What Makes an A$$hole: Two Theories

An increasing number of scholars are using the term “asshole” to describe someone for whom no polite word suffices. Two will be considered here. First is Bob Sutton, whose runaway bestseller The No Asshole Rule (2007) has gone a long way in helping people cope with assholes in the workplace. Sutton offers a litmus test to determine whether or not someone is an asshole:

(1) Does the person make someone feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled?

(2) Does the person aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?

The second gauge is critical. One thing I always keep in mind as a supervisor is that if I’m going to get nasty, it’s going to be at my equals or superiors, not the poor folks subordinate to me. Not that I do in fact behave this way towards equals or superiors. But if I had to choose, I’d go for the jugular sideways or up the ladder of command. It’s telling that assholes are cowards at heart: only the weak beat up on the weak.

Sutton also identifies tactics of assholes, the “dirty dozen” as he calls them: (1) personal insults, (2) invading one’s personal territory, (3) uninvited physical contact, (4) threats and intimidation (verbal and non-verbal), (5) jokes and teasing used as insult-delivery systems, (6) withering email flames, (7) status slaps, (8) public shaming or status degradation rituals, (9) rude interruptions, (10) two-faced attacks/backhanded compliments, (11) dirty looks, (12) treating people like they’re invisible. (p 10)

Sometimes I’m guilty of a fair share of (1), (5), (10), and (12) (so I better watch myself), and Sutton acknowledges that everyone (including himself) acts like an asshole from time to time. But occasionally acting like an asshole doesn’t make one so. The asshole is “one who displays a persistent pattern, and has a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves” (p 11), on account of any combination of the above tactics. Sutton’s book is very helpful, and one I’ve recommended to both managers and underdogs.

If Sutton’s focus is on the workplace, where assholes wield their tyranny by way of insults (however open or veiled) and shaming strategies, then Aaron James’ scope is more global. Assholes: A Theory (2012) is hot off the press, and covers all species of assholes — boorish assholes, smug assholes, dignified assholes, corporate assholes, political assholes, reckless assholes, self-aggrandizing assholes. Many of these breeds don’t necessarily have power over people in the way co-workers do. And yet they do anyway — by the sheer outrage they cause. This is what makes them fascinating as they are infuriating. Assholes, according to James, impose small costs on people. They’re not murderers or rapists; they’re not criminals who need to be locked up. They are the petty offenders who cut in line, rudely interrupt, weave in and out of traffic, park in handicapped spaces, speak loudly on cell phones in the wrong places — small-time stuff, yet so outrageously upsetting that they make even the most unflappable of us want to lash out and do them violence.

Why is this the case? The reason, says James, has to do with the asshole’s mentality rather than his deeds per se. He refuses (or is unable) to register other people as morally real and worthy of consideration. The asshole basically regards himself as above rules and all-special. “If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.” (p 16) Victims of assholes aren’t so much fighting for their rightful place in line or any other minor injustice. They are fighting to be recognized, to be respected as people.

The asshole, in other words, has three critical traits according to James. He

(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically,
(2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement, and
(3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

By his threefold definition, James finds that most assholes are men. This isn’t surprising. In most cultures, men are taught to be assertive and outspoken, while women are conditioned to be more circumspect and pull their punches. Then too there is plain nature: high testosterone levels and other genetic traits predispose men toward asshole behavior in later life, and gender culture channels these dispositions even more. (I think James downplays nature in favor of cultural conditioning a bit much, but he has the right idea.) That’s why it’s so easy to rattle off examples of male assholes (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Richard Dawkins, Hugo Chavez, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney, Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson) while only few women come to mind (like Ann Coulter).

Which isn’t to say that women fall in a necessarily flattering spotlight. James makes a distinction between the asshole and the “bitch”, the latter of whom only half-fulfills condition (3).

“The bitch listens to the voiced complaints of others, making at least a show of recognition. Nevertheless, what is said makes no motivational difference to what she does; once her face-to-face encounter with you is over, it is as though you never talked. She ‘recognizes’ you in one sense: she acts as though she feels it is important to hear you out, to entertain your concerns. But this turns out to be only for show. The bitch betrays you behind her back. The asshole fails to recognize you to your face… The asshole is especially outrageous, because, whatever his private motives, he can’t even be polite. And when he is polite, or even charming, fundamental respect is not the reason why. Other motives are in play.” (pp 93-94)

There is a slight problem here. I’m not sure the asshole’s brazen honesty makes him more outrageous. He’s probably more upsetting to most people, but others might prefer candor to deceit. It will depend largely on the circumstance. We all appreciate respect to some degree or another (however genuine or feigned), but the bitch, as defined, can be insidious and on a deeper level just as offensive as the asshole.

On James’ theory, certain nations are breeding grounds for assholes. He finds the worst hells-on-earth to be America, Italy, and Brazil. For whatever reason, he singles out Canada, Scandinavia, and Japan with cleaner bills of health, which he attributes to non-capitalist or collectivist (group-oriented) cultural conditioning. Speaking of Japan in particular (p 100), he opines that collectivist cultures appear less likely to engender or tolerate a sense of entitlement than individualist cultures, and thus diffuse a significant amount of ass-holism in advance. This is a valid observation if we agree with James’s starting point that entitlement is the chief index in gauging ass-holism. But if we return to Bob Sutton’s “dirty dozen” workplace-tactics as our framework — which focus on insults, status degradation, and shaming strategies — then suddenly collectivist cultures look more asshole-prone, not less.

This needs unpacking. In collectivist honor-shame cultures, insults are often esteemed as fine arts; belligerence a commendable show of machismo; public degradation a staple of life; two-faced attacks (and backhanded compliments) prestigious displays of wit; and treating others as if they are invisible a proper way of snubbing inferiors and equals. And Sutton seems aware of cultural predispositions like these. In the middle of The No Asshole Rule he brings honor-shame cultures into the discussion, and also honor-shame subcultures — like that of the southern United States

“People raised in these cultures are especially polite and considerate in most interactions, in part because they want to avoid threatening the honor of others (and the fight it provokes)… [But] once they are affronted, men raised in these places often feel obligated to lash back and protect what is theirs, especially their right to be treated with respect or honor.” (pp 116-117)

He then cites an intriguing study conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, in which the behavior patterns of southern and northern Americans were contrasted:

“Subjects (half southerners and half northerners) passed a stooge who ‘accidentally’ bumped into him and swore at him. There were big differences between how the northerners and southerners reacted: 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and only 35% got angry; only 15% of the insulted southerners were amused, and 85% got angry. Not only that, a second study showed that southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped, especially substantial increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety), as well as some signs of increased testosterone levels. Yet northerners showed no signs of physiological reaction to the bump and insult.” (p 117)

In other words, if you are from an honor-shame culture like Asia or the Middle-East — or in this case, from even an honor-shame subculture like the southern United States — “you will likely be more polite than your colleagues most of the time, but if you run into an even mildly insulting asshole, you are prone to lash out and risk fueling a cycle of asshole poisoning” (p 118). In this sense, the importance of being polite in these shame-based societies is a form of preventive damage control, where people are concerned every moment about their precious honor. The data cited by Sutton would thus imply that people from collectivist (honor-shame) cultures have stronger asshole potentials — the opposite of James’ findings.

In my view, both Sutton and James have the right of it. It just depends on our working definition of an asshole. If entitlement is the major index (James), then capitalist-driven individualists will indeed shine as our greatest asshole exemplars. If insults and shaming strategies are the main gauge (Sutton), then collectivists will out-asshole us in other ways. It ends up a wash. Assholes cover the globe under different permutations; they are frequently men, and share a disdain for everyone but themselves, coupled with an effortless ability to dismiss, degrade, and infuriate.

Come to the library and check out Sutton’s No Asshole Rule and James’ theory of Assholes. And enjoy a festive, asshole-free holiday.

Other related books:

Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years (2012), by Geoffrey Nunberg. Published a few months ago and currently on order for the library. See amazon for the critical accolades.

The No Complaining Rule (2008), by Jon Gordon. Inspired by The No Asshole Rule, focusing more on general negativity in the workplace.

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty (2012), by Dan Ariely. A Duke scholar tells us that everyone lies and cheats to an extent, but most of us do so in moderation because we care, and should care, about our moral self-images.

The Blame Game (2011), by Ben Dattner with Darren Dahl. For those obsessed with receiving credit and assigning blame. A good book for many reasons, but perhaps in view of this post, before rushing to blame other assholes, we should first ask ourselves, “Am I an asshole?”

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