“among others equally real…”

“among others equally real…”

or Why We All Hate Assholes

“If the person complaining is ‘standing up for herself’, in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally non-existent in the asshole’s view of the world.” P. 27, Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James.

I recently read an interesting book by Philosopher Aaron James called Assholes: A Theory. I plucked it off the library bookshelf because of the title: coming up against mean, selfish and chronically annoying people is something that all people can lay claim to in all walks of life.

“In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  • Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  • Does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  • Is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.” P. 5

Although I didn’t agree with every single contention of James, I did enjoy his book and found it to be enlightening. The chapters that particularly resonated with me were the early ones in which James expounds a theory as to why most of us want to pummel assholes into the ground and leave them as a greasy smear on the carpet.

The attack of the spiritual pygmies

The assholes in my own history – mine have been concentrated within the work sphere – made me pretty miserable, once upon a time, by distorting our workplace culture through consistent nastiness and inappropriate competitiveness. Even while it was happening and certainly after my removal from their toxic auras I could see they were sad people: spiritual pygmies and ineffective workers out of their depth and too scared to admit it. Given this perspective (and on my better days I even manage compassion and empathy for these people) I wonder why, even now, they make my palms itch, my blood boil, and my teeth grind with rage.

The real cost of “a ruined afternoon”

“But the material costs many assholes impose on others – a longer wait in line, a snide remark, a ruined afternoon – are often by comparison (to people like Hitler or Stalin) moderate or very small… Despite the fact that the material costs they impose are often moderate or small, assholes are rightly upsetting, even morally outrageous.” P. 11

Even in those shorts, Hitler remains a personification of evil and so much more than a mere asshole.  (Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com)
Even in those shorts, Hitler remains a personification of evil and so much more than a mere asshole.
(Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com)

James has a theory as to why assholes are so upsetting, and why we find them so “outrageous” and hard to get out from under our skin.

First he unpacks the way the asshole attitudinally positions themselves to the rest of us:

“According to our theory, the asshole does what he does out of a ‘sense of entitlement’, a sense of what he deserves, or is due, or has a right to.” P. 13

James describes how we all feel deserving of a little special consideration every once in a while if circumstances indicate that this is necessary, an example being if we are spoilt a little by friends during our birthday or cut some slack if we are unwell or going through a crisis. But he makes the point that assholes seem to behave this way all the time:

“The asshole, by contrast (with the rest of us), sees no need to wait for special circumstances to come his way in the normal course of things. The asshole feels entitled to allow himself special advantages as he pleases systematically, across a wide range of social interactions. He cuts in line, and interrupts often, and drives without particular care, and persistently highlights people’s flaws.” P. 15

“The general problem is that the asshole helps himself to more than his share, or acts out of turn, or sloughs off the burdens that must generally be carried if the practices in question are to work.” P. 21

The practices alluded to here are those practices that most people adhere to in order for our society to work in such a way that we can live together in something approximating harmony, or at least productive cooperation.

The particular effect assholes have on the rest of us, and the assholes’ attitudes to their assholery, is also discussed:

“The deeper problem is not deliberate exploitation but a kind of wilful insensitivity: he sees no reason to address the ambiguities and uncertainties that inevitably arise when people interact.” Pp. 21-22

I like the phrase “wilful insensitivity”; it neatly sums up why assholes are so infuriating. The next part of the theory James advances relates to what lies behind our fury at these jerks, what specifically makes us want to kill them, which is:

“…a crucial aspect of the asshole’s entrenched sense of entitlement: it immunizes him against the complaints of other people… He is unwilling to recognize anyone who does express a complaint, never considering the complaint might be legitimate. So although one may only suffer the small material cost of being cut ahead of in line, or being interrupted, or being talked over, one also suffers a deeper wrong: one’s very status as a moral person goes unrecognized. Immanuel Kant memorably says that respect for the moral law “strikes down” or “humiliates” our sense of “self-conceit”. This doesn’t happen for the asshole.” Pp. 22-23

“One’s very status as a moral person goes unrecognized.”

For me, this theory really sits up and sings. If some slight from an asshole enrages me way beyond the material value of that slight then it makes sense that it represents that deeper “moral outrage” being perpetuated against me. It represents a cancelling out, a rendering invisible, of my moral personhood.

“If the person complaining is ‘standing up for herself’, in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally non-existent in the asshole’s view of the world.

That is why otherwise coolheaded people fall into a fit of rage or lash out at the asshole: they are fighting to be recognized. They are not fighting for the small benefit of having the asshole move to the back of the line or, more generally, for a slightly more fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of cooperation. The person taking a stand against the asshole is fighting to be registered in the asshole’s point of view as morally real. She struggles not simply to be heard but to be seen. She struggles to be seen, in Thomas Nagle’s phrase, as ‘one among others equally real.’” P. 27

I found the way James built this theory to be very satisfying; it made a huge amount of sense to me. I am still unsure as to how to effectively make that stand in order for my moral self to be recognized (or even if this is worth expending energy on if I am dealing with an asshole), but it was still somehow comforting to be able to come to an understanding of what drives my own anger in the face of petty nasty behaviour.

These ideas also have further ramifications for how we operate in the world. As a manager or co-worker what can you do to make the people you deal with feel as if they are “one among others equally real”? If the equality in question pertains to recognising people’s moral personhood then this transcends status, position, or perceived levels of talent. A workplace filled with people who are secure in their status of being morally real in the eyes of others must be a very healthy organism indeed, affording security to its workers and communally robust against the depredations of assholes.

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