Imagine writing a book of philosophical speculation, where the global banking crisis and prolific use of the term “asshole” compete for your entertainment, and you would have Assholes: A Theory. The joy of reading this fun experiment is, that Aaron James can alternate the and outrage. That’s where I got miffed.
The truly optimistic among us believe that there is no such thing as an asshole. That is to say, the guy who cut you off in traffic or butted in front of you at Starbucks is probably possessed by some temporary affliction (lateness, cluelessness, hangover) that recedes as quickly as it came. In other words, he was acting like an asshole, and that same guy might well hold the door open for you or even save your life 10 minutes later. Aaron James is no such optimist. In fact, the author spends 214 quite convincing pages arguing that “assholeness” is less inattention than a permanent state of mind, and that assholes are more than numerous enough to be called out in book form.
They aren’t mere jerks, and they aren’t rapists or murderers. Rather, James writes, assholes populate the vast moral middle ground between the two. The true asshole, James writes, “is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.” He is narcissistic, self-absorbed, impolite, and permanently thoughtless to those around him—and it is almost always a him—nearly to the point of sociopathy. (A TV analogy: Steve Carell’s The Office character, Michael Scott, is just a jerk; his inspiration, Ricky Gervais’s David Brent from the original British Office, is an asshole.)
It’s a no-brainer where this is going: bankers are assholes. What does James’ colorful approach to asshole-ness help us to deal with the banking crisis? In what he calls “asshole management”, James makes clear assholes are not college students reading Ayn Rand, or amoral selfish optimizers. Assholes drive up the cost of cooperation. But, the good news is, that, like everything else in economics, equilibrium is the rule. So, asshole-ness might set a dismally high price for cooperation, as in the current ugliness, but be patient. That taxing asshole will cause his – and, depending on whether you think Ann Coulter is a man or a woman, assholes are almost always men – eventual downfall. We, the average mother with a little cash in the bank or in the cookie jar, draw our strength from our need for one another, and the asshole exploits that weakness for his own ends.
Here’s where James’ discussions of the Stoics left me cold. James counsels the moral majority not to try to change the asshole, but to cooperate on our terms. And, that sometimes will prompt us to confront the asshole barking into his iPhone or cutting into line at the store. We should recognize our limits and do what’s appropriate for the situation. In short, being assholes might work sometimes, to deal with a total asshole. But, don’t tear the whole world apart, James is advising.
Humility might lead us to recognize the value of our social natures. But assholes show us the benefit of immorality. Within bounds, they are useful assholes, and who would want to go through the day without an asshole. The trick is putting the asshole in his place where he benefits the moral majority.
What an asshole!