In Assholes: A Theory, philosopher Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole that is both intellectually provocative and existentially necessary.
The asshole is deeply bothersome because we find it difficult to even understand what a good, constructive response would be, let alone to actually produce it on the spot. Despite many hard lessons about what did not work, and perhaps even the old success, it takes only a fresh kind of asshole to catch on unawares, throw one off balance, and spoil one’s whole day.
One’s day is spoiled because one feels forced into either of two unpalatable responses: a demeaning acquiescience or a personally dissapointing and ineffectual fit of rage. That is,
- On one hand, we have the option of resignation: we give in to what is plainly mistreatment, allow ourselves to be taken advantage of, and find reasons to somehow make this feel okay.
- On the other hand, we have the option of resistance: we stand up for ourselves and fight to be morally recognized. But fighting back can seem an exercise in futility. No amount of angry protest will get a true asshole
Our best hope for finding that better way is to better understand ourselves. Why do we find both resignation and all-out resistance ultimately acceptable?
The answer lies in the importance we attach to the kind of treatment the asshole deprives us of–that is, the importanceof being morally recognized as an equal in the eyes of others.
First piece of advice: Don’t try to change the asshole, but feel free to cooperate on one’s terms
One should not try to get the asshole to listen. But now it might seem that this could be worth trying for. If one can cooperate with the asshole, why not at least try to get the asshole to eventually change?
We usually won’t know that this asshole won’t give us the recognition we are owed. He is resistant–he is an asshole–but he might well budge, and there is always room for hope, perhaps against hope, that his walls will come down.
Shouldn’t we at least try? Even if it failed, wouldn’t such an effort be worthwhile?
We suggest not, for reasons our initial counsel of productivity provided: for many of us as regards most assholes, the appropriate maxim is: ‘Don’t waste your time.’
Perhaps the asshole is one’s husband or the father of one’s child. Here Stoic wisdom suggests biding one’s time and devising a cunning plan, a plan that finds a way of getting through while not simply enabling the asshole–all while steadly reminding oneself that success is ultimately not within one’s power.
Second piece of advice: Take a stand at the right time
We should speak up in protest, on behalf of oneself or others, but only (or at least mostly) at the right time. When is the right time?
Our answer is ‘often enough’–that is, often enough to preserve one’s self-respect and to uphold the rights of others when duty calls.
The answer isn’t especially helpful. How often is often enough? When does duty call? But it is not clear that there can be a more general rule, given that people have such different circumstances.
The Management Arts
Asshole management is less science and more art. It is less like following a procedure than having the knack for an art or a craft in Aristotle’s sense: it can be learned only by doing, not by following rules that one can fully grasp ahead of time.
Ideal asshole management is akin to the martian art of aikido, which allows one to absorb the force of one’s attacker, by turning his own momentum against him, in order to protect oneself (and the attacker) from injury. Like asshole management, aikido cannot be fully grasped by any set of formulae; it must be learned by practice, usually over many years.
Should you devote your life to asshole aikido?
While that would not be entirely unworthy, there are probably better things to do with the limited time one has in life, things such as learning to paint large canvases in the abstract; refining one’s taste in jazz; or indeed, learning the martial art of aikido for the sake of the practice itself. Life affords only so much time, and there are better things to do–sweeter spots to hit–than perfection in the asshole arts.
Complement Assholes: A Theory with Four Types Of People and How To Deal With Evil People. If you understand in advance how to deal with each of these four types you will be infinitely happier.