Ascent of the A-Word by Geoffrey Nunberg and Assholes a Theory by Aaron James, reviewed.

On Being an Asshole

On Being an Asshole

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2012 11:34 PM

The A-hole in the Mirror

On being that guy.


Illustration by Laura Terry.

A friend of mine who grew up in Los Angeles once declared that transplants to Gotham only truly become New Yorkers when they exchange the exhortation "motherfucker," which, to be sure, has a satisfying sting, for "cocksucker"—a designation more mellifluous, the ugliness behind its origin notwithstanding. And yet, as comforting as both those epithets may be, in the colloquial currency of a city where you are constantly confronted by a teeming mass of narcissists hell-bent on thwarting whatever goal you hope to achieve (even something simple as completing a speedy transaction at an ATM), the most common denomination of irritant—the dollar bill of sweary, frustrated descriptors for those exasperating sacks of skin swarming our space—is “asshole.”

This is not to suggest that the asshole is some sort of miscreant unique to the urban environment. There are assholes everywhere; the fact that cities are so densely packed simply provides us with more frequent opportunities for contact with them. Anyone who has ever driven on a highway, attempted to make a quick purchase in the express aisle at the grocery, or attended a family holiday gathering has encountered an asshole. One need only turn on the television to find oneself subject to the spectacle of an asshole condemning or defending another asshole, while yet a third asshole provides commentary on the assholishness of the previous two—a veritable Möbius strip of assholism. While so many of our natural resources seem to be running short these days, the supply of assholes appears to be a growth industry with unlimited upside.

But who and what exactly is the asshole? Two new books attempt to answer the question. U.C.–Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word and U.C. –Irvine philosophy professor Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory focus on this commonplace scourge. Befitting their respective disciplines, Nunberg’s book is more concerned with the evolution of the appellation while James grapples with the existential reality of the asshole in hopes that in understanding his (and the general consensus is that it’s usually a he) essence one might more successfully manage him. Both books acknowledge their sizable debt to Harry G. Frankfurt’s 1986 essay On Bullshit, popularized by its 2005 publication as a stand-alone volume. (In retrospect, it’s a bit surprising that the book’s success did not launch an entire genre of treatises based on bad words; pity the poor philosopher who missed the chance to explore the semiotics of “douchebag” before that word lost its cachet circa 2006.)

Here’s how our anthropologists of assholes characterize their subjects. James:

A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.


Asshole launches its attack from the ground level, in the name of ordinary Joes, people whose moral authority derives not from their rank or breeding but from their authenticity, which is exactly the thing that the asshole lacks. Inauthenticity is implicit whenever we speak of a “sense of entitlement,” another phrase that entered the American idiom around the time asshole did. ... The connection is intrinsic to the idea of the asshole, who imagines that his role or status gives him privileges that aren’t really his to claim. ... The asshole’s obtuseness makes him incapable of separating his sense of who he is or what he does or what he has or what he knows, which is what it means to be inauthentic.

Author Geoffrey Nunberg.
Ascent of the A-Word author Geoffrey Nunberg.

Photo by Nicole Katano.

As general summary, these definitions are difficult to argue with. One might, in fact, wonder whether these books are strictly necessary, given that we all pretty much know what makes an asshole an asshole. But both works are enjoyable in their own right; those more interested in language will take more away from Nunberg, who is the livelier of the two writers, while seekers of philosophical meaning will find much to ponder with James. More importantly, they make us confront a crucial question, which, I believe, we ask ourselves all too infrequently: How much of an asshole am I?

Discard for the moment the idea of political assholism (although I would be remiss if I did not mention Nunberg’s flawless observation about how much of it these days is predicated on the joy the political asshole and his adherents take in the assumption that they are infuriating their opposites through their assholishness). Forget those times you have been unpleasant to a customer service representative (no matter how convinced you were that you were completely in the right). Let’s dispense with that day when, mid-commute, you buried your face deep in the newspaper and read the same sentence over and over rather than acknowledge the human being in front of you in desperate need. Instead, if you dare, allow yourself to summon up a Big Cringe.