Academics might be forgiven for losing sight of just how pampered they are. Their young audiences, bullied into alertness by strict grading systems and the knowledge that their parents have forked over vast sums to secure for them the privilege of listening to digressive theorizing on a given subject, rarely make for what’s known as a “tough crowd.” Students are expected to stifle their boos and eye rolls in the face of the most excruciatingly dull lectures, and to refrain from questioning the strange assumption that convoluted academic analysis always presents the best opportunities to solve the world’s puzzles and problems.
Fortunately, academic snobbery toward pop journalism, commercial book publishing, and stadium speaking tours has kept these odd animals circling in their own rarefied barnyard, free to graze on their big thoughts in the reassuringly chilly shadow of the ivory tower. Crowd-pleasing jokes, charismatic anecdotes, and active verbs were never their cup of tea anyway.
Over the past several years, though, a modernizing shift has occurred among the academic set. Suddenly we discover the literary theorist Stanley Fish holding forth on plagiarism, hate speech, and Les Misérables in the New York Times op-ed section. Meanwhile, writers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton attract shockingly large audiences with their scholarly takes on common subjects such as problem solving, class status, thinking (without thinking!), and love. Academics, roused from the semihypnotic state of researching, revising, and reviewing the work of a tiny handful of peers, soon find themselves wondering if maybe it would be exciting to throw out a whimsical adjective or craft a colorful metaphor every now and then. Perhaps selling books to common miscreants off the street who don’t know Martin Heidegger from Tommy Hilfiger could be . . . fun?
And so the bolder philologists gather up the courage to exit their rarefied barnyard and venture into the big, wide world out there. But when they try to rally publishers to acquire future best-selling books titled something like How Hierarchical and Binary Associations Compete for Behavioral Control During Instrumental Biconditional Discrimination, these cultural gatekeepers will come up considerably shy of the desired tipping point. “You’ll have to shave, and lose the pleated khakis,” the publishers say in a dismissive tone. “But don’t get me wrong, this thing has promise. At least a five-city speaking tour, at all the outdoor-mall book chains that have big fountains in front of them. I’m seeing cold beer, mimes, some pyrotechnics. But for the book title, let’s go with BEHAVE! In all caps, I think.”
Thus do we come to the work of Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at UC Irvine, who probably gave the working-draft version of his new book a title along the lines of Classification and Management of Behavioral Pathologies in Subjects Immune to Negative Psychosocial Feedback Loops. Fortunately for James, his book is now titled Assholes: A Theory (Doubleday, $24)—and so has spent a healthy number of weeks on various best-seller lists across the country.
The title alone might prompt readers to pick up Assholes expecting to find something a little bit profane, irreverent, or pulse quickening. Maybe the author will offer up some entertainingly vivid descriptions of assholery in all its forms; he could, for instance, present a provocative theory about how assholes come into being, or throw out some intriguing ideas on how to confront this burgeoning asshole faction in everyday life. Sadly, though, Assholes fails to deliver on this plain-speaking, profane promise. Instead, like a barnyard animal that unexpectedly finds itself under the glare of klieg lights, James struggles for several pages to land on a precise definition of asshole: “Our theory is simply this: 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.” Fair enough. But wait, there’s more: “Our definition, in other words, is a constructive proposal. It tries to articulate what we ordinarily mean when we speak of ‘assholes’ but ultimately stands or falls on whether it captures the importance assholes have for us—where the ‘us’ is, in the first instance, you and me. I am proposing the definition in light of importance that assholes have for us. You decide whether you agree.” And so, through page after page of such anemic, noncommittal prose, we learn that by “asshole” James doesn’t mean someone who is an occasional jerk, nor does he mean Hitler. When confronted about his behavior, an asshole is indifferent or indignant. He is often a man, and he often has feelings of superiority. He is not an outlaw (or we could simply send him to jail). His behavior is upsetting. He makes us angry because he refuses to recognize and respect our feelings.
Assholes: A Theory turns out to be a way of taking a subject that’s naturally evocative and spicy, and digesting it until it becomes limp and bland and tasteless. James’s exercise amounts to stating the obvious at a maximum word count. His abstractions lull us into a kind of bad-lecture paralysis (“To say that this point of view is a massive delusion is of course to assume that there are good reasons, available to all, for taking the facts of the matter to be otherwise”). Even when calling out Noel Gallagher and H. L. Mencken as “Boorish Assholes,” proclaiming Naomi Campbell and General George Patton “Asshole Bosses,” declaring Hugo Chávez a “Presidential Asshole,” and listing Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell as “Self-Aggrandizing Assholes with Thin Moral Pretext,” James takes comedy gold and spins it into straw: “In Trump’s defense, it may be said that he is merely an ‘ass-clown’ or, still more charitably, an elder master of the attention-getting game now played daily by the Facebook youth.”
And when James’s judgments aren’t vague and sweeping, they become banal. Few are likely to feel enlightened, for instance, by his observation that “the invention of twenty-four-hour TV news cycles” has “created assholes specifically designed for TV,” nor are they prone to be shocked by his assertion that “Delusional Asshole Bankers” have “an extraordinary sense of their own importance” and “feel very sure of their entitlement to enormous benefits.”
As though sensing that the rich subject of his treatise is getting away from him, James lets his linguistic precision yield to recklessness and nonsense. He wonders if, “given that the United States seems to have more than its share of assholes,” it would be “interesting to know how many impressionable young Americans read Ayn Rand’s Objectivism-soaked novels and how those numbers compare in Japan, where assholes seem comparatively rare.” (Suddenly, it seems, assholery isn’t quite so strictly defined—picking up a few of Ayn Rand’s novels might just qualify you.) Likewise, anecdotal consensus supplants the stringent methodologies of the opening chapters: “A newborn boy in the United States or Italy or Israel is much more likely to live the life of an asshole than a newborn boy in Japan or Norway or Canada.” Also: “Traveling Brazilian surfers, so almost everyone agrees, are much more likely to be assholes than surfers from almost anywhere else.”
In fact, despite the author’s professed interest in what he calls “asshole management,” he offers a single concrete suggestion for dealing with an asshole (in this case, one who’s talking loudly on a cell phone): “Sir, given your cell phone behavior, I’m tempted not simply to ask you to keep it down but to inject a cutting remark or perhaps speak of you in less dignified words.”
What a zinger! We imagine the offending asshole stumbling back, shocked by the sting of such carefully chosen words. But then, who doesn’t live in mortal fear of the twee, passive-aggressive Swahili of the academic philosopher?
And if such a rejoinder is met with scorn (or, more likely, confused silence), take heart: “When the asshole chuckles and brushes the comment off, and even when he lashes out,” James reassures us, “it won’t undermine the point of having spoken up.” He adds, “Some intelligent assholes will respect and appreciate a clever or stylish response and perhaps even feel greater respect for the person, if perhaps only for a short while.”
As he presses on in this condescending-yet-unctuous vein, you’re nearly convinced that “Aaron James” is the pseudonymous creation of a practiced satirist (and accomplished asshole impersonator) like Stephen Colbert. Here, for instance, is how James opens his book’s last section, “Letter to an Asshole”: “My friend: I write hoping to persuade you to change your basic way of being. I do not presume that you will come to agree with me that you do not have the entitlements you so often assume. Nothing I could say by way of pure reason can coerce you into accepting a view you are simply unwilling to hold. But I do at least want to offer some reasons why you might reconsider your firm stance.”
Several pages on, James produces the envoi to this bizarre letter—a long-winded, wishy-washy version of “I can’t wait to dance on your grave”: “It pains me to tell you that . . . many who know you will find your death relieving. There will be a quiet celebration. I imagine you do care about that. You would not like the epitaph that I would write for you, for example. Or maybe you aren’t bothered. Either way, please accept my honest concern for your health and safety.”
As unintentionally funny as such preening, rhetorical writing can be, Assholes just doesn’t work as satire: It’s far too disingenuous and mealymouthed. So which asshole inspired this meandering anti-asshole manifesto? An ex-wife? A Brazilian surfer? An ex-wife who’s also a Brazilian surfer? If James were a memoirist, an essayist, a comedian—or even a songwriter or a chef or a garbage collector—this book might serve up some dynamic moments, a little raw drama, a confession or two, a few laughs. Instead, we’re left to linger in a wordy, awkward void of ruminative second-guessing. If Ambrose Bierce once called philosophy “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing,” then James’s book is a nowhereland without any roads at all, one that leaves the reader feeling exhausted, exasperated, even a little pissed off. Yes, Assholes can make the reader feel like something of an asshole.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).