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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment