Aaron James on "Assholes: A Theory"

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player

Truth is, jerks are everywhere. Think you can spend a nice relaxing day at the beach without having to deal with any? Think again. Aaron James is an avid surfer, and one encounter on the water inspired him to write his book “A**holes: A Theory”. James teaches philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He’s created a taxonomy of jerks and blockheads, including the delusional A-word. He tells Steve Paulson why the hip-hop mogul Kanye West qualifies.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length, but still contains some curse words.

Aaron James: Delusional because I think that he’s sort of mistaken in a deep way about his greatness. I mean, I think he’s a very talented artist, but he thinks that he’s, well, as he puts it, God made a path for him. So he sees himself as this very extraordinary, almost, you know, world-historical kind of artist, a very grandiose conception of himself, and as a result of that feels that he’s entitled to do all kinds of things, partly being very rude among lots of other famous mishaps. So that’s delusional not because he’s wrong about his talent, but he’s wrong about how talented he is, how important he is, and that’s in a way related to his being wrong about what he feels entitled to. So there are other kinds of artists, say, Picasso, who were delusional about how great they were, how important they were. I mean, Picasso was a truly important artist, but he was wrong about what that entitled him to. Even if, you know, great artists should get certain special privileges, Picasso arguably overstepped and asked too much.

Steve Paulson: There’s a long tradition of this, not just Picasso. Hemingway, Miles Davis; I mean, you know, run down the list of people who were great artists, but they often were kind of reprehensible in some of their dealings with other people. James: Often the big mistake is not realizing how grateful they should be to larger society for giving them the gift of creative opportunity, without which they would never have achieved or been successful. I mean, artists who have to fend for food all the time or fend off, you know, foreign armies or whatever aren’t going to get a lot of art done. But many of them, when they are successful and produce great artworks, everyone’s very grateful for that, and then they just sort of take credit for it, you know, “I did it!” And then they think even more should be coming to them, or something like that, than the great benefits they’ve already got. So that can create a sense of entitlement.

SP: Yeah. Well, there is also a psychiatric diagnosis for some of this kind of behavior, what is known as narcissistic personality disorder. Is that a dimension of A-holery?

AJ: I think that it’s definitely closely related, although it could be that some people have narcissistic personality disorder who aren’t necessarily A-words, because maybe they have very very low self-esteem, but as a result become extremely self-absorbed. That might count as a narcissist, but that person may not be an A-word, for example. And there might be people who are A-words who, it’s not exactly narcissism or self-absorption that qualifies. The category of narcissistic personality disorder isn’t that well defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and in fact I think it’s being substantially edited or maybe even absorbed into a bigger category in the revisions of that manual right now. So from a philosophical point of view, you have to sort of just identify the different types as you see them, and that will then line up with some of the psychiatric categories and sometimes not. Paulsen: All the people you’ve mentioned as examples so far of being A-words are male, which raises the obvious question: can women be the A-word?

AJ:  I think they can, I think they can in principle although they’re not nearly as common, as a**holes are mainly men. I think the convincing case for me is Ann Coulter. She’s just clearly an A-word. That’s kind of hard to see in another way, actually, partly because of her brazenness. She obviously does it because she’s very savvily created a kind of media presence and a persona that gives her a lot of influence and gets a lot of attention, so it’s not that she’s completely aware of it, you know, she’s a very savvy, intelligent woman, but her whole strategy is basically to present herself as a sort of ultra-aggressive A-word.

SP: Well, there’s also, there’s a convention that we have, and it’s funny because we were talking about this in the office here, and I was even talking about it with my 15-year old son, and he said, “No, girls can’t be A-words, they’re bitches.”

AJ: Ah. Yeah, I think that’s not true by definition. It’s not necessarily true because there are terms like that, words that are essentially gendered by definition, like the term “bachelor”. Bachelors are, by definition, men. So if I were to say Ann Coulter, she’s a bachelor, that’s sort of a misuse of language in a certain sense. I’m not understanding what the word bachelor means, although if I say she’s a spinster, it might not be true of her, but she could at least qualify, because she’s a woman, right? If you say of a man that he’s a spinster you’ve again misunderstood the word, but if you say of Ann Coulter that she’s an A-word, that’s an interesting possibility. I say in reality, it’s not sort of a misuse of the word itself. Although the truth in what you’re suggesting, though, is that it turns out that women have a similar kind of sense of entitlement, they often won’t be as brazen about it, and they’ll often qualify as a bitch instead, someone who sort of operates behind your back, maybe from sense of entitlement, but isn’t brazen or open about it. They’ll recognize you to your face, as it were, but won’t really give a lot of weight or listen to your complaints, you know, if you were to voice them.

SP: So a bitch is not just the female equivalent of the male *******.

AJ: Yeah, men can be bitches as well.

SP: Okay. Good to have that clarified. Now, you write that a newborn boy in the United States or Israel is much more likely to live the life of an A-word than a newborn boy in Japan or Norway or Canada. Why would that be?

AJ: First of all I think there are A-words in every society, but to different degrees, and to a large extent it’s the culture of the society that shapes how much of the population are going to be A-words. So it just seems like there’s certain kinds of societies, like America or Italy or Israel, where A-words just seem a lot more common, even adjusting for the differences in size of population and stuff like that.

SP: Why? Why would some countries have greater numbers?

AJ: It seems like it’s sort of a casual traveler-anthropologist point of view, but you can also then at least speculate with different explanations. So if you go to Japan for example, the strong collectivist culture makes for a very strong and palpable sense of politeness, to the extent that if somebody was an A-word in Japan, which I’m sure they do exist, they would be pretty suppressed, and it’d be pretty difficult for someone to be too brazen about it. But in some of the other countries we’ve mentioned, people are very overt and brazen about breaking cooperative norms, and defensive about it. Paulsen: Well, then you’re also suggesting that in some of those countries, like, I don’t know, the United States or Italy, you don’t necessarily suffer social sanctions by being so brazen. James: Yeah, exactly, I mean, and that sort of A-holery is encouraged, people are proud of it in some of these cultures, so there’s a culture of tolerance about it, it’s even encouraged, it’s prized. If you can get rich acting this way then, well, you’re successful. That’s not true in other kinds of cultures which have a more of a shame culture for example, so there are the general cultural trends, and then you can look at specific trends within cultures that might be connected. Again, this is just speculation, but you know the rising tide of narcissism in the U.S. because of feel-good parenting styles, in which parents protect their kids from bad consequences, or the rise of social media, which seems to induce narcissism and where people are little celebrities, those kinds of trends, you can at least tell a plausible story how, in conjunction with other trends, A-words are on the rise in society. I mean, also I should mention a more obvious thing in the U.S. is this sort of “greed is good” style capitalism.

SP: Well, I was going to say that, because you actually have a chapter in your book called “A-holery Capitalism”, so are you suggesting that there’s something inherent about the capitalist system that leads to this kind of obnoxious behavior?

AJ: I don’t think it’s inherent to capitalism per se, because any society can have sort of tendencies to create A-holes, and every kind of society is going to have to have sort of “A-hole dampening systems”, as I put it, to keep the A-hole population under control, and so, definitely socialist or communist societies have these kinds of problems as well. But certain styles of capitalism are definitely prone to produce A-holes in greater numbers than, say, different styles of capitalism. So the “greed is good” style of capitalism, in effect, says that you’re entitled to take as much as you can get from society without having to worry very much about contributing something, and so being greedy and requisitive, just getting more and more is supposed to be good overall for society. And so if it is, well, you can be greedy and just oblivious.

SP: The Ayn Rand school of capitalism, basically: selfishness will, in the end, cause more greater good.

AJ: That’s the recent version of it. There is an older school of thought which goes back to, like, Mandeville and Adam Smith which suggests that, and David Hume as well, that private vice can lead to public virtue, and so it’s a sort of deeper theme in the history of arguments for capitalism. But even those older versions of it, they just recognized that there was a kind of attention there; it wasn’t necessarily that there was a full-throated embrace of just outright greed or selfishness or A-holery, especially not conspicuously displayed. But that’s the more recent version, we get more of a sense of that, and in fact, a sense that it’s not only that selfish people get a pass because maybe they’re doing good things: it’s, they feel sort of entitled to the rewards that they get, and the results are they are very against any kind of taxation or whatever, no matter how much good it will do for society, even if you needed to avoid a fiscal cliff or whatever, things like that, because they feel sort of righteously entitled to it. That’s given by a certain understanding of what the message is in the type of capitalist society. So I think that kind of society does, well, attaches very powerful financial incentives for people to come and act like A-words.

SP: Well, there is another dimension to this whole discussion, and that is, what do we do when we run into an A-word? How do we deal with these people? And you have a large part of your book dealing with what you call “A-word management”. Any suggestions on how to respond?

AJ: Yes, I ultimately have some suggestions, but being a philosophical book one of the main things I try to emphasize is just how difficult the problem is, and that there’s not, as it were, a seven easy step to an A-hole-free life.

SP: That’s the next book you should write, the follow-up, yeah.

AJ: Yeah, that’s right. I do however have six not-so-easy steps that help, but… There are things you can do. The first sort of philosophical challenge, at least in a sort of one-to-one relation with an A-word is to understand why we’re so deeply bothered by the way that they treat us, when in fact the costs that they impose on us might be pretty small. So maybe we have to wait a couple minutes extra in line because they cut; so that’s not a big deal in the big scheme of things. And yeah, at the same time you might spend the rest of your day really upset about the brazen way in which this guy did that, and who does he think he is, and how could he not just wait, and things like that, or especially if you had an altercation, you know, when you piped up, the things he said might linger, you know, in your mind, spoiling your whole afternoon. So what is so upsetting that to us? And so what I explained it is, we’re not so concerned with the lost time in line, we’re really worrying about recognition or basic kind of respect. That’s extremely important to us. So, the A-word is basically putting us in a position so we not only don’t feel respected, we don’t know how to do anything that would uphold our respect, so you feel like lashing out into a violent protest, say, or making a big argument, but in the end that’s not going to accomplish anything, because A-words tend to be entrenched in their sense of entitlement. They won’t listen. I mean, they are almost by definition walled off to almost anything you might say. Chances of getting through are slim, so we have a sense that it’s completely pointless to stage an all-out fight for our rights. But on the other hand the alternative seems then to just sort of completely acquiesce. Paulsen: To just get walked over, yeah. James: Yeah, to get walked over, or not stand up for yourself and almost implicitly admit that this is OK, you know, that I don’t deserve better. So both of those reactions are extremely difficult to handle, so the real challenge is to just find an alternative, find a way of responding to the A-word, a way of managing them such that you’re accepting, fully accepting that they probably won’t listen or change, and yet, so that you’re not simply acquiescing, you’re not simply giving in. And so, the basic steps that you can do, sort of self-help-wise, are things along those lines, like… Well, one is just to accept that the guy probably won’t listen or change. That’s not an easy thing to do. In the first instance, you can hope that the guy changes, and that can actually help you, and you might even be a little sympathetic to the person’s being brought up poorly as a kid or whatever if that helps you, be hopeful, just see the person as another person and not a sort of pure enemy. But even there you want to be really careful not to be overly sympathetic so that you justify what the A-word does, you have to still stay clear in yourself about your rights to better treatment.

SP: I think a good way to conclude our conversation would be, if you’d be willing to read a passage right at the end of your book.

AJ: Yes, absolutely.

SP: I was thinking page 187, the last paragraph there?

AJ: OK. (READING) "If humanity had a body, it would have an a**hole: namely, the a**hole himself. Life invariably has a certain foulness, and he embodies it. All too often fair is foul and foul is fair, yet the witches of social life cannot foretell our fates. Social life can be fairer and less foul if, but only if, cooperators of the world unite."