Thursday, January 31, 2013

No, I'm Not

About a month ago, I wondered whether I'm An Asshole.   Turns out --- at least by the definition and standards outlined by Aaron James in "Assholes:  A Theory" --- I'm not (phew!).  In this breezy philosophical treatise, James introduces the asshole as "not just another annoying person but a deeply bothersome person --- bothersome enough to trigger feelings of powerlessness, fear, or rage."  James then goes on to explicitly theorize that "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."  This theory can then be broken down into three parts with respect to interpersonal relations:  
  1. The asshole "allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically";
  2. The asshole "does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement"; and
  3. The asshole "is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people."  
This asshole-ishness must also (1) be a stable character trait, (2) impose only small or moderate material costs upon others, and (3) nevertheless makes the person morally repugnant.  

James sprinkles examples of asshole-ish behavior throughout:  the asshole, unlike the non-asshole, doesn't view his birthday as that one day where they are special, "the asshole's birthday comes every day."  And the asshole doesn't restrain their veiled criticisms, insinuating questions, or awkward allusions to topics best kept away from polite company.  But what makes a person an asshole versus a schmuck, jerk, d-bag, or just oblivious to social norms?  According to James, "a proper asshole always has an underlying sense of moral entitlement.  We may have to look deep within his soul to find it, but it is there."  So there you have it, the crux of being an asshole is moral entitlement.  

But how do you know if you are an asshole?  Unfortunately, James doesn't provide much in the way of a decision tree but an initial test of asshole-ishness is a simple one.  Ask yourself the question:  Am I an asshole?  If you would be willing to call yourself an asshole you are most likely not, in fact, an asshole and if you are even remotely worried by the revelation that you are an asshole then you are, again, most likely not an asshole.  A sense of shame about being characterized as an asshole usually means you are not an asshole.  If, however, the thought of being characterized as an asshole delights you, gives you no pause, or you dismiss the possibility with a huffy "whatever", then you are most likely an asshole. 

James spends the remainder of the book dissecting the asshole, the different types of assholes, and the implications of an asshole culture on modern society and our capitalist economy.   But what about the question motivating this post:  Am I an asshole?

I think I can confidently assert that I am not, in fact, an asshole.  I concede that, like most people, I may make the rare lapse into asshole-ish territory but that doesn't make me an unqualified, unadulterated asshole.  My wife and I had a somewhat heated discussion about what it means to be an asshole and she argued that just because James articulated a definition of an asshole doesn't mean his definition is right.  Unlike James, my wife didn't think moral entitlement was the cornerstone of being asshole.  The complete absence of empathy and sympathy ranked higher in her definition of being an asshole.  In a sense, they are both right.  When I look inward, I don't see any moral entitlement --- I'm pretty easy going, I usually defer to others' preferences, and I get uncomfortable receiving special treatment on my birthday so the prospect of special treatment everyday is horrifying --- but if lack of empathy and sympathy are the measures of asshole-ishness then, yes, there have been a couple of instances of asshole-ishness.  These rare episodes, however, don't make me an unqualified asshole since, according to James, a rare lapse isn't a stable characteristic trait.  The conclusion?  I'm pretty certain I'm not an asshole.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

Statistics: A 15 Minute Primer

My insanely productive and brilliant friend called me a couple of days ago and mentioned that he was giving a 15 minute presentation on statistics to the medical residents in his division and he wanted to know if I had any old presentations lying around.  Unfortunately, my external hard drive crashed several months ago and I lost several hundred files --- slide sets, PDFs, course handouts, etc. --- that would have been perfect for what he needed so I was unable to give him an already-assembled presentation.  As I was lamenting the loss (and slow recovery) of so many of my files, I started playing around with $\LaTeX$, leafing through a few of my statistics books, then ended up putting together a short (and superficial) presentation on statistics.  This presentation is quite soft on the statistics --- rigorous it certainly isn't! --- but I was relatively pleased with the Beamer theme I used, Warsaw.  Assembling this presentation probably wasn't the best use of my time but once I got started I was loathe to abandon it, especially since it began as an exercise in using Beamer but evolved into trying to reduce a discipline as rich, rewarding, and vast as statistics into a mere 15 minutes.  This is my feeble attempt.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Writer's Diet Test

I'm reading Helen Sword's "Stylish Academic Writing" --- writing, especially mine, can always be improved --- and on page 60, Sword suggests visiting a website that tests your writing for its "fitness-level".  This diagnostic tool is free and examines your writing sample with respect to verb usage, stodgy nouns (nominalizations), prepositions, adjectives/adverbs, and prevalence of if/this/that/there.  An overall "fitness rating" is returned as well as ratings for each grammatical category.  The test can be accessed directly here.  I input the content of my previous blog post, "Am I?", into the test and was pleasantly surprised by the overall result:  Fit & trim (a screenshot of the result is pasted below).  I'm not so arrogant as to believe that all my writing will be as fit and as the website disclaimer states, grammatically fit writing doesn't necessarily translate to stylish or interesting.  Limitations of the test aside, though, it is an easy and fun way to diagnose your writing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Am I?

Am I an asshole?  

The question has been wearing on me for a couple of days.  On new year's eve, I had a drunken conversation with a friend of mine and at one point I jokingly wondered aloud if I was asshole, to which she replied:  "You know I love you, Clint, but sometimes you can be an asshole." Wow.  I wasn't really expecting that kind of no-hesitation response but, okay, I guess that clears up any lingering doubt.  
Photo credit:

But what constitutes asshole-ish behavior, exactly?  Occasionally, I'm guilty of breaching the asshole boundary.  I can say some insensitive things and if I'm feeling randy, I can be almost ruthless (i.e. an offensive asshole) when talking religion with someone.  A couple of instances come to mind.  The first occurred about two weeks ago at the airport.  My wife and I were pulling into the arrivals terminal to park curbside and en route to the designated area, a taxicab driver blocked our lane (they have a separate lane) then proceeded to load a few passengers with little regard for the fact that he was breaking protocol and blocking the flow of traffic.  It really irritated me so I inched up close enough to his rear bumper to make loading his trunk difficult.  He glared at me, pointed at my bumper, then gestured for me to back off.  I gestured back, put the car in reverse, and gave him the space he needed but made it clear while doing so (via wild hand waving) that he needs to get the hell out of the way.  At the time, my behavior seemed appropriate and justified --- the cabbie was breaking the rules so it seemed prudent to let him know --- but was what he did really that big of deal?  And did it justify acting like an asshole?  In the grand scheme of things, a few minutes spent waiting is trivial.  But then again, what about principle?  Some people will take advantage of nearly any situation, cheat at the first opportunity, and ruthlessly exploit loopholes --- where does society draw the line?  Do you need someone to occasionally emerge as the asshole and let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they need to queue in the back of the taxicab line and not obstruct traffic?  Depending on my mood, I can vigorously defend each position.  

The second instance occurred over dinner about a week ago.  The conversation turned to religion after I made a couple of snide remarks about Catholicism and the taking of communion ("snack time!") that then dovetailed into a few earnest questions I had about Catholicism.  After my dinner mate tried to answer my questions, she then posed a few of her own:  What was my beef with Mormonism?  Could I, in a non-biased way, summarize and describe the tenets of Mormonism?  What was my religious background?  Do I believe in anything now?  (I'm not Mormon but grew up in Mormon suburbia and have read a fair amount of Mormonism so she seemed to think I was qualified to educate her on the basics of the Mormon faith.)  I realize religion and faith are very sensitive and personal topics --- a point I felt I emphasized repeatedly and diplomatically --- but I couldn't help but point out that religious moderates can't conveniently ignore and condemn the religious zealots because acknowledgement and respect of one (some?) faith(s) necessitates acknowledgement and respect of all faiths.  I insisted that my objection to religious faith isn't how religious people choose to explain the inexplicable or the way they spend their Sundays --- I really don't care --- but that a lot of religions are trying to make further inroads into the public sphere by trying to erode the barrier between church and state.  After much back-and-forth, the conversation eventually wound down to an uncomfortable and implied mutual respect for differing viewpoints.  I like to have conversations like this and am genuinely interested in understanding viewpoints different from mine and I didn't think anything I said or did during the discussion would qualify as asshole-ish but I left the dinner table feeling somewhat asshole-ish.  Is asserting one's view, especially if it may be offensive to another person's religious sensibilities, characteristically asshole-ish?   I'm not sure.  But I intend to investigate and reflect on what it means to be an asshole and whether I am one. 

I just downloaded Aaron James' "Assholes:  A Theory" onto my Kindle and I'm hopeful that in spite of the occasional asshole-ish lapse, I'm not, according to James's rubric, an unadulterated, unapologetic asshole.