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Assholes
Cover of Assholes
Assholes
A Theory

In the spirit of the mega-selling On Bullshit, philosopher Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole that is both intellectually provocative and existentially necessary.
What does it mean for someone to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often personally stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. Try as we might to avoid them, assholes are found everywhere—at work, at home, on the road, and in the public sphere. Encountering one causes great difficulty and personal strain, especially because we often cannot understand why exactly someone should be acting like that.

Asshole management begins with asshole understanding. Much as Machiavelli illuminated political strategy for princes, this book finally gives us the concepts to think or say why assholes disturb us so, and explains why such people seem part of the human social condition, especially in an age of raging narcissism and unbridled capitalism. These concepts are also practically useful, as understanding the asshole we are stuck with helps us think constructively about how to handle problems he (and they are mostly all men) presents. We get a better sense of when the asshole is best resisted, and when he is best ignored—a better sense of what is, and what is not, worth fighting for.

In the spirit of the mega-selling On Bullshit, philosopher Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole that is both intellectually provocative and existentially necessary.
What does it mean for someone to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often personally stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. Try as we might to avoid them, assholes are found everywhere—at work, at home, on the road, and in the public sphere. Encountering one causes great difficulty and personal strain, especially because we often cannot understand why exactly someone should be acting like that.

Asshole management begins with asshole understanding. Much as Machiavelli illuminated political strategy for princes, this book finally gives us the concepts to think or say why assholes disturb us so, and explains why such people seem part of the human social condition, especially in an age of raging narcissism and unbridled capitalism. These concepts are also practically useful, as understanding the asshole we are stuck with helps us think constructively about how to handle problems he (and they are mostly all men) presents. We get a better sense of when the asshole is best resisted, and when he is best ignored—a better sense of what is, and what is not, worth fighting for.

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    [ 1 ] a theory

    ¶In the summer of 2010, Stanley McChrystal, U.S. army general and Afghan war commander, reportedly trashed the U.S. civilian military leadership, in effect forcing President Barack Obama to ask him to resign. The display of disrespect was striking, but more telling were the details about McChrystal’s handling of smaller matters. According to one story, McChrystal was once apprised by his chief of staff that he was obliged to attend a dinner in Paris with NATO allies—­if not to shore up flagging support for the war, then simply because, as the chief of staff put it, “the dinner comes with the position, sir.” McChrystal held up his middle finger, retorting, “Does this come with the position?”

    For brazen disregard, General McChrystal pales in comparison to another general, Douglas MacArthur. During the Korean War, MacArthur was a law unto himself, in matters both big and small. He quarreled defiantly in public with President Truman, agitating for nuclear war. In their eventual confrontation at Wake Island, MacArthur went so far as to arrive first and then order the president’s approaching plane into a holding pattern. MacArthur’s commander in chief would thus arrive on the landing strip appearing to be MacArthur’s supplicant.

    In explaining why he subsequently relieved MacArthur of his command, Truman said, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals.” Truman was arguably pulling his punches. He could easily have called MacArthur an asshole.

    That would not be an exotic charge: assholes abound in history and public life. Aside from runaway generals, we might think of such contemporary figures as former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, or Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We might think of the self-­important developer-­entertainer Donald Trump, the harsh pop music critic Simon Cowell, or the narcissist actor Mel Gibson. Assholes are found daily on cable news, where hosts repeatedly interrupt their guests, and also on talk radio, where airtime is given to commentators who thrive on falsehood and invective. Even as this demonstrably degrades the public debate so vital for a healthy democratic society, overheated commentators get rich and famous, while clearly having a really great time.

    All of this poses a larger philosophical question: What is it for someone to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often personally stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name. Assholes can be found not simply in history and high public office but almost anywhere—­at work; in our chosen club; sport; school; religious group; circle of friends; and even, for the truly unlucky, in the home or immediate family. Try as we might to avoid them, we often simply have to manage encounters that come, for most of us, with great difficulty and personal strain. The asshole is not just another annoying person but a deeply bothersome person—­bothersome enough to trigger feelings of powerlessness, fear, or rage. To make matters worse, we may be unable to understand why exactly someone should be so disturbing. We may feel certain only that “asshole” is a suitably unsavory name for this particular person.

    While most of us could use advice in asshole management, we cannot get far without an answer to our initial question: What is it for someone to be an asshole? If nothing else, a good...
About the Author-
  • AARON JAMES holds a PhD from Harvard and is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in March 2012, and numerous academic articles. He was awarded the Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, spending the 2009-2010 academic year at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He's an avid surfer (the experience of which has directly inspired this book) . . . and he's not an asshole.

Reviews-
  • Jane Smiley, Harper's Magazine "James neatly does what philosophers must do: he defines his terms, organizes and codifies, declares his own loyalties; he locates himself on the spectrum of assholery and suggest origins both psychological and sociological. The result is a delightful combination of the demotic and the technical."
  • Kirkus Reviews "James' research is both thorough and imaginative; his impressive source list ranges from obscure philosophy books to popular websites to Rudyard Kipling to Kanye West, hip-hop's greatest asshole. The author's enthusiasm for the subject makes it possible to get through the book quickly.... [T]here are moments of great insight and outright hilarity."
  • Joe Keohane, New York Magazine "James's volume is equal parts philosophical meditation and historical survey, but its true value lies in his attempt to precisely define the term."
  • Robert I. Sutton, Stanford professor and author of the New York Times bestsellers The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss "Aaron James provides us with a delightful philosophical romp through the world of assholes. I was especially tickled by his analysis of different types: smug assholes, royal assholes, the presidential asshole, corporate assholes, the reckless assholes, to name a few."
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