A Theory of A**holes and Public Discourse

Our public discourse has become overrun by a**holes.  A contemporary theory, which explores when someone is behaving like an a**hole, provides a useful lens for understanding the ways we should and should not engage in public discourse.  This blog post applies the philosophical theory of the a**hole to approaches people take to public discourse – and asks when certain tactics are appropriate, if ever.

Philosophy professor Aaron James’s book, A**holes: A Theory,[1] brilliantly develops a coherent definition of the a**hole.  According to James, an a**hole is someone who (1) systematically enjoys special advantages in social interactions, (2) due to an “entrenched sense of entitlement,” and (3) feels no guilt or shame about taking unearned advantages because of this sense of entitlement.   James supplies ready examples of a**hole behavior (and even names names), but you do not have to agree with all of his examples to accept his theory – precisely because his theory depends on your views about what is and isn’t an unearned advantage.  James’s examples include line cutters; a**hole capitalists who believe that they deserve special treatment because they make more money; rockers who give interviews where they badmouth competing musicians; and academics who expect all of their work to be received well, and blame a failing system when this does not materialize.


James’s book also accounts for why the a**hole is so condemnable, despite often doing less harm than, say, sociopaths or sadists.  Instead of simply being selfish, the a**hole believes she deserves the benefits she enjoys and feels slighted when these systematic benefits are challenged or undermined.  The a***hole, by being immune to criticism due to his entrenched sense of entitlement, fails to recognize others’ basic moral equality.  Indeed, the a**hole’s moral thinking is flawed.  This means that there are very few solutions to correcting a**hole behavior, and exposure to a**holes breaks down cooperation among good people.

James doesn’t apply his theory to public discourse, except insofar as he rightly notes that constant interrupters are classic a**holes.  Dialog would break down if none of us ever waited patiently and respectfully for others to finish.  I believe James’s A**holes: A Theory offers great insight into why certain approaches to debate and disagreement are so corrosive and unhelpful.  I offer the following commentary on a**hole types in public discourse.  Please feel free to disagree with these assessments. Like James, I fear that my own cataloging of certain types of people renders me vulnerable to the charge that I am an a**hole myself.

  1. The snide person who is certain he is correct

A**hole types of this kind proliferate on social media, where the lack of face to face conversation liberates people to deploy condescending, sarcastic barbs at those with whom they disagree.  Debating others using all caps, or employing phrases like “um, no,” doesn’t advance ideas; it simply allows the a**hole to assert superiority and vent hostility.   I have seen conversations where people actually change their minds about something important. These moments occur when both people approach a conversation with humility and charity, as if each may have something to learn from the other.  Otherwise, we devolve into Trump’s mocking of Rubio’s height, and Rubio’s mocking Trump’s hands.  Or, we tolerate the a**hole and become weary of disagreeing with anyone.

I believe we are seeing a increasing number of this type of a**hole, because his behavior has been partially ratified by a mix of Internet culture, and widespread (and often legitimate) anger at many of the injustices in the world.  Often, those who are most confident in the moral righteousness of their position feel immunized against the criticism that they are an a**hole, because they believe it is their duty to call attention to and right the wrongs in the world, politely or impolitely.

Sometimes, people are correct in perceiving themselves as better informed or more sophisticated than whomever they are debating.  This is why, like with any application of James’s theory, the a**hole is in the eye of the beholder.  Personally, I have low tolerance for anyone who debates academic, political, or social ideas as if he is surely correct and thus need not hide his smugness or sarcasm – or even attempt to fully understand what his opponent is saying.

  1. The emotional bully

I am less certain in my view that the emotional bully is an a**hole than I am about the snide person.  An emotional bully is someone who reacts so emotionally to any disagreement that the sparring partner is forced to retreat, acquiesce, or pull back, for fear of causing greater upset.  This destroys all debates, especially academic debates that are, by their nature, intended to be about abstract ideas removed from any specific application.

The emotional bully may not be a classic a**hole, but becomes one when she deploys stories of personal tragedy or trauma to disarm her opponents.  This does not mean that someone’s tragedy or trauma is irrelevant, or that it should be hidden or removed from public discourse.  However, deploying specific, tragic events means that any debating partner now looks unsympathetic for disagreeing with a broader, more abstract point.  The tragedy will thus often trump, giving the person marshaling it systemic advantages in conversation that are believed to be deserved by virtue of having suffered the tragedy.  Thus, we should be wary of invoking personal experiences to win debates, and should do so when they are relevant and helpful, and with a sense that these experiences do not automatically render our opinions more valid.

There are many ways to take systematic advantages in conversation.  Throwing condescending barbs or aggressively using personal narratives are only two.  To be an a**hole, however, someone not only has to take special advantage in a conversation, but has to believe himself entitled to do so, either out of a false sense of righteousness, a sense of one’s own suffering, or an inability to assess one’s own limitations.

James notes that the a**hole has great ability to undermine public trust and a spirit of cooperation, and can often turn good people on the margins into a**holes themselves.  James’s solution to the asshole is to call him out.  You won’t change his behavior, but you will signal and reaffirm to others the correct ways of treating others like moral equals.   Unfortunately, calling out an a**hole is also kind of an a**hole move in conversation.

Better solutions in this context involve modeling good behavior.  Very few of us always go high when others go low.  But, the idea of fighting fire with fire means we may all be going low a lot, especially if we misperceive others as going low.   Luckily, in this one context (and maybe not in others), the a**hole is not usually equipped to truly convince others; he can only silence them.  That works for a while, but in a culture of respect for free speech, it cannot work for too long.  In my view, staying engaged, interpreting others charitably, and never getting pulled into the abyss are the best ways to fight the a**hole in public discourse over the long term.  I look forward to any objections and amendments, however.

[1] James uses the actual term in his book.

3 thoughts on “A Theory of A**holes and Public Discourse”

  1. I’m not sure that asshole is the right term for the concept you are looking for. Indeed, you note that whether or not someone qualifies as the first type of asshole is a matter of perspective (not that some perspectives aren’t right) but the very norms of humility and going high you are pushing for would seem to demand we not use such a judgemental word here. Moreover, asshole suggests a degree of deliberate intent that may not be present.

    Also, we all debate *some* academic, social, etc.. ideas as if we are surely right. The question is just where one draws the line between obvious absurdity and serious arguments you believe to be horribly mistaken. After all there is little point debating with moon landing hoax conspiracy nutters as if they are advancing a serious argument.

    This fact makes it super hard because we can’t just adopt the rule: always treat arguments seriously and with charity. On the other hand despite the fact that we are well aware of the general human tendency to be too dismissive of views we disagree with somehow we still fall into it repeatedly.


    1. All good points. I generally also think we shouldn’t call people names, although I think the force of the word is mitigated by the fact that there are reasonable debates to be had about where someone crosses the line in terms of engaging in this type of behavior. I think the framework is helpful even if it does not provide clear rules.


      1. Yes, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. A better way to have made my point would have been to first let you know that I thought you gave an insightful analysis of some ways that discourse can fail badly which can help us avoid, or at least recognize them. Indeed, I tend to think that this framework is useful precisely *because* it identifies ways in which conversations go had that go beyond our usual subjective notion of asshole.

        I agree the way you used the word here didn’t have the kind of insulting force that causes problems but there is always a certain danger that when you use a pejorative word people will use the classification as a way to blame/attack others (see you did all the things she mentions so your an asshole) rather than a guide to better behavior.

        However, I must admit I can’t think of a better word to use here so I’m just nitpicking.


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