By Aaron James

Yes, it has come to this. Following quite consciously in the footsteps of Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, Assholes: A Theory has philosophy professor Aaron James taking on another of the nagging ubiquities of modern life. James might even have borrowed Frankfurt’s opening and begun his own treatise by saying that one of the salient features of our culture is that there are so many assholes. Exactly what this means, and why it is happening, is his theme.

A surfer as well as a philosopher (the pairing has a history that doesn’t bear on the present discussion), the impetus for the book came from James’s experiences on the beach, and the need he felt to explain the conduct of “asshole surfers.” What an asshole surfer does is hog all the good waves. When confronted over this with a kindly “Hey, man, what the fuck?” the asshole surfer will respond with his own “Don’t you dare fucking fuck with me!”

Even non-surfers will probably recognize the type. If not, here is the definition James proposes:

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.

He is, in other words (and to use James’s preferred examples), the guy (and he is almost exclusively male) who is always cutting into line, or interrupting a conversation. My own favourite case would be the person who fails to signal a turn when driving. In any event, the asshole demonstrates profoundly anti-social behaviour: not quite into psychopath territory on your DSM chart (the asshole, unlike the psychopath, has a moral compass; it just always points in whatever direction he’s facing), but sharing many features with narcissistic personality disorder (James even admits that “being an asshole is probably only one version of the disorder”).

In tapping into what he labels the “near plague” conditions of narcissism as a “sociocultural disease” James addresses what has become a growing concern. Where, and it is not entirely an idle thought, did all this start? When Christopher Lasch wrote about The Culture of Narcissism he was writing about something quite different from what is popularly meant by the term today. Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind came closer to capturing the current zeitgeist. But there have also been voices from other fields and disciplines, ranging from bioethics (Dawkins’s Selfish Gene) to sociology (Putnam’s Bowling Alone). Politically we may think of the “Reagan ’80s,” deregulation, and Gordon Gekko’s immortal line about greed being good. In David Sirota’s look at the influence of ’80s culture on twenty-first century life, Back to Our Future, he flips out into rant mode over the n-word:

If you look around the world – and even your own little slice of the world – I’m betting you can pick out four examples of unadulterated narcissism without so much as lifting a finger. I’m sitting in a coffee shop on a Wednesday afternoon in a midsize, noncoastal American city, and within a few feet of my table there are at least that many. A fiftysomething screaming into his cellphone doesn’t care that he’s disturbing everyone around him; the woman sitting next to me is frantically blogging about her favourite new movie as if the world is waiting for her opinion – and she’s blogging about Julie and Julia, itself a flick about the success of a narcissist and her blog; a pair of tweens just cut the checkout line; I just got a spam email for penis enlargement, perhaps the most narcissistic medical procedure ever devised . . .

I’m not sure I’d include the blogger or the spam email as examples of narcissism, but the cellphone user and the line-cutting tweens will do, and both are prime examples of James’s assholes. Unconcerned about what name it goes by, Sirota is nevertheless damn sure when it all got started:

That’s what narcissism really is – a pernicious mix of qualities defined by three words that start with self: selfishness, self-absorption, and self-importance. In contemporary parlance, it may be known as asshattery, douchebaggery, or dickwaddishness, but it’s all another spin-off of a virulent egomania spawned in the 1980s.

Perhaps. There’s certainly evidence out there for thinking so. But it really took the Internet, that “giant narcissism multiplier” (in the words of Twenge and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic), for take-off into plague mode to occur. The Internet, it often seems, was made by, made for, and is now owned and operated by assholes. Assholery has gone viral, to the point where a book like James’s is as much reportage as it is a theory of moral sentiments, and one might not expect it to have much new to say.

As far as the theory goes, James makes a reasonable case in defining the term “asshole” and explaining why we find these creatures so morally repugnant (in short, because they fail, or really refuse, “to recognize others in a fundamental, morally important way”). From there, however, the book starts to seem like the boat in Jaws once it’s hooked on to the shark, getting dragged into ever deeper water and gradually falling apart. Taxonomies of assholes are proposed (the smug asshole, the corporate asshole, the self-aggrandizing asshole, etc.) but these only serve to fudge the concept’s core meaning. At the same time, the application of the term to various public figures is ham-handed. Whatever you think of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to call them both “presidential assholes” simply because of their “outrageous speechifying” before the United Nations (speechifying that James acknowledges they are entitled to indulge in) has the effect of turning the term into mush. Blowhards aren’t necessarily assholes. What do we know of how Chavez and Ahmadinejad get along with their friends? Do they cut into lines at the presidential palace cafeterias?

Things do pick up a bit in the chapter on Asshole Capitalism, in large part because it is in the economic arena that the breakdown and atomization of society is both clearest and has had (arguably) the greatest impact. Asshole drivers are dangerous enough, but put them in charge of banks and 2008 happens. Of course, the problem, as we learned in the wake of that crisis, is that the incentives are all wrong. To some extent assholes are cultural products (more likely, James avers, to be found in the U.S., Italy or Israel than in Japan, Norway, or Canada), and in America the economy seems to actively encourage asshole-ism, while “asshole dampening” forces such as family, religion, sanctions and shame are dwindling in force. Regulation and an increased emphasis on cooperation may be our only hope, since, as with most cases of psychopathy there is no cure for the condition.

If that sounds like work, it should. A shared social order is only maintained through the efforts of all its citizens. Otherwise things fall apart. Disorder is the natural order. And assholes will inherit the earth.

Review first published online November 5, 2012.

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