Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Problem with Assholes

Why are some people so disagreeable that they present a problem for everyone they interact with? Why don't the legitimate complaints of other people curtail their outrageous behavior? In this article I hope to describe assholes to the best of my knowledge and give you some strategies for how to deal with them. I should give one disclaimer up front, human behavior varies hugely with context. Different situations might bring out the asshole in someone who is really nice and vice versa. Keep in mind these are generalizations and will not always apply to every specific instance or situation. That being said, I hope this line of reasoning about personality will be helpful.

It might be instructive to begin our discussion of assholes by introducing the opposite, a nice guy. He sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals are worthy of attention and respect. The nice guy yields his place in line to hurried shoppers and calls acquaintances with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, he sees how he might be wrong and the other person might be right. This perfectly describes M3 contributor Gerald Hogan, who I often introduce as the nicest guy in the world. He is the antithesis of the asshole. This isn't to say that nice guys are perfect. As a self-proclaimed nice guy, I can tell you about the drawbacks of being too nice, especially when we encounter assholes. While the people pleasing nice guy often apologizes far too much, the asshole isn't just self-destructive but a social contagion. The asshole presents us with a moral dilemma of how to deal with him.

The problem with assholes is two fold. It can be hard to tell who is truly an asshole and who is simply having a bad day. We all act like assholes from time to time, taking out our frustrations on others when our willpower is weak. But there is something fundamentally different about people who act that way consistently. I hope to help you identify them by describing both their behavior and their inner landscape. The second part of the problem is the way assholes move through the world contaminating the emotions and lives of everyone they touch. When we have a bad day and take it out on the people closest to us, there is likely to be an asshole who triggered that behavior. Whenever possible we should do what we can to completely avoid assholes, but if this isn't an option, I hope to give you tools to deal with assholes more effectively.

The Anatomy of the Asshole
So, first, the asshole is a guy. Yes there are rare exceptions, but assholes are mainly men. That's why it's so easy to rattle off male examples of 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)He is a man who helps himself to special advantages in cooperative life not duly afforded to him. Maybe he cuts in line without an emergency, or he talks on his cell phone at the movies. Most of what he does isn't going to land him in jail. It's mostly just annoying. What's sinister about him is not the behaviors but the thought process and worldview which gives rise to them. The asshole isn't having a bad day. He does thoughtless things systematically across many areas of social life as a way of being, e.g. parking his car in handicap spaces, bumping people out of the way in public places or berating the referee at his kid's little league game.

He does such things from an entrenched sense of entitlement. Maybe he styles himself as especially smart, rich, or funny in which case he certainly should not be expected to wait in line like everyone else. He differs from the sociopath in that he has a sense of morality, but it is so skewed that he is always justified in his actions. He can connect to others emotionally, but he is always morally superior to the few people he may love. He finds ways to blame others even when the fault is his own. This sense of entitlement isn't always false. Sometimes it's an result of his social or bureaucratic position. "My boss is an asshole" is a cliché probably because the authority afforded him can corrupt an otherwise nice guy, at least in relation to his subordinates.  

The most important trait of the asshole is that his entrenched sense of superiority immunizes him against the complaints of reasonable people. When an asshole cuts in line and someone complains, saying "There's a line here, get to the back of it. Asshole!" he might brazenly retort, "Fuck you!" And go about his day. He might get upset that someone yelled at him, but he doesn't question his own actions or motives, and so he feels as though he is the one chiefly wronged. We all make mistakes in how we treat others. It is the defining trait of the asshole to never learn from them.

The Positive Qualities
To say one is an asshole doesn't mean he has no redeeming qualities. After all, if one is to have an overriding sense of entitlement, it is at least possible for him to have a good reason to feel that way. If people always tell you how beautiful you are it may eventually go to your head. As Breeze Vincinz wrote about in his article Beautiful People Make The Prettiest Villains, we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to beautiful people that are simply unwarranted. Is it any wonder that some of them actually believe the hype? This isn't to say that the smug asshole of the beautiful variety is a victim of his environment, but the environment that overvalues his beauty bears at least some responsibility for his current worldview. He believes himself to be better that others because, in at least one sense within the social landscape of our beauty obsessed culture... he is.

Steve Jobs was an innovator on a worldwide scale, a genius in his own right. The Apple corporation and the computers and gadgets he helped create have changed the way we work and live. But surely his genius didn't give him the right to park in handicap spaces, savage his associates with cruel insults or abandon his daughter because she was inconvenient. Likewise, just because he's an asshole doesn't diminish his contribution to society. To call someone an asshole in the way that I propose is not an insult or judgement, but rather a personality classification. I use such strong language simply to illustrate the divisive nature of this personality type.

Our Moral Imagination
Let's try to picture the world through the eyes of an asshole. You have an important letter to mail. When you get to the post office there's a line. The line is moving steadily at a moderate pace. For most of us this would just be a daily errand. We might think of what else we had to do that day while we waited. But for the asshole, the line of people in front of you is a mass of unimportant fools. You feel as though it’s an injustice that you must wait while they bumble around with their stupid requests. The person in front of you is not a potentially interesting human with their own cares and struggles, but instead they are merely an impediment in your way. Is it any wonder why you decide to cut in line when they are not paying attention? 

Sometimes empathy can be difficult to employ in the best of circumstances. It's one of the reasons why assholes pose such a serious problem in daily life. They become a corrosive agent in our society because they erode our willingness to identify with others. We need to empathize with each other in order to live in a cooperative society, but the assholes among us make it risky to understand the motivations of others. When we waste our precious resources on people who don't deserve it, on people for whom it is completely wasted, we drain ourselves of the capacity to deal with reasonable people. We need a theory about assholes so in the moment when one cuts us in line, we don't have to wonder about his thought process, we can just refer to that theory. It could potentially help us to achieve calmness or a certain clinical detachment when confronting an asshole that might otherwise result in violence. 

The asshole culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with. The reason so many of us lash out at assholes is that we all desire to be seen as moral beings. This failure to be recognized has both an intellectual and emotional dimension on both sides of the social interaction. The asshole himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of other people. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others might be right about some basic matter of fact or evidence, and fails to appreciate other's opinions and values. Other people don't register as being of any interest to him, except when it impacts his own well-being.

Psychology and the Asshole
Assholes are not sociopaths. Certainly there are some related traits that are already well-known in psychology and philosophy. You may already be familiar with the “Dark Triad” of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy which characterizes the sociopath. But my conception of the asshole differs from all of these. The asshole, the philosopher Aaron James says, is someone who allows himself to enjoy special advantages out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. The callous psychopath, though a close cousin to the asshole, has an impulsivity and love of risk-taking that isn't necessarily a part of the asshole's personality. Neither does the asshole have to be as thoroughly self-involved as a narcissist or as self-consciously cynical about human nature as the Machiavellian, though narcissism and Machiavellianism are common enough asshole attributes.

The moral and emotional failure of the asshole isn't as obvious as in the sociopath. The intellectual failure is obvious once it is revealed, no one is right about everything as the asshole thinks that he is. But the emotional failure that gives rise to this way of thinking is a little more complicated. He could learn to change his way of thinking by listening to others, but he is wholly uninterested. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his assholery, a fact that the all-out asshole is inevitably ignorant of. The asshole is someone who completely fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him yet is born with the natural capacity to do so. Young children and sociopaths aren’t capable of appreciating others’ perspectives as fully developed adults can, so they shouldn't be blamed for their failure of empathy. A true asshole is a man with all of his cognitive and emotional capabilities in tact and for various reasons fails to use them.

How to Deal with Assholes
There's a famous saying that applies "a problem well-defined is a problem half solved."  Good people are afraid of being judgmental. It makes sense that we want to give others the benefit of doubt when they act badly, but this is what assholes count on. They get away with their behavior in many instances because we're unable, or unwilling, to see them for who they are. I'm hoping that the above description is detailed enough for you to come to a proper conclusion about a particular person's character. This is never an easy process. It means having to be a little dispassionate. We often want to lash out at the bad behavior, but we should know by now that this sort of reaction will do nothing to impact the asshole's assessment of himself. If you've identified your asshole and understand what assholes are, then you're better off than most. If you want further reading on the subject I highly recommend "Assholes: A Theory" by the aforementioned philosopher Aaron James

Once you've identified someone as an asshole, it's best if you can completely avoid them. Assholes will make your life difficult as long as they’re in it. Telling them how you’re affected by their actions doesn’t work. Being positive with them doesn’t work. Being negative with them doesn’t work. Distance and boundaries are the only things that tend to work and even those efforts aren't foolproof. Assholes don’t respond to logic or reason, they could care less about your feelings, so don’t try. After enough bad encounters, it makes sense that you want to yell at them out of anger. If that makes you feel better and the consequences will be minimal, go ahead. But think of it as yelling into an empty room or a pillow. The asshole isn't going to see you as a moral being worthy of attention just because you have an outburst. Remember what they are. Pity is much more appropriate than anger. After all they are an asshole.

Of course you should never try to prove to an asshole what they are. As much as I would love for you to forward a link of  this article to every asshole you know, it will do little good and it could backfire on me (I don't want a bunch of assholes reading my article and getting mad at me.) To them, you're completely unworthy of consideration. There is also a real possibility that it will backfire on you. Instead of trying to get them to see for themselves, respond by standing up to them with complete silence. Assholes feed off of words. They don’t know what to do with silence. So the next time they go on the attack, simply flash a little smug smile that says "I know exactly what you are" and stare straight at them. It's possible they may receive this message and go away or they may possibly continue to engage with you. It might take doing it a few times, but eventually you'll feel more comfortable staring at them.

The Internet Asshole 
In real life, you could use the smug smile stare-down maneuver I described above. On the Internet, that’s not possible. There are some assholes on the Internet who, for no other reason than being who they are, will get you in their crosshairs and come after you. They can become relentless about making you suffer for any words you type, any feedback you give, or any attempt you have to figure out why they are coming after you. This is especially true if you do anything in any public forum. So how do you deal with them? 

Ignore them. They will use pressure and/or guilt to keep you engaged. They’ll tell you that you are too chicken, too sensitive and/or too ignorant to debate their next illogical argument. They’ll constantly and publicly attack you with opinions about who you "really" are, what your ulterior motives are, how unintelligent you are, why your supporters are stupid, and on and on. I have been sucked into these assholes clutches a few times and I know countless others who have as well. There is no winning with them. There is no changing their minds. There is no talking about things logically or trying to come to a rational agreement. Why? Because they’re assholes. And being more or less anonymous empowers them even more. They can just log on, be an asshole and log off never having to suffer any consequences for their actions.

I've tried reasoning with them. I’ve tried joking with them. I've tried sending them proof that their accusations and misconceptions are wrong. That last one is a very very bad idea. Because, you see, it does not matter how you respond to an asshole, they will find a way to use it against you. There is one only guaranteed way to deal with these guys. Block them. Now! I can honestly say that there is one and only one way to deal with them. Ignore them and find ways to never see them again. If you can block them, block them. Don't feel like it's your fault for having to block an asshole. If you can ban them, ban them. If you can steer clear of websites they use, steer clear. There is no dealing with these guys. Good luck.

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