You are driving down the highway, travelling with the flow of traffic as you near a construction zone where the traffic narrows from three lanes, then to two, and finally to one lane. You’ve merged into the single lane, when you see, in your side-view mirror, a black Dodge Ram pickup truck blithely cruising along the shoulder of the road, passing at least 70 or 80 crawling vehicles, then stare in amazement as the driver of the pickup jerks the steering wheel to the left and cuts in front of you inches before the shoulder is blocked by a concrete barricade. Unbidden, the word “asshole” leaps to mind.
Minding your own business, working out on the StairMaster at your health club, you hear, over the sound of Mumford and Sons new album playing through your earphones, the unmistakable sound of a not-very-subdued cell phone conversation. Annoyed that your exercise reverie has been disturbed, and armed with the knowledge that there is an absolute prohibition of cell-phone use in the fitness center–with signs to that effect posted on every wall–you suggest to your fellow exerciser that he take his conversation outside, since you really don’t need to know every detail of his latest sexual encounter. When he, instead of leaving or shutting down the phone call, demands of you, “Who made You the Cell Phone Police for this gym?” and then goes right back to his phone call, even louder than before, I don’t have to tell you what common pejorative label you instinctively attach to him at that moment. A clue: it’s a seven-letter word that begins with the letter “a.”
You are standing in the fairway, waggling your 8-iron, preparing to hit your approach shot to the 13th green, when you hear the unmistakable whizzing sound of a golf ball flying past you within 15 inches of your head, then thumping to the ground mere yards from where you stand, now completely flummoxed and certain to duff your shot, once you recover from the shock of a near-miss skull injury. When you look back toward the tee in an attempt to discover the perpetrator, no word is more appropriate to describe the individual who ignored golf etiquette, to say nothing of common courtesy, and drove his 1.62 ounce, round, white missile toward your head without even a warning shout of “Fore!” than that perhaps overused epithet, “asshole.”
Considering how commonly this word is used, or is at least being considered for use, you might, like me, think that it has been in common usage [adjusted for changes in the vernacular] since the time of Ugg and Mug the cavemen. Not so, according to Geoffrey Nunberg. In his book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years, Mr. Nunberg, a linguist and professor at UC Berkeley, traces the lineage of the word [in the non-anatomical sense] only as far back as World War II, where the term in question originated as a GI’s term for an officer who thinks his status “entitles him to a kind of behavior—to either abuse his men, or make him more important than he really is.” When GIs came home, they brought the word with them.
The word appeared in printed literature for the first time in Norman Mailer‘s 1948 magnum opus, The Naked and the Dead, when Mailer used the word to describe a Naval officer named Dove attached to the Army unit central to the story, and, like the person described, the word has been with us ever since. Mr. Nunberg says that Dove was much like the iconic asshole character Greg Marmalard in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” one of my all-time favorites in the category.
It’s not as if earlier ages didn’t have appropriate pejoratives to apply to the social undesirables of their day. Our forebears did so, sometimes obsessively, and we follow their lead. According to Mr. Nunberg,
“… indisputably there’s an interest in the asshole phenomenon. Every age creates a particular social offender that it makes a collective preoccupation—the cad in Anthony Trollope’s day, the phony that Holden Caulfield was fixated on in the postwar years—and the asshole is ours…… But the preoccupation also reflects the modern creation of new and unprecedented settings for acting like assholes…”
Before going much further, it might help to get a very clear idea in mind about what we mean when we describe someone as an asshole. Mr. Nunberg decries the lack of a suitable dictionary definition of the term, suggesting that “asshole” has a specific meaning that distinguishes it from other scatological and anatomically based insults or invectives:
“When we call somebody an asshole, it’s because we’ve decided that that’s the shoe that fits him best. You wouldn’t say that the meaning of the word is precise, but then the words that express social evaluations almost never are. When you come down to it, asshole is no vaguer than boor or scoundrel, or for that matter than the notoriously elusive word gentleman.”
But perhaps there is an answer to the problem of defining an asshole, beyond the “I know one when I see one” non-definition. To the rescue comes Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Assholes: A Theory, which was published a few months after Nunberg’s book. Mr. James, in explicating his theory of asshole behavior, specifies that an asshole:
- allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
- does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
- is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
Although Mr. James goes on to provide a veritable Linnaean taxonomy of the species of the asshole kingdom, along with naming names of contemporary examples [the boorish asshole, who willfully flouts basic standards of decency (Rush Limbaugh); the smug asshole, who is certain of his intellectual superiority (Larry Summers); the asshole boss (think Michael Scott on television’s The Office); the corporate asshole (Steve Jobs); and the reckless asshole (Dick Cheney) are only a few], we don’t really have to go beyond his definition to begin to understand why we are so infuriated by the assholes that we all too frequently encounter. It is not that they cause us great harm. Their actions, taken alone, are generally petty annoyances as in the traffic, health club and golf course examples cited above. All of us, in fact, have been guilty of such behaviors now and again. We all have our asshole moments.
What separates the run-of-the-mill jerk from the true asshole is that, for the asshole, every moment is an asshole moment. Their behavior comes from a sense of entitlement; the asshole is special, and we are NOT; the asshole deserves special treatment, and we do NOT. And when we try to assert our rights to equal treatment, the asshole is dismissive of us–because we just don’t “get” him.
For myself, I don’t really want to understand assholes; since there is almost no hope that they will ever understand me. I guess the best strategy is to avoid them as much as possible, and try not to let them get under my skin when I do, inevitably, meet up with yet another asshole. And of course, do my best to keep my own asshole behavior to an absolute minimum.