is not like the other, and does not meet the standard put forth. Also the "almost always men" bit, which is patently false.

The word has obviously mutated far from its original meaning, though, when someone can write this: "I think they just don't give a shit, and that's what makes them an asshole."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:37 AM on January 7, 2013


Nunberg points out that use of the phrase 'sense of entitlement' tracks the spread of 'asshole'—both have spiked since the 1970s.

I wonder whether this is because people now object to the Don Drapers of the world.
posted by Francis at 5:05 AM on January 7, 2013


How is he (and assholes are almost always men)

This is only true because there is a gendered insult more often applied. There's no term for a man having an unpleasant personality simply because he's male. So this is why guys are assholes, and women are something else, usually one of three words, the mildest of which is "witch"... not only do they get insulted for being unpleasant, they also get insulted for being a woman, a lagniappe for those who want to think poorly of someone who's not a male.

So the dissection of the phenomenon breaks down into uselessness right out of the gate.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:13 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Has the author never heard of Ann Coulter, Dr Laura, Casey Anthony, Lori Drew

There's another anatomical word I would probably use to describe these women were I not in polite company...
posted by nathancaswell at 5:19 AM on January 7, 2013


Clarification: an asshole is someone (usually a man, as it's a pretty gendered term) whose narcissism leads them to believe that they are entitled to obnoxious displays of self-centeredness, including and perhaps especially at the expense of others and others' actual entitlements, and especially one who believes that such behavior is charming or attractive to others.

Oh, I dunno. This is a pretty accurate description of my ex-girlfriend.
posted by the painkiller at 5:21 AM on January 7, 2013


There's no term for a man having an unpleasant personality simply because he's male

Dick. Yes, you can call women dicks. But you typically imply that they are behaving like an man with certain characteristics, in the same way that describing a man as bitchy implies he is behaving like a woman with certain characteristics.

Generally speaking, most slang for body parts - male or female - get applied more to men than women. He's being a bit of a tit. He's a complete twat. What a dick. Etc etc.

IMHO, the reason why asshole is so gendered is because historically it referred to a prevalent form of male entitlement to treat overtly others' concerns as secondary to his own. It's an offshoot of dominant male behaviour. Similarly bitchy historically referred to an apparent female trait of more covert, or at least less aggressive, selfishness.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:29 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's another anatomical word I would probably use to describe these women were I not in polite company...

This is MetaFilter. Plenty of people have their feet and elbows on the table, aren't using a napkin and haven't showered in a few days.

Go ahead and speak your mind.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:45 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is only true because there is a gendered insult more often applied. There's no term for a man having an unpleasant personality simply because he's male. So this is why guys are assholes, and women are something else, usually one of three words, the mildest of which is "witch"... not only do they get insulted for being unpleasant, they also get insulted for being a woman, a lagniappe for those who want to think poorly of someone who's not a male.

Actually, no. Jackass = male donkey as bitch = female dog. It is also quite common to hear men referred to as dogs (since there isn't a good term for male dogs) although that insult certainly doesn't have the impact of bitch.

To me, it is quite interesting how insults and profanity develop. Ass is an interesting case as well since its roots as an insult could be traced either to donkeys or buttocks (both asses).
posted by nolnacs at 5:56 AM on January 7, 2013


And then there are the cases of men being called bitch which can probably be read as insulting both women in general and the man.
posted by nolnacs at 6:01 AM on January 7, 2013


An asshole is whoever is more successful, assertive, and direct than me. They usually have the jobs I want and date the women I want to date.

This is how an asshole perceives himself, but in fact the asshole is cruising around in a piece of shit car with an irritating and abrasive woman on his way out to a douche bar after working at a shit job. People who have low personal behavior standards tend to have low standards all around.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:01 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait, do they mean the behavior is almost always displayed by men, or that the term is almost always applied to men?

Yeah, the article seems to be conflating the two. If it's describing language, it's accurate. Bitch, prick and dick are really gendered terms; asshole is sort of gendered, usually used to describe men, but not exclusively. The asymmetry in the terms is interesting. Bitch can be used in a sense parallel to asshole or prick, but it's frequently used to mean somebody who talks back to the asshole, or doesn't do what he wants, and sometimes just as a generic insulting term for women. It would be easy to image the words dick and prick being used as generic insults for men as well, but they aren't.

(Since Nunberg's a linguist, I assume his book is mostly about the word.)

We also get "What explains the spike in the asshole population?" Has there actually been a spike? The phrasing implies a couple of assumptions: that an increase in usage of the word reflects an increase in the type of behavior it describes, and that this reflects an increase in a type of person. I'm not sure this true. There are plenty of older words to describe similar behavior.

Some of their origins are interesting, though:

cad — originally short for caddie, an unskilled assistant, errand-boy, helper, then a townie as opposed to college student, then an interesting early 20th century gendered insult.

boor — farmer.

mean — originally middle-class (think arithmetic mean) compared to gentlemen and ladies.

lout — originally meaning bow or bend over.

It's interesting that asshole is more of a bottom-up kind of insult than some of the earlier terms, and frequently gets paired with pompous. But I'm inclined to think that this reflects a decrease in tolerance for abusive behavior by higher-status people, not that "gentlemen" back in the day were so much nicer to underlings. The existence of a large number of insulting terms for commoner and peasant suggests that maybe they weren't.
posted by nangar at 6:13 AM on January 7, 2013


Assholes are almost always human though.

I take it you haven't spent much time around goats then? Wikipedia tells me there are only ~2 billion of them, but every single fucking one is an asshole.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:22 AM on January 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


I think Michael Scott was intended to be an asshole at first, since he was based on Ricky Gervais' character in the UK series.

Mind you, Gervais's character isn't an asshole either. He's a wanker. Also a prat, but primarily a wanker.
posted by Kit W at 6:40 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


He mentioned that Dick Cheney exhibited several flavors of assholery.

I dunno. Maybe. I'm not really sure I buy this, but he makes a good point here about Cheney.

I don't really know what an asshole is, but I know a dickhead when I see one.


Cheney is not an asshole - he is Satan. Is Satan an asshole...maybe for kicks on the weekends, when he's out huntin'.
posted by incandissonance at 6:54 AM on January 7, 2013


Let's not forget owls.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:01 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


And let's not forget there's a difference between a bitch and a son of a bitch.
posted by FJT at 7:12 AM on January 7, 2013


Fortunately, there is help.
posted by haricotvert at 7:37 AM on January 7, 2013


An asshole is its own reward.
posted by Nomyte at 7:46 AM on January 7, 2013


Nunberg was on Fresh Air promoting the book and during the interview he said this:

On the origins of the word:

"It's a GI's word most often used for officers, and in particular, officers who are full of themselves. The first military leader to have been called the A-word — both by his men and his superiors, by the way — is George Patton, and that makes perfect sense, particularly if you read the unexpurgated Patton, not the Patton of the movie. ... It's a word that looks up. And the A-word always does. It's a critique from below, from ground level, of somebody who's gotten above himself."

What I found interesting is that it happened so recently. I would have imagined it was scratched into the walls of Pompeii as graffiti, or that Alexander or Attila might have first scored that moniker. The second interesting thing about that quote is the Patton reference, paritcually as it seems to fly in the face of his very next observation, that the word looks up. It's as if Patton was the first person to be called an asshole universally and from that point on it was only used to describe superiors.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:28 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the flip side is that we live in a culture that rewards assholes, and punishes everyone else for not being assholes. So it becomes difficult to tell if someone actually is an asshole, or they're just acting like one in order to survive.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:32 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the flip side is that we live in a culture that rewards assholes, and punishes everyone else for not being assholes. So it becomes difficult to tell if someone actually is an asshole, or they're just acting like one in order to survive.


Exactly. I was the very definition of polite as a kid. Then I hit junior high and got pushed around, bullied, and at best ignored. I turned that around in high school by becoming a giant asshole and not only did it work to protect me, but people gravitated to it and I became very popular.
It took me well into my late 20's to realize that that wasnt who I wanted to be and to rewire my personality to scalpel out that toxic stuff, but at the end of the day I did it because I had to. And it worked. Because that's the world we live in, for better or worse.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:48 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it's a complex issue. I find very few people are truly dedicated assholes. Most of the time, the definition of 'asshole' is similar to the definition of 'hipster' : someone I don't like who does the same things I do. Like that asshole who just cut me off on the freeway. (I'd never cut anybody off) Or that asshole who's always playing politics to get that next promotion. (something I would never do) Or that asshole at the bar who's always hitting on the women I want to hit on. (I would never hit on an attractive woman)

An asshole is pretty much anybody who gets your way. And thinking that way makes you, guess what? An asshole! So, unless you live in some kind of constant state of never getting in anyone's way, you, too, are an asshole! (some of the time)

I think the trick is to go assertively about life, getting the things you want, without being an asshole any more than necessary. Some people really seem to enjoy that shit. Those assholes!
posted by Afroblanco at 8:58 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem is that without a control group and a completely objective, non-contextual definition of 'asshole', everyone will judge the parameters of asshole differently. For example, I'm pretty sure that when I go to a coffee shop and am asked to pay 4.50 for a cappuccino that is both luke warm at best and resembles nothing like a cappuccino but rather reheated milk and I ask them politely "I'm sorry, but I like my cappuccinos really hot, can you resteam this for me', the barista is muttering 'fucking asshole' to himself. But am I really an asshole for feeling like for 4.50 I should get what I want? Who knows...because there isn't a DSM for 'asshole'.
posted by spicynuts at 9:13 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I take it you haven't spent much time around goats then? Wikipedia tells me there are only ~2 billion of them, but every single fucking one is an asshole.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:22 AM


I have to say I've never encountered a goat I didn't get along with and I've certainly enjoyed goats milk and cheese and even Goatshead Soup of the musical variety.

But I did qualify my response carefully with almost always because in my forty four years of animal interaction Ive' seen catbutt at ungodly early hours of the morning and had dog shit on my shoes more times than I care to remember. And those are just the domesticated animals.
posted by Sailormom at 10:22 AM on January 7, 2013


On the gendered insult issue, "douche" or "douchebag" is certainly an insult aimed exclusively at men, and applied not simply because there is a gendered alternative term for women acting the same way, but rather applied due to how they act as men, usually but not always with sexual overtones.

(Though obviously the term being derived from feminine hygiene products carries some extra baggage with it as well.)
posted by Navelgazer at 4:19 PM on January 7, 2013


I’ve always thought that an asshole is pretty much the same thing as a bully. I think we apply the bully label to children and teenagers and the asshole label to adults. Though probably everyone agrees that non-adult bullying is bad, I think society is pretty conflicted (and sometimes even cheers it on) when it comes to adult bullying, especially when it takes place in the workplace. Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Gordon Ramsay, and Anna Wintour are all admired for their assholeness (it gets spun as them having high standards). I think most bullies would deny that they are a bully, but you often see people boast that they are an asshole. I think you sometimes see people who’ve purposely copied the behaviour of Jobs, Trump, Ramsay , and Wintour because they think that’s what’s needed to get ahead.

In his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, Robert Sutton offers the following rules for determining whether someone is an asshole (from wikipedia):

1. After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?

2. Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?

Common asshole behaviours include:

Insults
Violation of personal space
Unsolicited touching
Threats
Sarcasm
Flames
Humiliation
Shaming
Interruption
Backbiting
Glaring
Snubbing

From the getAbstract summary for the book:
These champions of verbal and emotional abuse are psychological wrecking balls who constantly try to destroy the people in their path. They thrive on aggression and attack. Their targets are always those beneath them in status and power.
...
Creeps do not just harm the victims they target. They also afflict the victims’ relatives, co-workers and friends with a great deal of “secondhand suffering.” Jerks also harm themselves. Co-workers despise and shun them. Bosses abhor and fire them. This is contrary to the old axiom claiming that jerks get ahead in the business world because of their rotten personalities and bossy ways. The truth is, some clods get ahead despite their bad behavior. But for most, their ignoble activities eventually catch up with them and they lose their jobs, often suffering public humiliation in the process.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 6:29 PM on January 7, 2013


It seems to be inherent in the human psyche, at least for many of us, to mistake cruelty for strength. If we see someone who is indifferent at best to the suffering of others, or deliberately causes it, we fear them, and fear gives power to the object of the fear.

The assholes appear to believe, consciously or not, that if they cannot be loved, they are determined to be feared, and given the nature of their habits and personalities, instilling fear seems easier at this point. It always seems to come as an annoying surprise to an asshole whenever others do not actually fear them; they don't seem to anticipate being called out on asshole behaviour, or plan for the possibility of other people baulking them.

I suggest that as children assholes were either bullied by parents, leading them to the delusion that the proper behaviour of the powerful is to bully, or else their own bullying of their parents was accepted and indulged. They are creatures of the bully/victim human dynamic, the pecking order, and do not operate well in a society of presumed equality.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:33 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


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